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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Inquiring readers: The lists in this blog post describe us (Vic, Rachel, Brenda, and Tony) and our interests to a tee. If we were to remove our names heralding our choices, you could probably guess who chose which list. The books mentioned are those that we read in 2020 and that have influenced our interests, thoughts, and research. Enjoy! Feel free to leave your own book suggestions in the comment section!

Vic Sanborn

1. Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World, Mike Rendell, Pen & Sword History, Pen & Sword Books LTD, 2018.

This useful reference details the contributions of 18th century women (despite their lack of legal standing) in the arts, literature, sciences, business, commerce, reform, and education. Some women, like Frances Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft, are well known to us today. How many of us know about Mary Darly, Jane Marcet, Elizabeth Fry, or Ann Damer? This is a beautiful book well worth owning.

2. What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, John Mullan. 2003, Bloomsbury Press

John Mullan’s book was highly recommended to me. In it he discusses diverse topics in 20 chapters, such as: “How Much Does Age Matter?,” “Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?,” “How Do Jane Austen’s Characters Look?,” “When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?,” and more. Mr. Mullan’s analysis prompts me to reread crucial passages in Austen’s novels; he helps me understand how much I still need to explore in her novels after all these years.

3. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, Paula Byrne, 2014, Harper Perennial.

I decided to purchase this book after watching “Bridgerton.” I did not see “Belle,” the movie, but have read short descriptions of the remarkable life of this illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an enslaved African American woman.

4. The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman: 1776-1800, National Trust, a primary source.

This extremely short book (62 pages) was not noticed until it was printed in 1952. Whatman’s observations on household management was for personal use only. It provides a snapshot of how an 18th century housewife managed a household, and describes her expectations and relationship with her servants. This primary source is extremely useful for anyone interested in the servant/mistress relationship during that time.

5. Hamnet, kindle edition, by Maggie O’Farrell, Deckle Edge, July 2020, mentioned as one of the 10 best books of 2020. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This is my only entry that was recently published. My Janeite friend, Deb Barnum, could not praise the book enough and urged me to read it. O’Farrell’s tale about the death of William Shakespeare’s son is told in prose so beautiful, lyrical, poignant and magical that one enters another world entirely. The tale is sad, for Hamnet died of the plague, but the topic speaks to the grief that so many families in this world are feeling as they mourn lost ones due to the pandemic.

Brenda Cox

1. Jane Austen and Religion, by William Jarvis. ISBN: 095271261X

This fascinating little book gives more insight into the role of religion in Austen’s life and novels. Quite easy to read, unlike some of the other books on this topic.

2. Paupers & Pig Killers: The Diary of William Holland, A Somerset Parson, 1799-1818, edited by Jack Ayres. ISBN-10 : 0750932015

These selections from a parson’s diary give you an idea of what the daily lives of Austen’s family might have been like (since her father and two of her brothers were country parsons).

3. Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807, by Kathleen Chater. 2011. ISBN-10 : 0719085977

If you’d like to know about black people in Jane Austen’s England and their lives, this book is based on extensive research from primary sources. See the History tab above, the section Black History, for more resources.

4. The Woman of Colour, anonymous, edited by Lyndon Dominique. ISBN-10 : 0719085977

This novel of 1808, possibly written by a woman of color, gives you a more personal view of the situation for black people in Austen’s England. It includes contemporary accounts from the slave-holding colonies.

5. Jane Austen & Crime, by Susannah Fullerton. ISBN-10 : 0976353954

This novel is full of great insights into law and crime in Austen’s England and in her life and her novels.

6. Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal. ISBN-10 : 0525486488

This book is a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. Lots of fun. See my review.

Rachel Dodge

1. Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis by Patti Callahan. ISBN-10: 0785224505

“In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.”

This book is perfect for fans of C.S. Lewis who want to know more about his wife, Joy Davidman. This novelized version of Joy’s life is hard to put down! I loved getting to know more about the brilliant mind and life of the woman Lewis called “my whole world.”

2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: ISBN-10 : 1846140498

This novel is one of my best memories of 2020 and one of my greatest achievements as a reader. I read this with an online read-along group for six months and fell in love with the novel and with Hugo’s writing. I could have never finished it without the group to help me stay on track. We had weekly online discussions that were incredibly invigorating. I highly recommend Les Mis to anyone who hasn’t read it — but if you can, read it with a buddy or a group. There’s nothing like it!

3. Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller: ISBN-10 : 006268535X

“In this novel authorized by the Little House Heritage Trust, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before—Caroline Ingalls, “Ma” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books.”

This book gives a detailed view of the Little House books as told from Caroline “Ma” Ingalls’ perspective. It is meticulously researched and written, and I was mesmerized by the story of this incredibly strong woman. I have always wondered about the “real Ma” and how she handled even the worst situations with such grit and grace.

4. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery:mISBN-10 : 1402289367

“Valancy Stirling is 29 and has never been in love. She’s spent her entire life on a quiet little street in an ugly little house and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and her unforgiving aunt. But one day she receives a shocking, life-altering letter―and decides then and there that everything needs to change. For the first time in her life, she does exactly what she wants to and says exactly what she feels.”

I’m including this on my list because it’s one of L.M. Montgomery’s best books–and many people have never read it. It is one of only two books Montgomery wrote for an adult audience, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t enjoy it. If you need a fun, quick, and invigorating read, this is a great one to pick up. You will love Valancy and Barney.

Tony Grant

1. A Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce. Published by the Penguin Group 1992 (First published 1914-15.)

Published in 1916, the book plots the course of the early life of Stephen Daedalus, his struggles with religion, education and relationships. All the things that matter in life. At that time the way people lived in Ireland was strongly controlled by the Catholic Church. We all know how that has turned out. As a lapsed catholic, even I shuddered and felt troubled by the four page description of hell.

2. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Published by the Penguin Group1999 (First published 1839)

I like a good dose of Dickens every now and then. I read Nicholas Nickleby recently. If you want a roller coaster of emotions, good, bad and ugly this is for you. The evil Ralph Nickleby and the Yorkshire headmaster, Squeers of Do The Boys Hall, are counterbalanced by the angelic Brothers Cheeryble and a few ,”Madonna,” like young women.It wouldn’t be Dickens without an angelic, perfect, beautiful young woman, defenceless waiting to be saved. Its Dickens at his best, mining the depths of humanity, sending your emotions in all directions like a firework display.

3. The Neopolitan Novels by Ellena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, and published by Europa Editions (2012-2015). Four novels entitled:

  • My Brilliant Friend.

  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

  • The Story of a New Name.

  • The Story of the Lost Child.

Even if you read just one of these amazing novels it is worth it. The quartet is a powerful evocation of humanity. Like all of us, the characters in these novels make awful mistakes and some terrible things happen to them but nevertheless their lives move forward. Lina and Ellena, two friends who have known each other from birth, brought up in the back streets of Naples live off their innate animal intelligence. Ferrante plots their lives. If you think in terms of soul mates these two are each one half of the same organism. Both brilliant in different ways, their lives diverge but the link between them always remains. Their power and strength is derived from their connection. Together they are a force of nature. It is tough reading at times . There is not much humour but you feel that you have gone through a cathartic experience. This is Joyce and Dickens combined. Ferrante is a genius.

4. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. Published by Faber and Faber, 2017

This is the book Rooney wrote before, “Normal People.” Set in Ireland in the present time, it plots the love lives of young people. Rooney writes about her own age group. She is a great writer, plotting human relations through many hard, confusing, elating and passionate moments. Her characters are on a journey. The novel feels real, honest and gritty, with tenderness mixed in. Even at my advanced age I can empathise with the way their relationships pan out. This is the book James Joyce wanted to write, tried to write and for which he was virtually kicked out of Ireland.

5. The Rio Tape/Slide Show (Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 1980s)

Published by Isola Press London (IsolaPress.com) October 2020.

Ok, this is not a novel but it engaged and absorbed me completely. I felt so inspired I wrote a long review for my blog, London Calling. Hackney is a London Borough in the east end of London. In the 1980s, there was a lot of unemployment and poverty. It was a whole melting pot of different cultures and ethnic minorities. People were bullied by the police and government policies made life even harder. The Rio Tape Slide project based at The Rio Cinema in Kingsland Road began community initiatives. They educated the local people in ideas, photography, art workshops, news reporting, writing and community action. News reals, shown at the cinema, were made by local people who went out with cameras to record and write about their community. The project brought people together to form very effective action groups. This is Gandhi’s peaceful action alongside Martin Luther King’s ideas about community . As well as the photographs illustrating much of what went on, there are essays written by some of the original organisers of the campaigns that occurred. They explain their philosophy and thinking behind their actions. This should be read by everybody. It is a template for grass roots social action. I kept thinking,” this is how it’s done!!” Politics can be beneficial.

__________________

And, so, gentle readers. Which books have you read? Which of them would you recommend? Which new books would you add to our list in the comments?  Curious minds want to know. Thank you for participating!

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Reviewed by Brenda S. Cox

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman: The Life and Times of Richard Hall, 1729-1801 provides fascinating insights into Jane Austen’s England.

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, by Mike Rendell, explores 18th century life in England

Richard Hall was a tradesman, a hosier who made stockings in a shop near London Bridge. Like the Coles in Emma, he “was of low origin, in trade,” but moved up in society as he became wealthier. Hall accumulated his fortune through hard work, marriage, inheritance, and investments. From selling silk stockings, he moved into selling fine fabrics, silver buckles, and other fashionable accessories. Hall eventually owned several estates, and retired as a country gentleman. 

I asked the author, Mike Rendell, to tell us more about how he wrote this book.

Rendell says he inherited “a vast pile of old family papers, . . . stuffed into tea chests and boxes in the back of the garage” in his grandmother’s house. He focused on the papers related to Richard Hall and found it “a fascinating voyage of discovery.” 

This trunk was full of papers from the eighteenth century.

Rendell continues, “For instance, if he [Richard Hall] recorded in his diary that he had ‘visited the museum’ it made me research the origins of the British Museum, realizing that he was one of the earliest visitors. Which led on to researching what he might have seen, etc.”

He adds, “Writing my first book opened my eyes to a great deal about the world in which Jane [Austen] was brought up. I love her works – especially P&P and I must admit to binge-watching the entire BBC version in a single sitting, at least twice a year!”

In the context of Richard Hall’s story, Rendell tells us about many aspects of life in the eighteenth century, based on his extensive research. For example:

Religion

Richard Hall was a Baptist, one of the Dissenter (non-Church of England) groups in Austen’s England. This meant that even though Hall loved learning, he was not able to attend university. Oxford and Cambridge, the two English universities, would not give degrees to Dissenters. Hall could have studied in Holland, but his family decided to bring him directly into their hosiery business instead.

Richard Hall’s grandfather and father were Baptists, and Richard attended a Baptist church and listened to sermons by the famous Baptist preacher Dr. John Gill for many years. Richard also collected printed sermons by Dr. Gill. However, it was not until Richard was 36 that he “gave in his experience” and was baptized. Rendell explains that “giving in his experience” meant “explaining before the whole church at Carter Lane in Southwark how he had come to faith in Christ.”

Some of the leaders of the English Baptists of the time are part of Hall’s story, as well as disputes and divisions between Baptist churches.

Hall sometimes attended Anglican churches, and was even a churchwarden for a time. Rendell comments, “The fact that he was a Baptist did not mean that he was unwilling to attend Church of England services – just as long as the gospel was being preached.”

Methodists were another important movement in Hall’s England, though they were still part of the Anglican Church for most of Hall’s lifetime. One of Hall’s relatives, William Seward, became an early Methodist minister, preaching to open-air crowds. Rendell writes that Seward “died after being hit by a stone on the back of the head while preaching to a crowd at Hay-on-Wye, on 22 October 1740 – one of the first Methodist martyrs.”

Silhouette of Richard Hall, probably “taken” (cut out) by his daughter Martha. In 1777 Martha “gave her experience” and was baptized in a Baptist church, as her father had done.

Science

Rendell often explains advances in science that affected Hall’s life (and Jane Austen’s). He writes, “By the standards of his day . . . Richard was a well-educated man. Above all, he was a product of his time – there was a thirst for knowledge all around Richard as he grew up. There were new ideas in religion, in philosophy, in art and in architecture. This was the age of the grand tour, of trade developments with the Far East, and a new awareness of the planets and astronomy as well as an interest in chemistry and physics. It was a time when the landed gentry were experimenting with new farming methods – inspired by ‘Turnip’ Townsend and Jethro Tull – and where a nascent industrial revolution was making its faltering first steps.” Richard wrote down many scientific “facts”—or fictions—some of which are listed in an appendix.

Surprisingly, Richard Hall records several times that he saw the Aurora Borealis in southern England. Apparently, the aurora was sighted many times in Austen’s England, though it has since migrated northward.

Rendell also tells us about an invention that greatly improved transportation: the development of macadam roads. These were named for the Scotsman John McAdam who invented the process. When bitumen (tar) was added in the nineteenth century, such roads were called “tar-macadamised”: a word eventually shortened to “tarmac.”

Travel was quite an adventure in Austen’s time. Richard Hall made this detailed paper cutout of a coach and four, showing one of the fastest means of transportation available at the time. Hall also did cutouts of a coach and four about to crash because of a boulder in the road, and a one-horse coach being held up by a highwayman.

Medicine

Richard Hall’s small daughter was inoculated against smallpox, which meant she was given the actual disease. She had “between two and three hundred pustules.” But Richard writes that about three weeks later, “Through the goodness of God . . . the Dear Baby finally recovered from inoculation.” 

About ten years later, inoculation–giving the patient a hopefully mild case of smallpox–was replaced by vaccination. Dr. Edward Jenner developed this technique, where patients were given cowpox rather than smallpox to develop their immunity. However, Jenner became a member of the Royal Society (of scientists) not for his work on vaccination, but for his observations of cuckoos and their habits! He also experimented with hydrogen-filled balloons. The “naturalists” (not yet called “scientists”) of this age were interested in topics that nowadays we would separate into many different branches of science.

When Hall’s first wife, Eleanor, died of a stroke, he cut this tiny Chinese pagoda in memoriam, with her name, age, and date of death. Rendell says it is “like
lace. It is just an inch and a quarter across and most probably fitted in between the outer and inner cases of his pocket watch. In other words it was worn next to his heart. Very romantic!”

Weather

Hall also noted the weather. In 1783 he refers often “to a stifling heat, a constant haze, and to huge electrical storms which illuminated the ash cloud in a fearsome manner.” These were the effects of a huge volcanic eruption in Iceland, the Laki volcano. This eruption, the most catastrophic in history, caused an estimated two million deaths worldwide, and wiped out a quarter of the population of Iceland. In England, the harvest failed, cattle died, and about 23,000 people died of lung damage and respiratory failure.

Highwaymen were another danger in Austen’s England. In this paper cutting by Richard Hall, a criminal, possibly a highwayman, hangs on the gallows while spectators are unconcerned.

Language

Richard Hall wrote a list for himself of words that sound different than they look. He gives the spelling, then the pronunciation, which helps us see how people in his area and level of society spoke. A few examples:

Apron—Apurn

Chaise—Shaze

Cucumber—Cowcumber

Sheriff—Shreeve

Birmingham—Brummijum

Nurse—Nus

Dictionary—Dixnary

The history of some words are also explained. For example, the word “gossip” was a contraction of “God’s siblings.” Such women helped mothers in childbirth. The “gossips” offered sympathy, kept men away, and chattered in order to keep up the mother’s spirits throughout her labor.

Museums and Exhibitions

Rendell describes several museums and exhibitions that Hall visited. One of the most intriguing is Cox’s Museum, which Hall and his wife visited the year Austen was born. It featured rooms full of “bejewelled automata.” The most famous was a life-size silver swan, still a popular exhibit at the Bowes Museum in Durham (northern England). The Museum says it “rests on a stream made of twisted glass rods interspersed with silver fish. When the mechanism is wound up, the glass rods rotate, the music begins, and the Swan twists its head to the left and right and appears to preen its back. It then appears to sight a fish in the water below and bends down to catch it, which it then swallows as the music stops and it resumes its upright position.” No less a personage than Mark Twain admired this swan and wrote about it in The Innocents Abroad.

Richard Hall’s upbringing stressed values which still resonate with many people today. Rendell writes, “. . .from an early age it had been instilled into Richard that there were only three things which could help stop the fall into the abyss of poverty, sickness and death. The first was a strong belief in the Lord, and that without faith you got nowhere. The second was the importance of education. The third was that you got nothing without working hard for it. These were the cornerstones of his upbringing – and of the whole of his subsequent life.”

Richard Hall was an artist of paper cutting. He cut out everyday objects and scenes. Many, like this finely-done rapier, were found among his books and journals.

And Much More

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman is full of treasures for those of us who love reading about Jane Austen’s time period. We learn about guilds, clothing, food, disasters, transportation, prices, medical advances, explorers, and much more. 

To Rendell, Richard Hall “came across as a bit of a joyless, pious individual but then I thought: hang on, he had to face exactly the same problems as we do today – illness, worries about the business, problems with a son who was a mischief maker at school, problems with the drains etc etc. When he re-married  he fell out with his children because they didn’t approve of his new bride – and they excommunicated him [avoided and ignored him] for the rest of his life. In that sense his life was just as much of a mess as the ones we lead today!”

While Rendell originally wrote this story for his own family, when he decided to make it widely available he found he needed to promote it. He ended up in a surprising job. He says, “I had never before tried public speaking but quickly found that I loved it – and ended up with a totally new ‘career’ as a cruise ship lecturer (when Covid 19 permits!) travelling the world and talking about everyday life in the 18th Century. . . . These talks include talks about Jane Austen – in particular about the different adaptations, prequels, sequels, etc. of Pride and Prejudice – as well as talks about the venues used in the various films of Jane’s books. I also write articles for Jane Austen’s Regency World. . . . One thing led to another and I have now had a dozen books published, with two more in the pipeline.”

Mike Rendell’s books include topics such as Astley’s Circus (Astley’s is mentioned in Emma and in one of Jane Austen’s letters), Trailblazing Women of the Georgian EraPirates and Privateers in the 18th Century, and more. 18th Century Paper Cutting shows the illustrations used in this article, along with other lovely paper cuttings by Richard Hall. See Mike Rendell’s blog at mikerendell.com for more of Mike’s books and blog posts.

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman is available from amazon in the US and the UK. It is offered on kindle unlimited. If you order a paperback copy from Mike Rendell (Georgiangent on amazon.co.uk), he says, “if anyone orders a copy I will ask (through amazon) and see if they want a personal dedication/signed copy before popping it in the post.” (It is listed there as a hardback but is actually a paperback.)

By the way, Rendell pointed out that Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, also did paper cutting (or silhouettes). You can see examples of James’s work in Life in the Country. There is also a well-known silhouette of Jane’s brother Edward being presented to the Knight family; that one was done by a London artist, William Wellings.

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman gives us valuable insights into the life of an Austen-era tradesman who became a country gentleman. What would you most like to know about the life of such a person?

___________

Brenda S. Cox blogs about Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen, and is currently working on a book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England. You can also find her on Facebook.

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Last summer I received an uncorrected manuscript of The Jane Austen Society to read with a request for feedback and any thoughts I had before a final printing. (I assume many other readers also received this request.) Natalie Jenner’s name was not on the cover. Not wanting to be influenced by preconceived notions, I read the MS before seeking the author’s name. Once I realized that the story is purely fictional (peppered with historical facts), I stopped comparing it to the founding of the real Jane Austen Society in the United Kingdom in 1940.

 

 

The tale is, in fact, a lovely story—a fairy tale—about a group of people who have very little in common except their love for Jane Austen’s novels. It is a perfect summer read that transported me to Chawton and to a different age and time. Natalie Jenner, in her first published novel, gave herself a difficult assignment: to write about pre- and post-World War II England, to incorporate history and knowledge of the customs of the time, place and setting, and to make the intricacies of estate law and wills understandable without bogging down the story’s pace. She also added complexities to her characters’ motivation and insights that sets the tale apart from Austen fan fiction.

About the Plot:

Aside from their love for Austen’s novels, the primary characters have another thing in common—pain and loss in one form or another. At the start of the book, they are facing their demons in isolation. Some are more successful than others in finding a way forward in life, but all are struggling until they join in a common effort to found The Jane Austen Society. This bond begins a healing process for them all.

Jenner sets up the potential for this bond early in the book, where through the thoughts of Adam Berwick, a young farmer who reads Austen, he thinks about why her novels hold so much meaning in his life:

Adam loved being in this world, transported, where people were honest with each other, but also sincerely cared for each other, no matter their rank. Where the Miss Bateses of the world would always have a family to dine with, and the Harvilles would take in the grief-stricken Captain Benwick…and even the imperious and insensitive Bertrams would give Fanny Price a roof above her head. And the letters people sent—long, regular missives designed to keep people as close to one’s heart and thoughts as possible…” (p.98)

Adeline Lewis, who, as a newlywed, loses her husband at the end of WWII, and experiences yet another loss less than a year later, is in profound pain. In this passage she is haunted by her spouse’s last moments:

She pictured him in his bomber plane, the gauges rattling before him…and the intensity and the detachment that he would have brought to this one terrifying moment. He would have given his all, even though the effort didn’t matter—you were just a speck on someone else’s gauge, a tightrope walk across an abyss, an entire human life balanced on the point of a needle.

Now she was on the point of the needle too…if she kept this up and fell off and into the abyss, she might pull herself out one day—but she also might not.” (p. 101)

As a school teacher in Chawton, Adeline introduces young pupils, including Evie Stone, to a challenging choice of reading materials and class discussions which were more sophisticated than the village authorities liked. The books included Jane Austen novels, as well as writings by Mary Wollstonecraft. Evie dropped out of school at fourteen to supplement her family’s income as a house maid in Chawton House. There she encountered the richness of the Knight family library—over 2,000 volumes, many of them original editions. Sleeping only 4 hours a night, the young girl catalogues every book in the collection after work hours. We Austen fans know that a house maid’s daily duties are grueling, even with the kindest mistress. At this point I suspended disbelief and the fairy tale quality that I mentioned in the second paragraph of this review kicked in. Jenner’s writing style is so lovely that I kept going, for Evie’s trajectory, which is fun to follow, is important in moving the plot forward.

As with many reviewers, I won’t give the rest of the plot away. Jenner adopts Austen’s use of free indirect discourse (FID), which allows us to get in the minds of the narrator and characters. This technique is not as easy as it seems, but as a new author she switches between characters and narrators seamlessly and superbly IMHO.

The group’s discussions and thoughts about Austen’s novels are among the most rewarding passages in the book and provide the details that Austen fans crave. Take this exchange between Adam, the farmer, and Adeline, sitting in her window seat surrounded by books, the top cover of which is Persuasion:

“A hard book, that,” he comments. Adeline asks if he likes Jane Austen and he nods yes.

“…which of the books is your favourite?”

He looked down at his lap and gave her a small, self-conscious smile. “All of them. But Elizabeth Bennet is my favourite character.”

“Oh, me, too. There’s no one like her in all of literature. Dr. Gray goes on and on about his Emma, but I’ll take Lizzie over Emma any day.” (p. 103)

At that moment Adam realizes that Adeline views Austen’s characters as real people, as he does, and discovers that someone else in the village feels the same way about the novels as he.

Each of Jenner’s characters are bonded through their love of Austen, and they talk about the books frequently, which is a joy. Jenner also provides clues and hints about which of her characters resemble those in Austen’s books. It’s a fun game, one that evokes the many hints and mysteries buried within Emma.

To Listen or to Read?

Image of Richard Armitage, narrator of the audio book, with the book cover of The Jane Austen Society in the background.When I agreed to review this novel, I received a traditional book and an audio book. I “read” both and had thoughts about each of the treatments. Who can argue with listening to Richard Armitrage reading a story set in early 20th century England? Not I. Think of me as a fan struck by his rich baritone voice, which can be transformed to that of a 16-year-old girl. Richard’s pacing in reading the book is effortless, clear, and easy to follow. He acts the voices of the characters so that we know exactly who’s talking at any time:

Adam Berwith, the farmer with an overbearing mama, who mourns the loss of his father and brothers in the war and who finds solace in reading Austen’s novels; Mimi Harrison, the almost-washed up Hollywood actress who loves Austen’s novels and has funds to burn; Dr. Gray, grieving for his long dead wife and yearning for a woman who doesn’t give him the time of day; Adeline, who struggles to pull herself out of a deep depression; Evie, the young energetic maid; Francis Knight, alone, forlorn, and rejected by her father; and Andrew Forrester, the solicitor who must keep a terrible secret from Miss Knight. These characters are skillfully acted by Mr. Armitrage, who does not disappoint. His brogue as Yardley Sinclair, the auctioneer, is lovely to hear, and I wish Sinclair had a larger role to play in the novel.

The one exception is Jack Leonard, a Hollywood producer and Miss Harrison’s one-dimensional fiancé. Jenner gave him none of the shades and nuances of her other characters. This becomes most obvious when even a talented voice actor can do little but bark out Leonard’s lines. Leonard comes across like an unfeeling thug, which makes this reader wonder what anyone as nice and beautiful as Mimi (Marianne) ever saw in him.

I listened to the book on long walks or car rides; sunning on the deck; washing the dishes or dusting. The convenience of audio books is undeniable, but not when a stray train of thought takes you away from listening closely. It is easy to lose your attention, and if you are interrupted the medium makes it hard for you to toggle back and forth to find the precise spot you lost. In addition, one can’t speed up or slow down an audio book without affecting the sound quality. One bonus of this audio book is an interview of the author at the end of the story, which adds more information about Ms. Jenner to the short biography that sits at the bottom of this post.

Traditional print books—*sigh.* New books crackle, old books emit a delicious library “musk” smell. Print books can be held and fondled, with each page lovingly turned. They are read at leisure or skimmed and skipped quickly to find information. They can be earmarked; they provide space for margin notes. Words and phrases can be underlined (which for years I considered heresy, until I learned that marginalia is a time-honored tradition).

I cherish my books and treat them like beloved possessions. My biggest concern is that they hog space. In my former house, I could devote several rooms to book cases that contained over 4,000 volumes collected since college, but when I downsized, this luxury disappeared. Choosing which books to keep broke my heart, but I managed to save around 600 (and add 100 more since.)

Read or listened to, Natalie Jenner’s debut novel provides a relaxing, fun read. I give it four out of five tea cups.

The Contest: which is your preference?

Please feel free to comment on your preference: Audio or Traditional? The contest will be open until midnight June 30th EST U.S. For the first time, I am giving away an audio book, which I hope traditionalists won’t mind.

Image of Natalie JennerAbout Natalie Jenner:

Natalie Jenner is the international bestselling author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen lived. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY is her first published novel and is available now from St. Martin’s Press in North America and Orion Books in the UK/Commonwealth, with translation rights sold in Portugal, France, Romania, Italy, Brazil, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, South Korea and Serbia.

About the book:

Purchase The Jane Austen Society at this link to Amazon.

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (May 26, 2020)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1250248736

ISBN-13: 978-1250248732

Other reviews:

See the blog tour on the side bar

Rachel Dodge, Jane Austen’s World: An interview with the author, Natalie Jenner

Deborah Barnum, Jane Austen in Vermont: A list of ten reasons to read the novel

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Image of the book cover of Danse de la Folie by Sherwood SmithLovers of Austen novels will find much delight in Sherwood Smith’s Danse de la Folie. With more wit than romance, this novel introduces two couples, mapping their relationships onto the quadrille. Smith’s attention to historical details, family dynamics, and rich characters create an engaging story.

Using the four dancers of the quadrille, Sherwood Smith overtly indicates our heroes and heroines. The first heroine on the page is the Honourable Miss Clarissa Harlowe. Described as plain in comparison with her younger stepsisters, Clarissa is warm, observant, and conscientious—especially kind to her servants. And unlike the witty heroines of most Austen books, Clarissa will inherit a large fortune when she comes of age.

Clarissa’s Hampshire household combines all the best domestic elements of Austen novels—benevolent parents, garrulous sisters, and wealth. Smith writes Lord and Lady Chadwick, their bevy of young daughters, and the widowed Aunt Sophia without any of the financial anxieties of the Bennets or Dashwoods. Aunt Sophia is Smith’s nod to Mrs. Norris, but the reader will not see Clarissa treated like Fanny Price. Though Clarissa is a child of Lord Chadwick’s first marriage, her glamorous stepmother, the present Lady Chadwick, treats her kindly.

As an heiress, Clarissa has lost her taste for romance. She has endured suitors only interested in her fortune, so she is reticent to be swept away by the popular tales of languishing love. She tells her friend Lady Kitty, “I do not see the appeal in hopelessness.”

Catherine Decourcey (Lady Kitty) lives for romance, gothic tropes, and wild narratives. Where Clarissa is wealthy, unassuming, and practical, our second heroine is beautiful, imaginative, and in desperate need of financial help. After Clarissa survives a shipwreck, she and Kitty become fast friends while she recovers at Kitty’s family home, Tarval Hall. The friendship shows both women at their best: Clarissa, wise and generous, and Kitty, earnest and sensitive. If you’ve ever wanted to refashion Elinor and Marianne Dashwood with contemporary depth, you can thank Shewood Smith for Clarissa Harlowe and Catherine Decourcey.

Though Clarissa has no desire to marry, a persistent suitor awaits her return to Hampshire: the ponderous Lord Wilburfolde. Well-born, respectable, and dull, Lord Wilburfolde prefaces every comment with, “My mother says.” With no suitors of her own, Lady Kitty accompanies Clarissa and her family to Hampshire and then to London for the Season, determined to publish her novel and marry well so she can ease her family’s financial burdens.

While the dancing romance of the novel only favors two couples, Miss Lucretia Boulderston angles for a chance to play the heroine. A neighbor to Lady Kitty, and quietly engaged to Kitty’s brother Carlisle, Lucretia uses every opportunity to gain social advantages. After her first meeting with Clarissa, Sherwood Smith writes, “Miss Boulderston curtseyed and departed, leaving behind a pleasant trace of French scent, and a general sense of constraint.” Lucretia is a calculating presence in the novel, snubbing her family and friends by turns, plying gentlemen with wine, and planning a picnic just to get caught in the rain. Her betrothal to Carlisle is privately announced early on, and inserted into the newspaper much later—without Carlisle’s consent.

Though Carlisle is not secretly engaged like Edward Ferrars, the arrangement is equally burdensome. For much of the novel, Carlisle cannot pursue the woman he loves—all because Lucretia engineered a kiss in the garden years ago. Quiet and well-read, Carlisle Decourcey inherited his father’s title as the Marquess of St. Tarval, but not his reputation as a spendthrift and rake. Our hero wants to keep his family home in good repair, spend a quiet life in the country, and introduce his sister into society. He struggles to find the means.

The final hero is Philip Devereaux, a sharp, fashionable gentleman, and the object of Lucretia’s most determined machinations. Like his cousin Clarissa, Philip is pursued for his wealth. Lucretia dreams of becoming his wife—“only two deaths away from being a duchess”—and making London society sick with envy.

The four dancers come together in the London Season, meeting at the weekly Almack’s balls, occasional soirees, rides in the park, and even a duchess’s masquerade. Smith’s writing sparkles with the historically appropriate details that contemporary readers crave—observations on fashion, etiquette, and social luminaries like Beau Brummell. While Lady Chadwick copies gown patterns from the Duchess of Devonshire, the younger Miss Boulderston has a suitor known in town for the height of his shirt-points.

Despite her fortune, Clarissa’s position in the novel is another poignant historical circumstance. As an unmarried woman, she fears being a burden to her brother James when he sets up his own household. She accepts Lord Wilburfolde’s suit so she won’t become another Aunt Sophia, living on her brother’s goodwill. But with encouragement from her formidable grandmother, she manages to create a better future for herself.

Though Smith identifies the four dancers clearly, the eventual pairings don’t ring false or shallow at the end of the novel. With a wide cast of characters, Danse de la Folie reads more like a miniseries. Aunt Sophia and Lucretia Boulderston compete for most exaggerated theatrical gestures while Lord and Lady Chadwick are the most benevolent and disinterested parents a reader could wish for. To solve her problems, Lady Kitty declares, “One must be the heroine,” but she never adopts Lucretia’s rehearsed gestures, a running joke throughout the book. Lady Kitty steps into the heroine’s position with her charming artlessness, catching the eye of Mr. Devereaux and proving that warmth and sincerity will defeat strategy and malice.

Image of author Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith

About the author: Sherwood Smith has loved Jane Austen all her life, which led to her getting a degree in European history. She lives in Southern California with her spouse, two kids, and two dogs.

  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Book View Cafe (September 25, 2018)
  • ISBN-10: 9781611387407
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611387407

 

About the reviewer: Emily K. Michael is a poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. She is the poetry editor for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature at Syracuse University, and she curates the Blind Academy blog. Her first book Neoteny: Poems is available from Finishing Line Press (click here to enter the site). Blind and print-disabled users can also find it on Bookshare.

Read more of her work at her website:

  • “On the Blink: How My Light is Spent.” Click on this link.
  • Watch her TEDx FSCJ talk entitled The Confluence of Disability and Imagination (Dec 6, 2016) at this link.

 

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Image of the cover of The Jane Austen Society by Natalie JennerIt is my pleasure to introduce to you author Natalie Jenner and her debut novel, The Jane Austen Society. – Rachel Dodge

Let’s begin with a description of the novel to whet your literary appetites:

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

Introducing Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society:

I first “met” Natalie Jenner online last year, and we’ve since formed a lovely friendship—one that I foresee extending into the future for a very long time. That’s the thing about Jane Austen devotees: We always seem to find one another, even if we’re from different parts of the world, because of our shared love for Jane, her life, and her work. That magic is also what immediately drew me to Natalie’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Society, a story about a group of people who are drawn together based on their love for all things Austen and a desire to protect her legacy.

As a fellow writer, I couldn’t wait to pick Natalie’s brain about how she came up with such a beautiful concept for a novel. Her answers to my questions gave me a further glimpse into her creative process and the story of how this novel came to be. I’ve loved getting to know Natalie this past year. And I hope, once you read her interview, you’ll feel like you know her, too.

Q: When did you first discover Jane Austen and how have her books touched your life?

A: I discovered a beautiful 1976 Dutton edition of Pride and Prejudice on my parents’ bookshelves when I was a child, and I remember being besotted by the fact that the book came in a box with a ribbon that ran through it, by the wonderful ink and wash illustrations by Isabel Bishop, and most of all by that crazy dialogue-heavy opening scene with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet that reads just like a screenplay.

Austen’s books have touched my life in many ways: as a teenager, they introduced me to female characters with little social agency yet huge reservoirs of inner conviction and resilience and hope. As I started my own adult and family life, books like Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility in particular showed me a side to the pathos of real grown-up life that seemed missing from so much modern culture. And most recently, Austen helped me through a challenging time in middle age by her personal example of living with chronic pain and grief, and writing through illness and despair.

Q: What initially inspired you to write The Jane Austen Society? (Do you remember where you were when the idea first came to you?)

A: I remember exactly where I was. I had been spending a “quiet year” rereading all of Austen, looking for solace when my husband was diagnosed in his early 50s with a very rare and incurable form of lung disease. This led me to start reading as many books about her life as I could find, which in turn inspired me to take a bucket list trip to Bath and Chawton to literally walk in Austen’s footsteps, as well as attend my first JASNA regional event. I was also binge-watching a lot of Downton Abbey and British television during this time, including a home real estate series called Escape to the Country. When my husband’s lung decline started to stabilize following experimental treatment, I remember feeling hope for the first time in two years of what was frankly a medical nightmare. Along with hope, I was also surprised to find myself yearning to write again, after locking five unpublished manuscripts from my 30s away in a drawer many years ago. Initially I was going to write about a group of people trying to rescue an old British estate house, similar to Downton Abbey. But my daughter very clearly remembers me one day, out of the blue, looking up from my reading and saying very simply instead, “I am going to write a book about a group of people trying to save Jane Austen’s house.” And that is pretty much still the tag line for my book.

Q: At what point did you decide to write it as a fictional account? Did the story come to you all at once or did it slowly build as you planned and drafted?

A: Interestingly, because my first impulse was to write something completely fictional about a made-up house, the idea of any of it being related to Austen only came upon the heels of that. So, fictional first, then Austen second. I conceived of eight to ten characters, half men and half women, and I gave them jobs (as a career coach in my other life, I know how important one’s job is to one’s identity, and in looking back, I think that must be why so much of the action stems from the fact of someone being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a servant girl).

That was all the planning that I did in advance. When I sat down one day to write, an image immediately came to mind of a man, tired and lonely and sad, lying back on the very stone wall in the churchyard of St. Nicholas where I had rested the fall before when visiting Chawton. I remember typing that first chapter, having this man meet the Austen fan from America who has descended on his village, making up his life story, having him start reading a copy of Pride and Prejudice from the library (that moment we can all relate to, that very first “hit”), and then I wrote the words “He was becoming quite worried for Mr. Darcy” and right away I knew what my book was really going to be about. People in love with Jane Austen, and then learning to love themselves. I write completely without a plan or outline of any kind—I love it, it’s so exhilarating, and it lets my characters drive the action, so everything always comes as a complete surprise to me. That’s where all the fun in writing is for me. Revision is the penance for the fun.

Q: How do your characters “introduce” themselves to you? What is the process you use to create and develop them?

A: My characters appear to me completely formed and ready, in terms of their appearance but also their temperament, personality, and mannerisms. I can’t explain it, and I haven’t asked other authors how common that is, probably because I am afraid of the answer! I can immediately picture everything about my characters when they first appear to me except—strangely—the exact features of their face. Their faces always remain a little blurry, but that does enable me to do stunt-casting later on for my dream movie or tv version.

Q: Your character names are perfectly charming! How did you come up with their names?

A: This is also a strangely intuitive part of the process, as the names for the most part just pop up in my mind. But I do remember struggling with Dr. Gray’s first name, Benjamin, because I wanted it to be traditional and strong and pleasant, but also not overly common. And I am going to give you a little nugget: I had already picked Mimi for the Hollywood actress’s name, and it was only later in researching the name that I learned that “Mimi” is also a diminutive for “Mary Ann”—which was, obviously, so perfect, and a sign that I just could not ignore. Once I had all the names in place, and because I did not want to step on any real-life people in creating this fictional work about a very real society and place, I did go through census records online for the village of Chawton, trying to the best of my ability to ensure that no real villagers now or in the past shared surnames with any of my characters, just to avoid any unnecessary confusion.

Q: What was your research process for this book and what sources did you consult? Did you visit any Jane Austen sites in England?

A: So I had actually done a year of what I now call “unintentional research” when I was sitting in my garden rereading Austen and then reading every book I could find on the story of her life. I was particularly impacted by the following books: Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe, Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman, and Reading Austen in America by Professor Juliette Wells, all of which really got me thinking about Austen fandom and how it has manifested itself historically; and Caroline Knight’s memoir, Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage, which introduced me to the more private, familial side of Chawton House’s history.

Throughout my life I have visited and revisited many Austen sites, but during this particular time, I was fortunate to get to spend a week on my own in Hampshire. Every morning I would make the same walk to Chawton from Alton that Austen herself used to make. I would be the first person to arrive at the Jane Austen’s House Museum when it opened in the morning, and the last person to leave Chawton House at the end of the day. All of this “research” was done before I even had an inkling that I was going to write a book about any of it one day!

Q: Are there any characters or storylines in the book that strike a chord with you personally? Do you have a favorite character?

A: I love this question, because yes! Adeline the war widow can be a polarizing figure but her total immersion in her grief really resonated with me—it was like a funhouse mirror reflection of the great parts of her character: the intensity, the curiousity, the always-up-for-a-fight. She’s just so independent and her own person, and I loved that about her. I also loved Dr. Gray, who is propping this entire little village totally at the expense of his own emotional healing, which seemed so human to me. But my real soft spot is for Evie: she is my daughter and myself at that age, so single-mindedly focused on her intellectual growth and academic ambition, and just waiting, impatiently, for her moment in the sun.

Q: Where and when do you get your writing done? Can you share any rituals or quirks you have as a writer?

A: My main quirk as a writer is the fact that I can and do write anywhere, anytime. I gave up my home office when my husband started working from home, and so far I have not yet been able to get it back! I write by the fireplace and big window in the living room, in bed, at the dining room table, by the pool, and last summer I treated myself to an 8 foot by 8 foot writing shed in the garden. My absolute favourite time to write is when I first wake up, usually around 5 am if I am in the middle of a book and can’t stand the suspense myself of what’s going to happen next. All I need when I write is just my laptop and sometimes a cup of English breakfast tea to keep me going.

Q: What do you hope the worldwide Jane Austen community will gain from reading this book?

A: My goal for this book is even more global than that: I want everyone, Austenites and strangers to Austen alike, to reaffirm for themselves, through the experiences of my characters, the critical and essential role of hope in all our lives. As I say in the book, sometimes hope is all we have: but hope can also sometimes be just enough. I know it was for me. For Austenites in particular, I would love for them to appreciate and celebrate all of our individual and collective efforts in keeping the works of Austen so thriving and alive.

Q: If you could step into one of Jane Austen’s novels, which one would it be and which character would you like to play?

A: Elizabeth Bennet. All the way. In fact, I’m already halfway there in my mind as I say this. She is undoubtably the most delightful, charismatic, and authentic character in all of literature.

Q: Who is your favorite actor from the new Emma movie and what do you like most about his/her performance. (I think I know the answer, but I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!)

A: You are a good guesser because, yes, it’s Mr. Johnny Flynn. I was so averse to his casting announcement, and superficially so—he struck me as having a very young, British-boy-band, foppish manner. My Mr. Knightley (my favourite romantic figure in all of Austen) is tall, and imposing, and so smart. What I loved about Flynn’s performance in the new Emma movie was how he retained the imposing manner in any room, but gave it a quieter confidence and vulnerability that I hadn’t seen before. I could feel how much he wanted to love and be loved, and to start a family, and I just found that all so incredibly romantic and touching.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about this book?

A: I would add that I tried while I was writing, and in the dreaded revising, to throw in as many little “Easter eggs” as I could, so that the more hard-core Austen fans could have fun picking up on little allusions and parallels to events, characters, and romances from Austen’s own works. Although over the course of three drafts many of these parallels were intentional, some still surprised even me. Which, as I said before, is the total joy and fun of writing.

Image of Natalie Jenner

Natalie Jenner

AUTHOR BIO:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

Rachel Dodge, author of Praying With Jane Austen, at the 2019 JASNA AGM in Williamsburg

Rachel Dodge at the JASNA AGM in Williamsburg, October 2019

About Rachel Dodge, the interviewer: Rachel Dodge is a college English professor and the author of Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen and The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-by-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits (November 1, 2020). . You can find her online at http://www.RachelDodge.com.

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS

AUDIOBOOK NARRATED BY ACTOR RICHARD ARMITAGE:

The full unabridged text of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY was read by the distinguished English film, television, theatre and voice actor Richard Armitage for the audiobook recording. Best known by many period drama fans for his outstanding performance as John Thornton in the BBC television adaptation of North and South (2004), Armitage also portrayed Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit (2012 – 2014).

Link to YouTube audiobook excerpt: https://youtu.be/OJ1ACJluRi8

PURCHASE LINKS:

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

You may order your copy of The Jane Austen Society here:

AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORYINDIEBOUND | AUDIBLEGOODREADS | BOOKBUB

JOHN THE BLOG TOUR!

Join the virtual online book tour of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, Natalie Jenner’s highly acclaimed debut novel May 25 through June 30, 2020. Seventy-five popular blogs and websites specializing in historical fiction, historical romance, women’s fiction, and Austenesque fiction will feature interviews and reviews of this post-WWII novel set in Chawton, England.

BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE:

May 25 Jane Austen’s World

May 25 Austenprose—A Jane Austen Blog

May 26 Frolic Media

May 26 A Bookish Affair

May 26 Courtney Reads Romance

May 26 Margie’s Must Reads

May 26 The Reading Frenzy

View the Rest of the Tour Schedule in the Side Bar – The blog tour lasts until June 30th!

 

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