Pemberley Manor by Kathryn L. Nelson

I’ll admit that when Diana first handed me Nelson’s new tome, my thoughts were less than 100% enthusiastic. Yet another Pride and Prejudice sequel? What more could possibly be done with the characters we know and love that would be believable and heartwarming and in character with the spirit of Austen’s novel?

I was well-rewarded for my reading efforts. In this version, which starts at the wedding ceremony, it is not so easy as “happily ever after.” Darcy’s parents’ unhappy marriage (a prequel, if you will, to our P&P) has led to his estrangement from his father (prior to the death of the latter), his denial of the truth about his mother, and a reticence to broach any of these topics with his similarly lonely sister, Georgiana. We see Darcy suffering from the unhappy ghosts of his past, and of course it falls to our Lizzy to help him confront and banish them, without pressuring him to do more than he feels at any given moment.

There are some delightful new characters, but not too many to obscure our enjoyment of their presence. The Alexanders, for instance, are Darcy’s version of the Gardiners, except that his mother has somehow led him to rebuff them until Lizzy enters his life. Just when Elizabeth most misses her father and Darcy wishes he knew more about his own, Mr. Alexander, in all his paternal glory, comes to help them. Trevor Handley is a character of intrigue whose plight parallels Darcy’s, but then veers sharply in its own course. The novel also has some quite beautiful uses of figurative language that most modern sequels do not attempt. A few are potentially hackneyed (“Darcy and Elizabeth rested for a moment at the top of the long stairway they had climbed, little realizing that a mountain still lay ahead”), but several I found uncommonly fresh (Mr. Bennet prefers “the rich tapestry of a good book to the coarser fabric of society”; Lizzy’s love for her husband is “as impossible as the rising and setting of the sun, and as unlikely to end”). Lizzy has a line that made me laugh aloud (perhaps in contemplation of my own nature): “I have never been able to master my faults for more than a short interval.”

That is not to say there are no awkward, seemingly inappropriate clichés and modernisms. Phrases such as “women of their dreams” and “let it go” seem not quite to fit, and Lizzy calling Darcy “Will” may be going a bit too far for many Janeites. A few scenes just seem unlikely: Darcy physically hitting someone who hurt him emotionally, Lizzy rocking miserable Darcy to some state of peace, characters reacting to an “alternative” lifestyle with open-mindedness in the 19th century. My largest complaint, excuse the pun, is that this book is just too heavy! Physically, that is; I had difficulty holding it up with one hand. Unpardonable.

There are also some interesting explanations of events and shifts in feeling that occur in the original novel. Elizabeth finally tells Darcy, for instance, the moment she actually fell in love with him. We now come to understand that several servants at Pemberley were concerned he might marry Caroline Bingley. (At first I thought it odd that they don’t know their master well enough not to suspect him of such ill judgment, but then it turns out they were right, and he had entertained the thought!). Darcy’s reserve makes sense as a result of psychological trauma in childhood: it’s not arrogance then, but insecurity, that causes him to shy away from people he doesn’t know. In his arc in this text, Darcy finally conquers his anger once his strategy of storming out of tense situations hurts those he loves most dearly.

Nelson deftly handles several key interactions between our characters. The socializing at the wedding feels just like it would have if Austen had written a sequel. Though Lizzy and Darcy’s first moments together are not anything Austen would have given them, or we’d expect, these moments provide the impetus for us to explore further what made Darcy who he is, and how Lizzy’s presence will change Pemberley—for good, and for the better. Jane Bennet knows her sister so well—well enough to coax her to talk by making Elizabeth worry about Jane and then defend Darcy. Caroline Bingley is bitchier than ever—but Colonel Fitzwilliam is given the enviable task of making her eat crow.

As the novel progresses, Nelson has the Bennet sisters transform Caroline (details not to be disclosed by me) in a way that seemed unbelievable to me—at first—but within a few pages, I found myself really touched by the change (which means I must have started to believe at some point along the way, so kudos to Nelson for her fortitude in making that work). Nelson nicely develops Georgiana’s character—and her relationship with her older brother and the other new people in her life. Most significantly, Nelson takes Austen’s statement about Lizzy livening Darcy and makes it come to life: we can see him attempt humor and irony the morning immediately following the wedding (of course, Elizabeth doesn’t yet understand that he’s doing that, but it’s hilarious because we know). Lizzy, in turn, is more self-aware, less likely to judge immediately, and more willing to hold her tongue and to find the right, rather than the first, words.

Lesson-wise, a primary theme comes from the mouth of Jane Bennet, but accurately reflects the philosophy of both Bennet sisters—and, I’d argue, all happy people: “Happiness,” she tells Caroline, “is a choice we make for ourselves.” Nelson shows us that even with the right man, a woman must daily choose happiness in order to secure it.

I recommend that you choose happiness—by reading this book.

(republished from Spring 2008)

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Published in: on April 10, 2016 at 5:10 pm  Comments (1)  

Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love by Patrice Hannon

Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love by Patrice Hannon, republished from Winter 2006

The premise of this work is that Jane Austen is somehow receiving letters from modern-day would-be heroines seeking her advice on love and life. All Jane’s responses are punctuated by actual passages from the novels and juvenilia to lend legitimacy to the responses, so while we get interesting modern problems, we are also treated to delightful snippets from our favorite books.

Overall, it is a clever idea and fairly well executed, aside from inevitable choppiness, one description of “Sex and the City” as being unrealistic (hmmph), and several paragraphs that feel just a bit too long for modern-day readers. Jane is, in essence, Dear Abby, with similar sharpness of tongue and strong views about the choices her correspondents make. In one of the early letters, for instance, Jane responds to a would-be heroine who fears she’ll die if she doesn’t marry soon; Jane tells her that she needs some “self-command” rather than the “hysterical raving” of the Bronte sisters, who set women “back hundreds of years with stories full of improbable circumstances and unnatural characters.”

The journey to heroine-ship relies on several important “rules” for being a heroine (such as “a heroine does not try to win a hero’s love” and “you will only recognize your true hero when you know yourself”), but most important is remembering to distinguish reality from fantasy. Jane advises every would-be heroine to read the novels again in order to become “as much a heroine as…Catherine, Elinor, Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma, Anne, and yes, even Marianne,” but this book takes us through the novels and forces us to apply the principles therein to modern-day relationships. Though some of the would-be heroines have problems that even a dating simpleton should recognize as too obvious to require guidance (“I’m in love with a guy who hits on my sister”—are you serious? Does any self-respecting woman ever consider such a man seriously?), most of the issues Jane addresses here deal with far more subtle themes, and the modern single woman looking to be a heroine in her own life could use the lessons.

The crux of Austen’s argument (as channeled by Patrice Hannon) comes near the end, after she takes us through her stories and wrings forth lessons from them for our benefit. In a somewhat ironic twist, Jane cautions us that “an essential element in the achievement of that perfect felicity [her] heroines enjoy is the conquering of romantic illusions and expectations.” Besides sounding disturbingly like my mom, Jane here asks us not to judge the men we date by comparing them directly to Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, but instead to assess our relationships with our men using the principles of compatibility established in Pride and Prejudice or Emma. Jane urges us, as in the novels the real Jane urges her heroines, to “choose happiness” and reminds us that, more so in our times than in hers, women have the power to do so—hero or not.

[Ed.’s note] Author Patrice Hannon writes to us with the exciting news that Plume will be bringing out a new edition of DEAR JANE AUSTEN in July. The Publisher of Penguin, Kathryn Court, came into Patrice’s antiques store on Bleecker Street in November, bought a copy, and came back two weeks later to talk to her. A great New York story.

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 8:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma by Diana Birchall

When I first heard that Diana’s book was coming to Barnes and Noble, I was very excited—not only for her, but also for all of us. Though I had heard of the book for years, the expensive hardcover editions never quite found their way to my library, and I was left only to imagine what story remained untold to me.

So last week I gleefully found my copy at my local B &N. I started Diana’s book immediately, hoping I’d like it. By the end of chapter one, I was so engrossed I had temporarily forgotten that it was Diana’s book! Several parts of the story hooked me right away: the warm sibling bond between Henry and Jane (reminds me of my relationship with my own dear brother), the potential makings of Chloe (the “good” Wickham daughter who manages to develop moral character despite all odds), the doughty Kitty (who doesn’t fare so well, but whose gardener husband I found endearing), and the horribly bitchy “new” Lydia, Miss Wickham, who wants to trap Fitzwilliam, the eldest Darcy boy.

Diana is a master of dialogue. So vivid and so realistic, it immediately endeared me to Chloe and distanced me from Bettina. Even an occasional surprising phrase that may have more meaning that Diana intended—“their ability to give tongue”— that stopped me in my tracks, only did so momentarily. I soon recognized the depth of cleverness here: the Wickham sister we like is in a position similar to Elizabeth’s before Darcy saves her sister’s, and therefore her own, reputation. The Darcy son most like his father is the one who tries to save the shameful product of the Wickham union from self-immolation, just as Darcy and the Gardiners did years before for her ancestors. The parallels don’t end there. The powerful Elizabeth/Lady Catherine exchange when Lady Catherine suspects an alliance between Lizzy and Darcy is revived here in the Collins’ new
home—the same place it occurred a generation earlier. Chloe, like her aunt Elizabeth, fights back, politely, and we admire her for it. This pride also keys us in—in case we were a bit slow before—to her appropriateness for Henry, just as Elizabeth’s zest proves her worthy of Darcy. And Mr. Collins once again gets to offend us, this time via Lady Catherine, with the suggestion that a heroine would be better off had her shamed relative died—Bettina standing in for her mother this time.

In addition to all the plot twists and clever parallels, Diana also has some fun in brief mentions. Kitty’s husband is a real gardener, or at least likes gardening. If we are to read the Gardiners as people who act in concert with nature, then this man, too, is morally wise. He calls his deity “the great Gardener;” thus Diana reminds us that our characters who enjoy the outdoors are the ones who understand what really matters. She also nicely gets revenge on Caroline Bingley; Caroline gets to marry at last, but her new surname is Babcock. Better to stay single, one might argue.

The only really sad moment in this story is Mr. Bennet’s passing, but even this moment, which brought me to tears, is done gently and calmly, to give as little pain as possible to all. I really think we could have missed this part (I didn’t want to see this!), but the plot wouldn’t work as well without Longbourne falling victim to the Collins, so I guess I can forgive Diana this one choice.

Especially because it’s so soon followed by Darcy’s laugh out loud comment to his son, about to “inherit” the Wickham family via his selected wife, that since Darcy has been burdened “this five an twenty years” by the Wickhams, he “shall be quite glad to pass them on to” his son. Since, as Elizabeth declares, “a good wife, you know, makes a good husband,” all Henry’s efforts—and all Darcy’s—are well worth their trouble.

(republished from Summer 2008)

Published in: on January 1, 2016 at 1:39 pm  Comments (6)  

Jane Austen for Babies

I’ve been on an amazing adventure since my baby girl was born in July, and though there hasn’t been much time for the usual Austen-related book reading let alone reviewing, I have recently read four Austen-related books designed for babies and have some thoughts to share.

Pride and Prejudice Cozy Classics by Jack and Holman Wang: 12 words and 12 pictures of felt characters to go with it. They do manage, I was surprised, to convey the basic story. It is rather a dull read for an adult, but that’s not the point of these books.

Little Miss Austen Sense and Sensibility: An opposites primer by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver: so this one is upfront that it is about opposites, not really about any story in particular. Thus, Empty and Full pages, one with an empty henhouse and one with a full one, need not bear any connection to the Austen tale. But maybe, since I wanted to introduce the little one to Austen, they should? Some pairs do (Big=Norland Park, Little=Barton Cottage). Why not all? I also thought it strange that the spoiler (Single and Married, with the names on the cakes) was not last, but the non-specific Day and Night were. Was the logic that this is a bedtime story? That everything ends with night? That parents of new babies are too exhausted to notice?

Little Miss Austen Pride and Prejudice: a counting primer by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver: same concerns as in the previous review that some pages are relevant to the original book (“2 rich gentlemen”) while others just aren’t (“6 horses”). Why? Pictures are cute, and the spoiler comes on the fourth page. This one comes with an optional playset with pieces from the story that stand up (pop out of thick paper), and I think we’ll have fun with this when she’s ready for it.

Goodnight Mr. Darcy by Kate Coombs and illustrated by Alli Arnold: Very clever. It takes the original story (Goodnight Moon, that is, not Pride and Prejudice) and parodies it on every page. Everything from the first page—“In the great ballroom there was a country dance and a well-played tune and Elizabeth Bennet—“ to the father saying “hush”—reminds me adorably of the classic my brother and I loved as kids (which I have in various forms for my sweetie, too). The color schemes, the rhymes, and the repetition are all delightfully parodied here, and people who know Goodnight Moon (so, everyone) will really appreciate this take on it. It also has many details from the Austen story (ex: “Mr. Darcy surprised by a pair of fine eyes”), and I was only slightly annoyed that the end spoiled “Goodnight Elizabeth Goodnight bride.” Does no one else want their kids to be surprised the first time they read the real Pride and Prejudice? Do we assume they already know? I didn’t know when I read it.

So this is what I have been reading lately—and I have never been happier.

Published in: on December 1, 2015 at 7:42 am  Comments (2)  

Lydia Bennet’s Story by Jane Odiwe

It’s always a good sign when Diana Birchall is quoted on the cover of a book. And though, at first, Lydia’s observations here didn’t feel quite like Lydia’s would, the text does ultimately make Lydia into a sympathetic character, one a lot more like her sisters Jane and Elizabeth than Pride and Prejudice would leave us thinking she could be. Lydia does many things of which her sisters would be ashamed. She flirts with her own family’s servant, she kisses some guy at a dance, and she does things just so her sisters will be jealous. At the same time, in this text, the narrator has the girl thinking more deeply than I think she would. On the first page, for instance, Lydia confesses that Mr. Wickham “has a way of looking into [her] eyes which [she finds] most disconcerting,” which seems to me something Lydia wouldn’t think. Later, Lydia wishes that her father would say something nice about her; at least this time, the narrator acknowledges the incongruity between her words here and her behavior in P&P: “Despite the appearance Lydia gave of caring little for his remarks . . . .”

Her diary and the omniscient narration of the events in it also reveal more than I want to know about the character whose scenes, even in P&P, are my least favorite. We perfectly understand now how Lydia and Kitty came, with money enough for shopping, to greet Elizabeth on her journey home from Hunsford; their father needed them out of the house, and was willing to pay to make sure that happened. We learn about how Lydia came to dress Chamberlayne in women’s clothes, how much like her mother Lydia really is (she gets “flutterings” all over her when she’s excited about Brighton, for instance), how Wickham really gets to Lydia (by embarrassing her), and how Lydia decides that Wickham is no longer the “rightful property” of Elizabeth.

Ultimately, what this work achieves, more than the capturing of the P&P Lydia‟s voice, is the development of sympathy for her in an audience that is unlikely to begin reading the work with a shred of any. That development begins early on, when Wickham first offers to show Lydia around Brighton and she does not plan to take him up on his offer. Our feelings devolve into real pity when an eligible bachelor with money and interest in Lydia kisses her badly. It isn’t her fault, after all, that Wickham knows what he’s doing, and this other poor shlep does not. It is Wickham who interrupts an unfulfilling make-out session between Lydia and this handsome captain—and Lydia and Wickham slap each other. The violence and unkindness that will soon dominate their relationship is lightly hinted at here—but Lydia, in her silly 15-year-old naiveté, doesn’t see it.

So Lydia feels repulsed by the touch of a man who really could court her, and it’s almost inevitable that Wickham sweeps in and seduces her. When Wickham finally kisses her—in a dark cavern, away from all their friends, mind you—Lydia is not wholly innocent (she has blown out the candle), but she is not prepared to handle the treachery of this man, and for that, we feel for her. Wickham continues to court another woman, runs out of money, tells Lydia he needs to leave town immediately, and is offered this gift: Lydia has a little money and will give it and herself to Wickham, but only if he takes her with him. He, with sighs, agrees, and Lydia has duped herself into thinking he proposed marriage. We—and he—know he plans no such thing. “Poor, stupid girl,” indeed.

The interaction with Darcy offers reasonable explanations. Why was Lydia not home when Darcy first visited Wickham? She was finally permitted a shopping excursion. Also interesting is that Wickham knows he needs Darcy’s help, and he actually instructs Lydia to be polite to Darcy, but she doesn’t want to. We see Wickham for exactly what he is, but Lydia, though she is learning, still doesn’t.

The wedding day offers moments of pride—in Mrs. Gardiner, whose performance in scolding Lydia is awesome, and revulsion—in Lydia, who fake cries after getting angry at Wickham for threatening to “thrash” her if she tells anyone Darcy was at their wedding. This is a disgusting spectacle. Still, the reader feels sorry for Lydia, who has been threatened by her new husband on her wedding day, until she wonders how her poor mama can“get rid” of Elizabeth and Jane, whom, she predicts, will soon be old maids.

Just when you’re thinking that maybe she deserves her fate after all, Lydia catches Wickham cheating and unrepentant, and the whole charade begins to crumble. Once Lydia sees that he has never loved her the way she loves him, she begins to change into someone we can not only tolerate, but also want to be happy. Lydia is soon admitting—but only to her diary—what a huge mistake she made, and now she assumes full responsibility for it, even as she decides to show the world only her former, giddy, gloating self so that no one triumphs over her.

This sudden and painful self-awareness and isolation make her attractively sympathetic now, and not just to us. A handsome brother of a friend of Lydia’s keeps appearing, and though Lydia thinks he’s constantly judging and scorning her, we recognize these behaviors from a certain laconic gentleman and know what should happen. Thanks to an additional act of Wickham’s past, all we have to do is wait for it to unfold, and the waiting is so much fun to read.

I can see now why Diana so enjoyed this romp. Only a woman who felt the need to bring some attention to Mrs. Elton’s side of the story could so thoroughly sympathize with Odiwe’s plight in making us care about Lydia as anything other than her sisters‟ sister, but much to my surprise and enjoyment, Odiwe—like Birchall before her—succeeds.

(republished from Spring 2009)

Published in: on November 3, 2015 at 9:56 am  Leave a Comment  

Another Little Piece of My Heart by Tracey Martin

This modern teenage version of Persuasion begins with an interesting parallel to Sir Walter Eliot’s studying of the Baronetage: “Some people are like a venereal disease.” Jared Steele, musical phenom, is our protagonist’s ex, and she is having trouble listening to him sing on the radio. In southern Connecticut, the “much-whispered but never-confirmed” truth is that Claire is the subject of his songs. Best friend Kristen does her best to distract Claire from Jared’s music and to focus on her own. Claire’s band, Stabbing Shakespeare, does well with the “Jared Steele sucks” theme but not much else—yet.

The cast of characters parallels Persuasion decently but incompletely. Claire’s mother has been gone a year, and she has a sister, April, who seems more conventional but a little too whiny for our taste (Mary Musgrove, of course). In a span of five minutes, her sister drops the news that they are moving, and her father, that he has invested her “college money in a fun that has since run dry.” He is being followed around by his preposterously made-up secretary, Nikki (Mrs. Clay), though he no longer has a business needing her assistance. Her dad is Sir Walter Eliot, and they need to “retrench” by staying with family in New Hampshire (while their new condo at home gets its kitchen renovated). He seems as bad as the original, but I’ll leave you to discover what surprises he provides for us and for his daughter. Eliot Beach serves as Bath.

Claire describes falling in love with Jared. He does sound pretty perfect for her (and pretty Captain Wentworth to us)—teaching her guitar and praising her musical talent, volunteering with underprivileged kids, and soon, writing songs with her. She broke up with him because her dying mother asked her to. That kind of leaves Lady Russell out of the story, unless we consider Kristen a sort of Lady Russell figure in that she is the only one who really knows about Jared. Cousins Lisa and Hannah are the Musgrove girls (Louisa and Henrietta), and they don’t know the history between Jared and Claire.

Claire is a disciplined heroine, stopping herself from thinking two days in a row about Jared, seeking a job so she doesn’t take out her father’s flirtatious secretary Nikki in a “murderous rage,” and not complaining about having “to give up [her] spot in Brown’s freshman class.” In Eliot Beach, Claire gets a job in a small grocery store. Her father snobbishly disciplines Claire for getting a “menial job” he says is “beneath” her, while he seems content doing nothing at all. On her first day at work, Claire gobbles down some fruit for lunch, and then, bam, stares smack into familiar blue eyes . . . Jared is there, in the market, where she least expects to see him.

This young lady, like Anne Elliot, is quite aware of her own heart and actively working to understand her reactions to the world around her. She feels he wronged her by writing about her badly in his songs; he feels she wronged him by choosing her snobbish family over him. Though she thinks she’s “supposed to be furious at Jared,” she instead recognizes that she cares more than she should what happens to him, so she tries to “stuff” those feelings “into the darkest, coldest recess” of her soul. Claire’s dad, meanwhile, has changed his tune with respect to a young woman going out with Jared, which angers Claire, who had to sneak around. Claire gets roped into attending a concert—on a double date with her ex and her cousin. Before that, though, she confronts her dad about his expectations and treatment of her and of Jared. She is learning how to speak up for herself and for her choices.
In her effort “to prove” herself, Claire enters a local battle of the bands. Her journey will include transitioning from “mere musician” to “performer,” but first she needs the confidence “to perform on [her] own.” At this point, however, her favorite Janis Joplin song is “Piece of My Heart,” which she has made her “anti-Jared anthem,” and one of her bands’ songs includes these lyrics: “I’m stabbing Shakespeare, burning Austen in the fire I’m strangling Cinderella, and all the other dirty liars.” She has some distance to go before she can forgive, understand, and be happy.

Jared is really a nice guy and, in fact, has trouble dealing “with all the public attention” he gets as a Grammy-winning musician. After all the tension between them, Claire at least allows Jared to make her laugh with an inside joke, and she laughs so hard her “stomach hurts.” I could feel the tension break. Shortly thereafter, Claire realizes that she agrees with other people’s demands too often, and maybe she “should have held firm” instead of breaking under her “parents’ pressure and dump[ing] Jared.” There is no clear Lady Russell figure, but she’s clearly discussing the power of persuasion.

Cousin Lisa is a lesbian and a sophomore at UNH. Her best friend Mike is hosting a party. (He turns out to be Jared’s friend, so he could be Harville or Benwick.) At the party, she meets Zach Stevens (Mr. Eliot), who smells like beer and makes her temporarily forget Jared. (Link I’m not sure works: Hannah is smoking a lot; what’s the equivalent in Persuasion? Taking unnecessary risks? ) On another outing, Hannah ends up flirting with Mike instead of Jared (so Mike must be Captain Benwick). But of course that’s followed by a fall, and Claire quickly takes charge, like Anne before her, to get Hannah home safely. Meanwhile, April is researching how to poison the Mrs. Clay character.

Now at this point I will say I was confused by the choice: the Hannah character should be Henrietta, and it should be Lisa, Louisa, who falls down, and then falls for Captain Benwick, but that gets changed for no clear reason. Captain Harville could be any of these guys. Are the aunt and uncle supposed to be the model of a good marriage, and therefore the Crofts? They offer Claire advice and take care of her, but they aren’t linked to Jared in any way (though they know about their history, so maybe that counts?). There’s also no real Elizabeth Elliot, but no one really misses her. I kind of missed Charles Musgrove and the Musgroves in general—maybe they’re the aunt and uncle? That makes more sense, but how can you retell Persuasion without the Crofts? Charles Hayter could be Hannah’s supposedly gay friend at the start of the story, which is certainly a modern way to handle it, except that she, or at least Henrietta, ends up with him in Persuasion. Besides Persuasion confusion, there are also a couple grammar errors that detracted a bit from the fun of this 2013 creation. One example: “He doesn’t want to have to chauffeur April or I anywhere.”

Claire is pretty delightful, but she doesn’t always make perfect decisions, even apart from pronoun case. She reacts badly, for instance, to her band’s news that, after this gig, they “just don’t think it’s going to work out,” telling them that even that gig isn’t worth their time and realizing “everyone else gets to move forward” except her. At this point, the old struggle we knew early on she’d have to fight emerges. She believes she doesn’t “give off the same kind of aura” as a natural performer like Jared, so a solo journey is not an option. On another occasion, when it’s time to make out with Zach, she tries to get herself drunk enough not to be repulsed. That is not okay. Worse, she plans to drive home. For such a smart girl, she really fails on every count here.

Claire has moments of great maturity, too. She defies her father’s demand that she quit her job with no notice—and Jared hears it, so he learns she has learned when to be persuaded and when not. She, meanwhile, learns his real feelings about Hannah and what it is actually like being a star. When Claire catches Zach conspiring with Nikki, she makes two strong moves. The way Claire lets Zach know she knows is awesome here: via text message. He asks her out; she says no, but Nikki’s free; he says who is that again; and she says, you know, the one “whose mouth your tongue was in last night.” No way to misread that! Later, armed with the Nikki-Zach photos, Claire decides that her younger sister “needs a better role model in her life” than what she has, so Claire chooses to accept that job and not share the photos with her father.

The story climaxes with two shifts: 1) in the relationship between Jared and Claire, and 2) in Claire’s sense of herself as a performer. With respect to the first, it’s obvious to one of their favorite singers in a few minutes—and the reader, in a bit more time—that these two belong together. In a beautiful scene on the beach, they build each other up, each targeting the other’s dip in confidence with exactly the right evidence to prove they should have confidence. There is some lovely writing here, including Jared’s comment: “Your band didn’t break up, because you are the band.” Words she needs to hear—and to believe before she can take the critical step of performing alone.

Open mike night is exactly what the reader would want it to be—and more. And, just like in Persuasion, now that Jared Steele is doing so well, our heroine’s dad is happy to discuss his connection to the young man. There is a beautiful ending, followed by a kind acknowledgement of author Tracey Martin’s eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Baker, who made her “believe [she] should give this writing thing a chance.” You’ll be glad she did.

Published in: on October 1, 2015 at 1:34 pm  Comments (1)  

Unleashing Mr. Darcy by Teri Wilson

On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, Elizabeth Scott escapes to a “dog show off the Jersey Turnpike” rather than risk being anywhere near a married man who doesn’t seem to “take no for an answer” (7). For obvious reasons, then, she’s more than a little cynical about the institution of marriage. Elizabeth has been suspended from her teaching position. Older sister Jenna, meanwhile, tries to cheer her up with some “pumpkin spice” from Starbucks, adding “whip” so her sister “live[s] a little” on her big birthday (9). At the dog show, a new judge is causing quite a stir, and we know why once we hear his name: Donovan Darcy (11).

This Darcy is famous in the dog world for Chadwicke Kennels (in Derbyshire, of course), and Elizabeth’s new acquaintance Sue Barrow is eager to tell her all about him. When Darcy speaks rudely to her, Elizabeth immediately assumes it is because he is “fully cognizant that he [is] in New Jersey rather than his posh country estate in England” (14-15). She does realize quickly, though, that not all her expectations are just, such as when Darcy respectfully gives her time to pose her dog, Bliss. Elizabeth is immediately attracted to him, and the text is very clear about that, a little too much for a reader who prefers Austen’s subtlety. Elizabeth, for instance, internally faults Bliss for wagging “her entire back end with delight” when she smells Darcy’s palm, but then realizes “that if she [Elizabeth] had a tail, it would indeed be wagging,” too (17). She, however, is wary of the combination of wealth and power.

There are many enjoyable early nods to a reader who knows the original. Darcy praises the “fine eyes” at which he is looking, though whether he means Elizabeth’s or Bliss’s is unclear at first (18). Aunt Constance, with whom he runs “the family foundation,” is Lady Catherine (21). Helena Robson, who cries every time he refuses “her admittance to his bed” and then says he must be gay to reject her, is Caroline Bingley (20-21). Darcy reconsiders his negative assessment of the cavalier’s freckles, just as he reconsiders his original assessment of Miss Elizabeth Bennet in P and P. Jenna, as Jane, “never see[s] a fault in anybody (39). Just when Elizabeth thinks she can’t possibly be more embarrassed, her mother and younger sisters Gracie, Laura, and Heather show up (42). Zara, the Georgiana figure, is the reason Darcy accepted the “judging assignment”; she has had a “burning desire” to “see the Big Apple” (45). Clever: here, Darcy only says the “tolerable” line to shut up his sister; too late, he sees “Miss Scott slip[] past him” (47).

Elizabeth already resents the wealthy and powerful, so Darcy’s behavior at first seems to corroborate her prejudice. She has been dismissed for failing the son of Grant Markham (51). He tried to bribe her. Then he “casually touched the inside of her wrist,” and “his gaze had flicked . . . to her breasts” (52). So she slapped him. The man then goes to the headmaster, accuses her of asking for money, and sends the matter to the board of directors. Meanwhile, she’s without work—and kids without their teacher—for at least four weeks, maybe for good. But then, just as things look bad, an opportunity arises for Elizabeth to work in England, which we know will put her on Darcy’s turf. He, meanwhile, hasn’t stopped thinking about her since he returned home, which we see, though we don’t as clearly in P and P.

There are other departures from or even inconsistencies with P and P. This Georgiana (Zara) is a big shopper, which seems out of character. Darcy and Zara express relief that the Caroline character (Helena) will never meet the Elizabeth one because the former “would eat [the latter] alive” (68). Elizabeth Bennet is in no such danger. The Lady Catherine character advocates on behalf of the Caroline one rather than her own daughter, which makes perfect sense since modern audiences wouldn’t like an arranged marriage between first cousins. Elizabeth also seems to understand quite early on that Darcy is flirting with her, particularly at the dog show in which he states each part of the dog they are studying, but it’s clear to her, to the Bingley character, and to us that he is assessing Elizabeth, in terms of her “lithe and supple back,” “dark eyes full of fire and intelligence,” and “muscular and racy hindquarters” (122-23). Again, it’s a bit over the top for my taste, but it is still entertaining. And then she second-guesses her understanding, thinking maybe he’s just “vexing” her, which seems consistent with P and P (126). They’re much better at communicating than our original Elizabeth and Darcy are, or rather, when the situation gets tense, they usually clear it up right away, as when Elizabeth misunderstands Darcy’s smile as mocking her for needing a job when in fact it’s just joy that she isn’t leaving (152). They make peace quickly, but when she brings it up, again, he misses the opportunity to explain and instead sarcastically recalls her earlier insult of him that he is just “barely . . . employed” and therefore cannot understand the concerns of working people (167). In the context of this version, such a response didn’t seem consistent. They overcome that, and then have a delightful physical encounter, but then, too, for no clear reason, Elizabeth thinks “he [is] the last man on earth” she wants to “have feelings for” (195).

Unlike in P and P, when Jane’s interest in Bingley is first and foremost, here it seems unlikely that Jenna, living in the States, will ever meet Henry Robson, whom even the reader has not seen except through his horrible sister. But then, we hear the conversation between the sisters in which Jenna says that “as soon as [Elizabeth] get[s] settled,” she will “be on the first plane across the pond” (70). We finally meet the Bingley character about 100 pages in, and he’s a little smarter than the original (possessing a “keen legal mind” and “handling all legal matters pertaining to the Darcy Family Trust”) 106). Within just a few minutes of his meeting Jenna, he asks for “tomorrow evening, perhaps?” (129)

We also know a lot more about Darcy’s perspective here than in P and P. The poor guy thinks “the dim light ha[s] been playing tricks on him” when he sees her in London, but of course we know it is Elizabeth, and she saw, but did not recognize him (80). The text says her sensual mouth arouses him, so what he needs is rest, relaxation, and “time with the dogs” (80). It’s not exactly what we think he needs, but that will happen soon enough.

Meanwhile, Wilson continues to reward Austen readers with details that hearken back to the original story. Darcy laughs, for instance, when he “assure[s]” Elizabeth that he has “plenty of faults” and follows his statement with the truth that his “good opinion once lost is lost forever” (91). The witty repartee about their faults is here, too, except here Elizabeth apologizes and asks if they can forget about her mistake (about Zara). When Jenna confesses she likes Henry, Lizzy says, “I suppose you’ve liked many a stupider person” (138). The “dance” Elizabeth almost accidentally accepts from Darcy is a walk here (140). The “dreadful news” from home is not a runaway sister but a permanent lay-off. The plans Elizabeth misses are not a trip to Pemberley but a walk with the Cavaliers (149). Henry (Bingley) tells Donovan (Darcy) that Jenna (Jane) is “the most beautiful creature [he] ever beheld” (209). On a walk with the dogs, Darcy is unusually quiet (in this version, he is all ease with Elizabeth earlier on) because she has told him “no touching,” but then he doesn’t talk either, so she reprimands him that it is his “turn to say something now” and makes suggestions (218-19). It’s the Netherfield ball! Elizabeth smells like lavender (though earlier she smelled like soap, so that’s not wholly consistent either), and then later, “a wave of fresh citrus scent [comes] wafting from her hair,” so she’s just a confusion of scents (238, 251). When Donovan thinks Elizabeth has brought a wedding dress for the weekend (makes no sense), she reassures him that he is “the last man in the world [she] could ever be prevailed upon to marry,” though that happens before he actually proposes marriage here (257). The letter he sends tells her not to “be alarmed” because he won’t repeat the “sentiments” that “were so disgusting” to her, though awkwardly, here he vows “never” to repeat them which original Darcy does not do (319).

Amid all these delightful allusions, there are also some strange, disturbing, and illogical moments. I thought it strange that in this version, Elizabeth “revile[s]” Darcy—there’s no evidence of that (100). Also strange that he invites her over to see his puppies and then leaves, which is rude, and therefore uncharacteristic. I was, of course, also skeptical when the text says he finds her “bewitching,” the same phrasing as Matthew Macfadyen uses in the Joe Wright movie. In terms of disturbing, if Elizabeth really thinks Darcy is with her to try “slumming,” why does she let him have “her on her knees begging for more”? (197) In that sense, at least, she regains her dignity by rejecting his proposal” to stay with him at his country estate over the weekend, which she does because she thinks “this [is] only about sex” (200). Also disturbing: the narrator says that after the rejection of this invitation, Darcy doesn’t “know whether to be impressed or livid,” which implies men like to be rejected (201). But then why does Darcy feel offended that Elizabeth thinks it “perfectly acceptable to shag him, but not to be seen with him”? (201) That doesn’t make sense: be seen with him at his private estate as opposed to in London?

Unfortunately, there is more illogical on its way. Why, when the Caroline character bends down, is her showing of cleavage deliberate, but when Elizabeth’s curtsy gives him “a brief glimpse down the front of her dress,” he “doubt[s] the move [is] intentional”? (205) And why is there so often cleavage display at dog shows? When Darcy brings Elizabeth to Kensington Palace (which is exciting for her because of the dog that once lived there), she thinks that the move is “atypically sweet,” but he has been like that with her before, including when he took her to the dog spa when she was depressed (222). Why should she now be surprised that he knows and understands her? His reaction to her is illogical, too. Long after he takes offense that she might want him just for sex, he begins “to feel the danger of paying” her “too much attention” and realizes he has “spent a great deal of effort trying to convince himself that it was merely physical” (223). On their way to the country, he thinks that “falling in love with” her “would be the epitome of bad judgment,” but he’s still imagining marrying her (239). Why would it be bad judgment? Why, after Donovan gets rejected, would Elizabeth “sit in the window seat, waiting for [him] to appear in the moonlight” (327)? She knows he loves her and he thinks she despises him; obviously, she should go to him! In terms of language usage, the writing is pretty decent here, so why the misuse of the subordinating conjunction? (“Although, she was no longer technically out of work” 331).

There are several other differences between this text and P and P. When Elizabeth says no to his weekend away offer, Darcy is angry and then not and then decides he knows “exactly how to get her there”; our Darcy doesn’t manipulate Elizabeth, and in fact goes out of his way to make sure she doesn’t feel she owes him a change of heart (206). This story’s premise is that the love gets thwarted by Elizabeth’s being damaged in her recent work fiasco but also a lifetime of feeling like she is scorned by the wealthy. P and P is not grounded on the principle that Elizabeth is damaged. Even when the real thing arrives, Elizabeth still thinks of herself as “the one who dresses the brides” never the one who will “marry the handsome prince” herself (308). When they finally get to Chadwicke, Darcy returns to “his usual, detached self,” the opposite of what happens at Pemberley (246). Of course, his aunt is there, so maybe it’s more like Rosings Park until she leaves. During the proposal, it is Elizabeth, not Darcy, who brings up the reaction of his family. Darcy definitively lists all his people who adore her. Wilson handles the Darcy saving of Lydia very differently here—and it really works. I didn’t see it coming until it happened, so I was only one step ahead of Elizabeth, who, even when it happens, doesn’t know how it happens. When she understands, she is “struck with a jolt of humility” and grieves “for every saucy speech” she has made (340).

You may be wondering at this point about two important characters that don’t seem to appear in Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Have no fear: Mr. Collins is here! Collin Montgomery, “foremost breeder” of Pekingese, and also “one of the most annoying human beings in England,” is positively ridiculous (207). Married to Charlotte, whom we never meet, Collin Montgomery supposedly owns “bedroom slippers that resemble[] a pair of show-groomed Pekingese dogs,” and, within moments of his guests arriving, he praises Darcy’s “lovely aunt Constance” as a “wonderful woman” (211). Wickham, too, appears to be missing, but his story is just different from George Wickham’s; his evil, lying self is there in plain sight all along.

This was a fun, though not flawless, read, and I truly enjoyed the Pride and Prejudice links and the new directions in which Wilson takes our beloved story.

Published in: on August 31, 2015 at 3:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle

Our first person narrator begins pretty angry, wanting “to chew thorns” that “would tear at the tender flesh on the roof of [her] mouth” so that “the sweet, salty taste of blood would linger on [her] palate.” Mary is apparently listening to her parents discuss Kitty’s prospects with a Mr. Walsh, one of Mr. Bingley’s friends “whom she had met during a lengthy stay” with them. This Mary chuckles inwardly, imagining her mama “casting” her papa “a severe look.” Would Austen’s Mary enjoy that, I wondered. We soon learn, however, that while this Mary looks like Austen’s, she has come a long way since last we saw her. Mary has consciously “tried to change,” seeing “Jane’s and Elizabeth’s happy, contented lives,” and wanting something that brings her happiness, too. She then overhears her mother tell her father that her mother “cannot think of any man who would have” Mary. No wonder she is angry.

Mary has benefitted from her older sisters’ marriages, even studying the pianoforte at Darcy’s expense and improving “dramatically.” (So does she now know how lacking her performances were? She knows her singing still makes “people squirm.”) Still, her mother is unkind, even if without awareness. Mr. Bennet, though, is paying more “more attention than he used to,” and Mary hopes to “replac[e] Elizabeth in his affections.” He defends her against her mother’s cruelty, saying Mary should have a say in her future. Kitty, too, shows Mary more attention, even “inviting [her] to sit with” Kitty and Mrs. Bennet and sharing local gossip. And then, just as Mary fights back about having to go to Lydia for her confinement, a very pregnant Lydia shows up at Longbourne, announcing she is moving home.

Wickham apparently told Lydia not to “begrudge him a little fun” (with a Miss Susan Bradford) while she is pregnant. We hardly have time to pity Lydia, however, because it turns out that Lydia has some explaining to do, too, and also, our pity returns to Mary, who, it turns out, loves the man supposedly interested in Kitty and continues to get verbally abused by her mom. When Mary comments that babies kick in the womb, for instance, Mrs. Bennet says, “What do you know about it? Nothing! Nor will you ever.”

Jane, meanwhile, hopes to “swap Kitty” for Mary (so this is a changed Mary because no one, even sweet Jane, would have done that voluntarily in Pride and Prejudice). At the same time, Mary would rather stay home with her “books and [her] solitude,” so she is not entirely new, except now the books are better. Jane shows more authority now that she has experienced “marriage and motherhood,” and she stands firm in the face of Mrs. Bennet’s selfish and Kitty’s naïve desires.

There are very few mistakes in this text and many delightful parallels to the original. One errors occurs when the text says that, in securing Wickham’s future by purchasing his commission, Darcy “received all the respect and gratitude due him from” the Bennets; they don’t actually know. Interesting that this version says after Mary was embarrassed at Netherfield, Lizzy told Mary “she was sorry about the way Papa had treated” Mary; though it seems characteristic for Lizzy to feel it (more Jane, though), it doesn’t seem likely she would speak against her father. I was baffled by the comment that “there are no novels among [Mr. Bennet’s] personal collection.” Why? In the “about the book,” Mingle misspells Knightley (leaving out the e). Otherwise, this is a solidly constructed story.

Delight-wise, the parallels most strongly suggest Mary is the Elizabeth of this text, and her would-be partner, Mr. Darcy. Lydia is still Lydia; Jane, Jane; and Kitty, to be determined. In her role as Elizabeth, Mary has a close bond with her father. He calls on her when he receives a letter regarding Lydia. She tried to warn him about “tak[ing] the trouble” to check Mrs. Bennet’s inappropriate conduct (when Mrs. Bennet even excitedly asks Lydia about her “other” man). As he did with Elizabeth’s warnings about Lydia, he says he is not going to do anything. Mr. Bennet speaks to Mary as once he spoke to Lizzy, even taking responsibility in front of her for Lydia’s behavior and attitudes, blaming himself for being “so remiss as a parent.”

Mary also has a secret admirer. Like Lizzy before her, Mary has been observed playing piano, but Mr. Walsh seems to have enjoyed it! She must really have improved—or, more likely, he must be in love, as Darcy was. The language here—Mary’s sister “exaggerates” her talents—seems designed to trigger that memory for people who know the novel. Like Lizzy, Mary reads when most other guests in the Bingley home are playing cards. Mr. Walsh tells her he has “always admired those who are able to read while there is so much to distract them.” In another parallel, Mary and Mr. Walsh discuss perfection of character and ultimately, his faults, just as Darcy and Elizabeth discuss his faults early in their acquaintance. Walsh notices later that Mary “walk[s] every day,” which Darcy notices about Lizzy, too, but this, too, is a big shift from the Mary we knew. Their conversation, like Lizzy’s and Darcy’s, tends towards “mundane things,” such as “how long the excellent weather would last.”

There are some, but not too many, new characters to meet. Mr. and Mrs. Ashton are visiting Jane and Bingley. The Bingleys now live in Derbyshire, as many sequels have them do, to “live near Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.” Henry Walsh will also be there, and it’s now clear that both Kitty and Mary would welcome his attentions, but Mary really has strong feelings for him. Amanda Ashton is surprisingly eager to make Mary’s acquaintance, but Mary dislikes Amanda, a “cursed woman” who keeps up a “barrage of questions” even when Mary doesn’t reply. Something is suspicious about Mrs. Ashford, and I suspect it is too keen interest in the affairs of Mr. Wickham, pun intended. She reminds me of Lucy Steele, too eagerly befriending a relative stranger (here, Mary) and saying too direct things (like she “cannot be blind to” Walsh’s “preference” for her). When she impolitely inquires as to the relationship between Darcy and Wickham and then tries to cover her impropriety by telling Mary that she, Amanda, thought Mary would like to know, Mary responds like Elizabeth responds to Lady Catherine: “If you didn’t credit it, I rather wonder you took the trouble to ask me about it.” Mrs. Ashton becomes even worse, after the ball commenting on “Mr. Walsh’s neglect” of Mary, which “one could hardly help noticing.” That hardly helps matters, but Mary wisely doesn’t rise to the bait. When, much later, we learn who Amanda Ashton is, her behavior at least makes more sense.

Though Mary has improved, it seems she feels less confident in herself than she does in P and P; thus, though we can see clearly that she has won the admiration of people she values, she is busy imagining that people see her as “a prig” and “ridiculous and boring, too.” Mr. Walsh shows ease with the Bingley baby, David, owns an estate nearby, and shows politeness to Kitty’s silly excitement about the “lace she purchased for her gown” but more keen interest in the music and books Mary enjoys. When they go to Linden Hall, Mr. Walsh’s estate, Mary describes it much as the narrator describes Pemberley in P and P, the house “set atop a gently rising slope, with a broad expanse of verdant lawn reaching toward a small lake.” It’s Pemberley Junior. Like Georgiana, the lady of Mr. Walsh’s house, his mother, has heard of Mary’s skills on the pianoforte and is eager to hear her play. Like Elizabeth, Mary is surprised the man in question has praised her talent. Trout fishing among the gentlemen follows. (I wondered if Mr. Ashton supposed to be the new Mr. Hurst, belching and then “sprawl[ing] out on one of the chairs.) Mr. Walsh doesn’t directly ask Mary’s opinion about the house but instead about a temple he is contemplating building. Jane, as with Lizzy and Wickham at Longbourne, frees Mary to speak alone with Mr. Walsh. Just when he tells Mary that he “admire[s] [her] very much,” an express arrives, requiring the Bingleys to “take [their] leave.” This time, it’s Elizabeth to Jane, the reverse of in P and P, but no doubt, still about Lydia.

Convinced even still that the man she loves does not love her, Mary chooses, in her disappointment, to give her Mr. Walsh “a taste of the old” Mary, which immediately surprises and horrifies Elizabeth, who now obviously expects better from her. When she chooses to sing, however, and deliberately selects a song whose notes she cannot hit, we understand the depth of her despair. This time, however. Instead of being scolded by her father, she is rescued by a gentleman who clearly has romantic feelings for her. The “guests beg[] for another song,” no doubt a first for Mary, and at least some order is restored. Elizabeth and Jane demand to speak with her afterwards about her behavior, and Lizzy understands what Mary won’t articulate: that Mary is “afraid of risking her heart . . . because she has always felt unloved.”

Like Darcy before him, Mr. Walsh’s proposal does not go smoothly. We can only hope there will be a second one, and it will go better. (Still, Mary’s reaction here seems unwarranted, but it does at least nicely set up her later request for him not to “mention” her earlier bad behavior.) Like Darcy, Walsh is in the doghouse with Mrs. Bennet, who thinks he has slighted Kitty. Like Darcy, Henry asks permission to “introduce” Mary to a young lady very special to him “during [Mary’s] stay at” High Tor. Henry even admires Mary for her “quick mind, [her] candor, [and her] sweetness.” Like Elizabeth, Mary worries “what must [the man she loves] think of [her] now?” when Walsh learns the truth about Lydia. Little does she imagine that, just as Mr. Collins is publicly declaring that Mary has been “tainted” by Lydia’s behavior and will now have no chance “for a happy union,” Mr. Walsh is resolving to try again.

Once Mary returns to Longbourne, she becomes more a mother to Lydia’s baby than Lydia is (other than the physical feedings), but she still longs for Mr. Walsh. Even Mrs. Bennet notices that Lydia “does not seem to have the natural feelings of a mother.” Kitty, meanwhile, has formed another attachment, as we imagined she would since she never really loved (or knew) Mr. Walsh anyway. Now, suddenly, when Lydia causes problems, the primary concerns are the baby’s well-being, Kitty making amends to Mary, and Mary’s being able to form a match. How those concerns are resolved, I leave it to you to discover in this delightful look at Mary Bennet.

Published in: on August 2, 2015 at 6:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Darcy and Elizabeth: nights and days at Pemberley by Linda Berdoll

I loved Pride and Promiscuity. Once I started Mr. Darcy Takes (in more positions than could be easily imagined) a Wife, I could hardly tear myself away. The only part of Bride and Prejudice I resented is when Lalita and Will Darcy don’t actually kiss on-screen.

So you know, it’s really my own fault I dove head first into Linda Berdoll’s second sexy exploration of the life of Darcy and Elizabeth after the happily ever after.

This is not to say I was not rewarded; on the contrary, there are multiple delights (of the orgasmic nature and otherwise) in this text. A sampling: the size of Darcy’s bulge (introduced on page six, since it’s of obvious import), an erotic nursing scene (the Darcys have twins), Darcy telling off Lady Catherine for her behavior in the previous sequel, Bingley finally learning his way around a woman’s anatomy and using it for Jane’s—rather than for a mistress’—pleasure, an awesome and shocking Georgiana/Fitzwilliam revelation on their wedding night, Anne de Bourgh as an equine creature whose mother resents her for not procreating, Lizzy making sure Darcy doesn’t fall asleep as usual post-coitus when they do it in the lake, and Darcy’s adorable daughter expelling the contents of her nose on her father’s coat as he looks on in horror.

This being said, these delights come from the first half of the book because I made the choice not to finish it.

Why, you ask? The book is titillating, creative, fun-spirited. But it is also a lot of work to read. The vocabulary feels heavy, only some of the characters are familiar or easy to keep track of, and the interconnected stories are confusing and become rewarding, no doubt, only near the end. I loved the Lizzy/Darcy scenes and even some of the others, which I know, somehow, Berdoll will make affect Lizzy and Darcy, but I have reached a point of exhaustion. Pleasure reading is supposed to come more easily than this.

If you, however, discerning audience as you are, look for a challenge and a lot to piece together—and literary sex scenes I haven’t seen any other respectable Austen writer attempt—than Darcy and Elizabeth should be next on your “to read” list.

(Keep a dictionary and a willing partner close by) ;-).

Republished from Spring/Summer 2007

Published in: on June 25, 2015 at 5:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match by Marilyn Brant

Beth Ann Bennet, 26, is gathering “sociological data” for Soc 369 with best friend Jane Henderson, planning to avoid getting “emotionally invested” in any way as she tries to follow the instructions of her professor (1). They’re using a website called Lady Catherine’s Love Match (2). And I thought jdate was too much. Beth Ann lives in Chicago, struggles financially, and has a six-year-old, Charlie. Two of the website’s offerings are Reverend Ezekiel Collins and Will Darcy. Jane encourages her friend to use the alias of Charlotte Lucas and to “have a little fun” with her profile (5).

Dr. William Darcy has a goofy cousin, Bingley McNamara, and practices in the Regents General Hospital. Bingley is a gambler whom Darcy accuses of just “overseeing [his] trust fund” (7). Darcy has an ulterior motive in on-line dating, too; Bingley will help fund Darcy’s clinic only with “evidence that (Darcy has) scored a little balance” in his life (8).

Darcy is a compelling hero right away: he makes a ninety-year-old woman feel special, and he has big dreams of helping people with his clinic. Beth is a bit less so but has potential as a single mom who lies—but has a conscience about it and does it to be able to earn a degree and thus more money to support her kid. Soon, though, we see her preparing to help (in the role of social worker) the same elderly people Darcy helps. Pete Wickham is Charlie’s dead-beat dad.

Their first date begins awkwardly—or Beth thinks it does, but we know that’s because she saw the arrogant cousin (why do this to Bingley), not the big D himself. Such a different take than P and P–there’s nothing remotely negative about Darcy (though he keeps putting himself down for having motives he isn’t sharing), and Beth is drawn to him immediately, but lies to him anyway. Darcy does plan their future without really consulting her, but it’s a lovely vision of possibilities.

Clever: Lydia is a young, single mother who received hardly “any prenatal checkups because she didn’t have a job” (26).
Not sure who characters Abby (Beth’s co-worker), Robby (also), Mr. Moratti (Charlie’s “stand-in grandmother”), and Anne Marie Dermott (“cantankerous” elderly patient) are supposed to be in P and P (32, 30).

Interesting twist: Beth actually hopes (not really) that her project won’t get into trouble because her “positive first impression” of Darcy was wrong! (35) it takes until date #2 for him to offend her; thinking she is someone different from who she is, he says that social workers are basically “cruise directors” who often “cause more trouble than they solve” (37). Now, we know he was raised by a single mother and no doubt had trouble with a specific social worker. We also know that Beth is a social worker and single mom. But each of them knows only his or her own secret, not the other’s.

Beth goes into this hoping to prove her assumption: “men had a tendency to avoid relationships where they had to raise another man’s offspring” (41). So frustrating how they misunderstand each other during the conversation about the children of single mothers! The whole time, Beth thinks he’s saying he’d want nothing to do with her or her child because they’re “left-overs,” and really he’s talking about himself and his mom! (46) But then—miraculously—he does tell her, and she’s immediately sympathetic, imagining both young Will and her own Charlie in that situation.

Typo: “I’m an impatient man who likes be where the action is” (42). We were doing so well.

Oh, ew. Then the Bingley situation reveals itself, and it’s pretty bad, even if Darcy is doing it for a good cause. Sample: Bingley says if Darcy brings Beth to his place in one month “with an engagement ring,” he’ll “double the money” he promised (55).

Great advice from Mrs. Hammond: “life don’t come smooth, but you make a path, even with all them rocks in your way, that you can walk on and be proud of” (59).

Meanwhile, Darcy is in talks with Dan Noelen, who heads the group where Beth works. That will be interesting. Just when things seem to be going well between them, Beth thinks Darcy pities single mothers and decides she can’t see him anymore—but doesn’t explain any of that to him.

In a rare moment of Bingley seriousness, he acts more honorably when he tells Will this is the first time he has seen his cousin “more concerned with a woman’s reputation than with [Will’s] . . . ambition to seek revenge on the system” (87). That is interesting. Jane, too, is doing some changed talking. (Since the two of them need to get together, too, this parallel works well.) Both of them have kind intentions and a much more responsible side by the end of the story than I had sensed at the beginning, Jane always bringing over good food and babysitting, Bingley really trying to free Darcy for love.

Then the moment we were waiting to happen happens, and Beth thinks everything has fallen apart; we, by contrast, think it’s going to get worse if she submits her paper on the experience, a paper in which she doesn’t quite lie but certainly doesn’t tell the truth. Both hero and heroine are forced to confront some unpleasant perceptions by people close to them at work about their own attitudes.

Nice little parallel to P and P: after their big “fight,” Beth goes to the Koffee Haus, hoping “she might run into Will Darcy there” but also hoping “she wouldn’t,” the same ambivalence Elizabeth Bennet feels at Pemberley when Georgiana is hosting the ladies (123).

Published in: on June 2, 2015 at 6:12 am  Comments (1)  

Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

With what eagerness did I await this treat, a joining of quite possibly my favorite modern writer (I devoured the 44 Scotland Street series and sung its praises to all my reading friends and some non-reading ones) and my favorite novel of my all-time favorite writer. He then dedicates the book to his two daughters, a gesture always likely to appeal to a Daddy’s girl like me.

McCall Smith’s version begins with the birth of Mr. Woodhouse during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as our narrator explains that the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy likely accounts for young Henry Woodhouse’s being an unusually “fretful child” (2). His mother proudly tells her friends that her son is a “valetudinarian” and derives “additional satisfaction” in sending them “to the dictionary,” a pleasure I admit I shared when I wrote my senior honors thesis entitled “Virtue and Valetudinarianism.” This Mr. Woodhouse, however, boldly defies his father’s expectations about being a “gentleman farmer” so he can pursue “engineering design” (4).

Though I never would have asked to be placed in Mr. Woodhouse’s head, it was a fascinating experience as McCall Smith has the new widower contemplate a governess for his now motherless girls. Though he does not dare to think he’d “make a very convincing Captain von Trapp,” he does think of the 26-year old woman and Maria in the same breath (11). Anne Taylor’s vegetarianism is of particular appeal to Mr. Woodhouse since it indicates a “sensible interest in nutrition” (10). Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor both drink chamomile tea, but what really wins him over is her “calm, self-reassured manner that inspired utter confidence” (16-17). Plus, she speaks French, “as any self-respecting governess surely should do” (16).

Young Emma, interestingly, directs her dolls as she does in the Romola Garai film adaptation. This little Emma tells one doll that she will never “find a husband unless” the doll does as Emma says (25). Later, there is a constant comparison of Harriet to a doll, even Mr. Knightley imagining Emma enjoying Harriet’s company because “Harriet [is] the next best thing to having a doll” (237). Emma is reminded by Harriet’s “pertness” of her childhood “cut-out dolls” (239). Emma also enjoys arranging things, or, in her father’s house, rearranging them. McCall Smith has her swap the position of two “pictures in (Mr. Woodhouse’s study,” which reminded me of the Gwyneth Paltrow film adaptation, 33). She does it, she says, “to make them happier,” so we can’t help but like her, just as we do her predecessor (34).

Miss Taylor becomes a stepmother of sorts to the girls, with none of the Cinderella or the physical relationship with their father issues. At 17, Isabella is ready to move to London to find some light work rather than to stay in school to take exams “that she would evidently not pass” (36). Mr. Woodhouse is of course concerned about the air quality. Still no sign of Mr. Knightley or even John Knightley, the younger brother we know Isabella must meet soon. Isabella does not seem concerned about the serious microbial risks her father frets about, but in the book, isn’t she at least nearly as valetudinarian as her father is?

Concerned that Isabella will “get herself involved in all sorts of affairs” otherwise, Mr. Woodhouse decides she should get married; to make sure “suitable people” know she’s available, he arranges to get her photograph into Country Life, which presents “a picture each week of an attractive young woman” (40-42). The photograph they submit of Isabella has “to be reasonably interesting,” and finally, Mr. Knightley, “just twenty-five” and the inheritor of both big house and attractive looks, enters the scene (43, 45). His brother, John, who inherited “such investments as his mother had” and thus may “indulge his taste for expensive cameras,” has bought a “flat in a fashionable part of London” (46). George, meanwhile, has introduced several innovations to farming his property and appreciates Emma’s “independent, insouciant manner,” even though to her, he is just “a vaguely avuncular figure” (48). McCall Smith treads lightly here—and well so—taking care not to have an adult man lusting after a teenage girl. We still don’t get even a glimpse of him.

Mr. Woodhouse is annoyed with John from the start of their interaction, when the former calls the latter to ask him to photograph Isabella, which suits well with the book. John is so clearly unlike his brother, both from the often silly perspective of the older man but also from ours. Our Mr. Knightley would never use an insouciant tone with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse contemplates “how quickly” a man could “transition . . . from the world of George Knightley, with his faultless taste, his life of understatement and simple decency, to this world of leather jackets,” long hair, and a tattoo (53). Even worse, after the photo shoot, John decides to take Isabella for a ride on his Ducati without even asking Mr. Woodhouse. I think it’s an interesting choice to leave his readers in Mr. Woodhouse’s point of view for so long. Those of us who know the book are likely to think of him as a lovable buffoon of sorts, but here, though his concerns seems exaggerated, we are more likely to incline our views with him than against him. Many, if not most, loving fathers would be concerned to send their 17-year old daughters on the back of a bike with an adult man on their first meeting. That said, it seemed to me an odd choice to have Mr. Woodhouse subscribe to and read Scientific American.

At the start of chapter 5, we shift perspectives, beginning with the moment of Emma’s sister’s wedding. (only one typo to distract me—here, of Wodehouse on p. 60. Wrong book.) There’s a cool line about Emma leaving school, driven away “one afternoon, zeugmatically, in floods of tears and the survey Mercedes” (64). This Emma, unlike the original, does travel a bit, such as on a “fortnight’s trip to Florence and Siena,” and later, summers in Paris or Edinburgh or Morzine, which causes her father a “great deal of anxious hand-wringing,” but at this point in the story, the narrative seems more influenced by Miss Taylor’s perspective if by any at all, so we don’t really know how Emma is affected by it (65). The governess well understands that there is often “no point talking to Isabella” about philosophical matters, but Emma, she sees, listens and contemplates her idea, or Plato’s, rather, about the chariot (aka the soul) being driven by two horses, one “all the brute appetites” and the other “the finer side” of human nature, which must not be allowed to be “pulled down by its companion” (66). Emma understands, gives Miss Taylor a generous token of her understanding, and returns home prepared to study decorative arts at the University of Bath. Miss Taylor, meanwhile, at Mr. Woodhouse’s insistence, will stay on as his secretary, so, in essence, doing nothing and drawing the same salary as always.

McCall Smith lets us get to know Emma a bit better as she becomes a young adult. During her university days, Emma refuses her father’s suggestion that Miss Taylor live in Bath with her, but she knows “the suggestion” comes not from distrust but from anxiety. She loves her father, and she accepts his constant worrying. She tells herself that “at least [her] father . . , is harmless” and tells her friends “that one’s parents are harmless” is all “one can hope for in life” (76). When she graduates, Emma proposes a dinner party with the idea of starting to match people up and assessing them from her new adult perspective. As she goes through the Highbury residents we know so well, we also hear Miss Taylor’s opinion of each person, but even more tellingly, we learn that Emma sometimes pictures Mr. Knightley while she is in bed, and smiles when that happens.

There’s a somewhat awkward conversation between Emma and Mr. Woodhouse over her feelings about Mr. Knightley, whether she likes him, what she calls him (George, she says 109), and the gap in their ages. They agree, however, that “he’s one of these people who doesn’t really have an age,” which is a clever way of heading off that potential source of discomfort among readers (110). I was then confused why she says she will have two “contemporaries” (Mr. Knightley and Harriet) at her dinner party. What about Mr. Elton? And Miss Taylor?

Meanwhile, McCall Smith handles Harriet quite differently from anything for which I was prepared. I was not expecting Emma to doubt her own sexuality when she meets Harriet. Emma finds “naivety attractive” (how, then, will she find Mr. Knightley attractive?) and hears all about Harriet’s work as an “extra in the role-playing they do” at Mrs. Goddard’s (115). When Harriet joins Emma for coffee, Emma really studies her in a way that seemed more than vaguely sexual, noticing her perfect “Cupid’s bow of a mouth” and her “China-doll build” (145).How is it that we still have not seen or heard Mr. Knightley? The anticipation is too much! When we finally do, it’s because Harriet comments that she would “love to put him on [her] mantelpiece,” which should introduce Emma to any jealousy long before it actually does here or in the original (and seems really forward for her first meeting with Emma) (119).

Mr. Woodhouse’s reaction to Miss Taylor’s engagement is funny and also sad. His first thoughts are of himself—“Miss Taylor was his secretary,” “what will happen to me?” and “was she seriously contemplating spending Christmas without them?” (123) Emma’s reaction is strange, too: she imagines Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston having sex, and the narrator’s comment is that “the absurd is always so tasty” (124). Why is that absurd? As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Woodhouse, too, contemplates Miss Taylor’s marital relations, concluding that she is “asexual” and that passion for James Weston “would be like sleeping with a farm animal” (139). Poor guy has made quite an impression in the Woodhouse house.

Frank’s backstory is interesting: he grew up mostly in Western Australia but had contact and even visits with his father until that point on a regular basis. When Mr. Churchill inherits a “wine estate in Margaret River,” Mr. Weston generously thinks about what is best for his son, imagining Frank will “have the time of his life out there” and will “become an Australian . . . which is a fate that [Mr. Weston] would gladly wish on anyone” (94, 96). What a nice man. McCall Smith also fleshes out Mr. Weston’s history, including three older brothers who own a distribution firm and an ex-girlfriend after his wife’s tragic death. He also has always felt guilt for “having abandoned . . . his infant son” (101).

McCall Smith makes some disturbing, and I thought illogical, choices with respect to Emma’s character. She’s rather tactless, even for her, telling Miss Taylor that Emma herself will not “need to [marry], of course” (128). Several days later, Emma says she saw “something just like [a dress of Miss Taylor’s] in the Casino and Textile Museum in London” (133). At least that time she recognizes her foot in her mouth. McCall Smith makes Emma’s desire to match people up stem from a desire to play the divine, which we have seen used as a motive before but which I don’t think Austen intends. Several times, the narrator discusses Emma imagining bringing people together is “rather as G-d might feel” (140). It also doesn’t make much sense that Emma assumes so much negative about men without any reason. Why does she tell Harriet that men are interested only in “S . . . E . . . X” and seem to believe they all have “designs” on girls like Harriet? (149) Emma may be overconfident in Austen’s novel, but this assumption seems to come from nowhere. She also “shiver[s]” when she thinks of sex (150). So now she has sexual dysfunction? Again, why? Moreover, the text states unambiguously that Emma does “not think one actually [has] to listen to a man” (153). Again, based on what in Austen or even in this story? Emma’s plans include Harriet using Elton to finance her gap year. Since when did Emma become a user of that sort? Or so materialistic? McCall Smith’s Emma is detestable, and I wanted so much to like her, both for her sake and for his.

Mr. Knightley’s story finally gets explored in chapter 11. The reason this catch is still a bachelor McCall Smith explains with a relationship of four years at the end of which the woman left him for the guy who installed their solar panels. She apologized rather than mislead him, but he has become “wary” and even “slightly distant” (160). He, though, is the source of info about Harriet’s parentage, which isn’t shameful at all (but does make him into a gossip of sorts). In this version, Mr. Knightley combats Emma’s laughter at Robert Martin working in a B and B by asking what “useful contribution” she makes to society, which, though he immediately regrets saying it, seems unnecessarily harsh for his character (170). Mr. Knightley is lonely and finds Emma a relief from that because they talk openly about whatever is of interest to him, and she “always raise[s] some interesting perspective” in addition to making “him want to laugh, with her dry humour and her mischievous remarks” (236-7).

Several other departures from the original occur, some interesting and some just wrong. Mrs. Goddard “puts something in” her cake (183). When Miss Bates has some of Mrs. Goddard’s cake, she looks “up at the sky in a somewhat dreamy manner” (296). Emma’s motive for sketching Harriet isn’t Mr. Elton at all but just that her new friend looks like a Botticelli woman (185). Now Emma wants to draw Harriet naked? What is going on here? If Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor want to teach Emma right from wrong, why do they feed her gossip? Now it is Mrs. Weston’s turn, as she tells Emma about the Yamaha delivered to Jane Fairfax and posits that the Campbell’s are “the sort of people who have never bought anybody a piano” (205). I thought it awkward that Jane, who is obviously talented, calls herself “hopeless” at piano when it turns out she studied music at Cambridge! (209) No wonder Emma gets jealous—except her first feeling when she learns about Jane’s “exotic” beauty is “aroused” curiosity (203). Does she feel drawn to Jane as well as to Harriet? Moreover, why does McCall Smith have Emma contemplate Jane Fairfax’s “boyish figure” after meeting her? (220) Perhaps it prepares us for Emma’s asking Harriet to disrobe for a nude portrait and telling her it was her own idea. At that point, Emma asks herself if her own behavior is sexually motivated. If it isn’t, is it just for control? Either way I found disturbing for someone we’re supposed to like. And what is the point in having Mrs. Firhill see Harriet?

There’s an awkward shift into post colonial guilt that both Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse seem to feel, particularly with respect to slavery. Mr. Woodhouse ponders cleansing his hands by apologizing to “the descendants of [their collective] victims,” which I found disturbing both because he wasn’t an oppressor and it seems wrong to paint him as such but also because an apology doesn’t suddenly make everything okay (238).

The Frank Churchill and Mr. Elton interactions are very different here as well. Because Harriet sees Frank first and funds him attractive, Emma deliberately leads her to think he is gay and therefore unavailable to them. Why? I want more loyalty to the original. Frank basically tells Emma he is gay but closeted and asks permission to flirt with her as a decoy. And when Elton finally tells Emma his intentions, we don’t feel nearly the shock or disturbance we do in the original. Harriet has only just started talking with him, not planning a future with him, and it happens in Emma’s own garden, from which he promptly leaves without any awkward carriage ride. It seems like a mistake but not a big deal. Emma considers making up a story about Elton, but the text says she does “not tell lies” (267). What about the one that Frank is gay? Then she, in essence, makes up Elton’s drinking problem and outrageously saws he looks like Joseph Goebbels (271). Why is this here? And why does she add a blatant lie that he “manhandled” Emma in the garden (272)? She also does not share the fact that Elton has seen the nude portrait of Harriet, which apparently Emma set without setting the painting on top of it. Mr. Elton, meanwhile, loses his license to drive after driving drunk from Emma’s rejection, ends up in a ditch, and goes to London, where he meets an untalented “Edith Piaf impersonator” who pursues him for the money she thinks he has (279). (That’s a twist from the original.)

The Box Hill incident doesn’t seem as terrible here either, though certainly unpleasant. I wasn’t sure what the precedent is for the tension between Frank and Emma over the bottle of wine. He doesn’t recognize his family’s own vintage (even saying it’s just “all right for a picnic”) and thinks she set him up to look like a fool (292). What event is this one supposed to parallel? Emma mutters that the company may have put some picnickers to sleep right after Miss Bates has been talking a lot, and the latter assumes she needs to work on not getting “carried away with a subject” (298). Since Mr. Knightley and Emma don’t seem as close and Frank is not even there, the tension of the scene is reduced. Later, however, when Mr. Knightley scolds her, we feel the tension, and the narrator is clear that this is a point that will change Emma “to an extent that is truly surprising” (305).

Some of McCall Smith’s updates really work in honoring the spirit of the original. I really like what McCall Smith does with Mr. Woodhouse, including his obsession with global warming, which seemed an appropriate modern version of our beloved Mr. Woodhouse’s concerns. He assesses the quality of each summer by “the incidence, throughout the world, of major weather disasters” (274). He also turns out to know Mrs. Goddard “reasonably well” (284). Nonetheless, Mr. Woodhouse is too wise in this version, even teaching Emma that “when someone does wrong . . . we must remember that that person is still a human being like the rest of us” and therefore “not rush to throw the first stone” (285). Another likeable update is that Emma directly apologizes for her remark at the picnic to Miss Bates. Emma also apologizes to Jane Fairfax, but that conversation is much more awkward because Jane doesn’t let Emma off the hook and is apparently quite upset about Emma’s flirting with Frank and then saying Frank is gay. When Emma hears that Harriet has been invited to Donwell Abbey and that Harriet plans to wear the new cashmere dress and suede boots Emma insisted on buying for her, suddenly she feels “this could not be allowed to happen” (334). The biggest shift is not what happens in the end but rather how it happens. Without spoiling it for you, I like it. Emma seems a little silly since, as she is trying to control Harriet’s situation, Harriet has already handled it—and Emma’s, too, but at least Emma is trying to be kind, which seemed to be true to Austen’s character. In the end, McCall Smith has Emma realize that happiness “is something that springs from the generous treatment of others,” a lesson we could all use to bring more happiness to the world (361).

Published in: on May 2, 2015 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series

Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

I wasn’t looking for Jane Austen when I started reading the second book in this delightful series about the people who live in an apartment building located on 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh. But isn’t that the beauty of Austen? She’s always around, whether we expect her or not.

These references appear first as one of our residents, a young woman named Pat who is, with difficulty, navigating the dating scene, visits the apartment of a man she met at a café. At this point in her visit, she is concerned that this man to whom she feels some attraction may not be interested in her romantically—may not, in fact, be interested romantically in women at all. So as he goes to make some coffee for the two of them, Pat assesses Peter’s apartment and finds “a pile of books—a Jane Austen novel, a book of critical essays, the Notebooks of Robert Lowell, a dictionary.” She also finds lecture notes for his upcoming Tuesday talk on “Social expectations and artistic freedom in Austen’s England.” At first, I was concerned that she might interpret any interest in Austen as a sign of his exclusively platonic interest in women, but no, McCall Smith is too smart for that. The sign that most worries Pat is not that she has found an intelligent, obviously wit-appreciating man but that there’s a photograph of Peter skinny-dipping, and she worries his friend is male.

To Pat’s credit, she mentally compares her gel-obsessed arrogant roommate Bruce’s reaction to Austen—he “once asked if Jane Austen was an actress”—to this nice Peter’s engagement with our writer, and she temporarily concludes that Peter is “far too handsome to be interested in girls.” This reader is hoping, for Pat’s sake as well as for my own, that this is an error in judgment.

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith

I certainly never expected to like Olive, but when Bertie attends her seventh birthday party, she rejects her friend Pansy’s game request of “houses” in favor of playing “Jane Austen”! Olive lets herself be Lizzy, whom she describes as “a girl with lots of sisters.” Pansy plays Mrs. Bennet, “who is very stupid,” and Lakshmi plays Jane. Bertie, of course, is assigned the role of Mr. Darcy, and his instructions are to “just stand there and be handsome” (8). I just hope McCall Smith intended no ill will to lovers of Jane in making precocious but annoying Olive love her, too. Or at least some version of her. Maybe his point is that Olive misunderstands what matters in Austen?

McCall Smith naturally incorporates Austen into 44 Scotland Street at just the right moments (any moment of Jane is a right moment to me), and I was sorry to finish the last one (at least, for now). Fortunately for all of us, his modern take on Emma is available!

Published in: on April 1, 2015 at 6:48 pm  Comments (1)  

Pride and Princesses by Summer Day

 

The cover is pink, and the story has an alliterative title. I had found an actual book store with print books and had just run out of things to read. Whatever my excuse for purchasing the book, I beg you not to judge me too harshly for finishing it. Remember, dear reader, I do this, in large measure, for your sake.
I also like to see things through. Perhaps that is a fault.

My initial comments on the text took seven pages in 11 pt font in Word. Overwhelmed by my own analysis, I am including my comments on the language usage, spelling, and set-up with my analysis of the actual story. It’s just easier that way, since there are so many of the former.

The basic plot is this: our protagonist, Phoebe, and her best friend, Mouche, are high school students in Los Angeles. Phoebe is English and dreams of living in New York City. She and Moche are “like sisters,” one with dark hair (Lizzy) and one with dark (Jane) and also with “different but complimentary personalities” (10, 9). Spelling error included. Phoebe makes a point of mentioning early on “the amazing competition Mouche and [she] feel at times” (11). Their “daddies . . . turned gay for each other,” and then “had financial collapses” and left their families (11). Heart-rending, perhaps, but these girls are annoying. I know they’re young, but their conversations—“the kiss has to live up to your expectations or it’s never going to happen”—and imagination—“we’d both faint if anyone found out we’d taken pictures of boys we’d never even met”—seem more flighty than the teenage girls I know (13). Their big plan is to write a “dating manual for teenage girls, but they have little experience (14). It soon becomes the Boy-Rating Diary, which is offensive for obvious reasons (25).

Mark Knightly (Knightly: really? How can someone writing a novel about our characters not spell their names correctly?) arrives with Jet, so that could be Darcy and Bingley, especially because at least one has a sister who “could be a mini model” (7). Not sure what a mini model is, but okay. He could also be Mr. Knightley. Or Mark Darcy. Jet focuses “on the upside of any given situation,” while Mark comments “languidly” on the locals of Los Angeles (7). Sounds like Darcy and Bingley so far. Awkwardly, the narrator introduces Teegan as “one of the meanest Princesses in school” but then doesn’t explain that Princesses are “a clique of besties” until the next page (6-7).

The first actual mention of Austen comes in chapter 2. Our heroine says she thinks Mark is “hotter” than Jet “simply” because she has “been reading Austen and decided” she likes “dark haired men” (17). Really? That’s the lesson she learns from Austen? Later, Mouche says sometimes she thinks they “belong in a Jane Austen film or a Bronte novel” (38). There is so much wrong with that statement: 1) why an Austen movie but a Bronte book? 2) If the girls knew either Austen or Bronte, the girls wouldn’t place them in the same category. I didn’t know what to do but laugh when the Wickham character Phoebe has been tutoring gets suspended, and he promises her at least to “catch up on Wuthering Heights” in his time away from school (176). The fact that he thinks that choice would please her shows how little any of them understand about Austen.

In chapter 3, Phoebe reminds us there is “also a subtle but competitive bond” between her and Mouche; it’s hardly subtle if she reminds us every few pages (27). In fact, lack of subtlety is arguably the greatest weakness of this text (vying for a close second are ties between awkward use of language and inconsistency).

The girls’ friend Peter Williamson (not sure who he is supposed to be) is a dancer the Princesses torment as much as they’re able. Teegan uses slang from Clueless—as if –in response to his hope that he might have a chance with the hot new guys (19). Teegan is also really offensive, boasting that Mark Knightly “totally wanted” her as soon as he saw her, and she “can’t rape the willing” (21). The vulgarity continues when supposedly one of their teachers, Miss Tartt (really? Is there any subtlety left?), is “obviously taken” with Mark, flutter[ing] her eye-lashes” and “appreciating his masculine energy” (29). I don’t know any teacher who does this. The rumors about Mark include that he “wants to major in pre-med at Yale or Harvard,” that “his uncle owns a huge castle in Scotland,” and that “his family harbors a very dark secret” (33). Peter overhears Mark talking with jet about his little sister Petra, who “stopped eating and became so introverted” after their parents died (34).

There are two younger cousins, Ella and Katie (Lydia and Kitty?) who have gone on a double date with Alex Miller and Tom Allen (37). Both girls are “super-giggly and boy-crazy,” but the boys spread lies about what sexual behavior the girls engaged in, and the “students in general believed the boy’s version of the story” (37-8). Apparently apostrophe usage is not making much headway in this school. The motives behind the Boy-Rating Diaries appear for a moment more admirable than I had thought: the big cousins want to teach people “a lesson in social etiquette” after their little cousins are maligned this way (38). At the same time, though, the girls spend their time “practis[ing] hairstyles and make-up” including on Mouche’s younger sister Wednesday, while she is asleep (53). Phoebe at least acknowledges that she may sound “shallow” by focusing so much on her outside, but she still does it (53).

In fact, there are many flaws in logic, both in terms of novel structure and character choices. Mouche’s brother Trey is not mentioned until page 42, and then it’s because he is “shout[ing]” at the girls so they don’t wake Wednesday (43). At least the Wickham character appears at an appropriate time; Joel Goodman shows up in chapter 5, “The Love Drug.” Phoebe tells us he is known as the “virgin-converter” and, according to gossip, is “a very bad person” (52). He’s smoking, and he appears just as Phoebe gets her feelings hurt, offering her services with “a vitriolic intonation” (aimed at Mark and Jet?) (148). His claim here is that Mark’s father fired Joel’s mother, which resulted in Joel’s family living in their “car for a few weeks” (150). Joel Goodman is apparently Croatian, which is as random as it sounds.

Anyone who has read Harriet the Spy can predict that this top-secret “boy-rating diary’ is going to be a fiasco (51). The idea of involving “other people” in their “game” should set off warning bells to Phoebe and Mouche, but it doesn’t (51). The bells should have rung deafeningly when they draw a pink line through Jet’s name and replace it with Mark’s, scrawling “wildly rich—major possibilities” (61). The girls are planning to have independent careers, so this foolish choice seemed inconsistent with their philosophy, and again, over-handed foreshadowing. Their Diary now has a list of every boy at the school with a quick summary of his potential. At least one of them has the sense to worry that “it could fall into the wrong hands” (87).

The links to Austen are sometimes strong, sometimes tenuous, and sometimes non-existent. That inconsistency is bothersome. Is it a nod to Elizabeth that Phoebe tells Mouche they should “rely on common sense and instinct” rather than on “the old games of cards and tea leaves” (which they use to foretell they will fall in love this year)? (55) In the middle of a discussion of pre-teen antics, the narration briefly and awkwardly tries to deliver a deep message: “As girls, we weren’t really taught to support each other” (72). Then, mid-way through, we learn randomly that they’re matchmakers? Now is time for Emma? Or Clueless, more like, since the girls take credit for fixing up their teachers, Mr. Frames and Miss Love. The girls obviously draw on movies more than books, as does our writer. Phoebe says she has “just finished skimming Emma”—skimming?! (75) But at least she read it; Mouche admits she “preferred the movie version” (75). There’s a nice little parallel to the embarrassing ball in P and P in which our narrator feels humiliated by a series of circumstances that lead to Mark glaring at her as if she is “pure trailer trash” (141). Mark even tells pushy Teegan (Caroline?) that he doesn’t “really dance” (143). Mark then says what we know he must: “To be honest, I just don’t find her friend that attractive” (145). The Darcy letter comes much earlier relative to the initial insult but is in no way linked to a failed proposal .

I do give the girls credit for never deliberately acting stupid to win the boys’ attention. When, for instance, Mouche announces that “men hate over-achievers,” Phoebe says they will “just have to re-educate the boys on that one” (57). Good girl.

Their understanding of adults, however, is flawed. One teacher, for instance, supposedly doesn’t like Phoebe because the teenager is “competition” (62). Again, what kind of teacher is this, or how warped is this girl’s understanding of how adults think? Their perception of age is also strange. Mark and Jet are one year older, but Phoebe thinks “from a distance they looked like teachers” (65). When I was 25 and in my own classroom, I still didn’t look like the teacher (which amused my students every time someone new came into the room and asked one of them where the teacher was).

Their sense of their purpose is flawed. At least Phoebe acknowledges that Mouche is “just as inexperienced as me at proper dating” (even if she meant as I), but then why does she think either of them should be writing “advice for older women”? (63, 62). Is the writer being deliberately inconsistent to illustrate character? The girls know that the guides they are reading are filled with at best “old-fashioned” and at worse terrible advice and that Mouche’s mom collects them “as a joke (64). It isn’t hard to predict that whoever finds them on the girls will not be in on the joke. How can they be so stupid? How can the writer NOT have that happen?

The text’s content and structure are often simply awkward. The text shifts awkwardly to third person for just a few paragraphs when Mark arrives at the beach for the double date—”He really did want to get to know Phoebe and Mouche better”—and then jumps right back to Phoebe’s point of view—”he noticed a girl who looked a lot like me” (109-110). The end of chapter 9 has the boys drive “off without even bothering to come inside,” but chapter 10 opens with the boys saying “a brisk ‘see ya’ to Mouche” and Phoebe (113-14). There is also misleading phrasing, such as when Phoebe says maybe Ethan praised “Mouche’s designs for the play” because Phoebe “caught him trying to kiss Mouche behind the stage curtains” when of course she means he says nice things because he likes Mouche, not because he got caught (159). Also, what happens after Mark discovers the diary? No follow-up, and he doesn’t seem upset. He obviously didn’t see it, but why is that scene even there? Several choices just don’t make sense. Mouche tells her drama teacher she is going to NYU or Yale (confident girl!), and he worries she might “waste” her talent there? (155) And why, when first Mark asks Phoebe to go to Paris, he says, “with me and my sister and Jet,” is then Petra not on the trip? (283, 295)
Besides inconsistent, this book is over the top annoyingly “moral.” The girls say “gross” about “actually doing it” with boys just as they drive “past a religious group protesting” with signs that read “Do you want to be a garden for Jesus or a vessel for sin?” (134-35) Really, whether you believe in the divinity of Jesus or not, he does not belong in a book of this nature. Similarly, our narrator realizes that she may “actually have feelings” for Trey, in addition to Mark and maybe Joel, and thus she is “becoming a hussy in [her] own mind” (136). How does that make her a hussy? What lesson is this supposed to teach young girls, who must be the target audience of a book like this? It’s later awkward and weird that, when Mark mouths the words to the play during a rehearsal, Phoebe sees him as “humble in this new light” but then Brooke comments “almost like Jesus when he was a carpenter” (227). What? Or is Brooke supposed to be reacting to Peter’s comment about a bad dress rehearsal meaning a great show? Is that less awkward? For girls with that annoying sense of morality, they have an odd reaction to Wednesday’s perceptions; I don’t think it’s funny when a small child comments that her older sister and sister’s boyfriend are “busy macking all over each other” (294).

Nor does the plan to team up with the princesses only to manipulate them seem moral. When the plan is finally revealed, it’s really bad: our girls are “sharing” the rules with the Princesses, but the rules are distorted, such as “Pre-men expect a casual hook-up. So why should we care? Act like a guy and care as little as they do” (187). This is mean. Our girls also become greedy, planning to “halve the gifts” the dates yield without telling the other girls the plan (192). Now they have a series of quasi-dates planned. Phoebe ends up on a date with Ethan, a “distant cousin” of Mark’s, who of course is Colonel Fitzwilliam, and who reveals the truth that Mark “convinced Jet to stay away from a particular girl who Jet was kind of into,” i.e. Mouche (197-98). Phoebe is smart enough not to “write about what happened at the movies in the shared Boy-Rating Guide” but not smart enough to realize how risky it is to write in “the original, hidden one” before she has a chance to explain to Mouche? (200) I was annoyed that Phoebe hardly gives Mark a chance to explain his behavior or to explain his behavior, but that, at least, is in keeping with how Elizabeth treats Darcy during his proposal (204). Phoebe foolishly describes Mark in the Boy Rating Diary as “a hyper-intense bore” whom “his poor sister” has “to put up with,” and any reader knows a Bridget Jones’ Diary situation is on its way (205). When finally the princesses are planning to publish the “first impressions” Phoebe recorded of Mark, now she feels “horror” (273). (How did she think this would turn out?) After the princesses publish the diary knowing Phoebe and Mouche tried to stop them, they all have a pillow fight. That’s it? What about trying to take it down?

Phoebe should spend a little less time on fake dates and a little more with a grammar book, or just any book: “it seems the streets aren’t safe from either Knightley’s” (troubling both because either requires a singular noun and because the plural of a name does not require an apostrophe. My mom’s third graders know this.). Brooke needs some help, too, which means this isn’t a character problem but a writer and editor problem, as shown by her entry that Tom’s mother wants him to marry “a descendant of the Vanderbilt’s” (211). More apostrophe trouble: “the woman works hard for Mr. Spark’s” (230). His name is Sparks; no possession intended here. Mark’s letter in which he apologizes for separating Jet and Mouche, at least, uses possessives correctly. Pronoun usage is incorrect: “I think me and Mouche . . . will adopt Petra as our next” best friend (272). Their spelling needs work, too, as in this comment: “it was like the fact that I had ignored him peaked his interest” (164). Why is Phoebe spelling favorite with a u? (251) She also uses “amongst.” Annoying quasi-Britishisms just seem pretentious. “Learnt” (231). Even its and it’s takes a hit: “really, its Ella’s responsibility to call her mom” (282)

About 200 pages in, I considered that maybe this story is supposed to be more Emma than P and P, thus Mouche’s distractingly handsome and good older brother, who Phoebe assumes is “out of [her] league” even more so than Mark (219). The scene with the driving reminded me of Clueless, and then I realized that actually several of the scenes in the novel remind me of movie scenes. Do you hear the Clueless girls saying something like this? “It was way harsh for him to have to live with such stuck up bores” (251). Mouche and Phoebe are bridesmaids at their teachers’ wedding—just like Cher and Dionne. They’re even wearing pink–just like in the movie. All of the annoying girls end up with boys they like (Teegan with Jack, Tory with Tom, Brooke with Peter, and Freya with Josh)—way too tidy an ending. Even Mouche’s toddler sister Wednesday sits under a table with a page boy, “Miss Tartt’s nephew, Timmy” (271). Phoebe is still matching up other people—now Petra with a “sophomore called Josh” (272). I was annoyed most because the implication is that the high school experience will be incomplete if she doesn’t secure a man right away. What kind of lesson is that? And why, when Phoebe actually likes Mark, does she still think of him as “just the pawn” in her “game of chess”? (254) Unless she is completely clueless—ah, and there it is. More scenes from Clueless: Phoebe imagines Mark’s aunt imagining Phoebe as “the next Mrs. Knightly”—and then (I can hear the “as IF!”) “Hello, I’m barely sixteen!” (277) Really surprised that she didn’t accidentally call Mark Josh, but maybe Mark is from Bridget Jones’ Darcy since the real Mr. Knightley character should be Mouche’s older brother.

But then, back to P and P we go, and it is a bumpy ride. When Phoebe is mesmerized by Petra’s piano-playing, she sees Mark watching her “listen to the music” and realizes that Mark has only “seemed too proud” but actually isn’t (224). This would still be at Netherfield since Jet, the Bingley character, is officially hosting, but it seemed like a Pemberley scene. Tory ditches her date, supposedly because “it’s not every Saturday that Petra joins us” but really to be closer to Mark (234). That’s the closest this text gets to a clear Caroline Bingley. But she’s worse than Caroline, mocking Petra behind her back for having suffered from bulimia. Caroline could be all of the Princesses. Teegan actually places a rock under Mouche’s saddle so the horse is disturbed, and then Teegan leaves when she realizes Mark knows (238). Another Caroline moment occurs when Freya offers to get the nurse for Phoebe’s ankle—and Phoebe hates when “girls pretend to be nice in front of boys they are trying to impress” (261). When Phoebe and Mouche finally go to the equivalent of Pemberley, the two girls are still thinking “this would be a great story for the Boy Rating Diary “—why, when they both like these boys, are they still thinking this way? (238) Then the narrator comments that Petra is skinny but doesn’t look “totally anorexic,” not distinguishing between bulimia and anorexia (243). Lady Catherine shows up in the form of Mark’s aunt, who pushily demands to know what the girls’ “fathers did for a living, what kind of car they drove and if [they] summered in the Hamptons” (245). Interestingly, there’s a husband, who I suspect may be a version of Mr. Collins. He gives the girls “an extra long glance from head to toe” (246). Anne Debourgh only appears late in the tale, after Darcy and Elizabeth get together, in the form of Kayleen, “the skinny, miserable looking daughter” of the Lady Catherine character’s business partner (277). (Forgive the absence of hyphens; this text is sorely lacking them.)

Even the Romeo and Juliet adaptation gets messed up. Why does this play have Rocci stab himself? Everyone knows he takes poison; Juliet uses the knife. Later, Phoebe claims the teacher “copied the exact text” when Juliet’s mom runs in on poisoned Juliet, crying “a jealous hood! A jealous hood!” (258-59). Uh, no. She never walks in on poisoned Juliet, and the “jealous hood” line belongs to Juliet’s father. Who does she think her readers are?!

When the narrator reveals who the intended addressee is, it is doubly horrifying: 1) The terrible twist at the end is completely unnecessary and enhances the story in no way. 2) This means the story was told from an adult perspective all along, so there is no forgiveness for sounding like a really dumb teen.

There is, at least, a valuable lesson in here about how much girls miss when they are “unsupportive of each other” (231). Oh, and don’t leave your diary in public places.

Published in: on March 1, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Killing Jane Austen (A Honey Driver Mystery) by Jean G Goodhind

Note: I have not cited page numbers because in this on-line text, there are only pages within chapters.

As often happens, even when certain authorial decisions annoyed me in this text, I kept reading. When Goodhind abandons subtlety, saying, for instance, that Steve Doherty is a detective inspector with “laconic good looks and sexual promise,” I bristled at the lack of delicacy, but I also wanted to know what was going to happen with him and our protagonist. Honey Driver is a Bath hotelier who “double[s] as Crime Liaison Officer on behalf of the Hotels Association.” Honey, her mother Gloria, and her daughter Lindsey are slated to be film extras on “yet another historical production . . . being filmed in Bath.” In a cute moment, Gloria tells Honey to take an afternoon nap, adding that “Audrey Hepburn used to take an afternoon nap every day” and “that’s what kept her eyes so bright.” Mary Jane, a “resident professor of the paranormal” (what?), says no, and thinks Sir Cedric, who died “back in 1792,” comes to visit her occasionally. She graduated from what this writer says, is a “college catering in that one subject, which was located in California—where else?” Bristling, I continued to read.

I continued reading even when it became clear that Honey is no fan of Jane Austen. Why would anyone who loves JA call her “the most famous spinster ever to write romantic fiction”? Even if she doesn’t love JA, I couldn’t quite figure out why Honey calls her “a professional busybody.” Honey doesn’t really seem familiar with Austen’s work. Very few people here seem to be. Though Goodhind says so, I think it unlikely that a person who reads “a lot of Jane Austen” as Miss Cleveley does, would claim that Austen’s “pen created the greatest romantic novels ever written,” since the belief among us is that the novels transcend romance and deal profoundly and wittily with all human relationships.

I continued reading when the language’s awkwardness irritated me, too. After a quick elevator ride, “Up they went. Smooth, real smooth.” Unlike the language here. Bodyguards are called “two sides of beef in tuxedos.” A man goes “off on a thought marathon.” The similes are awkward, too, such as here: “a blue silk skirt, a slim sheath of a thing that rasped against her legs like surf against shingle.” In a case of faulty parallelism, a cafe “had the right ambience, the right food, and was situated in a cobbled courtyard not far from Bath Abbey.” When Steve comments that “stuffing is a task close” to his heart, Honey may not “respond to the sexual innuendo,” but our narrator sure does: “it just wasn’t in her this morning.” This is not clever language a la Austen. Martyna Manderley, playing JA in this film, is rumored to be “a right bitch” (which certainly seems accurate when she accuses Honey, who just made a call to work, of “taking a photograph for some shitty little tabloid, you sneaky bitch”). Martyna is engaged to Brett Coleridge, and with him she changes from “snapping turtle” (that seemed to me unfair to turtles: do they snap?) to “purring pussy cat.” She wants him because he is rich and “sexually adventurous.” (She’s also, by the way, disrespectful to Austen, saying her “legs were superglued together”). But don’t feel too sorry for him: when we first see him, he’s “in bed, sandwiched between a blonde and a brunette.”

There are a lot of characters to dislike in this novel, and Goodhind successfully casts all of them in suspicious lights when the murders begin. We get in the head of the director, Boris Morris, who is unhappy with his position but knows that lecturing at UCLA would mean “he’d never get to direct such a plum project and a big star ever again.” Gloria is busy flirting with “an elderly gentleman wearing a frock coat and a pale green topper” while Honey encounters a “scruffy man” she soon recognizes as Casper St John Gervais, Chairman of Bath Hotels Association. To escape the cold, she enters a “brightly lit house” where a production meeting is about to begin, that is, until a young woman with eyes “glazed with horror” announces that Martyna has been stabbed and is dead. Honey is an immediate suspect both because of her unpleasant interaction with the mean actress earlier and because she is holding the script with sticky fingerprints. She doesn’t seem too concerned, though, perhaps because she knows Doherty, aforementioned man of “sexual promise,” will be handling the case. She tells him that the victim was “paranoid and greedy,” that it is no surprise “someone bumped her off,” but that all Honey did “was pick up a bloodstained manuscript.” As a result of this relationship, the woman once held as the primary suspect is, within minutes, snooping around the dead movie star’s trailer, doing “a few poses in front of the mirror.” Honey is disrespectful, too, suggesting Martyna was killed because people “were sick to the back teeth with Jane Austen” in which case she “sympathize[s].” Her snooping leads her to realize that, because of the position, the man in the catering truck may have seen something worth investigating. Dick Richards (really?) seems more concerned with celebrity praise (of his flapjacks and Thai curry beefburgers) than with celebrity death, but maybe Honey is on to something nonetheless. She learns that Penelope Petrie (I kept reading, despite these ridiculous names) “jumped at the chance” to replace the leading lady, which appalls even Honey. Honey’s motive, though, for getting the scoop, rather appalled me: she just wants to “beat Steve Doherty to an arrest.” Even our protagonist, I had a little trouble liking.

She’s still better than Martyna, however. In fact, solving this crime is tricky because it seems no one liked the victim, and many people had reason to get rid of her. The boyfriend looks guilty to Honey until Steve explains that the guilt is from cheating, not from killing. The narrator tells us that Borris Morris looks “decidedly shifty.” That either leaves no room for judgment for us or misleads us with faulty Honey assessment. The same happens with Penelope. Is her voice actually “an itsy bit contrived,” or is Honey assessing—possibly correctly, but possibly not—based on her own preconceptions? Penelope, we soon learn, has slept her way to this part and feels no sadness over the “right cow” who “got her just deserts.” Miss Cleveley reappears, supposedly seeking her niece, Perdita (of course she’s lost, with a name like that; how Shakespearean) Moody (is that name, too, a reflection of character?). She has been seen carrying a hatpin—the one she said shouldn’t be in a JA movie? The one that killed Martyna? A new character, Hans Hoffner, seems disturbing, with eyes “a chill blue like icy water reflected in the sky.” He scares Coleridge, which isn’t a good sign, and Coleridge desperately wants to keep “Hoffner on board” as the “main backer for the Jane Austen film.” Another new character appears shortly thereafter: Candy, who gets “hired to trap the rich and famous” (and who, incidentally, eats a lot of candy the first time we meet her, which I found annoying, rather than clever).

There are many moments in the text that don’t immediately make sense. A hotel owner, for instance, signs a petition to get rid of films in Bath when clearly films fuel tourism. The petition lady comments on the high “quality of the food they served on the film set” when the food is terrible. She’s a historical expert and comments on the irony that the star died from a stab by a hatpin that would have been an anachronism if used in the film. She later calls Mr. Brett and threatens him with revenge without even telling him who she is. Brett and his friends are all dressed up as women, and the call leads to Brett lashing out at his buddy Nigel. Why? Why do a mother and daughter share a corset they both use to lure men to their beds? If Borris is the murderer, why would he risk getting so drunk in a public place where he might accidentally reveal too much? And the catering situation is bizarre—and thus potentially suspicious as well. The guy claiming to be Dick is actually Ted, then Dick shows up, and then Ted returns, saying he made Dick an offer, which Dick quickly accepted since Ted is “more original” and “getting all the praise” (for his disgusting combinations of food items). Are you following all this? In terms of research, our team is a little lacking. Honey thinks the name of the film company is Banana Productions based on a tip from “Boring Bernard” and does no research—even a quick google search—on it. Then Doherty offends the director and says nothing to calm his nerves before sending him driving off.

Honey decides she wants to solve the murder and find Perdita. To do so, she has some bizarre encounters, such as one in which she advises a prostitute how to look like a “business woman of discreet and particular taste” in exchange for possible assistance finding the lost girl. Perdita is not quite what we, or Honey, expect but does provide some interesting information about the relationship between Martyna and her fiancé. Perdita’s aunt is slightly less shocking in her admission of her relationship with her sister’s husband and her suggestion of Martyna’s real passion. Apparently Martyna was at least close to her “senior make-up technician.”

The plot thickens when John Rees, a good-looking, “bookish” American, calls to spend time with Honey. John Rees seems sweet enough, sharing his breakfast with Honey and then asking her if they can plan to “trade food again at lunchtime,” but then he isn’t as reliable as we or Honey would like, flaking on plans for coffee and vaguely promising to “catch up with” her again. So he’s suspicious—he shows up just in time for murder #2 and then disappears. That plot thread is completely dropped, however. Fast on his heels, Miss Cleveley turns out to be surprisingly “firmly muscled,” which suggests she, too, could have done the dread deed.

The story jumps around a lot, even mid-chapter, but I continued to read because I was curious how this would all get sorted out. We jump from Honey’s date to Nigel’s beating to Honey’s discussion with an actuary about the insurance Banana Productions Ltd has for its stars and extras. When a trailer crashes to the ground, Honey is even more convinced there is foul play still at work. The first actual scene of violence is disturbing. This Mr. North person is a mystery to us, but he’s angry and wants results. He does not react well to not getting them. The question, still, is what this has to do with Martyna’s murder. How does Ted know the pillows inside Martyna’s trailer are “lace-trimmed”? Later, when the Dutch tourists compliment the “pretty lace trim around the pillowcases” at the Green River Hotel, I knew something was up, but it was never clear what the link was. Also not entirely clear (I got it down to two choices, but the language is ambiguous) is who is Mr. North, and he isn’t the only character to have two different names. Catching the murderer ends up being quite a theatrical, actually amusing scene, with some fear tossed in. The reasons for the murder are ridiculous, but the other characters don’t seem to find them so. Confusing loose ends would be annoying at the end of any mystery, but truly baffling to me was how Steve—or any person—can have navy eyes. Maybe that gets explained in another Honey Driver story.

Published in: on February 1, 2015 at 9:59 pm  Comments (2)  

The Dating Mr. Darcy Trilogy by Katie Oliver

Part 1: Prada and Prejudice: not to be confused by the same-named book by Mandy Hubbard

I will confess upfront that I did not complete the trilogy. Though I enjoyed what I read, there were so many discrepancies and illogical choices made by the heroines, heroes, and author alike that when my e-book got returned to the library of its own accord, I did not pursue a renewal. That said, there is much here to enjoy, and for readers just looking to do that and content to wait for the happy ending, these may be just right.

Heroine Natalie Dashwood (so is this S and S or P and P or both?) is 23ish and working in her grandfather’s store so he doesn’t “cut off her quarterly allowance.” Meanwhile, she has a boyfriend whose claims that he “had a few pints with the boys, got pissed, [and] passed out” she understands as meaning he “spent the night in bed” with another woman. Her grandfather announces he has hired a new Operations Manager he wants her to meet. An impatient well-dressed stranger makes demands on her time at work, selecting lingerie for a conservative woman, and she treats him rudely, though he is a paying customer. That night, Natalie plans to dump Dom, only to be beaten to the punch in a humiliating way, made worse by her own drunkenness and correspondingly bad aim when she hurls her drink at him. The man who gets soaked kindly offers her a ride home (Natalie does not recognize him), only to be challenged by Ian Clarkson, married to her best friend but clearly eager to cheat on Alexa with Natalie. The first gentleman prevails, and his scent of “soap and leather” make enough an impression that Natalie tells him she “really, really want[s] to have sex with” him. (Who says that? More to the point, what Austen-based heroine says that?) He kindly says he’d like “nothing better” but declines on account of her being drunk, their being strangers, and her desire for revenge against her ex.

You can guess whom she sees again at the Monday morning board meeting.

Rhys Gordon has been brought in to save Natalie’s family store, which she calls her “birthright” but which is in serious trouble unless some major changes are made. After an uncomfortable meeting, he insist on taking Natalie to lunch to help fight her hangover and to discuss her recent “behavior, . . . spending habits, [and] . . . relationships,” none of which reflect well on her.

That doesn’t go well. He ends up insulting her with his suggestions that she is spoiled and selfish (“some of us actually DO have to work for a living”), and she just curses and snaps at him before storming off. Is this the Elizabeth Darcy “not handsome enough” scene? But it’s too early for the failed proposal. I was really unsure how this was working as a Mr. Darcy variation, other than arrogance and misunderstanding, but I kept trying. They quickly make up, and then another problem arises, this one more clearly the Darcy (“attractive? . . . but she’s not my type”) way. She also overhears him speculate that she’d be a “hellcat in bed,” which embarrasses her. So she flees again, rather than confront him with her suspicions that he is using her to get publicity for the store, which it sure looks like to us, too, but we at least still hope is not true.

At this point, our heroine seems like a spoiled brat until we learn that her “father’s suicide gutted” her, and then at least can cut her a little slack. The hero is better, at least responsible and employed in a real way. His family story is also compelling: The dad beat the mom regularly and once tried to beat Rhys, who “knocked him down and pummeled him” until his mother and a neighbor dragged him off.

I realized several chapters in that there’s another sub-plot I wasn’t really following. It involves Alastair, who serves on the board, his often-abandoned wife Cherie, and their teenage daughter Hannah, who apparently offered herself to her boyfriend Duncan but was rebuffed. It seems quite possible that Alastair is having an affair (even flaking on the date he set up with his wife to compensate for all the times he isn’t home for dinner), but later we see him worrying about “more hours lost to number crunching” and “another round of apologies to Cherie.” Meanwhile, Cherie seems more contemplative than she should be about her own relationship with Duncan’s father, Neil, but I am having trouble connecting this sub-plot to the rest of the story, let alone to either Austen novel. Hannah, who now is apparently “hanging out’ with Jago Sullivan, currently a stock boy but studying cooking at night, is frustrated by her dad, who is so against the boy, first getting him fired and then practically chasing him away when he and Hannah are just talking after their date. No clear reasons are given to explain Alastair’s feelings, but then of course he turns out to be right.

Back to the part of the story I was following: Rhys is pretty determined. When Natalie disappears and then hangs up on him when he calls to check on her, he finds out she’s at her mom’s and follows her there, demanding to know what is wrong. Usually, we’d want to discourage this kind of behavior in men, but here it actually works because Natalie does tell him, and his explanation for what she actually overheard is credible.

The story doesn’t completely make sense in several places. For instance, Rhys says he called her cell to make sure she got home safely, but she’s still driving home at that point. Is it supposed to be because she runs out of petrol? Maybe, but that seems a bit too coincidental. Dominic, now clearly a drunken rock star in need of money and willing to do anything to get it, says no initially to an opportunity to be the face of a new fragrance? That makes no sense. Are we to read him as drunk? Stupid? Why did Natalie ever like him? Why does Keeley? Later the text shares Natalie’s thoughts about how “different” Dom was when they were first together in Warwickshire, but it’s hard to imagine this guy not being a complete waste of space. On the day of his wedding, Keeley catches him “mid-bonk with one of her bridesmaids.” If his plan is to marry Keeley for her money, why would he take a risk of that kind? (Later, Natalie says as much to him, and his pathetic defense is “I was drunk, Nat! I only wanted a quick shag before I got myself shackled for life to Keeley.”) Clearly, though, even this is not “the biggest, juiciest scandal to hit the UK since . . . Well, since ever.” Has our writer forgotten the tampon episode? And that’s just the first incident that came to mind when I read this ridiculous comment. Another illogical choice: if Natalie is fantasizing about Rhys kissing her, why does she order garlic broccoli?

Also nonsensical is how Natalie has still not learned to spend less money. Even her friend Tark says carefully that “perhaps” she “should be a bit more—erm, frugal.” Who is she supposed to be? No Jane Austen heroine acts this way. Then she “completely” forgets her meeting with Rhys, not obviously remembering how serious the financial problems are or how worried he gets when she flakes. I had trouble sympathizing with her. Natalie’s older sister makes her appearance in the form of one Caroline Dashwood (is the mixing of names deliberate? It feels confusing.) Everyone seems to know Natalie needs to stop spending money—except Natalie, who offers to buy her sister’s wedding gown, though her sister correctly tells her Natalie “can’t afford a knock-off from Marks and Sparks right now, much less a designer gown.” Natalie’s instincts are good in terms of making sure her beloved sister gets “the wedding of her dreams,” but she is so irresponsible she is annoying.

When Rhys talks with her again—actually interrupting yet another day of shopping—he seems finally to get through to her how serious the situation is and how critical she could be to saving her family’s store. Natalie and Rhys take their relationship a step deeper when they go furniture shopping for his new flat. She, like Elizabeth at Pemberley, is impressed by how “gorgeous” it is, and he likes “the way she widen[s] her eyes whenever she [is] surprised or indignant” and well as “the challenge she present[s]” him. Natalie didn’t grow up in luxurious circumstances even though her father owned the store, and certainly not happy after her father killed himself and left her mother to find him. Because the stores were doing well, he was able to make repairs to their house but didn’t get Natalie the horse she wanted, for which reason she “told him [she] wished he were dead.” The next day, he was. (How could he do that to her? She was just a child!)

Ian is pretty awful as the villain. Not only did his stepfather blackmail Natalie’s father, which sent the company “into the red” and led to his suicide, but also now Ian plans to go to the tabloids so her “father’s name will be smeared like shit all over the media” (his coarse language suits his character) unless Natalie marries him (after he divorces his pregnant wife, her best friend) and recommends him “for a partnership in Dashwood and James.” Later, when Rhys directly asks her what’s going on, and she should tell him, she still lies and says “nothing.” Why? When she finally does tell someone, it isn’t anyone we would think, but that person gives the same advice we would: tell the police. Tell Rhys.

Dominic is not who we think he is, and knowing what he’s trying to cover actually did draw me to his side for a moment. He, too, is getting blackmailed. And we certainly understand better why Natalie fell for him. And why Gemma is now. He still causes a lot of unnecessary problems, though.

There are a lot of coincidental sightings in bars and bookstores and such for a big city like London, but maybe with fewer jumps in logic, I could overlook those. A sampling: Sophie at her own wedding is hanging out with Natalie, whom she is meeting for the first time. She shares what happened between Cat and Rhys, and Natalie is disgusted by Rhys, and then a few minutes later she is kissing him on the dance floor. And what happened to his resolve about not pursuing Sir R’s granddaughter? When the police sting is set up, why are they giving the instructions to Rhys rather than to Natalie? If Cherie knows there is press everywhere and thinks her daughter is home sick, why would she set up a clandestine meeting at her home? If Alastair figures out why Rhys looks so familiar, why is he so shocked when Rhys tells him their connection? Gemma’s character is inconsistent. One moment she dumps Dom by hurling hot bacon at him, and the next she’s calling Keeley a “tarted-up cow” for showing up to sing with him and save the store. Then, to save the day, Natalie blackmails Dom? That is the lesson she has learned from all this? Why, if Rhys knows everything else and if the police know exactly what room she is in, does Natalie risk bringing her smart phone in the lining of her clutch, knowing “if Ian found the phone,” he might do something awful? But once she turns “off all sounds on the mobile,” how does she hear it ring when Poppy calls, back from Sri Lanka? After everything they have been through, how could Natalie not know if she and Rhys are “an item”? The incredible night aside, she runs crying into his arms when she has a breakdown, he accompanies her to tell her grandfather the truth, he’s always looking out for her well-being. Is she suddenly so without confidence? Why?

But then, in an exciting twist, after the glorious fashion show (why isn’t Sir Richard there?), Ian manages to trick Natalie. Rhys and the police learn quickly about her phone idea (“sat nav”), so we have to hope that works in time. She, at last, has learned some lessons: drink more slowly (or not at all), have faith in the good people, know how to handle the bad ones (annoying detail: the special pouch Phillip made to conceal her phone sure lets its captive out a lot).

Despite the story’s gross errors in logic, by the end, I really wanted these people to get their happily ever afters, which, I suppose means I really enjoyed the story. Thus, I began the next.

Part 2: Love and Liability

This story follows Holly, Alastair’s older daughter, in her career and romantic life.

The prologue has a hungry girl escaping what sounds like a crazy ex-boyfriend. Again, satellite navigation emerges as a big deal; she has mistakenly taken his phone, which means he can find her. (So why doesn’t she just ditch the phone? But of course she doesn’t.)

Holly works for BritTEEN magazine under a “nightmare” editor, Sasha, whom Holly thinks of as a “predator.” Sasha, while mocking Holly, assigns her “to interview Henry Barrington,” a “well-regarded financial solicitor” who “might stand for MP during the next election.” Holy first got this job because she did a proper interview with Dominic, which she got because of Natalie, so at least these stories are clearly connected, even though the link to Austen is still not.

I wasn’t super impressed by Holly. Why does Holly not immediately google the man she is about to interview? Why does she assume he has “bifocals and a receding hairline”? She is as clueless as Natalie was. I know our heroines have to be flawed, but no Austen heroine is a total idiot. She sure sounds like one, though, when she tells her interviewee that she “didn’t have any time to prepare” so she basically knows nothing about him. When she goes to interview the man, she compares herself to Anastasia Steele going to interview Christian Grey (as in 50 Shades of). Groan. Holly, too, can’t manage money, and is constantly going to her dad (like Natalie and her grandfather) for money. What is happening? She also has a secret boyfriend, but she’s in her 20s, not usually the time to sneak around.

Finally the text tells us that she did google him but kept getting interrupted. A bit lame, but better. They make poor first impressions on each other, but why, when he calls to ask her out and to apologize, and when she finds him “a gorgeous, sexy man,” does she say no?

A positive learning experience for me involved some British food terms: “tuna on wholemeal,” “extra salad cream,” “no crisps,” “diet Ribena.”

It turns out Sasha is trying to get Holly fired; but why? Does she really think the Editor in Chief would move Holly up ahead of her? Sasha’s work motives seem entirely mercenary—she has to keep this job “at least until she found something better—like a rich husband”—so we are entirely without sympathy for her. We soon learn that she has “always loathed the smart, clever girls in school” and seems to see Holly James as “a pampered clever clogs.” Worse, Sasha leads Kate, whom Holly helped get a job and who is now Holly’s flatmate, to feel jealous and vengeful of her. But then her resentment reveals a disturbing childhood (six year old “listening as her mom and a strange man went at it in the next room,” for instance). Clearly, Oliver wants us to feel some pity for this character, but her behavior still makes that difficult.

The narration is heavy-handed again, as in the scene in which Holly’s dad invites her for a dinner party to which they have also invited John and Enid, who have “two sons, both grown. One [is] married, and the other [is] in banking or insurance or something equally boring.” We know immediately what’s going to happen, but of course Holly doesn’t. Maybe as a result of the “one too many vodka and grapefruits” the previous night. When Holly goes home for the weekend, she finally reads her published article on Alex, and two pieces of info that should not be there are there. Little does she know who is likely already in her house. It’s weird that Oliver basically borrows this part of the plot from Bridget Jones: Alex used to be “Hank, the little boy next door who’d sometimes shared her sandbox and backyard wading pool.”

Holly has a good idea for the magazine but also just for human interest: teen homelessness. Now, maybe we’ll learn what happened to the girl from the Prologue. When we finally get Zoe’s story, told not to Holly but to her street friend Sharon, it’s pretty bad but almost unbelievable. Why, for instance, would she have taken a phone with her if she didn’t want to be found? Whom did she think would get and pay the bill and see the calls? How can she check Erik’s voicemail? Why would she know his password? Why does she suddenly feel tender towards her “mum,” who trusted Erik over her own daughter? Why doesn’t Zoe go to the police with her evidence?

In other developments, Alex has two new clients; Dominic Heath and Marcus Russo, a “Michelin-starred chef.” Marcus is opening a “brasserie right around the corner” from Gordon Scots, Jamie Gordon’s place, made possible by “his half-brother Rhys’ financial stake.” Kate is slimy. She pretends to be Holly’s friend but is working for Sasha to unearth something about Holly that will get her fired. Jamie’s not totally in the clear either, first getting Alex drunk and then possibly deliberately sabotaging a third date between Alex and Holly because Jamie doesn’t think she should “be spending the night with Alex.” Marcus’s daughter Poppy has been missing; now those pieces are coming together.

Onto Wickham, maybe. This supposedly up and coming photographer pushes his way into meeting Zoe before Holly is ready, Kate is immediately attracted to him without knowing much about him, he was a runaway himself (why?), he gives his “word” to Zoe that no one will know the article is about her, and everyone quickly trusts him.

A list of the totally ridiculous: Holly blurts out when first meeting Camilla “you’re Red Thong!” What sound of mind adult shows so little self-control? And what potential Mr. Darcy threatens his Elizabeth with telling her father that she carries a “raspberry-flavoured condom at the ready” in her handbag? This is just absurd. When she realizes he hasn’t heard her message yet, she tries to take his phone. Why doesn’t she just apologize in person? Who are these people? I shouldn’t have been surprised when it lands in the vichyssoise. (But what Mr. Darcy would tell his would-be leading lady that “if you’ve ruined my phone, you’re buying me another”?) And why, when she needs to downplay the problem, would she make sure Alex knows the magazine does well in “Scotland and Wales, too,” not just England? Why would Holly think Alex would text her to say he’s suing her, and why her rather than the magazine? What chef and new restaurant owner would put his guests on the spot by insisting they classify their meal as a date or not? How could anyone thinking of running for office do a striptease karaoke dance at a hot new restaurant? Again, this doesn’t make any sense: Alex offers to cook Holly dinner on Friday. She insists that she cook him dinner instead on Sunday, knowing she “couldn’t cook.” Then why? Later, why does Holly easily tell Will, whom she barely knows and who is dating Sasha, Sasha’s private story, but to Alex, she gives a brush off answer when she actually trusts—or should trust—him? Absurd: when Holly is staying rent-free with Jamie, she brings home a stray cat and feeds it Jamie’s fancy “Devonshire cream” without even consulting him.

There are also awkward, and in some cases, non-existent, transitions. For example, Holly is sobbing about getting sacked. The text says,”she’d go home, she decided, to Oxfordshire. Today.” The next line, dialogue, is “excuse me. Have you seen this girl?” One might assume the person is asking Holly, but no, now we’re in a different scene, and it’s Shannon who is being asked about Zoe. No markings, let alone a chapter change. Why? Is this an attempt at style?

Forgive me, but at this point, my e-book got returned, and though I was mildly curious how it would turn out (and eager to see if I experienced a similar desire for Holly and Alex to find happiness as I ultimately did for Natalie and Rhys), I wasn’t curious enough to do anything about it.

Published in: on January 11, 2015 at 7:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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Christmas Present by Amanda Grange

*spoiler alert

This one opens with pregnant Elizabeth sharing happy news with Darcy: Jane and Bingley have just had their first child, a healthy baby boy named Charles. Though he feels strongly that Elizabeth should not travel so close to her confinement, she persuades him, and off they go to meet the new baby, see the new house, and spend Christmas with the Bingleys—and, it turns out, many of the characters we know.

Since we last saw everyone, there have been some changes but few of significance. Darcy has begun teasing Bingley, which Bingley attributes to Elizabeth teaching him “how to tease people” (17). Darcy seems to feel differently about Mrs. Bennet, “now that he [is] at a safe distance” from her, even “enjoy[ing] her foibles” (5). Jane is still sweet as ever, but even she has some devious plans, for instance, to leave Mrs. Bennet with Caroline when the former arrives (29). When Darcy and Elizabeth arrive, Caroline is already there, managing the house, and though Jane is up and about and feeling well, Caroline instructs her brother not to “allow” it (20). Somehow the reader doubts Charles would even attempt that. Caroline does seem to have wised up a bit here, even “quickly shut[ting]” her mouth in response to just a look from Elizabeth, having “no wish to cross wits” in a match during which Caroline “would come off the loser” (26). Mary is—probably unintentionally, but the other possibility remains—foot in the mouth as usual, commenting on the new Bingley baby that “very few of those who have greatness foretold for them” the way he has “manage to achieve such greatness” (33). Mrs. Bennet, in her infinite wisdom and generosity, has invited Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins to stay with Jane. This promises to be a very interesting Christmas.

This text is more discreet than many “sequels.” The Darcys take a walk in a garden, and we are told that Elizabeth makes a comment “saucily” to her husband, whereupon he kisses her (43). Three asterisks later, the text describes the time simply: “some time later” (44).

Though this text is beautifully written, there are some flaws in logic. Why would Lady Catherine, for instance, ask Kitty if she has a governess? She already knows from Lizzy that none of the girls did. If she thought they should, she wouldn’t ask, “do you” but rather a question about the governess (54). Also, why would Mrs. Bennet say Kitty and Mary should marry lords when her real plan is to marry Kitty off to Mr. Collins’ brother? (55) I thought it a little strange that Mr. Bennet picks “up a newspaper” and begins “to read it assiduously” when the ridiculous guests arrive (49). This isn’t Mr. Palmer; he should be enjoying the antics of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins, at least at the start of it all before he needs to retire to Bingley’s library to escape.

Interestingly, our perspective is limited to Darcy’s during *Elizabeth’s labor, so we are as relieved as he is when she is safely delivered. How terrible it must have been for loving husbands to be separated from their wives during those times. How wonderful, though, to be reunited with loved ones during this happy season, the way Elizabeth and Darcy are in this delightful novella.

Published in: on December 24, 2014 at 6:06 pm  Comments (1)  

Masterpiece’s Death Comes to Pemberley

My mom DVRd this adaptation of P.D. James’ novel, and we both eagerly anticipated watching (and analyzing) it together. Starring Matthew Ehys (Darcy), Anna Maxwell-Martin (Elizabeth), and Matthew Goode (Wickham), this adaptation made me think a lot about the difference between reading words and seeing pictures (I was already on heightened alert after having recently watched Words and Pictures, an intriguing film that explores the poignancy of the written word vs the painted image). There are many moments here that viewers just feel, not based on words but on shared looks or even just proximity.

Seeing the story reminds us more perhaps than the words how different life was for people in this time. For one thing, as my mom mentioned, “it’s so dark there!” Without electric light, even wealthy families like the Darcys are operating in darkness much of the time, and outside, it’s pretty much just the moon as the source of light, which makes nighttime excursions and investigations rather tricky.

We begin with servants (subtitles would have been really helpful), who we hear scream long before we see anything remotely scary, and even then we don’t see what scared the girls (a ghost), just a mysterious tomb, and certainly not a bloody body (in case you’re sensitive to such things). The tomb, of course, turns out to be of great import in the death coming to Pemberley, but no one knows that yet.

The next scene is delightfully light, as young Master Fitzwilliam is running through the house into the arms of Elizabeth. Mrs. Reynolds is busily helping Lizzy prepare for a ball. Elizabeth prepares the butler to serve the best brandy slowly so the ladies can walk to their carriages since there are no more available rooms for people to stay overnight. Darcy is yelling the first time we see him, which he says is normal before a ball. There is palpable chemistry between them, and his yells are soon conquered by his own smiles as he beholds his wife. Georgiana wants the kind of liveliness in marriage that her brother and Elizabeth have.

We meet Bidwell, whom Darcy calls “a good man” and who leaves his problems at home to polish the silver at Pemberley. His son Will has good days and bad. He is borrowing books from Elizabeth, so we know he is intelligent and values her recommendations. When Elizabeth leaves the Bidwell cottage, she sees a woman in purple in the woods, and Elizabeth calls out to her. The woman runs from Elizabeth only to return for her purple bonnet and then to hiss at Elizabeth like a deranged creature. Though Elizabeth understands that this woman is not Mrs. Riley’s ghost, it is important that we know the Riley story to understand just how passionate Darcy is about keeping Wickham’s neck out of the noose, no matter how much he despises him. When Elizabeth and Jane visit the cottage after a death occurs, Lizzy sees what’s really happening with Louisa Bidwell’s baby. Lizzy has a lot of suspicions now; why does Will pretend to be asleep when she visits? And who is Louisa’s baby’s father?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In addition to the usual cast of characters we would expect in such an adaptation (though we never see Bingley and never even hear about Mary or Kitty or the Collinses), we meet Henry Alveston, a lawyer. He and Georgiana greet each other warmly, Georgiana slipping and calling him “Henry” and then correcting herself. During a social engagement, Georgiana asks Alveston to accompany her with her music, and he, adorably, as she once did to Elizabeth, says, “please don’t make me sing.” They have been writing to each other, and that, plus the way they look at each other, communicates immediately that they should be together if he’s a good guy, which appearances suggest he is. Colonel Fitzwilliam, however, would have it otherwise. Also interested in marrying Georgiana, he constantly finds fault with the polite younger man, who advocates not so much for himself as for Georgiana’s right to happiness and to make her own choices. All three—Elizabeth, Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam—see Georgiana’s interest in Henry, but only Elizabeth seems determined to let Georgiana marry for love.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet arrive for the ball (Mr. Bennet entranced by the library once he arrives at Pemberley), and by the time hysterical Lydia comes rushing in announcing there have been gun shots and Mrs. Bennet falls into hysterics, Mr. Bennet desperately wants to go with the rest of the men looking for Wickham and Denny. His one word to Darcy is said in such a tone that everything he is feeling is communicated: “please.” Darcy understands immediately; who wouldn’t? Mr. Bennet thus accompanies Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam on the search for the missing men, leaving Elizabeth to calm the hysterical women of her family.

The writer and director juxtapose several key scenes effectively. When the characters learn, for instance, that Denny was hit hard in two places, we can see Darcy thinking. The next scene has Elizabeth similarly thinking, watching Colonel Fitzwilliam burn a letter. They’re both analyzing what they’re seeing—and trying to understand what they are not seeing. The stresses of the murder, the guests, and the enormous pressures of managing this estate seem unbearable, but then Darcy and Elizabeth hug, and somehow we feel everything will work out right. At one point, we see Louisa carving a heart into a tree and crying. In the next scene, the magistrate sees the heart. Then we go to Jane comforting Elizabeth in bed about Elizabeth’s own heartache. The very placement of small scenes heightens the effect of each.

Sir Selwyn Hardcastle is the magistrate to whom Darcy reports the incident. He finds himself having to defend his father’s hope in Wickham to Hardcastle, and Mrs. Reynolds doesn’t like the Hardcastles, as she demonstrates by looking away from him after he gives her a command and looking to Mrs. Darcy for orders. It turns out that Hardcastle’s father has done a pretty horrible thing (prosecuting a little boy who poached something, resulting in the boy being hanged), but Hardcastle himself, though we don’t ever really like him, knows what it is to fight the shadow of a family name. That theme the film visits several times, including through Georgiana, who feels pressure to marry Colonel Fitzwilliam not just from her brother but even more from her own sense of duty to her family name and responsibility. The shame from the Darcy ancestor buried in the woods is one of neglecting duty. Darcy won’t even discuss it with Lizzy, but Georgiana does: “Here lies the man who put personal inclination before public duty.”

That tension is very much alive in the current generation of Darcys since, after all, Darcy chose to marry for love, and now Georgiana wants to do the same. After the scandal erupts, and Darcy seems more inclined to push a respectable known entity on his sister, Lizzy questions him, “Security? What about happiness?” Even when Darcy is snippety and says that Georgiana should not make a decision in “sentimental haste,” Elizabeth does not back down. She does, however, think Darcy is regretting his own “sentimental haste” in marrying her. Georgiana is the one who comes to comfort Lydia when Wickham is taken away, and it’s a beautiful moment for her, as she uses her own past suffering to support someone who also suffered because of Wickham.

The real tension, arguably, of the film, comes from the strain on the marriage. Even after six years, it seems neither Darcy nor Elizabeth is completely sure of the other’s love. Lydia casts doubt in Darcy’s mind: Lizzy married him for money. Lizzy’s own doubts result largely from the shame her family is still brining Darcy and from her memories of people being so judgmental when Darcy first married her. Lydia is, in most of her appearances, morally repugnant. She wipes away fake tears, and fakes almost passing out on Darcy’s arm as he walks her down the row in church. He tells Lizzy this is “intolerable.” Then Lizzy tries to hold his hand, but he pulls away. Even the viewer might be inclined to see Darcy’s behavior as regret for the marriage, though Jane wisely reminds Elizabeth (at the start of Part 2, after Elizabeth reflects on Darcy’s awful proposal, feels insecure about Darcy, and tells Jane he “regrets his match” to her) that love like hers and Darcy’s doesn’t waver. (My mom, one of four sisters, loved how the sisters helped and supported each other throughout the story, including Lizzy and Georgiana.) Much of the time, we’re not so sure, but just when we think we can’t take it anymore, Darcy covers Elizabeth up while she’s sleeping so at least we, even if not yet she, know he loves her still.

Darcy keeps trying to protect Wickham, saying he isn’t violent. He doesn’t want another innocent person hanged, even if he hates the guy. That’s not to say Wickham has been redeemed; he’s still an ass. We see Colonel Fitzwilliam get really angry about how many people Wickham has put in danger and how he has jeopardized Darcy’s reputation (even if it turns out he’s actually worried about Georgiana’s). He lies. (ex: Henry, who is trying to help Wickham, asks a good question: why did Denny run into the woods? Wickham’s answer doesn’t add up.) But Darcy is pretty sure Wickham didn’t murder his best friend. Part 1 ends with Darcy visiting Wickham in jail. Both men remember the hanging of young Patrick Riley, a traumatic experience for both young boys to witness. Wickham is leaning against a counter, and Darcy goes and stands next to him, and Wickham says, “I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, but not this,” looking in Darcy’s eyes, and Darcy says, “I believe you.” Visually and emotionally and verbally, this is a beautiful moment between the men.

Part 2 develops the doubt between Darcy and Elizabeth, but also adds to it several other tensions and conflicts. Poor Jane takes Lydia and Mrs. Bennet with her to Highmarten, so at least that’s some pressure off the Darcys, but by the time Elizabeth and Georgiana have their big confrontation, Darcy and Elizabeth are hardly speaking, which creates far worse tension than the actual inquest for viewers who care more about them than about Wickham.

Nonetheless, if this is justice, I can hardly imagine injustice. The jury is drunk and incomplete. When witnesses are called up, people cheer them on. “OMG,” my mom said, horrified by their conduct. When Mr. Pratt milks the crowd for his own glory, my mom cried out, “They’re clapping! This is horrible!” Then they boo Wickham, whom they call a “liar!” But my mom really had trouble with the man in charge asking the jurors to retire to decide Wickham’s fate, “preferably not to the bar.” She couldn’t even finish the sentence: “They can drink and then—that’s so unfair!” Darcy really needs help, and when he arrives at the inquest, Henry Alveston is there, offering support—and seats—after Georgiana has rejected him. He calls Darcy “Sir.” Darcy must, I thought, see how good this guy is. They even both wear beige overcoats. The courtroom scene is as awful as the inquest, so much so that respectable Alveston bursts out in protest when the prosecutor is obviously unfair. Only Alveston maintains some faith in justice. Wickham has to be judged on the evidence alone. Seeing Wickham’s face when Darcy explains he did not think Wickham’s “confession” meant Wickham actually did the killing was a moving experience.

The film makes frequent use of flashback scenes, first from Elizabeth’s point of view, but later from Darcy’s and even from Wickham’s (still thinking about Louisa when he is imprisoned after the inquest). The moment when Darcy sees the mysterious woman in court is so eerie, and then immediately we’re in a flashback when he asked her for Wickham’s whereabouts after he absconded with Lydia the first time, so we know exactly who she is before her name is said. Or at least we know her name—her actual identity she explains to Darcy when he follows her outside. Darcy runs after Mrs. Younge before she throws herself in front of a carriage, and his cry “no!” is so emotional. The music changes, and everything slows down to emphasize his grief and the hat that now we understand. When Darcy goes to Wickham to tell him what happened and to comfort him, I thought again, this is a man.

Lady Catherine makes a delightful appearance (delightful to us, that is, not to anyone else). Elizabeth says “how intriguing” and “delightful” in response to her now aunt’s ridiculous comments, but this Lady Catherine is clueless that she is being mocked, which seemed inconsistent with what we know of her from the text.

Meanwhile, Colonel Fitzwilliam is being so insensitive to Georgiana. When he takes her hand, she looks so uncomfortable. How can he do this when he sees her face? But it isn’t until Colonel Fitzwilliam admits to trying to shield his future bride from “further taint,” adding that even if Wickham hangs, he “will take her,” that Darcy realizes how dangerously close he was to allowing his beloved sister to make a terrible mistake. Instead, he goes to her, asking her please to “marry for love” and “when [she has] that person” not to “doubt” him. In a sweeping shot, we see Elizabeth appear on the stairway, and now Darcy tells Elizabeth how sorry he is for doubting her and her judgment; in a beautiful scene between them, my mom said, “Whoa. They actually took his jacket off. I’ve never seen this in Jane Austen.”

Indeed. After their reunion (spoiler alert: more than a jacket comes off), Darcy asks Elizabeth to tell Lydia about the affair, but it turns out that Lydia is a lot smarter than we give her credit for being. She has learned how to live in her marital situation, and that does not include hearing details she will not be able to forget. The real concern, then, shifts to Wickham’s guilty sentence. We know he is innocent, but who did it, and how can someone prove it? Elizabeth figures it out, and gets the real story. My mom said: “I had no idea it would be him.” The father-son joint apology made me cry.

With no time to spare, Elizabeth runs up to the gallows and stops it with the judge. We are so sad for the other poor souls dying that way, but the relief on Darcy and Wickham’s faces was so touching. I loved that after everything Wickham has done to Darcy, it is still Darcy who goes to his side, relieved he has been spared.
And then, back the story shifts to images of love, first Georgiana and Henry kissing on the grounds. “Oh, those early moments of love,” the more seasoned Darcys reminisce. They are soon followed by sheer joy with a happy announcement on Pemberley lawn, and the last images are of Darcy swinging master Fitzwilliam around and Lizzy’s happy face. A truly happy ending!

Published in: on November 16, 2014 at 6:07 pm  Comments (1)  

Jane Austen Quick Notes

I was delighted when my friend and colleague (DB) helped me find ibook’s latest Pride and Prejudice. It opens with music and cut-out characters and continues with brief lectures by Elizabeth Bergstone, described as a “public speaker and guest lecturer at Elon University and Salem College.” She has a light British accent. In the introduction to the times, she tells us a bit about Austen’s “ordinary” life as contrasted by the more tempestuous and revolutionary worlds of France and America. She feels certain Austen read Wollstonecraft and posits relationships between Wollstonecraft’s ideal woman and Elizabeth Bennet and also more obviously between Jane and Cassandra Austen and Lizzy and Jane Bennet.

Then we get a 5-minute summary. Characters get sketches. Mr. Collins is “dull, pompous, and boring.” I thought I talked fast. She talks really fast, but still the story is clear and even includes her version of details like Darcy turns white; Wickham, red with definitive confidence. Our hostess looks positively delighted by the happy ending and with Lady Catherine condescending to visit Pemberley.

In the ten-minute summary, Mary assumes an oddly seductive pose, and we get a slower version of events. When Bergstone takes us through the story, she assumes the personas briefly, including being snobby when she describes Darcy at first. She tells us, a bit oversimplistically, that Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins because he’s dull. How about pretentious and idiotic?

Then there’s a lesson on settings, beginning with Longbourne and the details we know about it—two stories, farm land, large enough for the seven of them and several servants. She talks about entail, but she doesn’t use the word. In the pictures of the five girls, Lydia is not the tallest, which I found bothersome in its inattention to detail. To remember the order of the sisters, Bergstone gives us the phrase “Just everyday middle class living” (Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, Lydia) as a mnemonic device. In the segment on Lucas Lodge, Bergstone provides an explanation of how William made a little speech to the king, who was delighted, and then knighted him. I had been a little fuzzy on those details, so I appreciated this recap. Meryton she describes as one main street (inn, dress shop, probably a church though it’s not mentioned). I noticed Bergstone was not wearing glasses for this one and thought maybe she dressed up for her metaphorical walk through town? She also has them off to describe Darcy. Netherfield she describes as five characters come to live there. In this clip, she says the oldest one is Caroline, but later that detail is corrected to say Louisa was older. I was already a bit doubtful of the accuracy of the information (and the editing: how could they miss the discrepancy?) when she shared the mnemonic for Netherfield as: Big Classy House That is Delightful (Bingley, Caroline, Hursts Darcy), which I found patronizing.

The lessons include a lot of repetition, as though she’s giving us a cheat sheet but also trying to help us remember what’s on there.

“Mahalo” pops up in the upper right-hand corner regularly, which would be cute if we understood how that Hawaiian greeting relates to any of this. Later I deduced that it’s a company devoted to the idea of “learn[ing] anything.”

The next part of the guide is the Characters Interrelationships Map, followed by lessons on individual characters. In the Lesson on Lizzy, Bergstone says that the key is: “Lizzy is lively. Lively Lizzy.” Okay, so this is not quite Austen for geniuses, but maybe for people who are struggling, these word games will help. Jane’s picture is always with one arm outstretched onto a wall, which to me, seems a bit bold for her. Lizzy’s is more retiring, with her hands clasped in front of her, but she is the smallest, which fits with the book. Bergstone calls Mr. Darcy the most important male character, which I suppose fits the standard reading if such a judgment has to be made at all and if you can seriously exclude Mr. Bennet. She includes some lines from the text in the character analysis, and there’s a written summary of all the oral lessons. With most, but not all, characters, Bergstone offers a simple device to help non-experts keep track of who’s who, alliterative sayings like “Mr. Darcy was distant” and “Caroline is cold and calculating.” The quotation on Mr. Bingley is incorrectly attributed to a “Mrs. Bingley.” “Mr. Bingley is big-hearted.”

Navigating the ibook might necessitate a Mahalo mini-lesson. There are cards you can flip to review notes on character, and there are “chapters” that review a selection of chapters at a time, but it took me some time to figure out how to get from one section to the next (between types of sections, not within sections, which is usually just a swipe left).

I eagerly anticipated how Bergstone would simply the themes of the novel, but I wasn’t prepared for her to call “marriage” a theme (what idea about marriage is Austen conveying?, I would ask my students). She begins by saying how Lizzy and Darcy are temperamentally fit but then doesn’t explain (even something as simple as they’re so different, but they complement each other). I was a little horrified when I heard that Lizzy is only comfortable being submissive because Darcy is superior. She did finally get to Lizzy’s liveliness being an asset, but I was still smarting over the submission comment. The marriage section deals with the ideal, the happy, the practical, the tolerated, and the arranged with a marriage from the story illustrating each type.(Where are the Gardiners in this? I would have characterized their marriage as either of the first two. )

Then comes the whole text by chapter. Every group (after ch 1-4, for instance) gets a “quick overview” and an “in-depth summary,” both of which review the mnemonic like Big Classy House that is Delightful. There are quotations and even a quiz. There are videos for each chunk as Bergstone talks us through the text. After the first ball, for instance, she explains that everyone got together to talk about the ball. She really delights in retelling the story, so even though she doesn’t get every detail exactly right (for instance, saying Darcy doesn’t notice the mud on Elizabeth’s gown because her cheeks were brightened by exercise, whereas an expert reader would say he does notice but is too attracted to her to care), but the gist is there, and she’s so enthusiastic, it’d be tough not to be in response.

Plus the little illustrations that accompany her talking make this quick guide more like a comic book, which I know would help along several of my buddies who really want to master this text, if for no other reason than to impress me in casual conversation. For them, and for anyone who needs a little help keeping track of everything, this is literally a quick guide, and it’s fun and easy.

Published in: on November 1, 2014 at 2:48 pm  Comments (1)  

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

This series asks modern writers of note to “adapt” Jane Austen novels for the modern world. I imagined Trollope’s greatest difficulty would be developing credible reasons why the Dashwood women couldn’t just work to support themselves; they should no longer be helpless. Belle Dashwood, mother to Elinor, Margaret, and Marianne, with her “mother’s propensity for drama and impulsiveness,” is upset to have to vacate “paradise” because of Fanny Dashwood, her deceased husband’s daughter-in-law. Margaret comments that their father couldn’t “leave [Belle] anything much because he hadn’t married” her. Elinor has the disadvantage of being able to see her father’s choices not as romantic but as careless—no marriage, no “responsible will” to secure his partner, and relying on “the charity and whim of an old man” whose desires end up going in another direction. She has been studying architecture. Belle was a teacher before she married. Margaret is 13 and in private school. Marianne spends her time with art and music and books.

We sense immediately how modern Trollope has made the story with Marianne beginning to curse (“shut the f–“) the first time we hear her speak. There are also some odd anachronisms; Margaret and “her school friends,” for instance, hold “up their splayed fingers in a ‘w,’ to demonstrate the ‘whatever’ shape,” but she also has an ipod. Is this 90s Clueless with 2010s devices? Everyone in this story has a nickname, and though the characters don’t seem offended by them as they might have been during Austen’s time, they became occasionally annoying to the reader. Sir John is Jonns, Willoughby is Wills, Margaret is “Mags,” Marianne is M, and Elinor is Ellie, for instance.

Sir John Middleton, a “double dinosaur” because he’s both a baronet and inheritor of the Barton estate, has spent some time in the army before becoming “managing director” of a company that makes “specialist pumps for desalination plants.” He also hosts great parties. When he meets Mary Jennings, an heiress of a clothing company and “also a considerable capital sum,” Sir John becomes “an admirable entrepreneur,” assisted by his mother-in-law, Abigail (Abi)Jennings, who brings the story of the Dashwood girls to his attention. In this version, Sir John goes to Norland to explain his plan for them and presents “a slide show of [their] new home” on his laptop (after Margaret offers to help him). Mrs. Dashwood is thrilled by the prospect, but each of the girls has her concerns (Ellie: finishing school, M: her music and the newness of the cottage; Mags: leaving all her friends).

Belle gets a lot more credit for intelligence (and wit) here than in the original, putting Fanny and John in place with a smile. When Fanny praises John for giving them “somewhere to live all summer, rent free,” for instance, Belle “brightly” responds with an affirmation “you let us stay on in our own home for a while and now we’ve found another one to go to! Perfect.” She does, however, foolishly throw Edward’s promise to visit them in Devon in Fanny’s face, which may bring a temporary “triumph” but which will cause problems. Belle is also a force of positive energy, exclaiming about the “new life” they are about to begin in Devon, as they drive away from Norland. Belle is also much more concerned about the speed and passion of the Willoughby-Marianne courtship than Mrs. Dashwood the original seems to be, confiding in her husband’s spirit that she’s “anxious” about Marianne’s situation (rightly so since the private visit to Allenham yields more than just some time unchaperoned in this version).

This Elinor is usually the sensible woman we would expect. From Elinor’s perspective, Marianne has inherited not only “their father’s asthma, but also his propensity for depression,” which may explain—or even negate—the difference of “sensibility” between the two sisters. Ellie, though, has more of it here than the original does—openly sad about the comments of her school coordinator when she tells him she can’t finish her studies and even admitting to M she knows Edward likes her. Here, she chooses not to follow him on Facebook and instead to focus on practical matters, like “packing up books.” As in the original, Elinor suffers quietly, but she does occasionally speak up, such as asking “What about me?” when it seems the needs of everyone but Ellie are being accommodated at Barton. She imagines how “extraordinary” it must be “to be able to surrender oneself so completely” to music, or books, or love the way Marianne does. She, by contrast, knows it is “unwise . . . to think too much about hearts.” She thinks herself “a little cold” for lacking faith in Wills and in this relationship, though we know she is right to do so. A few uncharacteristic moves occur, first, when Elinor, overwhelmed by the treehouse Thomas is building for Margaret and the prospect of paying for it, “seize[s] a saucepan lid” and flings “it wildly in frustration across the kitchen,” and then, when M finally learns about Edward, Elinor “writh[es] a little, on the floor.” First of all, Elinor wouldn’t “writhe,” and secondly, how does someone writhe “a little”? But, true to her original, Elinor is quick-thinking. Rather than a long period of despair in the face of Lucy’s revelation, Elinor quickly realizes that “everywhere [Edward] turn[s], there [is] a woman demanding something of him which he could not possibly deliver,” and that she is the one “he has actually chosen of his own free will,” even if he can’t actually offer her anything. Elinor does a lot more self-reproaching here than she seems to need and certainly more than the original needs, such as scolding herself for “lecturing Marianne about facing herself rather than seeking a rescuing soulmate” when she herself has been “stupid, stupid Miss Sensible.”

There are some particularly immature moments of our characters, interspersed with seemingly random narrative digs at various groups of people who didn’t really need to be taken down here. Little brat Harry is “clutching a giant American-style cookie” when the girls leave their home. Not sure why we have to bring Americans into this. Margaret isn’t much better then Harry, immediately deeming Mrs. Jennings “fat . . . as well as . . . a sick bitch.” At least Mrs. Jennings has the spirit to call Mags on her assumptions, claiming she is “far too fat for any self-respecting broomstick.” Margaret is annoying when she “eagerly . . . spear[s] [M’s] potatoes” when M is upset after Wills leaves. There’s an unnecessary slam of “right-wing politics” linked with the men (why just the men?) at the dinner in which the girls meet Mrs. Ferrars, too.

Marianne is frustrating as well. Though at times she does seem to understand Elinor better here than their mother does, explaining that Ellie “won’t let herself despair about things she can’t have,” she foolishly downgrades Ellie’s feelings by saying Ellie does “sort of miss Ed, in her way.” Marianne is drawn to Allenham in large part because it has “never substantially changed” since 1640. I’m not sure how rain affects the asthmatic worse than other people, but even Margaret knows to give Marianne her own fleece when they get caught in the rain; why does M come so ill-prepared that her 13-year-old sister has to help her? I found Willoughby unbelievable, even for him. He says “Ye gods” when Mags tells him about her sister’s asthma attack and later offers M a car (rather than a horse), which Ellie says M cannot accept (and even Belle agrees with Elinor here). They can’t afford the insurance, the taxes, or the fuel. M, too, is different and more sensible (sometimes) here, as when she agrees she cannot accept the car after Ellie explains why, but M is annoying inconsistent—which may be in keeping with Austen’s version. She defends Ellie as “private” but then tells Mags M herself doesn’t “need to be” since M is “proud of how” she feels. Why, then, won’t she show anyone else her ring? M is most annoying, however, when she tells herself she “must be forgiving and understanding about Elinor’s limitations” since Elinor doesn’t “have a passionate bone in her body.”

Margaret takes cues from both sisters, being annoying again when she “require[s] Elinor”—who is going out of her way to pick her up from school—“to park round the corner so that none of [Margaret’s] school friends would see” the car. But she at least apologizes. Marianne, by contrast, yells at Ellie that she is “so completely buttoned up” that she “can’t even begin to understand someone like” M. Elinor then texts an apology! Margaret is also trying to learn how things work, asking Elinor if woman “have to have boyfriends” and if Marianne is “overdoing it a bit” with the Wills drama. Margaret matures as Marianne does, staying “calm and together” when Elinor calls with the terrifying news about M’s condition. Margaret also generously offers her precious tree-house when Elinor and Edward need some time. We know M is recovering when she starts calling Wills by his full name again, telling her mom she is “pretty well over John Willoughby.”

Other characters worthy of note: The Steele sisters are annoying as ever. This Nancy Steele uses ridiculous forms of words like “amazeballs” (for “amazing”) and “totes inappropes.” William Brandon, who served with Sir John in Bosnia, now “devotes himself to good works,” much as Edward wants to do but hasn’t yet found a way to do. There’s a new character—Peter Austen, who has personally benefitted from Bill Brandon’s help and now is in a position as an architect to get Elinor some work assisting his “chief designer.” Charlotte and Tommy Palmer are fun. She’s hugely pregnant, pretty, and eager to talk. He uses his BlackBerry constantly, claims he married Charlotte “for [her] body,” but then kindly asks Elinor if she’s okay. Thomas, Jonno’s man-servant, seems to show a lot of attention to Belle Dashwood’s comfort, such as leaving kindling “arranged as carefully as breadsticks in a wicker basket.” This is a modern story, so I thought it possible Mrs. Dashwood wouldn’t be left behind on the romance journey, but Trollope took that story in a different direction. This Robert Ferrars (Robbie) attends a classical music event because he was “asked here by a duchess” who wants him “to organise her daughter’s wedding,” which I think was supposed to be the cue to the audience that this Robert Ferrars wouldn’t be enjoying Lucy in any way except outfitting her.

And as for Edward (here, Ed), his big revelation is far too explicit here and undercuts the impact of Austen’s understated one. (The Marianne-Bill romance is more smoothly handled, with M helping Bill relax by mimicking “Lucy Steele and old Mrs. Ferrars, and Fanny Dashwood having the vapours,” which leaves everyone “sobbing with laughter.”) Edward is so happy once Elinor accepts his offer that, when John calls for him, he asks how it feels to be “pussy-whipped by two women,” which hardly seems necessary or in keeping with Edward’s character, even an angry Edward.

The novel ends as it should, with Elinor and Edward experiencing true joy, Marianne growing closer to Bill, Mrs. Dashwood looking for a teaching position, and Wills “more rueful than angry” that his own behavior cost him Jane Smith’s fortune AND the woman he loves.

Published in: on October 12, 2014 at 7:29 am  Comments (1)  
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Novel Destinations: literary landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon Foreword by Matthew Pearl

“Sometimes a book invites a journey, sometimes we invite ourselves.” With that premise, we are taken on a journey that includes the pub where Leopold Bloom has lunch” and the bridge off which “Quentin Compson jumped.”

At first, we explore “the best literary experiences at home and abroad.” What I loved about this section was its inclusion of many places I have known, visited, and loved (Ashland, Oregon; Anne Hathaway’s Cottage; Steventon’s St. Nicholas Church; Winchester Cathedral; Chawton Cottage (listed as Jane Austen’s House Museum); the National Portrait Gallery; 48 Doughty Street—the Dickens Museum) and its revelation of places I now I have on my radar (Monte Cristo Cottage, named for the show in which Eugene O’Neill’s father was a touring stage actor; Dora’s bedroom in Rydal Mount; Kenwood Vineyards, which “owns the grapevines that were once part of Beauty Ranch” and now produces the Jack London series of wines; the “Stella Calling Contest” in Clarksdale, Mississippi; West Hills, NY, where you can hear “Whitman’s voice on tape reading four lines of his poem ‘America'”; and the house in London where Dr. Samuel Johnson lived while he was writing the dictionary, which “was employed by such scribes as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth, and Ocsar Wilde”). It also reminded me of places I have long wanted to see but not yet actually visited (Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford; Scott’s View; Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage; the Brontes’ Haworth—in fact, reading about their lives, bursts of success after years of tragedy and shortly followed by dramatic successions of tragedy, better justified in my view the drama that sometimes draws me in and more often turns me aside; Burns Cottage, the Burns Cottage Museum, and Auld Kirk Alloway, which is central to the hilarious and terrifying “Tam o’Shanter;” John Milton’s cottage (in Chalfont St. Giles) where he completed Paradise Lost, “composed entirely in his head and dictated to his secretary” over a period of about ten years).

There are also several places I don’t feel the need to visit but am happy to read exist. These include Jack London’s Pig Palace in which “each porcine family [had] their own apartment.”

Bath gets a lot of page time, especially in the section entitled Bath, England Unpersuaded: Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Annually in September, Bath has a Jane Austen festival, and the text warns us not to miss the “In the Footsteps of Jane Austen” one-day outing (to places that may include Chawton House and Stoneleigh Abbey). For ten days, “visitors can promenade in a period costume along the Royal Crescent . . . partake in a Grand Ball . . . compete in a Jane Austen treasure hunt, and sample the delights of an 18th century breakfast.” There are plays and walks and talks, and obviously the richest of temptations: “the unique camaraderie.” Beginning with a description of Austen’s feelings about Bath, the text launches into a little history of the town, including during Roman times and during the Middle Ages. It also teaches us about “three pivotal figures” (“entrepreneur” Beau Nash, architect John Wood, and businessman Ralph Allen) who revived Bath. Then we return to why Austen disliked Bath and what “larger misfortune[s]” Bath brought to her (notably the reverend George Austen’s death and “the acute social embarrassment of reneging” on Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal). In this discussion, we are reminded of Austen’s praise of (especially Fanny Burney’s Cecilia and Camilla and Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda) novels “for conveying ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature,’ the selfsame characteristic for which Austen’s own novels were later to become renowned.” The text includes the addresses associated with Austen in Bath and the suggestion not to miss Jane Austen’s Bath Walking Tour. We’re advised later to enjoy the Literature Festival, which takes place each year “in late February/early March” and where 15,000 visitors gather to enjoy the town “immortalized in the pages of onetime resident Jane Austen’s novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.”

There’s a good amount of text on the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library, which I finally visited on my third visit to England and really enjoyed. The description here—“it’s the humble word that stars in documents like the 800-year-old Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and Shakespeare’s Folio—is so apt; it is “a bibliophile’s Louvre”! The “final two manuscript chapters of Jane Austen’s Persuasion” are here, but I thought it interesting that the writers only parenthetically mention the item that was, for me, the highlight of the experience: Jane Austen’s writing desk. I suppose not all visitors have a brother who physically constructed a wooden desk to match Jane’s for his sister’s most recent big birthday, but still. They do mention the pretty cool online gallery in which visitors can, among other things, “virtually turn the pages of library treasures” such as Austen’s draft of The History of England “by a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian.”

Jane Austen appears again in the section dealing with “From Page to Screen,” whose premise is that “the next best thing to following in the footsteps of beloved authors is to visit the locales where their books were brought to life on film.” I may quibble with the notion that the books lacked life until they became films, but I also love seeing places I have seen in Austen film adaptations. This book neatly reminds us what scenes were filmed at Chatsworth House and which at Sudbury Hall and Lyme Park (wet shirt scene!).

Other interesting things I learned: The Alexander House Booklovers’ Bed and Breakfast in Princess Anne, MD offers three rooms “devoted to different time periods,” including one to “the Regency-era England of Jane Austen.” Also on your stay there, you might play Pride & Prejudice: the Game (as well as Trivial pursuit Book Lovers’ Edition: why don’t I own that?). Marshalsea Debtors Prison (Little Dorrit is born there, and Dickens’ father was imprisoned there) exists only in a “fragment of its arched brick entrance wall,” noted by a plaque. I hadn’t realized that Dickens is describing his own Gad’s Hill place in A Christmas Carol as “a mansion of dull red brick.” I hadn’t realized how “tireless [a] champion of humanitarian causes” Dickens was. Strange, though, that in America, he would take “aim at the young nation’s rampant capitalism” and “conformity of thinking.” Doesn’t capitalism require new ideas? Did he think England was doing so much better? (besides slavery, obviously)

In touring the world, I learned more about writers I didn’t know well and got reacquainted with writers I do. I was struck by how many of them died so young—Rabbie Burns and Thomas Wolfe at 37, John Keats at 26, Shelley at 29. There are little known facts (or, at least, I hadn’t known them) that I enjoyed, too, especially about our writers’ engagement with each other. Oscar Wilde visited Walt Whitman in 1882. That makes me happy. Mark Twain was unimpressed by Dickens’ performances. I can picture a mustachioed Twain scoffing at Dickens’ bombastic shows. Did YOU know that Harper Lee’s favorite writers were Austen and Stevenson? I didn’t either, but it makes sense when you learn that, without money, Lee and Truman Capote “lived in [their] imagination most of the time.” Apparently after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, “Lee expressed a desire to emulate Jane Austen” by “continuing to chronicle the ‘rich social pattern’ of small-town” life, though she didn’t end up publishing more.

Though this book is tough to read all the way through—so many places, so many writers, so much info to absorb—it is a wonderful resource for more exploration of writers you love or places you might love to visit.

Published in: on August 26, 2014 at 8:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

James begins by reviewing the events concerning Mr. Collins that a Pride and Prejudice reader will well remember, but adds the detail that, at the time of the events of the novel, the future for Mrs. Bennet and her girls upon Mr. Bennet’s demise would be their installation “in one of the larger cottages on the estate where they would receive spiritual comfort from his administrations and bodily sustenance from the leftovers from Mrs. Collins’ kitchen” (4). Oh, the horror. It’s a wonder all five girls didn’t grab the first man they saw to spare themselves that fate.

She then takes us back in time a bit before catching us up on the present. The people of Meryton, with whose perspective James entertains us, are apparently happy enough to be decent to Lydia when she visits as Mrs. Wickham and even moderately pleased for Jane, but among these busy-bodies, “Elizabeth ha[s] never been popular” (9). They accuse “her of being sardonic, and although there [is] uncertainty about the meaning of the word, they [know] that it [is] not a desirable quality in a woman” (9). Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bennet take to each other right away, and even work together to help set up Bingley’s library. Mary, meanwhile, whom “no one expected to marry,” finds herself the wife of a rector near the Bingley home in Highmarten, and quite content as Mrs. Theodore Hopkins” (cute name choice, Ms. James) (11).

Our ancillary characters are busy, too. Miss Bingley, meanwhile, is in “a most hopeful phase” of a “pursuit of a widowed peer of great wealth” whose boring company matters less than “his peerage and his money” to her (149). Lady Catherine uses her musical boasting logic when she says her own lawyer says that were she “a man and had taken to the law, [she] would have been an ornament in the English bar” (151). Charlotte is pregnant with their fourth and is manipulating Mr. Collins into slightly better behavior, praising, for instance, his lack of prattling (155). Anne de Bourgh has died, and as Elizabeth goes to Rosings to offer comfort, warms Lady Catherine to her a bit (156). I was surprised and delighted to see that Wickham’s “latest attempt to earn a competence ha[s] been with Sir Walter Elliot” as a “secretary to assist with” extra work required by a move home to Kellynch but not that Wickham gets fired “within six months” (173).

I was thrown by what must be a mistake: The narrator says Lady Anne’s ball began when “Darcy was a year old” and “except for the period of mourning when her husband died, the ball had taken place every year until Lady Anne’s own death” (16). Experienced readers know Lady Anne died before her husband. I know I’m in the hands of a master here, so I wasn’t sure what to make of this apparent slip.

This story has some new characters: Henry Alveston, “a young lawyer, who, handsome, clever and lively,” is staying with Jane and Bingley and welcome (especially by Georgiana) with them to Pemberley (19). Thomas Bidwell, formerly the late Mr. Darcy’s head coachman and now, with “rheumatism in both his knees and his back,” is still invaluable to the Darcys in helping them prepare for the ball (19). We get much more of Bidwell’s story while he polishes the silver. Life is tough for him and his wife: his son is dying, one daughter has had four children in four years and is so overwhelmed she sends her other sister back home with the baby, and the home in which they live may be haunted. There’s also a very dark back-story there: Darcy’s great-grandfather “became a recluse” after “inheriting the state” and then “shot himself” in the cottage (22).

Some not so new characters have new obligations. Colonel Fitzwilliam, now an earl, comes to consult Elizabeth on the matter of marrying Georgiana. He makes a somewhat disparaging comment about Alveston, another of Georgiana’s suitors, saying the younger man “cannot afford to marry a poor woman,” but James then launches into Elizabeth’s thought. They are not Henry and Georgiana at all, but Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth, when they first met and soon he warned her that “the younger sons ‘cannot marry where they like'” (26-27). Elizabeth is left feeling uncomfortable, and she wonders “why the thought of” an alliance between Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam gives “her an unease which she could not reason away” (37). We know her well enough to trust her instincts.

As Elizabeth contemplates the past and present, one of her questions about the development of feelings between her and Darcy is, “if this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome” as that of Elizabeth and Darcy? (47). I’d never quite thought of it in these terms, but the narrator points out that they “had only been together in private for less than half an hour” between the two proposals, and I chuckled inwardly at the praise of Austen (47). Elizabeth’s contemplation of the juxtaposition of “the most civilised country in Europe” with “another world . . . in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world” such that “perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay for ever” reminds me so much of Lucie Manette’s hearing of footsteps, years before the French Revolution enters her family’s life (48). These are the women whose instincts readers trust.

Book One ends with Lydia making a hysterical and surprise appearance. When Lydia arrives, the Darcys and the Bingleys handle everything effectively, but then Fitzwilliam returns from his ride (offering “no explanation of his absence” and not being questioned by Darcy, who, “in the trauma of the evening’s events, had given no thought to him” 60). The narrator suggests the colonel is up to something. Why does he so quickly volunteer to “fetch” Bidwell and then return so quickly without him but with the excuse that Bidwell is “so distressed at leaving his work half-finished” that it seemed better to leave him rather than take him home to check on his family after gunshots are heard near his home in the woods? (61) It is also only Fitzwilliam who has any contact with Bidwell’s wife and daughter. Why does Fitzwilliam seek this, and why does Darcy allow it?

We grow so suspicious that when they find Wickham sobbing, drunk, over Denny’s dead body, I not only suspected Wickham didn’t do it but also wondered if the colonel could have. Why does Darcy yield so often to the colonel? Darcy thinks the “precaution of being near the locked and bolted door” is unnecessary and would far rather retire to “Elizabeth’s loving arms,” but he instead sleeps in the library, “feeling he ha[s] no choice” (105-06). It does, at least, occur to Darcy that Fitzwilliam is the “only member of the family and guests” without an alibi and is worried about “his cousin’s silence,” though not enough to suspect him as we do (108). The thought occurs to Elizabeth that maybe Fitzwilliam suggested Darcy stay with him in the library “to prevent her and Darcy from having some time in private together” (118-19). The overly rigid Hardcastle opts not to pursue the colonel’s alibi more than he offers, which, based on the set-up seems a mistake to the reader. James does much to build the suspicion that something is going on with the colonel and doesn’t resolve the secrecy until near the end of the tale. When the colonel finally tells Darcy his “part in this whole affair,” he answers a lot of our questions, and it’s a relief to anyone who likes him that he volunteers the information (246).

In the meantime, James develops the town around Pemberley, including the home and family of Selwyn Hardcastle, “a conscientious and honest magistrate, but not a friend” (80). I can see why, even without the backstory. He is so self-righteous, he’s annoying. How Darcy holds his tongue—thinking “it prudent to say as little as possible”—is beyond me (86). Darcy is also put in the ironic position of defending Wickham when Sir Selwyn interprets Wickham’s words as a “confession” (87). Neither Elizabeth nor Darcy wants Wickham to be subject to a “howling crowd suddenly silenced as [his] handcuffed figure emerge[s] from prison” to be led to “the high gallows and the noose” (90). We forget sometimes how dark these times could be.

There are some cool little scenes, like Darcy and Elizabeth speaking to the servants, he “much too little” and she “a little too much,” but together, they “got it right” (129). Darcy is far more gracious to Wickham than Wickham deserves. When Alveston gets involved in the legal matters surrounding Wickham, Darcy is honest that he has found Wickham “ungrateful, envious, dishonest and deceitful” but also says that was “in the past,” “we all have the capacity to change,” and he “cannot believe that the Wickham [he] once knew . . . would be capable of the brutal murder of a former comrade and a friend” (141). Mr. Bennet shows up, and ensconces himself in the library to await Darcy, who realizes he is “exceedingly glad to see this unexpected visitor” (175). Darcy always carries the weight of the world; it makes sense he would want someone older and wiser for guidance he hasn’t had since he was a boy. Mr. Bennet, too, thinks Wickham is not guilty of murder.

Everyone in charge dismisses the “two silly young girls” who say they saw the “ghost of Mr. Reilly wandering in the woodland” the night of the murder,” and even “if there was a woman in the woodland,” everyone claims “it is hardly of much importance” since “this was not a woman’s crime,” which makes me suspect, of course, that it is or could be (182). Mrs. Younge makes an appearance at Wickham’s trial, and I wondered if she might be the woman responsible, and if Wickham’s comment was about introducing Denny to her. She is now “expensively dressed” with a fancy trimmed hat (203). Unless: could the murderer be Lydia? Maybe Wickham was having an affair with Mrs. Younge, and Lydia was fighting with him? When the verdict is read, Mrs. Younge flings “herself right under the wheels” of a heavy coach (235). If she were guilty but afraid to die, she wouldn’t do that, so could this be from love? The shocking revelation about who Mrs. Younge really is shows James really taking that relationship in a new direction. But whoa: I was really not expecting the twist (the details of which I will save for you to discover). Suffice it to say, even after a full confession, they make Wickham go back to his cell, saying “courts in England do not sentence to death a man who has proved to be innocent” (240).

I was a little confused about a few details. Wouldn’t Wickham and Louisa Bidwell have known each other growing up, or is she too young? Mrs. Reynolds’ brother’s widow is Mrs. Goddard (from Emma!), an awesome little treat for those of us “in the know” (280). Harriet names their new son “John after Mrs. Martin’s father”—since when do they know who her father is? (280) How could the boy’s actual grandfather, Bidwell, think his oldest daughter is raising the boy? Won’t he see he’s not there if ever they visit? And why is Mr. Stoughton “lighten[ing] his duties” to spend more time with Louisa? Isn’t she marrying Joseph Billings? (281) I felt like I was missing something.

As usual, everyone seems to offer to take responsibility for Wickham, but maybe his life in the New World will change that! Far more interesting, however, is the commentary, strangely relevant to Series 4 of Downton Abbey as well: “the peace and security of England depends on gentlemen living in their houses as good landlords and masters, considerate to their servants, charitable to the poor, and ready, as justices of the peace, to take a full part on promoting peace and order in their communities” (191). That is the best defense of Regency England I have heard.

Published in: on July 5, 2014 at 7:26 am  Comments (1)  

The Deception at Lyme (Or, the Peril of Persuasion) A Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery by Carrie Bebris

I started reading this one not only excited for another Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery, but also a little sad since it’s the sixth, and every complete work has now been revisited. Bebris again thanks her father (my heart ached to think how much I owe and miss my dad). She also thanks artist Teresa Fasolino, who does all the covers for this series, and I did find myself studying this one since I know how much they reveal. There are even pictures in this one!

As is always the case with this series, I was struck by the command both of language and of character. Other than an occasional split infinitive (“that seemed to primarily serve those loading” 28), the language is controlled and lovely (much as are our protagonist sleuths, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy). Witness this poetic opening: “On the southern coast of England, near the town of Lyme Regis, an ancient seawall rises from the water” (15).

Bebris is also a master of character. Though I was at first dismayed at how quick Darcy is to discourage Georgiana from a particular man, I soon understood that calling every new character’s intentions into doubt is key to the development of the mystery. Bebris introduces us to two new sets of people of people right away: Miss Ashford and her older brother (in whom Georgiana seems maybe interested) and the couple Elizabeth overhears arguing about his business, her money, and some betrayal of “affairs” (20). We want to like Sir Laurence, but we also wonder why Darcy says so little about him from White’s and why he is so surprised to have company on the Cobb, and why is he in an area “hidden from view” (28). The murder of the mysterious, seemingly cold woman is surprising—but somehow not. We knew something mysterious must be happening down these steps, but how did Sir Laurence not know? Or did he? We suspect quite soon that this pregnant woman who fell is the one Elizabeth heard arguing–but then it turns out the rather icky man she was with, and whose first reaction to hearing the news from Darcy is to blame her (“whatever was she thinking”), is William Elliot! (42) I won’t spoil for you the name of the woman with whom he was arguing, though, in retrospect, I should have guessed.

Sir Walter is as ridiculous as ever. There is a hilarious shift in behavior when Darcy and Elizabeth throw around the fancy titles of the people with whom they associate. Walter goes from telling his servant to say he’s not home to apologizing for the relatively lowly “surroundings” (55). Upon hearing the news, Sir Walter’s concerns are first ordering proper mourning clothes, and later, the location of the baby. Elizabeth is too kind; she assumes “the shock of bereavement” is what allows Sir Walter “to discuss his son-in-law’s complexion and living arrangements immediately after receiving news of his wife’s death” (58). Elizabeth Eliot hasn’t yet told Anne they’re in town because Mrs. Smith is staying with the Wentworths.

I eagerly anticipated the meetings of Lizzy and Anne and of Darcy and Wentworth. One of the workers comments on Louisa’s fall (not by name). One might think, if women keep falling, something should be altered! He also says she recovered, so that must mean Anne isn’t visiting anymore. How will Elizabeth and Anne meet? In a tough situation, Darcy accepts help from the guy who was checking out Georgiana the day before—and this guy says he knows where they can get help nearby. Still, I cried out a little when the little Harville opened the door! Mrs. Harville knows exactly whom to summon; she says, “a friend of ours had an accident on the Cobb last autumn and injured her head. Mr. Sawyer treated her, and she is mended now,” of Louisa Musgrove (39). I was relieved to learn Anne was just there recently!

Bebris increases our suspense by first introducing the Darcys to this low-life Eliot rather than to the Wentworths! It is interesting, nonetheless. Whose baby is it? Probably not his, since he doesn’t stay for its birth. Maybe Sir Walter’s? Maybe that’s why William asked Darcy right away if it survived? Someone pushed her; that much is clear from her response to Elizabeth during her labor (50). As usual, there is some build-up: the heroes meet significantly before the heroines finally do.

Elizabeth is as charming as ever—and smart. Even after a traumatic day, she puts pieces together: why does her normally calm daughter push her new little friend? What did Lily-Anne mean when she got her mom’s attention? What is the significance of the victim’s last words? Elizabeth and Georgiana help a stranger—who turns out to be Anne’s Mrs. Smith! Georgiana factors prominently here, both because she is Elizabeth’s companion and because so many young men seem to crave her attention. The narrator explains that Georgiana’s draw to Wickham resulted, to some degree, from her admiration of her cousin Gerard (Colonel Fitzwilliam’s brother), and so, “it was little wonder that shortly afterward she had fallen prey to . . . [George,] who looked dashing in uniform” (85). (But was he in the militia yet, or did that happen after he got caught? 85) Georgiana’s watching of the sky the night before Sir Laurence is supposed to take her out on a boat reminded me of when Catherine Morland hopes for fair weather so the Tilneys and she can take a walk (225).

There is another story within the story, and we end up reading Gerard’s sea-voyage journals and learning about more than sea-life, rum, and sugar. There are some disturbing suggestions about two men on board—one we knew was there, and one we did not. Bebris cleverly sets it up that Elizabeth is suspicious of one, and Darcy of the other, so we’re now watching both closely. Extramarital affairs lead not only to disturbed relationships but also to red hair where there shouldn’t be any genetic reason for it. The sheer number of affairs here is a little overwhelming, and just when it looks like only one of the six (of three couples) was at all honorable, she does something to cast doubt on that as well. In fact, until Darcy comments that “it seems Mrs. Smith says a great many things whenever you are together,” and Elizabeth responds, “I myself was a little taken aback by how much she divulged to someone with whom she is only recently acquainted,” I had made no connection between her talkativeness and Wickham’s—and how quickly Elizabeth trusted each (199). Bebris has us doubting someone we had never before doubted—quite an accomplishment, I thought.
I liked pretty much everything about this story—even the implied lessons in parenting. Lily-Anne actually helps her parents solve the mystery and also facilitates our understanding of characters, such as when she burrows into her father’s neck when Sir Laurence arrives (218). I appreciated that Darcy takes her aside to admonish her later when she tries to run into a crowd, rather than disciplining her in public (222). The snippets of text from various novels or letters really help frame the chapters and are as central as the cliffhanger so often concluding each.

Like Georgiana, I just want “a man of integrity and principle, whom I can respect and admire, who respects and appreciates me in turn, and who makes me feel safe, happy, and loved” (294). She gets hers, so . . . .

Published in: on June 6, 2014 at 10:04 am  Comments (1)  

The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss

On the surface, this tale is not at all related to Jane Austen, but I have read and enjoyed Liss’s stories in the past, and when my school librarian recommended this one to me, I wisely listened to him. As it turns out, Liss is clearly inspired at least in part by Austen in this captivating story. There are two sisters who are very close. Once their father dies, Martha marries an odious cousin, Mr. Buckles, to protect her younger sister, Lucy, though their father Mr. Derrick “detested Buckles as a simpering buffoon,” but then Mr. Buckles grants Lucy only a pittance each year and won’t permit her to live with them as he promised Martha he would. Why? Because Buckles’ “patroness, the Lady Harriet Dyer, whom he obey[s] in all things, does not think it wise” for Lucy to stay with Martha (50). When Lady Harriet tries to interfere in Lucy’s life, Lucy says, “I beg your pardon . . . You and I have been introduced, but we little know one another. I am not certain by what authority you direct me, or what has prompted you to make the long drive to do so” (90). Lady Harriet says she is concerned about the “scandal” Lucy will bring the family, later faulting Lucy’s “obstinacy” (91). Mr. Buckles and Lady Harriet live in Kent (92). Mr. Buckles eats with “determined fury,” and speaks with his mouth full of food (251). Lucy phrases her eventual rejection of a marriage proposal (proposed not to her but to her uncle about her) this way: “because she would not be happy” married to him, she cannot “imagine he could be” happy married to her (73). When Lucy’s own potential Mr. Collins temporarily accepts her rejection, he awkwardly comments that Lucy will see she “would not have suffered for being married to” him (210).

It’s Pride and Prejudice gone terribly wrong.

When we first meet Lucy Derrick, she wants “to feel as though her life were her own” (4). She, like Elizabeth, is “of slightly below-average stature, somewhat dark of complexion, and, if no striking beauty . . . certainly pretty” (5). She is now living in the home of an uncle. His serving woman is Mrs. Quince, who begins mean—her first words to Lucy disparage the young woman’s hair as being “almost negro in its coarseness” (she is later revealed to be anti-Semitic, too)—and reveals herself to be truly evil as we and Lucy get to know her better (6). Lucy’s father, who died three years ago, “had always been against” the mills run by people like the man to whom her uncle has contracted her in marriage. The mills, Lucy’s father believed, “strip their laborers of their humanity” (11). Lucy has good instincts—defending the grievances of the starving families she has seen, being quiet when speaking will actually prevent the achievement of her goals, and wanting to help her uncle’s servant, “a stooped old fellow called Ungston” when no one else thinks of it (13). She has, however, misunderstood several important parts of her own life, and in this adventure, she will learn more than magic alone.

Lucy, like Georgiana Darcy, was misled at age 16 to follow a rake (who later appears in interesting circumstances, of course, and seems to cause great fear in Mrs. Quince, which makes us want to like him), but was stopped by her father delivering the news of her sister Emily’s death. Her reputation is spared, but when her father dies shortly after finally bonding with her over books of magical philosophy, she is left in shabby care. Enter Lord Byron, warning Lucy not to marry mill-owner Mr. Olson, who is perfectly comfortable marrying Lucy by force, assisted by her quiet-loving, mean Uncle Lowell and Mrs. Quince, who once pretended to be Lucy’s friend and now slaps and scolds her, and even holds her responsible for Emily’s death. Lucy appears to be friendless until she meets Mary Crawford (yet another Jane Austen link), a beautiful mysterious healer who shows Lucy her own potential, just as Lord Byron provides a glimpse of what real attraction is and delivers the legitimate will, which left the girls with plenty of money, and which was replaced with a will leaving evil male relatives in charge of their fates. Mary, of “ethereal” beauty, has an “almost unnatural” paleness of coloring (93, 55). In a carriage, Lucy tries “not to stare at” Mary, who seems “to glow in the dark of the carriage” (94). Lucy, however, is just learning to process all the details coming at her, and even a more mature reader may miss on the first reading the ample clues Liss provides throughout the story as to what is really going on here.

Add magic, a Luddite rebellion, secret spells, William Blake, the prime minister, the Prince Regent, Beau Brummell, and the mysterious “gather the leaves in Newstead” advice Lucy keeps receiving (and which I figured out in ch 19, a full chapter before Lucy does, but then she’s only 20 and possibly distracted by being in the story), and you have yourself a riveting tale with likeable characters you don’t want to leave.

Things take a disturbing turn when a baby is taken, replaced, it seems, with a demon, and suddenly Lucy is unsure she can trust even her only friend. She must turn to a man she thinks her enemy—and use her powers with talismans to get people to do what she needs them to do. It’s all very exciting, as we, and she, collect information to assess whom we can trust and whom we cannot.

If this story is about learning whom to trust, Liss certainly makes that lesson difficult to master! Just when we think someone is trustworthy, we learn he or she isn’t, or is only to a certain extent. Like Elizabeth, our heroine must come to a point where she finally understands the depth of her own misjudgment, and though she can “hardly comprehend what this new information” means to her, at a certain point she can “no longer deny” the shift in her feelings for the real hero (346). We have hope for Byron, despite what we know about him, and what he offers Lucy, and that hope is seemingly confirmed when Martha sees his estate and comments to Lucy that “to be mistress of Newstead might be something” (161). (I found it almost strange what specific choices Liss makes with respect to Lord Byron here since he’s a guy on whom we have historical information.) Liss seems to lead us down the Darcy path, but more central here is Lucy getting control over her own life.

To do that, she must understand her own feelings as well as those of the people around her—people like Mrs. Emmett, who is fascinating from the beginning; though we are given multiple clues early on about who she is (even her name), that revelation still came as a shock to this reader, who should have seen it (and who knows the word in its original)! This book is worth a second read, if only for the sheer joy of spotting all the clues to secrets you missed before you knew what to look for. They’re everywhere in plain sight!

Published in: on April 20, 2014 at 4:52 pm  Comments (1)  

Longbourne by Jo Baker

Premised with the line, “What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?” Longbourne takes us behind the scenes of Pride and Prejudice to the life of one of the Bennets’  young housemaids. Sarah awakes early to wash the family linen in the opening scene and imagines that five young ladies are “dreaming of whatever it was that young ladies dream” (3). She, however, dreams of moving somewhere like the Barbados, Antigua, or Jamaica, where, she imagines, people wear so few clothes that “there was consequently very little in the way of laundry” (4).

This is not an easy life. It’s funny (not to Sarah, of course) to see the effect of Elizabeth’s scampering through the mud on the servant who has to scrub the mud out of the petticoats. Polly, an even younger girl, is tired, too, and resents Mr. Hill, whom she feels is never around “when he [is] needed” (7). Polly has had to change her name to work at Longbourne because, “though [her] christened name is Mary,” someone has that name already in the family (8). Mr. Bennet’s request for “a slice of cake to go with his Madeira wine” in the library forces Mr. Hill awake when he has finally had a moment’s rest (11). This life is, however, better than the alternative, as Sarah remembers when she reflects on her childhood going hungry in a poorhouse after her parents died until Mrs. Hill rescued her and fed her (20). Sarah remembers a bit of happy childhood—a baby brother, two parents—but Polly was left “in a basket on a farmer’s doorstep”—in January—so she has really only ever known this life (54). Watching Sarah interact with the Gardiner and then Collins servants is interesting. The latter live in terror of Lady Catherine and her inspections, even cuffing Sarah when she “gad[s] about the countryside like a proper dollymop” (194).  She makes soap from a dead sow—and “it had never failed to astonish her . . . how soap that made things clean was such a foul thing in its own making” (193). So gross!

A mysterious traveling scotchman makes Sarah excited enough that she wishes “she had something nicer to wear” (9). For her, he represents happiness “in this out-of-the-way, quiet, entirely changeless place” (9). The excitement ends up appearing in different form: a man-servant being hired. His presence leads to Sarah rehearsing how to speak to a man and Mrs. Hill being distracted as well (and having a private conversation with Mr. Bennet, the details of which intrigue us but are only revealed much later).

Sarah’s perspective helps us see the Bennets so differently, as people demanding things at all hours, eating nice food while the servants eat souse “hammy, jellied, with melting bits of brain and stringy shreds of cheese and scraps of unexpected crunch” (11). Mr. Bennet does lend the servants books, and Jane is “a blanket over flames,” but the class divide is a sharp one, and we feel it (18). Mrs. Bennet is particularly thoughtless, whining to Hill about how Hill can’t possibly understand Mrs. Bennet’s sufferings, and tossing a beautiful gown the servants had worked hard to launder aside because she “must have something new” (41). As a result, Elizabeth and Jane offer Sarah her pick of their older dresses, and Elizabeth shows the good sense to recognize what kind of dress would best suit “village dances on the green” (52).  Even Elizabeth, who has a good heart, can’t quite place Sarah’s request inquiring after a “Mr. Smith” until she realizes, “Oh! Smith ! . . . The footman!” (265). Even when Elizabeth returns home because of Lydia, and we are so likely to pity her, having Sarah’s view, with worries so much more serious, makes the concerns of the Bennets seem trivial. “No doubt,” Sarah imagines with a hint of sarcasm, “it was moving, all this sisterly distress” (280). Sarah seems to understand them quite well, regarding Lydia and Kitty “as one collective creature” and disapproving of their flirtatiousness since any man would hesitate to attach “himself to a woman flirted with every other man of her acquaintance” (22).

Mrs. Hill takes care of the other servants like they are her children. When the new man starts, she treats him with respect, giving him a razor, soap, a towel, and her own scissors. When he keeps asking what work he may do, she makes him sit and then explains that here, “You eat first” (30). He is transformed, and so are we. Sarah takes a very quick impression of him, negative, of course (if he is to be the Darcy downstairs), but still can’t stop thinking about him after he accidentally rams into her “with a barrowload of dung” (27). Sarah, like Elizabeth with her man, is confused and knows not “what to make of [James] at all,” and James, like Darcy, asks her not to “trouble [her]self to try” (38-39). Just when we think we know what will happen, Sarah is overwhelmed by a “distressingly handsome” footman of Mr. Bingley’s (46).

We don’t get James’ thoughts until more than 50 pages in, but we like him even more once we do. Grateful to Mr. Bennet and eager to protect the Bennet women, James contemplates how “the world could be made entirely anew . . . because someone was kind” (56). (There are several such poignant, beautifully-written moments in this text.) While James waits outside a dance, instead of eating and drinking with the other coachmen, he makes sure the horses drink and “buckle[s] the horses up in blankets” (57). (The other coachmen seem to enact the BBC version of “a clumsy jig” 57). James looks different when the militia arrives, to Mrs. Hill’s eyes, “quite washed out” with exhaustion, but to Sarah’s eyes, “as though something had crawled in under his skin and left him feeling itchy and unclean” (60-61). Because we’re getting mostly Sarah’s point of view, we suspect he has something from which he is hiding, but unlike Sarah, who thinks his devotion to his work is “unnatural,” we suspect Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Hill know James’ history—and pity him as a result (61). When he takes the girls to Mrs. Phillips later, it is clear the presence of the militia bothers him, but though Wickham causes “a creeping chill at the back of James’ neck,” it is clear he doesn’t actually know the officer flirting with Elizabeth (100).

Very soon, it is clear to the reader that Sarah and James have strong feelings for each other, but with she so little understanding him and he so determined not to jeopardize his new home, how can that be resolved without assistance? Baker continues to develop the parallels between Darcy and James. James is indignant that Sarah was sent out in bad weather to procure new “shoe-roses” for the sisters and tells Sarah to “come and find” him the next time that happens, and he’ll go for her (121). She is rude and interprets his gesture of good will as his desire to “dictate” what she may or may not do. He responds: “I meant no harm by it. I would not deprive you of any pleasure” just as Darcy says to Elizabeth when they dance at Netherfield and she insists on forming an opinion of him (121). Like Elizabeth, Sarah delights her suitor by wanting “nothing from him” and brushing “him aside like a fly” (123).

Meanwhile, the handsome Netherfield man, whose name Sarah keeps forgetting to ask because he “so dazzle[s] her”—is clear competition, if not for her hand then at least for her heart (75). Mrs. Hill sees that, and so does James, and they both watch her a little more closely than usual. As the number of encounters increase, Sarah learns his name (Ptolemy) and his story (he was born a slave, but Charles’ father brought him to England and to freedom, though his mother was left behind 105). I trust Ptolemy less and less as he leads Sarah into the “little wilderness” and tells her his plans to set up a tobacco shop with “only the very finest Virginian tobacco”—made with the labor of slaves like his own mother (104-05). During the Netherfield Ball, Sarah gets herself drunk at home and walks in the dark to the estate. She has heard “dark tales of girls who went out on some silly spree, and just never came back, or who came back strange, or with a baby in them” (127-28). Instead of that going awry as we expect, things get very exciting, very quickly—much more quickly than I predicted—when Sarah makes two big decisions on the same night, clearing up her own confusion about what she wants, and possibly James’. “It was a situation . . . almost guaranteed to amplify desire,” which we see immediately (157). Sarah lives in her body “differently” than she had before; “it had become a thing of luxury and delight” (174).

Mr. Collins’ visit is far more important to the servants that I had ever had reason to consider: if Mr. Bennet were to die, Mr. Collins could fire them all—or keep them, if he sees them necessary to his happiness. They work hard to make sure it is the latter. We see Mr. Collins in a more positive light as he responds to Sarah’s inquiries about whether speaking “to the neighbour’s footman” requires “religious or moral” contemplation (113). He basically tells her not to worry. Then she empties his chamber pot. The news of Charlotte’s engagement is a huge relief to Mrs. Hill, who knows Miss Lucas to be “a steady young woman” with knowledge of “the value of a good servant”; furthermore, Charlotte has long preferred Mrs. Hill’s lemon tarts above all others (155). Mary gets more credit for thinking than she perhaps deserves, and so does Mr. Collins whom, here, Mary loves and regrets losing to Charlotte Lucas (205).

Wickham, meanwhile, is causing trouble, staring at Sarah and calling James a coward for not, as James puts it, “slaughtering mill-hands” (as opposed to actual enemies) (162). Sarah also worries about Wickham’s interest in Polly, “a scrap of a thing” who hasn’t “even got her monthlies yet,” and since we know what Wickham likes, that interest concerns us, too (164). Wickham knows James’s secret and threatens him after James protects Polly from Wickham’s advances. Terrified that “they’ll string” him up and “break” him “on the wheel,” James has no choice, he thinks, but to run (211). James’ identity, too, shouldn’t shock us, but does. Whoa. And then double shock when we learn the identity of his father and then a third when we learn why a certain marriage happened and how it serves both parties’ needs without fulfilling most people’s ideals of marriage.

In volume 3, as we travel back in time, we learn what made Miss Gardiner, pretty, “sweet and full of laughter,” become the querulous Mrs. Bennet we know (218-19). Going back into war with James is disheartening; we see why he longs to return to “the most important” man in “that village near Meryton,” the only one who “cared enough to ask whether James was happy” (239). Once James disappears, the chapters get much shorter, and we get in the heads of Mrs. Hill and Sarah, primarily. The two of them now know the other’s secret, but that hardly alleviates their suffering. In the last chapter, every scene is vivid and wonderful and truly rewards the characters and the reader who so badly wants them to find happiness at last.

Published in: on March 22, 2014 at 5:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

First Impressions by Debra White Smith

This one was published in 2004, but somehow slipped under my Jane-dar, I realized later perhaps because it is Christian-themed, and very specifically so. Set in London, Texas, where “nineteenth-century attitudes thrived unchecked,” the story opens with Madelynne DeBloom (Lady Catherine), theater sponsor, reading the opening lines to P and P in her “Victorian mansion’s parlor” (why Victorian?) (10, 7). Lady Catherine calls upon Eddi Boswick (Elizabeth), a lawyer new to town, to analyze the opening lines (since she wrote a master’s thesis on Austen). Eddi hopes “to play the part of Jane” in the “new community play based on Pride and Prejudice” (10-11). Dave Davidson (Darcy) is there, too, “not thrilled to be cooped up . . . with . . . literary types,” at least from Eddi’s perspective (7). Calvin Barclay (Charles Bingley) is poking fun at Dave’s discomfort around all the women who seek his company. A tornado approaches as the cast takes a break for lunch, and Eddi overhears the usual conversation in which Darcy, defensive and piqued, says she “would have to be way more classy to keep [his] attention for long” (16). Since she, meanwhile, has been pining “for any signal of interest from the renegade rancher,” this comment is particularly painful for Eddi to hear (15). Then, however, this tornado isolates Eddi and Dave outside (with Dave trying to protect them both) just as the rain and subsequent illness of Jane do in the original, and both are struck by their physical connection.

After the tornado, everyone’s pretty shaken—Aunt Maddy, because she “was scared to death the tornado” got Dave (she’s much warmer than Lady C), Dave because he can still hear the roar of the tornado, and Eddi, because she saw “it take the roof off” the theater (28-29). This narrator provides us Darcy’s history much earlier, so we know he, too, is a relative newcomer to town, and he has been searching for people who don’t pretend to like him because they really want “his possessions” (23). He has “been on his own thirty-five years” and has memories of the “lost harmony and bitter battles” of his parents’ marriage (24). This Darcy knows right away what he did to upset Eddi, calling her short, prissy, and classless, and understanding she may well have “overheard his negative comments” (25).

Nonetheless, he doesn’t just apologize but actually makes things worse before they get better, and she’s no help either. Things heat up again when they start to use Elizabeth and Darcy’s lines—on each other, in regular conversation. This Eddie recognizes right away that Dave is “by far the better looking” between him and the Wickham character but almost moralistically reminds herself that, like money, “looks aren’t everything” (121). His skills with the text, however, motivate her to work harder on her lines, and many of their significant moments happen when they’re saying Austen’s words to each other.

Eddi and Dave have a lot in common. They both have an easier time with dogs than with each other and both moved “to this isolated little town where nothing much happens” to escape their pasts (86). They both get new haircuts—which will be on display for the first time in front the other at the same time. Both have been traumatized by the faulty marriage they grew up seeing. Both have a strange recurring predilection for cheese dip (210). When they see each other in church after not having seen each other for a week, they both lose “track of what song number they” are on (268).

Meanwhile, we meet the other key characters. I wasn’t thrilled to learn that Cheri Locaste, the Charlotte Lucas, “no-nonsense pragmatic who has never been accused of being a romantic,” is an English teacher. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a re-telling in which Georgiana Darcy is instead Darcy’s little brother (let alone named George Wallace). They go to the stand-in for Pemberley (“a sprawling, southern farmhouse” with a backdrop of verdant, pine-covered hill, a rose garden, a “pecan and pear orchard,” and about “five thousand square feet”) (41). It’s gorgeous, uses nature to its advantage, and is, according to big sister Jenny (Jane), Eddi’s “dream house” (41). Linda (Lydia), who takes valium but doesn’t always remember her birth-control pill, brings Rick Wallace and Andre Owens by. We assume one is Wickham, but the initials don’t match up exactly (as they do with the other characters). (Why?) Mary (Mrs. Bennet) can’t keep track of her “nerve pills” any more than Linda can keep track of “when she [is] supposed to start taking the birth control pills again” (184, 181). When we finally learn where George is, we are ready to take Dave more seriously. How does no one else know this? That his “lifeline proved to be Christ” is very specific and won’t resonate with everyone, but for Christians for whom this version is meant, I think it may (173). How could Rick be so without compassion? As we soon learn, because he’s selfish, greedy, and dangerously clever, even manipulating Eddi into paying his way to Hawaii (Brighton) to “protect” her little sister (197).

There are some, I’m not really sure how else to say it, weird expressions. When Eddi is upset to have to spend so much time with the obviously attractive Dave because they are cast as, surprise surprise, Lizzy and Darcy, she tells Jenny she’ll have to come “down with gangrene of the throat,” which sends them both into fits of giggles about Eddi’s “sick sense of humor” (56-57). (I, meanwhile, didn’t get the joke; is it a sexual reference? That seemed unlikely given the overtly religious nature of this version.) Also weird: they see “Pemberley” but not the “small brick building” outside in which Darcy spends so much time, and Eddi is so curious what he does there that she promises to “discover what lay between those walls—even if it took two years” (67). Why is two years the best representative of a long block of time? Also weird: when Eddi teases Jenny about her boyfriend Hal Gomez in competition with the new Calvin, Jenny says her sister is acting like Jenny is “some sort of polygamist” (74). That’s not really what a polygamist is. When Eddi gets bogged down by work, she “threaten[s] to hire a secretary for the first time” (163). Threatens whom? No one else is involved or even present. There are other odd turns of phrase, like “the undaunted honesty oozing from her soul,” (83) not wholly logical insults (Eddie tells Dave she values “people because they are created in the [divine] image”—is anyone not? How is that a put-down? 106), and ungrammatical language from our principals (why would such articulate people say “Aunt Maddy is waiting on you” unless Aunt Maddy were a waitress? (45) (Dave) At least they both do it (Eddi: “We were waiting on an invitation from the host” 47), so they deserve each other, grammatically. (Calvin does it, too, as when he tells Eddi that “the whole cast is waiting on the two of [them] to get married” 277). Even occasional attempts at poetic language (“the funnel’s suction yanked them from the limb’s grasp and tugged them toward the storm like a seductive lover” 22) seem awkward and out of place. When Dave tells Eddi she “still made [him] eat [his] own conceit,” I wondered, who speaks like this? (311) Also, why does the part call for Elizabeth to address Darcy as “dear sir” before they have reached an understanding? (316) Elizabeth would not do that (so even she is inconsistent in this version).

The text features many choices that defy logic, clarity, and consistency. Illogical: During rehearsal, Eddi hopes they’ll begin with “a scene” that doesn’t “feature[] her character” (140). How many of those are there in P and P? Also strange that Dave starts waltzing with Eddi at the end of the dance scene; I’d understand if that was to compensate for their not actually being able to discuss the Rick situation during the script, but that doesn’t happen here either. If Eddi does not know why Dave separated Jenny from his friend, why, when Eddi goes to talk to Dave about it, does she have a “hot defense of Jenny” followed by a demand to “know why he interfered with her and Calvin” (211-212)? Unclear: Though White Smith gives us Dave’s perspective right away, she leaves the mystery of why “haunting whispers . . . urge[] him into the small building” on his ranch (158). Though we weren’t suspicious in the way Eddi was, we certainly are curious. The text is awkwardly ambiguous at an important moment: “except this time, the fantasy didn’t end until Dave actually kissed her”—wait, the fantasy included a kiss this time, or the fantasy stopped when, in real life, Dave kissed her?! (142) Inconsistent: The narrator says many times Dave is “too lazy to exude the effort” to do one thing or another, but he also is focused on several different projects that require mastery (159). Which is he: lazy or diligent?

Logic aside, I really wasn’t prepared, even with all the church references, for Jenny’s comment, when discussing Linda’s lack of virginity, that she and Eddie “really need to pray for her” (113). Austen was a church-going, religious woman, but she avoids such moralizing in her stories, and they are stronger for it. White Smith does not leave religious ideology where it belongs, and though sometimes (sending the characters to church, having them sing in choirs) its intrusion feels harmless enough, other times, that choice causes problems for character motivation (and reader tolerance). When Eddi is “so worried about Linda,” for example, why doesn’t she tell her about Rick–or even fly there and get her? Instead, she just “barely” sleeps, calls twice and pray[s] for her protection”? (259-60) This isn’t Austen’s England: she could DO something. Even when they want to stop what they consider murder, Eddi and Jenny’s solution is to “start praying now that [Linda will] change her mind” (262). When Dave goes to save Linda, he tells her how lucky she is to have “two sisters who care enough about [her] to agree to pray” for her (283). Austen, a religious woman, never has her leads do that to solve an earthly problem. When Eddi and Jenny decide to get together for a weekend, Jenny says “it might even be a G-d-thing” (168). The big horror that Rick perpetrates here is encouraging Linda to have an abortion (and, by the way, reassuring her he’ll pay for it). Eddi thinks despairingly of “her niece or nephew discarded like a scrap of garbage” even within the first few weeks (261). Though I didn’t appreciate having these views foisted on me in a pleasure read, I certainly understand the view. I did not, however, think Eddi’s character consistent: when Jenny calls Eddi to tell her the “really bad news,” Jenny seems almost as jealous that Linda didn’t call her to tell her the news as upset about the actual pregnancy. Jenny is similarly divided: she tells Eddi to go to church to pray right away and then keeps her from so doing by insisting on hearing everything about Calvin because otherwise she’ll “chew [her] fingernails off with curiosity,” and she “just got a French manicure” (263). The biggest problem with Carissa (Caroline Bingley), who makes her first significant appearance about halfway through the story, is that she doesn’t care about “how committed” a man is “to his Lord or [to] his church” but is more like “a bloodthirsty hound who smelled more money and wanted it” (135). That is a strange image to put in Dave’s head since he is supposed to like dogs, and no hound seeks money.

At least Dave, when Eddi tells him what’s going on (in a nice parallel to Elizabeth getting the news about Lydia), asks if Linda wants an abortion without any overt judgment (270). Dave also understands that “this situation require[s] action”–yay! (271) There goes our hero! Eddi, meanwhile, has “delivered some pointed prayers in that church service” and “fully expected positive results”—even though she just told Dave she doesn’t “even deserve” for her prayers to be heard (274, 270).

White Smith does some solid work with the many parallels to lines and incidents. Eddi says of Dave, “I wouldn’t go out with him if he were the last man on the planet” when we know, of course, she will (82). There is very different timing, but that works interestingly. Since the Lady Catherine visit occurs before the first proposal, the Darcy character hears about it, and the Elizabeth character insults them both, so he’s left to defend them both. The proposal (which isn’t, really) also happens in what is, in essence, the Pemberley encounter, when Darcy finds the woman he loves on his own turf. Just when I was thinking, where is Mr. Collins? (the first time anyone has ever missed him, I’d guess), he shows up in the form of Conner (186). Colonel Fitzwilliam, by contrast, doesn’t appear. Instead, it’s Mrs. DeBloom who reveals Dave’s role in separating his friend from Eddi’s sister. But then she keeps in the comment that Eddi might “retaliate” by saying “such things” as “will shock” Dave’s relatives—who aren’t there, which I thought strange (212).

As bad as the constant flaws in logic are, they made me far less uncomfortable than White Smith’s bumbling with race. She doesn’t want to come out and say the two guys Dave has saved are black, so she beats around the bush with it by presenting one fact at a time and leading up to the actual words: they were abandoned by their parents, fell into the Houston gang scene, “left street life” with Dave’s help, are 6’ 6”, lead their community college basketball teams “to win third place in state,” and would not be people Dave would want to meet “in a dark alley” (271). Oh, and, by the way, not that it matters, but their names are Larnell and Klynell (272). And, oh, pages later, “their dark-skinned arms rippled with enough brawn to take down half a dozen men each” (279). I’m sure she means well, but this tiptoeing around race is worse than dealing with it directly. She also doesn’t know when to stop. We understood the “subtext” long before we hear about “Larnell’s white teeth flash[ing] against his shiny skin, the color of rich coffee” (280). I was just embarrassed for white people—but not nearly as much as I was when she adds the detail of “thick lips” (280). Stop, stop, I beg you. But she can’t seem to stop herself, and Dave says that “those two black, beautiful hulks” he brought with him will force Rick to marry Linda (284). (I don’t have the energy to explore whether in this world, someone will force him to stay married, and if so, what kind of solution is that? What kind of life will this baby have? How is forcing a man to go to church following the lessons of Jesus?)

I felt relieved to get back to illogical after those awkward pages. When Dave bursts in on Rick, he threatens to tell the police about the marijuana Rick “probably” has, and Rick immediately gets scared (281). That’s not how to catch someone. Rick could just have said he doesn’t if he knows Dave doesn’t actually know he does. When Eddi gets “the letter” (e-mail), she deletes it after she reads about Jenny and Calvin. When she retrieves and finishes it, though she is deeply moved by Dave’s losses and horrified by her own errors in judgment, she says nothing of either and writes back only about her own sister. Why? Then she’s surprised when, a week later, she still hasn’t heard from him. Again, why? When Dave finally takes a second chance, the narrator switches from dialogue to narration—”Eddi allowed the veil to drop from her heart and silently revealed her undying love”—and then right back to Dave speaking (310). Does he know she “revealed” her love? I sensed maybe White Smith was trying to replicate the Austen technique of leaving out the actual response of the woman, but it doesn’t work here.

A lot doesn’t. I know the target audience here is not one of which I am a part, but I have to give my Christian friends the honor of assuming they don’t like illogical stories any more than the rest of us do. Though I did care about the protagonists (White Smith somehow managed that even through my annoyance with them) and didn’t dislike the story enough to stop reading it (all 33 chapters of it—for those readers attuned to such details), I think a religiously-centered version could be done with more consistency and a bit more humor than this one is.

Published in: on March 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Scents and Sensibility

Some of these modern film versions are so badly acted or so dumbed down that they feel insulting to watch. Though I can’t imagine this one winning any awards, my mom and I enjoyed watching this 2011 interpretation in which Mr. Dashwood goes to prison (a 75-year sentence seemed extreme; don’t murderers get less than that?) for his role in a Ponzi scheme, leaving his wife and three daughters to fend for themselves.

Oldest daughters Elinor and Marianne try to find work to help pay for medicine for Margaret, who has a treatable form of leukemia that costs 3000 dollars a month after health insurance. (Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret go to stay with Aunt Charlotte.)  Elinor can’t get a job because of her last name, and Marianne because she has no experience doing anything (she just graduated from college with a degree in English :-). In a desperate moment, Elinor applies to work as a “custodial technician” for a spa, and a self-interested girl named Lucy persuades the mean boss (Fran) to give her a chance. Marianne gets a much more comfortable job (making photocopies) by lying about her last name.

Elinor, true to her practical nature, sells their flat screen to buy a truck so they can get to their jobs after the FBI confiscates the family cars. Marianne, true to her trusting romantic nature, believes her scuzzy boyfriend John (Willoughby) when, after her father’s scandal, he says he’s going to Switzerland for work. She finds solace in making fragrant lotions from flowers and in correcting grammar errors (because she appreciates the written word).

Marianne meets Brandon when he saves her from messing up her first copy job. He’s kind of a jerk about an editing mistake she tried to correct, but he quickly apologizes and turns out to be the nice guy we expect. This Marianne is more together than her prototype, accepting the betrayal of the man she loves and doing her best to move on. Lawyer Edward is Fran’s sister. He meets Elinor when she’s singing while scrubbing a bathroom. On their second meeting, they agree not to hold each other responsible for their families.  (Both heroes take a cue from Mr. Darcy, I think, Brandon in the value of a second or a third impression and Edward in not assuming a man is arrogant because a louder member of his family is.)

As you would expect from the opening sequence and the title, the lotion plays an important role when clients at the spa ask Elinor for more and more of her sister’s healing potions (Mrs. Jennings, a gossip, spreads the word about the lotions), when Elinor’s boss sends her on horrible errands so Lucy can steal the lotion, when the lotion theft doesn’t yield the results Fran wants, and when Fran blackmails John to get the secret of the lotion or she will reveal what happened with Eliza Williams to his family, who will disinherit him.

From there, a series of betrayals and recoveries conveys the film’s theme that human decency requires taking personal responsibility. Our four protagonists do that in several ways, even, in a delightful scene, all working together to secure the future of the Dashwood women. It is fun to watch.

 

Published in: on February 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm  Comments (1)  

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Jane Austen’s name does not appear on the cover or even in the dedication of this book, but anyone who knows Austen will see her fingerprints on Willig’s story of a modern would-be heroine reading old letters in search of a hero who may or may not appear (either in the time of the French Revolution/ early years of Napoleon or in her own story). Ostensibly, Eloise Kelly is an American graduate student looking to find the identity of the Pink Carnation, a figure much like the Scarlet Pimpernel (who, for purposes of this story, actually existed). Information seems to be located in letters stored in the home of the PC’s descendants, a nice British lady and her surly nephew, Colin Selwick.

There are Austen links everywhere. Despite the tiny nods (such as an actual reference to Jane Austen, but only as a quotation that “might” be Jane’s on a mug Eloise sees, and later Eloise’s own comment that “it is a truth universally acknowledged that one only comes up with clever, cutting remarks long after the other party is happily slumbering away”), Willig seems to leave the task of drawing links between her work and Austen’s to the discerning reader (188, 269).

The strongest resonances are to Northanger Abbey and to Pride and Prejudice. Amy and Richard meet under less than ideal circumstances, with both crossing the English Channel to help innocent people in France but neither knowing the purpose of the other. She travels with her dear cousin (Jane, so that helps identify Amy’s Elizabeth for anyone who missed it) and their feisty chaperone, Miss Gwen. Richard’s brother is Charles (Bingley), but he’s closest to his sister, Henrietta (and, in fact, does not abandon his new acquaintances when they land in Calais because he imagines how he would feel if that happened to his sister) (100). Richard is wealthy and well-read and tall, but he and Amy almost immediately offend each other. Nonetheless, together they mock books whose purpose is “edifying young females” (107) (aka the type Mr. Collins would read aloud if not stopped by Lydia’s yawning). The woman getting mocked, however, clearly loves Udolpho in spite of her protests, clutching it to her and retiring early with it as soon as her charges are safe (115-16). When Amy explores her ancestral home, she is seeking to uncover mystery, much as Catherine does when she visits Northanger Abbey, and each young woman seeks answers in the apartments of the mother of the house (but here, it’s Amy’s own mother).

There are also more direct, specific connections in the main story to Austen. Amy smells of lavender water (106). Richard becomes aware almost immediately of her appeal to him, but no matter “how fine her eyes,” he wills himself to stop thinking of her so she doesn’t interfere with his plans (79). When separating from Amy doesn’t happen immediately, Richard realizes he must “put a safe distance between himself” and her, just as Darcy does with Elizabeth (113). She, meanwhile, feels she has been betrayed into thinking Richard is “a person of sense and sensibility” when her current information suggests he is not (82). Because we know who he is, we are not misled as we are by Wickham’s story to thinking he is anything but honorable and good.

There are Austen parallels in the frame story as well: Eloise misjudges Colin because of his own, unnecessarily harsh words before he knew her, but this time, perhaps as in the real P and P, we don’t know right away if he’s as bad as she thinks he is or not. One clue he might be the hero comes when she has to “tilt [her] head back to meet [his] speculative gaze,” just as the letter-writing heroine Amy does with Richard (and much as Elizabeth would with Darcy) (187). Also, it’s our natural inclination now, when a man seems like a jerk upfront, to think he might be a Darcy type and is just making a bad first impression. Eloise, like Elizabeth, makes several assumptions based on incomplete information, such as thinking the beautiful woman with Colin is his girlfriend; when they meet at a party and Pammy says the woman is “a little shy, but a sweetie,” we know she’s Georgiana! (304)

The big mystery Eloise seeks to uncover is who is the Pink Carnation, just as Amy is busy working out who is the Purple Gentian. The answer (to the first; the second, Willig gives us directly) seemed obvious to me long before it does to our heroine, and she doesn’t even remotely consider the correct choice. Our frame story heroine’s “blindness” is not limited to the identity of the Pink Carnation; she also has a lot of trouble recognizing who should be the man in her life. As she learns, she, like Elizabeth before her, feels “stung” that her “preconceptions had so blinded [her] to the truth” (302). Amy’s revelations about her own credulity come later, but she, too, comes to question her own conduct and judgment (364-65).  (These parallels, and many others, work on a different level once the identity of the PC is revealed: many of the current characters are modern versions of the 19th-century ones not just randomly but genetically, but that mapping activity I’ll leave for you if you so choose.)

The modern story provides some pop culture links. Eloise observes that Amy’s hairstyle in her portrait is “like Lizzie’s in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice ” (421). Colin Firth is never too far from a girl’s mind, either, as a man approaches Eloise at a party, and she observes that he has “dark, wavy hair like Colin Firth’s” (303). She never draws a connection between that Colin and the Colin who keeps appearing in her life. Maybe there are just a lot more Colins in Britain than there are in the U.S..

Willig neatly wraps up Amy and Richard’s story, but she leaves us wondering about Eloise and Colin’s. I suppose that’s “unexpected” and therefore “sophisticated,” and sure, we could figure their story parallels the other, but I think I speak for most of us drawn to these types of stories when I say, we want the happy ending! We want it for ourselves, and we want it for characters who are stand-ins for ourselves in the books we read. Maybe this strategy would work better on devotees of modernism or even Romanticism. Life is hard, don’t expect otherwise, blah, blah, blah. (To be fair, there are subsequent books, so maybe this is Willig’s version of a cliffhanger.)

In the readers guide, Willig says her “imagination was molded by a combination of Alexandre Dumas, Margaret Mitchell, and Judith McNaught”; she adds that her “stylistic sensibilities were shaped in the school of L. M. Montgomery, Nancy Mitford, and Elizabeth Peters”—with nary a peep about Jane Austen. As should be obvious by this point, this work could not exist without the solid underpinnings of the Austen oeuvre.

Published in: on January 11, 2014 at 10:15 am  Comments (2)  

A Woman of Consequence by Anna Dean

The cover promotes this story this way: “If Jane Austen had written Miss Marple, she would have been Dido Kent.”—Kirkus Reviews The back cover cites the Richmond Times-Dispatch as praising the text’s “Austen-like prose.” I was ready to like this, and like it I did.

This Regency mystery begins with a letter written by an ironic writer (who says things like, “as soon as the fortune is made and the country estate [is] purchased,” it is incumbent for “every family which has any claim at all to grandeur” to have a ghost 8) and interrupted by a very annoying sister-in-law who would rather talk about anything than let her sister finish the letter. We, meanwhile, want to hear what Dido has to relate (to Eliza, her biological sister), but we know it’s only a matter of time before Margaret interrupts again. Dido, it seems, is living with her brother, Francis, and his wife, and somewhat beholden to them. The situation of the heroine parallels Austen’s own in the matters of there being two unmarried sisters, at least one sailor brother, and problems of where the sisters are to live. Even the story has sparks of Austen—silly-minded girls being drawn to mysterious abbeys, and a young woman falling off stairs and being rescued by a naval man.

We’re immediately interested to learn more about Mr. Lomax, whose response to her ghost suspicions Dido imagines in the way that Emma does Mr. Knightley’s reactions to her silly ideas. Dido worries that her imagined disputes speak “of too great a dependence upon his opinions” because “there was so little rational conversation to be had in the vicarage” (19). And he often wins their debates, “even when he [is] not present” (19). We have to wait for him to appear on scene, and by the time he does, there is quite a mystery to be solved.

Dido’s friend Harriet insists on caring for their fallen friend alone, and her sister Lucy immediately says what made Penelope fall was a ghost. But we learn soon that Lucy is a fake—not only with her appearance (claiming to be “indifferent” but sustaining her curls with “the constant use of papers” and handling freckles with “generous, but unavailing, applications of Gowland’s Lotion”) but also in her manner of deliberate speech (33). Several women have attractions to a captain Dido distrusts. Then the surgeon slips a private note among letters for Mrs. Harman-Foote, who is housing the fallen victim, and we learn that Mr. Lomax had already proposed to Dido! Is it possible the doctor and the lady of the house are conspiring to keep Penelope quiet? The son (Georgie) of the Harman-Footes is a psychotic mess who takes pleasure in torturing a doll while he reenacts the fall. The difficult little boy has a bruise whose origin he lies about, and Captain Laurence is looking surreptitiously “into the gallery with a look of great calculation on his face” (40). Then a skeleton is found! We’re hooked. So many details to sort!

Little things—the slight scent of tobacco, a casual dinner statement—assume great significance as the community explores the death of a governess 15 yrs before. At the same time, we want to know more about Dido’s would-be romance. Dido is 36—positively old by the marital standards of her time—and rejected Lomax because he asked her to control her curiosity (84). He is granted permission, however, to ask her again when his son’s debts are cleared, so he—and we—have hope. Dido does manage to anger Mr. Lomax with her erroneous and bold interpretations (in a way that reminded me of Mr. Knightley being angry with Emma). When Mr. Lomax arrives, he quite soon decides not to “make [himself] ridiculous by offering counsel [to stop trying to solve mysteries] which [he] know[s] will be disregarded” (210). Instead, he helps. Good man.

There are so many little Austen parallels throughout the text—even a distracted Dido nearly colliding with a “gentleman” who shows her “a look of earnest admiration” when “descending the steps of his house” (did you catch it? Anne meeting Mr. Eliot for the first time) (292). I knew some lines sounded familiar, but I was tempted to think maybe people just spoke that way in Regency England. When Dido says, however, ” Oh,  . . . the comfort of being sometimes alone,” that’s no Regency idiom; it’s Austen’s Jane Fairfax (232). We don’t know much about Dido’s sister, Eliza, except, like Jane Bennet, she has a “remarkable talent for thinking only the best of (her) fellow men and women” whereas Dido, like Elizabeth, does not (160).

I was disappointed only once by her (if Dido is so clever, how could she tell her man, “there is to be open and honest discussion between you and I”?! 305). The nice message at the end mollified me—a bit. We always say that men and women hardly understand each other. Dido thinks that any real union is “doomed to failure because there is an established barrier—a kind of chasm—between men and women” (381). What she learns, however, is that if a man and a woman “trust one another implicitly . . . that trust can bridge the divide which lies between” them (383).

Published in: on December 8, 2013 at 3:48 pm  Comments (1)  

Finding Colin Firth by Mia March

How had this book never appeared in my feeds on Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or elsewhere? When my friend Barbara gave it to me, I had never heard of it! The intro page sure hooked me: three quotations, one by Darcy (the P and P original one), one by Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary, and one by Colin himself in which he says that even if he landed on Mars, “the headlines in the newspapers would read: ‘Mr. Darcy Lands on Mars.'”

There’s an idea for a sequel.

Right away March gives us some serious matters to contemplate. Bea Crane, who works in a burger joint while hoping to find a teaching job, is 22 when she receives a letter from her mother, who has been gone a year, saying that, though Bea’s Mom, Cora, always felt like she “had given birth to” Bea, Bea is actually adopted (3). Bea is mature enough to realize that her “wonderful, doting parents who had made Bea feel loved every day of her life” are still her parents, but she feels natural curiosity about who “had given birth to her” (5).

Then March shifts to the birth mom, Veronica, whom we like right away because she’s too distracted by Colin Firth in “his pond-soaked white shirt” to make a pie properly and because she sees in him “six feet two inches of hope” (16). Amen, sister.  She’s 38 and unmarried. She got pregnant with our heroine at 16 and gave her to parents who could devote their lives to her. She has wanted desperately for her daughter to contact her since Bea’s 18th birthday. Her career specialty is the “special elixir” pie that makes husbands desire their wives again (18). She also makes pies “gluten free, dairy free, and even sugar free” to meet all her customers’ needs (18).

(There are very few flaws in this text, but, I will say that, when I was totally absorbed, Veronica messes up, describing the BBC Darcy’s line as “you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you” [23]. She had been watching Colin, and now she’s watching Matthew? I was distracted by the slip. I was also disappointed with the first grammar error: “until the truth comes out . . . as does her own true feelings for him” [44]. Subject-verb agreement is an essential rule, subject to no debate, such as the split infinitive one may be.)

Then we get a new story, of Gemma Hendricks who, at 29, is feeling suffocated by her husband, who wants three kids and a stay-at-home wife. She’s going to stay with friends in Boothbay Harbor—where Veronica lives and where Bea is headed!

When inn owner Isabel says the magic words “It’s Colin Firth month,” we know he’s going to be the magnet that draws all our ladies together, though that happens differently from how we might anticipate. Gemma, nervous about her problems as she is, gets excited as soon as she hears Colin is “here is Boothbay Harbor” (apparently “to film scenes for his new movie”) (40). “I love him,” she says, and Isabel immediately concurs (40). I had such fun watching all the women try to find him—and simultaneously watching Bea see Veronica for the first (that she can remember anyway) time.

Life gets especially interesting when Veronica decides to apply to be an extra in the Colin Firth movie just as Bea is figuring how first to contact Veronica. There is an interesting set-up for the link among the women: Gemma wants desperately to do some reporting. Her old friend offers her an assignment, which she doesn’t want but really needs: in honor of Hope Home’s fiftieth anniversary, Claire wants a “full-coverage story on the place,” which, no doubt will involve Veronica, who stayed there, and Bea, who, in utero, did, too (79). When Gemma goes back to the hotel to contemplate the story, she helps herself to “a small slice of the best Key lime pie” she’d ever had; we know, of course, the irony that it was made by a woman she’ll no doubt soon interview (80). Just after Gemma promises to introduce Bea to Isabel and June for a possible job at the inn, Isabel and June go to Veronica’s house for a pie-making course.

I realized about this point that the story isn’t really about Colin Firth, but he’s the thread that pulls everything together. There’s a supposed sighting when Gemma takes Bea out to lunch to hear Bea’s story of learning she was adopted, just as there is the first time Bea goes to the diner to see Veronica. They all love Colin. What hot-blooded woman doesn’t?

At the same time, there is a deep emotional thread throughout the story, especially around Bea and her mom, Cora, and around Veronica and her feelings for her long-lost child. Bea says that “one of the last movies” she saw with her mother was The King’s Speech (100). That was my dad’s last movie. “Tears stung” my eyes, as they stung Bea’s just remembering (100). Gemma has a lot of emotions, too, particularly as she interviews a pregnant teenager who is keeping her baby and then realizes she (Gemma) doesn’t yet feel linked to the growing embryo in her the way she feels she should. The text deals with some serious issues—teenage pregnancy, adoption, what being a good parent really means—and yet, the Colin Firth link keeps it light.

Before Bea establishes contact with her birth mother, she grounds herself—in a temporary home she loves, a comfortable job, and a few people who know her. On her new dresser, she puts “two favorite family photographs” and tells the images, “You are my parents, no matter what” (138). The scene really made me think about how difficult finding birth parents is, not just for the parents but also for the children, especially when the parents she treasured are gone. Then, she feels ready. When she finally gets dressed and goes, however (finding leaving a message just doesn’t feel right), she has trouble physically locating Veronica. She isn’t at home, she isn’t at work, but she is—da dum!—working as an extra on the new Colin Firth movie. (How did I not see that coming?) As if she hasn’t been through enough, being allowed to walk freely on the set becomes difficult, too, though in that process, she meets two potentially interesting men, Patrick Ool, supposedly “a notorious womanizer,” and Tyler Echols, who, though initially grumpy, does at least reveal that he tried desperately to help his little sister when she was looking for her birth mother. My hopes are with the latter if there’s going to be a romantic interest, what with the “Darcy first impression is poor” and “great big brother” scenario. I wasn’t thrilled, then, when the guy I think must be Wickham asked her out and got a yes.

In terms of romance for Veronica, it’s clearly not happening in the form of Hugh Fledge, who harasses her regularly, usually when drunk. It may, however, come from the widowed policeman, Nick DeMarco, who makes her uncomfortable because he was “a fringe friend” of Timothy Macintosh, who denied fathering her child when she was 16 and needed him. She’s working on an Amore pie when Nick comes to visit, which seemed to be an encouraging sign. Things seems to progress more rapidly in their lives than they do in the real world (though Veronica’s been waiting 22 years, so I guess it’s about time) in the romantic lives of Veronica (hot policeman is there when she gets the call and comes right over when she cries after the first, overwhelming meeting), Bea (dating Patrick but tutoring Tyler’s sister and thus getting to know him pretty well), and even Gemma (husband comes to Maine to reconnect with her and to establish that, somehow, they’ll find a way to make them both happy).

Meanwhile, they’re all watching Colin Firth films.

When things start to come together, I realized there were very few pages left, certainly not enough for me to spend as much time with these characters as I wanted to. If that’s not a sign of a great story, I don’t know what is. When Bea reaches out to Veronica in a pivotal moment, and Veronica reaches right back, March gives us Bea’s thoughts: “Cora Crane would like Veronica Russo a lot” (303). Tears came to my eyes as Bea thinks about her mother approving of her choice to forge a relationship with the woman who gave her life. Her mother will always be with her, just as the ones we love are always with us. What I was hoping for each of the three women—Bea, Veronica, and Gemma—happens, but even better than I had imagined. It’s glorious!

When Colin finally makes his appearance, Bea looks up to the sky and says silently, “I saw him for you, Mama” (318). And I cried.

Published in: on November 9, 2013 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein

Brownstein writes with obvious education and intelligence, but also with humor. She comments at one point about her realization as a young woman that she could learn a lot from Jane Austen “about choosing both men and words” and, parenthetically, that she “was beginning to suspect that those difficult matters were related” (10). This text, whose title reflects the title of the last essay—unfinished—of Lionel Trilling, is an homage as well to the scholar on whose “tweedy shoulders . . . with trembling knees” Brownstein says she stands (12).  Rather than any highfalutin argument, “the claim [she] make[s] about Jane Austen here is that she is a great writer, delightful to read” (12). I can handle that :-).

In terms of range, there’s a picture of the JA action figure on the cover (though the face looks different from the one on my action figures), which hints at Brownstein’s analysis of what our world has done with Jane; the acknowledgements read like a who’s who in the Austen world (Juliet McMaster and Elsa Solender included); and Brownstein discusses contemporaries of Austen, reactions to Austen both then and since then, and, ultimately, why we read her today. This book combines astute literary and historical analysis (hello, language I don’t need to edit) and lovely photos of Colin Firth (70); it’s a delightful combination.

The introduction opens with a hilarious drawing I had never seen before (and which was published by the New York Times on my birth date, but in 1949). Carl Rose depicts “The Two Camps of Jane Austen Devotees,” the one on the left banging a drum, holding “Hooray for Janie” signs, and tossing confetti; the one on the left standing in polite devotion, applauding in some cases and holding onto the books in others. I laughed. I could see myself in either camp, and, in fact, I have done both types of behavior in my admiration for our writer. The intro itself presents the intriguing idea that Austen has been part of the canon almost since the works were published, so much so that “hers was among the big names that got trashed in the revolutionary sixties” (3). She was not excluded from the canon because she was female. In fact, some feminist critics have had some trouble with Austen, deploring “her allegiance, as they saw it, to the status quo and to the marriage plot,” though of course, “shrewd critics” like “Reginald Farrer and D. W. Harding had shown that Austen was more satirical and complex than those people saw” (5).  Interestingly, Brownstein argues that it was “the popular vogue of the 1990s” that suddenly emphasized the heroines’ goals as “marrying up, marrying money, and marrying the best and sexiest guy” and virtually eliminated analysis of “Austen’s critique of selfishness and greed and a society that measured human worth and human relationships in terms of land and money” (7). It’s simply “beside [Brownstein’s] point” to study Austen’s novels seeking “truths about the author’s personal life . . . or wisdom about the reader’s own” (8).

Part of Austen’s appeal to us is that she includes us. In Brownstein’s efforts to bring the greater reading public to a real appreciation of Austen, she teaches Pride and Prejudice. Among other observations on teaching the first chapter: “The assumption that the reader will look for and see beyond truths universally acknowledged” flatters readers by “including them” in “an exclusive, exclusionary in-group of the knowing” (28). Trilling was the first Jewish person “to be granted tenure in the English Department at Columbia,” and indeed, an attraction to Jane Austen, who herself, became great because of her intelligence not her birth” brings many writers and scholars into the “charmed circle,” as opposed to “out” (66-67). Brownstein also seriously contemplates the task of speaking of standards and values “to an audience which each year grows younger” as the teacher “grows older” (quoting Trilling) and whether, in fact, when we analyze the novels according to our own theories, be they “Freudian, Marxist, queer, [or] postcolonial,” if Austen “would have agreed that” we were talking about her at all (29). In her tribute to Trilling, Brownstein explains his argument that we crave Jane Austen because “human nature requires the restraint, civility, decorum, and organized beauty of art” (64). Further, that Austen “seems to promise that civility and civilization are possible,” and, “in her continuing appeal . . . there is the hope of [our] understanding others, therefore of understanding ourselves” (65). Austen’s world makes things right.

In this text about stories, Brownstein includes some of her own, including one about meeting a heart surgeon from Oman for breakfast when they both happened to be staying at Bellagio, and then discussing Jane Austen with him. The doctor who literally saves lives makes the point that without art, humans “would be living as if we were already dead,” and thus, in teaching Jane Austen, Brownstein actually saves more lives than he does (106).

Though we read (and watch) Austen today, Brownstein argues that, in many ways, we are misreading her. Brownstein quotes Austen, in a letter to the Prince Regent’s librarian, as saying she is “fully sensible” that “an historical romance . . . might be much more to the purpose or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as” she deals in, but that writing a romance she could do “no more” than she could write “an epic poem” (9). How ironic, then, that “too many readers today believe she wrote” that kind of novel! (9) If, in fact, Austen meant the “stormy, steamy Mr. Darcy” as a “put-down . . . of that notorious sexual athlete, Lord Byron,” then our visions of the Austen hero may be more than slightly askew (47).  She argues that the BBC Pride and Prejudice helped, “by the beginning of the twenty-first century,” to turn Austen into “an adjective and a brand” (50). If we continue in this vein, she predicts, in five years or so, the view of her graduate students will be that Austen “will have supplanted Lord Byron as a byword for romantic love, and English Romantic literature” (54). (Oh, the horror!)

Austen’s novels are “discreet, polished, lapidary” (137). As such, new readers to the brand “have to be carefully taught, these days, to read Jane Austen,” and Brownstein works “to get [her] students to read for anything but the plot,” which means that sometimes, even strong readers, are just not yet ready for Austen. I have a colleague, whom I respect, who assigns volume 1 of Pride and Prejudice and then tests them at the end without discussing the text each day. She believes Austen’s tale is fairly straightforward, a love story with some funny narration, and the students need her guidance for more challenging work. The plot, yes, is straightforward, but nothing else is, and I worry those young people are missing what makes Austen live on 200 years after she wrote these books. That is precisely Brownstein’s subject throughout this text.

I think of Austen as embodying more neo-classical values than Romantic ones, though of course, if we assess by years, she could reflect the latter, but Brownstein makes the point that Austen, in fact, modifies the “Enlightenment emphasis” of “the dichotomous opposition of mind and body” with a “Romantic insistence that emotional knowledge and sympathy, intuitive understanding of one’s own heart and other people’s,” is not only “as important as intellect” but also  “bound up with it” (211-212). I may quibble with details—Don’t classicists have some knowledge of the self, even if it isn’t their primary subject? How intuitively does Emma or Elizabeth know her own heart?—but overall, Brownstein’s claim makes sense.

Brownstein provides substantial discussion of writers we know Austen read—from the well-educated, “prolific” Charlotte Smith to the neighbor whose novels “contain identifiable portraits of the neighbors,” Egerton Brydges (137, 134). Brownstein comments that George Eliot, “whose thinking was strongly influenced by Austen’s novels, . . . believed that sympathizing with” fictional characters “strengthened the politically vital muscle of human sympathy,” and that such sympathy “with others who are not like you” has become increasingly precious in the frightening times of the modern world (148-49). These points will lead to Brownstein’s grand conclusion, but before we’re ready for that, first we have some fun with many speculations about what encounters Austen and Byron (whom she calls “contemporaries”) might have had (and what delight we take in “imagin[ing] them” as “secret friends” (156). There are, in fact, big blocks of text on other writers—not just Byron but also Mary Wollstonecraft, Henry James, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. At one point, I wasn’t quite sure how we had slipped into a discussion I didn’t have the interest to follow quite as closely, but perhaps it was in service of the claim that “some authors are more likely objects” of readers falling in love with them “than other are” (174). Then Brownstein spends a good deal of time discussing the juvenilia and what we can reasonably learn in our analysis of it. We know Austen “wrote to amuse and please her large, literate, and cozy family,” but Brownstein reminds us to recognize “that from the beginning, [Austen] had the greater reading public in mind” (183).

We ask ourselves again and again what about Austen draws us to her. When Brownstein discusses the brilliance of Clueless, among her observations is that “high school is a perfect analogue to the hierarchical society of a country village” (32). Is our interest in the woman herself and how we see ourselves “as in a mirror in Jane Austen,” emerging from the fact that we are “desperately hoping to find [our] Mr. Darcy” (I was not thrilled with her choice of adverb) or as “men and women who dearly love a laugh? (87) After exploring some of Austen’s biting commentary from the letters, Brownstein says it is no wonder that “many readers and writers”—Virginia Woolf and W. H. Auden among them—“imagined that had they met [Austen] they would have been afraid of her” (130). Is that part of what draws me to her? Brownstein argues that Austen is “most useful today, politically and morally,” as an example of “linguistic precision” (203). Perhaps this phrase should be my response when people ask me why I love Jane Austen (they usually ask why I’m “obsessed,” but I politely correct them): Austen values language as being beautiful and precise. Furthermore, in leaving the reader with only vague details about private moments, Austen “creates the complicity” between reader and storyteller—we understand “certain social constraints and conventions” and sympathize “with related literary conventions of discretion and decorum”; Brownstein shows us that that restraint, too, “makes for much of our pleasure in reading” Austen (209).

Brownstein occasionally makes an argument with which I don’t immediately concur. She describes Emma’s situation as “unromantically marr[ying] her avuncular thirty-seven-year-old bachelor almost brother-in-law” (91). She tosses in the occasional “meta-fiction” or “socially constructed self” (14, 12).  She makes a disturbing link between the disturbed Briony in Joe Wright’s film version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Jane Austen. “The notion of the virginal author of Pride and Prejudice as a preternaturally wise child—a bad seed, even” in the Wright interpretation, Brownstein says, “seems satisfyingly and ironically to match the moral chaste Jane of earlier legend” (191). I disliked the film, both for its too deliberate cinematography and because it felt, to me, more “Brontesque erotic fantasy” than “Austenian precision,” though Brownstein’s argument is that McEwan “cleverly and unfairly.  . . conflates” the two “in Briony’s play” (189).

Such quibbling is more than overcome with the way Brownstein helps experienced readers see matters anew. She says that “this novelist’s genius” is “for noticing the details,” which Brownstein supports strongly with Mrs. Norris “wheedling of a cream cheese from the housekeeper at Sotherton” and then “making [Fanny] hold it on the carriage ride home so as to give her cousin Mari more room” (101). Those little moments are “worth paragraphs of character analysis,” but Austen does it quickly and powerfully (101). Though the McGrath Emma was what started it all for me, I hadn’t made the connection between the “old-fashioned framed miniatures on ivory of the town’s major inhabitants” as being “an allusion to Austen’s ‘bits . . . of ivory'” (37)! Brownstein enhanced even my film-watching. She later speculates that Highbury is “possibly an anglicized version of ‘Alton’ (from the Latin ‘altus,’ meaning high),” the name of the larger village near Chawton (215). I had wondered when we arrived in Alton just in time for Jane Austen Week three summers ago, why I had not heard more about the place, but maybe Austen alluded to it in Emma! And at the very least, we’re back as fans of Henry Tilney, whom Brownstein describes as “the cleverest of Austen’s heroes” (90).

In Brownstein’s hands, I feel I am with my people again, not only as she describes a JASNA convention but also as she, without naming the Tolstoy allusion, analyzes the Hartfield dinner (in which Mr. Woodhouse and Isabella discuss their various health concerns and Mr. John Knightley gets disconcerted) this way: “While all happy families—and, indeed, other happy groups—may not be exactly alike, the people in them and of them often behave and speak in character”—we know what will happen, and there’s nothing Emma can do to stop it (242).

Why Jane Austen? Ultimately, because her novels make us hearken for times “that seemed more comprehensible and coherent,” because these novels tell “the story of civilization,” and because Jane Austen conveys “an integrity, innocence, health, and prosperity, a hopefulness and seriousness of purpose, that has been or is being lost” (251). As book stores close down and new forms of reading gain acceptance, perhaps we may still recapture those glorious days of refined language and civilization within the text of an Austen novel—and with other people who read them.

Published in: on October 13, 2013 at 5:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

There is a lot to like about this book. In the preface, Chwe acknowledges his friends and colleagues “in reverse alphabetical order” (xi). My first impression was that he is funny and sounds like a nice guy—showing gratitude to UCLA for hiring both him and his wife and thus “making [their] family life possible”  and then teasing the modern reader who just might be reading these words “on some sort of device with an off switch” (xii).  Chwe argues that “exploring strategic thinking, theoretically and not just for practical advantage, is Austen’s explicit intention” and that Austen’s novels show that “strategizing together in a partnership is the surest foundation for intimate relationships” (1). He proposes that the use of game theory “allows us to interpret many details” that we often gloss over while reading Austen and allows Austen to explore “several explanations for cluelessness” (3). He explains game theory using specific examples from Austen, so I had no trouble understanding the diagrams (game trees), though when I first saw them, I was concerned this might not be for me. Austen, Chwe tells us, coined the term “imaginist,” which is “possibly the first specialized term for game theorist” (in Emma, no less!) (183).

Where Chwe stays focused on Austen, he makes some interesting points. Among them:

*”Strategic thinking is not the same as selfishness” (6).

*”Austen considers an individual as being composed of multiple selves, which negotiate with each other in a great variety of ways” (6).

*Preferences change (6).

*Constancy “is not passive waiting but is rather an active, strategic process [that] requires understanding of the other’s mind and motivations” (6).

*Though “some critics argue that rational choice theory glorifies selfishness and asociality, . . . for Austen, insisting upon the right to choose according to one’s own preferences is not selfish but subversive” (9).                                                                                                                                                       *”For Austen, choices bind. You can’t have it both ways” (99).

*”An inability to make choices can stem from a lack of resolution, which Austen consistently decries” (100).                                                                                                                                                                          *Having your “plan backfire demonstrates your strategic ineptitude better than having no plan at all” (112).

*Arguing with children, the way Mrs. Bennet (with Charlotte’s brother) or Mrs. Norris (with Dick Jackson) do, does not elevate you in the mind of Austen (112-113).

*Feelings do not need to interfere or be at odds with logical thought; in fact, emotion and cognition “are often integrated so that they jointly contribute to behaviour” (117 quoting Pessoa).

*Habits, too, though Chwe argues persuasively that Austen acknowledges that habits can affect behavior” but “does not like them,” are “not necessarily opposed” to rational choice (123).

*”Principles and rules are important to Austen, and people are often condemned for having poor or nonexisting ones,” but “Austen notes that the relationship between principles and choice is not so simple” (125).                                                                                                                                                        *Austen considers constancy a virtue and understands it as “fundamentally a strategic process” (167).

*Austen’s great heroes and heroines with strategic thinking prowess must learn “to realize that other people can think differently from” how they do (178).

*”A successful manipulation is always possible if you are creative enough” (185).

Strategic thinking does not have all positive results, however, and Chwe shows that Austen deals with those, too. In a rephrased discussion of sense and sensibility as ways to live, Chwe says Austen “acknowledges the importance of emotion, but intense feelings help her heroines choose better, not worse” (30). Rather than idealizing “a world in which everyone always acts strategically,” Austen “considers the disadvantages of strategic thinking” (30).  Austen, Chwe says, unlike most game theorists who “rarely go this far,” does recognize the downsides of thinking strategically (171). These include “mental effort,” constant requests by people who know your strategic skills to use them on specific occasions, “a more complicated moral life” than those of people without the gift, a greater sense of regret caused by holding yourself “responsible for a wider range of outcomes,” and pain (171-73). The reverse is also true: the lack, or apparent lack, of strategic thinking can be viewed as charming, sincere, safe, worthy even of confidence (174-75).

But Chwe does not stay focused on Austen for very long. He talks a lot about the research that has come before him and how his differs, largely in that the claim is stronger: “literary works such as Austen’s novels and African American folktales are game theory, written and told with the explicit objective of theoretically analyzing strategic thinking” (31). Chwe takes the reader through several African American folktales (such as Flossie and the fox) and has seemingly random political ideas to toss into his argument. In the process, the text demonstrates strange violations of “the rules”: citing mid-sentence, not shifting the pronoun for consistency within quotations, and re-establishing for each citation which book he’s citing, even when it is already clear (52). I expected better.

In the first of the Austen chapters (by the time Chwe got us there, I was really eager to read about the Austen, game theorist, the title had promised me), he first ranks the six novels in terms of “the depth of their concern” with strategic thinking (49). Pride and Prejudice he ranks least concerned because both central figures have “been well equipped [with strategic skills] from the start” (49). Emma, by contrast, demonstrates the “dangers of learning too well” and of being “overconfident” in one’s strategic ability (49). In his summary and subsequent analysis of Pride and Prejudice, Chwe suggests that Lydia “knows that her best shot at marrying with any money at all is to create a crisis situation in which wealthier members of the extended family . . . must bail her out to preserve the family reputation,” but I think such a claim negates what the novel shows us about Lydia’s character: she acts on whims, is overly romantic in nature, and doesn’t concern herself with the family’s reputation (as opposed to her own in the sense that she’d like everyone to be talking about how young she is to marry, how handsome her husband is, etc) (53). He gives Mrs. Bennet too much credit in supposing she may have set up the card game anticipating that Elizabeth won’t play and will leave the room, thus freeing Mrs. Bennet to get everyone else out so Bingley can be alone with Jane and propose already (139).

In his summary of Sense and Sensibility, Chwe makes some interesting observations in astute language. He says, for instance, that Marianne begins with strong strategic skills, but that hers “require recalibration” (54). He says that “strategic skills do not have to be used for mercenary purposes . . . One can be a strategic Elinor without being a gold digger Lucy” (57). Though I’m not sure I can support Chwe’s suggestion that Marianne allows “herself to become ill . . . to motivate Willoughby’s journey of return” and to “hasten her mother’s arrival,” at least with that claim, Chwe acknowledges that “perhaps we are making the . . . mistake . . . [of] seeing strategic premeditation where none exists” (59). There is a fascinating discussion of Elinor Dashwood’s philosophy, which Chwe says is “Austen’s defense of independent thought” (129). It is one thing to alter behavior to fit “norms of what is socially expected, but you cannot allow [other people] to affect your judgment or thought processes” (129).

For Persuasion, Chwe suggests that Anne and Wentworth are “guided from start to finish” by Mrs. Croft, Captain Harville, and Charles Musgrove! (67) it’s an interesting claim to watch him try to prove, but I’m not quite convinced.

In the section about Northanger Abbey, Chwe argues that, since “strategic skills are not inborn” and Catherine Morland has not acquired many when the Bath opportunity first arises, she goes through an education with respect to understanding other people’s feelings and anticipating their behavior based on that understanding (67). (If that’s true, how does Susan Price in MP have “much good sense” even without having had “no cousin Edmund to direct her thoughts”? 83) He gives Catherine more strategic credit, though, in an least one instance, than I think Austen does, saying when Catherine demurs in response to Thorpe’s suggestions that an old song announces that “going to one wedding brings on another,” she does so because she is “more than prepared” now to “make her own decisions” (69). I think she really still does not understand his suggestion (which is why she later is appalled that Isabella thinks there’s a future between Thorpe and Catherine). In the harshest criticism I recall reading of Henry Tilney, Chwe argues he, in essence, does not take Catherine’s concerns about Captain Tilney seriously and demonstrates “repeated mild negligence” rather than loyal friendship (145).

I was already somewhat divided between enjoying Chwe’s sometimes far-fetched explanations and scoffing at them when Mansfield Park analysis arrived, interrupted by political claims.  When discussing Rushworth’s decision to follow Maria and Henry, Chwe adds: “another example [of the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy] is the U.S. reluctance to disengage from Vietnam” (77). He’s welcome to whatever political views he wants, but if I’m promised a text on Jane Austen as a Game Theorist, I’m really not signing up for what turned out to be a whole host of at best, annoying, and at worst, highly offensive political diatribes from the professor.

Not all is lost, however, in the Mansfield Park section, in which Chwe draws an interesting link between Fanny learning to trust her own judgment and not always Edmund’s and Anne Elliot having to do the same with Lady Russell in Persuasion (80). Chwe likens Fanny’s behavior of “active listening” in securing Edmund’s heart to both Lucy Steele’s in getting Robert Ferrars and Charlotte Lucas’ in getting Mr. Collins (85). Fanny, he argues, is the only heroine who “makes a decision in the face of everyone’s active opposition, without a single supporter” (85). I had never thought of her in that way (“hard-core,” he terms it), but that’s true! (85) Emma, by contrast, is a “corrective for those impressed by their own abilities” (including, in strategic thinking) (86). I didn’t like the comparison of Emma taking “up Harriet’s improvement as her personal project” to Henry Crawford’s doing the same with Fanny Price—they’re not the same at all! After he reiterates Austen’s argument that “strategic partnership is the truest foundation for marriage and intimacy,” he then goes right into the regular partnership between Mr. Knightley and Emma (such clear evidence) but interestingly then to Fanny and Edmund (141). I had forgotten Fanny’s line: “Do not check yourself. Tell me whatever you like,” which so reminds me of Emma forcing herself to hear Mr. Knightley when she thinks he’ll be sharing feelings she does not like (143).

I eagerly anticipated Chwe’s chapter on “Austen and Cluelessness,” in which he analyzes five explanations Austen offers for cluelessness with their requisite examples from the novels (188). Unfortunately, though there were light, Austen moments, such as poor Mr. Collins having “all four” characteristics of weak strategic thinkers, too much of this chapter and the rest of the book focused on topics that were not Jane Austen at all—and not appropriate for this type of text (194). Such observations range from the slightly ridiculous citing of a scholar who “finds many . . . Autistic spectrum character traits in Pride and Prejudice” such as “Mr. Darcy’s dislike of dancing [which he says] is shared by people on the autistic spectrum, who often find it difficult to coordinate their body movements, especially with others” (193). Perhaps Chwe forgets that Mr. Darcy doesn’t actually dislike dancing with someone he likes.

Then the observations became political again. I was able to gloss over the other ramblings, however incongruous they seem. When he claims that “perhaps people think strategically only if they have to,” and people who consider themselves lower-class are more likely to “spend the mental effort to think strategically” than people, say, with college degrees, because they are more often “buffeted by the actions of others” and thus “need to,” I could read, ponder “hmm, that’s an interesting view, but I don’t think so” and move on (212). When he begins with an “argument,” which suggests, as each does in Paradise Lost, that the average reader may need things spelled out for him, and then makes some surprising links between Austen and African American folktellers, both of whom, he argues, “speak as outsiders” and “build a theory of strategic thinking not to better chase a Soviet submarine but to survive,” I could do the same (2). Even when he throws in the one-liner that “one problem with making threats (nuclear escalation, for example) is that they can be very costly to carry out,” I could still wait eagerly for more analysis of Austen (48). But then he goes too far.

In his chapter on “real-world cluelessness,” he concludes with his illustration of what he calls “the relevance of cluelessness in the real world . . . the U.S. attack on Fallujah in 2004” (211). I admit freely I did not go into this with an open mind. Certainly there are many nations in the world who have made greater errors—both in strategic thinking and in basic morality—than the modern United States. I’m not a fan of attacking our own just because here, we can. On the journey to his point, he shamelessly compares Lady Catherine’s presumption in trying to force Elizabeth to promise not to marry Mr. Darcy to the U.S. insistence that Ho Chi Minh stop “supporting insurgents against the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon” during the war (215). Perhaps for Chwe, this was just an intellectual exercise (what political links can I draw between Austen’s novels and the bad behavior of the greatest democracy in the world?), but I found his suggestions offensive and forced, and his language crudely biased (calling U.S. troops, for instance, “an occupying power” in Iraq) (215, 221). Even that, however, didn’t prepare me for Chwe’s egregious attack on L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, who, after four U.S. Military contractors were ambushed and killed and then “their bodies  . . . mutilated and hung from a bridge” by Iraqi insurgents, spoke to the new graduates of the Bagdad police academy, reminding them that they stand for “the honorable of majority” of Iraqis who are putting “to shame the human jackals who defiled the streets of Fallujah” by committing this atrocity” (225-26). Chwe’s emphasis is on the use of the word “jackal” and how it shows “cluelessness” of the enemy. He then suggests that such a choice led to the inevitable subsequent use of weapons by the Fallujah Brigade to kill innocent people (227). Chwe’s suggestion is shameful—and he is certainly not the possessor, in this case at least, of the supposed understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings he claims we all should be if we can.

Overall, I enjoyed many of the sections of this book, primarily the ones that actually dealt with what the title promises: Jane Austen and game theory. When Chwe segued into his other interests, cultural myths, autism, and world politics, I found myself less interested and more disappointed.

Published in: on September 22, 2013 at 9:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Austenland (the movie)

 

My mom, my dear friend Andrea, and her mom Barbara ventured out last Sunday to one of two theaters in Los Angeles currently showing Austenland, the latest adaptation of a Jane Austen fanfiction text that I reviewed about four years ago. To my delight (and their surprise), there were many men in the theater (even at least one not obviously accompanied by a woman). All four of us, one a declared fanofJane, one a normal fan (who has read several of the books), and two always willing to see a fun movie, enjoyed it (though perhaps I did most of all :-)). It is perhaps best known outside Jane circles for having Stephanie Meyer as one of its producers (Gina Mingacci is the other), but since I haven’t read the Twilight books or seen any of the movies, I wasn’t sure how to analyze her involvement’s effect on the adaptation of the book (by Sharon Hale) I once found delightful.

This adaptation, directed by Jerusha Hess, does several things well. The acting is delightful. I was thrilled to see Mr. Tilney (J.J. Feild) playing the stuffy nephew of the resort owner, and a scruffy Irishman (Bret McKenzie, who’s actually from New Zealand) plays the tempting outdoorsman who is his primary competitor. Jennifer Coolidge (you know her, or at least you would as soon as you saw her picture) is hilarious. As Barb and I agreed afterward, everything out of her mouth is funny, and it’s not just a result of great writing. Keri Russell plays a compelling heroine, a little over the top in terms of her Pride and Prejudice obsession (a cut-out Colin Firth resides in her apartment and seems to garner more attention than a live date does. She also would rather watch the BBC adaptation than make out with said date) but incredibly frustrated with what real life seems to throw her way over and over again.  Any film that has Ricky Whittle shirtless so frequently offers treasures that simply don’t require good story-telling or wit, though this film has both.

It’s also unpredictable. We’re hoping, of course, that our heroine ends up with true love at the end of the movie, but which of the potential suitors it will be was so ambiguous that my mom and I actually disagreed about who it would be (yes, we whisper to each other during movies, which I’m sure is not thrilling for other people, but we try to keep it to a minimum). The quiet heroism we hope to see happens here in surprising places, and seeing the heroine’s face as she realizes what has actually been happening is a delight.

Though usually I’d be upset to see someone who loves Jane Austen come to the realization that a Jane Austen-themed bedroom in a thirty-something’s home is hardly conducive to a healthy lifestyle unless you’re Cassandra, in this particular case, maybe the heroine frees the bedroom from trappings of movie life so she can actually live not only a Jane Austen happy ending—but also her own (and, cleverly phrased in the movie—her man’s).

If nothing else makes you want to take the chance and see (or at least rent or stream) it, the total time is 97 minutes, which, in a world where movies often require over two hours of our lives only to depress us about the human condition, seems a relatively short amount of time to give to imagining what life would be like in a land of Regency manners but indoor plumbing.

Published in: on August 22, 2013 at 5:52 pm  Comments (2)  

Murder Most Austen by Tracy Kiely

Our narrator, 28-year old Elizabeth Parker, reveals her personality upfront when she tells us that “probably” if she had known an annoying man was about to be murdered, she wouldn’t have “fantasized” about killing him herself (1).

Elizabeth is someone to whom most of us can easily relate—an American for whom “facial neutrality” is not an option and who scoffs at any suggestion that there could be “such a thing as too much Masterpiece Theatre,” heading to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, dreaming about “red telephone boxes, gorgeous accents” and Colin Firth (17, 45, 2). So imagine how you would feel if, on your flight to the festival, your ears were tortured by some arrogant professor spouting his view that Austen’s work is really a “forceful condemnation of the sanctimonious hypocrisy of both society and the church” (4). Before his demise, Professor Richard Baines seems to think Austen is really talking about “sordid” sex, “abortions, and incest,” but “only the truly clever reader” sees all that (1). Austen’s works, he says, “are really a kind of early manifesto for the ideals of communism,” and Austen “herself was an atheist” (5). Richard wears a pinkie ring. ‘Nough said. No wonder our heroine and her aunt order Chardonnay immediately.

Winnie Reynolds, great-aunt of heroine Elizabeth, is more than a match for Professor Richard Baines and engages him in discussion of his absurd claims because she is bored (9). Even Elizabeth joins in because really, could any of us stay quiet in the face of claims like Mr. Tilney is an accomplice to the murder of his mother and that’s why the novel is called “NorthANGER Abbey” ? (10) Or Sir Walter Eliot is sexually involved with his daughter Elizabeth? Or Marianne had a botched abortion, and that’s why she got sick? (3)

Before the murder mystery begins, we have the mystery of who (in this story) is who (in Jane Austen). I suspected that Cora Beadle, an old friend of Winnie’s, is the Mrs. Thorpe, but when her beautiful, poised daughter Izzy grabs Elizabeth’s hand and squeals, “Oh, I just knew when I saw you that you and I would be the best of friends,” I knew she was Isabella Thorpe (24). She, too, has strange interpretations of Austen’s work, including the idea that Austen meant us to take Charlotte Lucas’ advice about showing more affection that Jane feels seriously (27). Izzy is also like Miss Thorpe in her dramatic exaggerations (“I’ve been waiting forever!”) and professed annoyance with “horrible men” she claims are “gawking” at her (47). That link should help prepare the reader for a key plot twist later, but even still, I was as surprised as Elizabeth is. John Ragget is immediately suspicious; why does he say he has been coming to the festival “for the last fifteen years at least” if it didn’t exist then (53)? He’s our stand-in for John Thorpe, immediately bragging about his mode of transport and how much it cost, using expletives unsuitable for ladies’ ears on first acquaintance (he “paid through the bloody nose” for his jaguar convertible, “but, damn it, [he] didn’t care!” 53). For a while, I wondered if Byron might be Wickham. Together, he and Elizabeth politely mock the loquacious Mr. Ragget (now Mr. Collins?). These links work in so many different ways!

As for the murder mystery, Kiely gives the reader many clues early on, like Cora reacting so violently to news of the professor’s latest theory about what killed Austen that she actually says she will “kill the son of a bitch” (31). But that’s too obvious, right? Why does Izzy first blame and then mock her mom when Cora’s purse goes missing? So many people have motives: the professor’s drugged ex-wife who thinks he’s hiding money from her, his assistant who is angry and seems jealous of his wife, his daughter-in-law who is basically Mrs. John Dashwood, Cora who hates his theories, and even Cora’s daughter Izzy who does differently from what she says and disappears in the middle of the ball. It looks like Alex (the professor’s new wife) yanked Richard out of the room to his death, but given that minutes before, she acted so loving to him and that a bunch of them have Ehle or Colin masks, maybe that wasn’t her. John’s mouth hangs “open in apparent surprise” when Izzy reveals that Elizabeth has solved several murder cases (144). Is he just annoying, or is he worried? Usually wise Aunt Winnie goes on and on with details about the cases, and Elizabeth mistakes the “faintly horrified expression” on his face as simple disapproval (144). Then the plot really thickens. There are THREE women who have been (and or currently are) sleeping with this professor, and one of them is with child.

The narrator is funny but in a clever way (sample: the instructions John gives for the valet so border “on the absurd that they might as well have included, “Rub it with a diaper” and “Don’t make eye contact with it” 181).  Sample: Valerie’s clearing of her throat in a microphone is “still preferable to what came next, as Valerie bleated out the lyrics . . . in elevated octaves normally associated with amorous chipmunks” (195). As for Patrick Bronte’s painting of his sisters, our narrator amusingly comments, “you didn’t need to be a student of the Brontës’ work to know they weren’t a cheerful bunch. That portrait alone makes it quite clear that a generous dose of antidepressants would have done that family wonders” (21). These characters—Elizabeth and Winnie and Cora and Izzy in particular—are so well versed in Austen that they use lines from the novel in similar situations in their own lives. (For instance, “l thought Valerie sang very ill tonight,’ observed Aunt Winnie . . . ‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘Poor Valerie. But she is determined to do it'” 200). So when we aren’t reading clever original Kiely lines, we’re reading clever original Austen ones. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

I know Elizabeth has recently solved multiple mysteries, but I still thought it was weird that her boyfriend Peter cautions her from a world away that, with her luck, “someone will kill this Richard guy, and [she’ll] get all caught up in another murder investigation” (58). Nonetheless, Peter seems wiser than we might realize, and when we finally meet him and Elizabeth realizes that he is totally “the one,” I chuckled to learn that of course her perfect boyfriend wears Burberry cologne (290).

Published in: on July 12, 2013 at 7:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Duty Free by Moni Mohsen

This is supposed to be Emma in Lahore. I don’t think so.

I suppose the narrator is playing with the idea that Emma thinks she can educate everyone else when really she desperately needs an education herself—that is, I hoped that’s what the narrator was doing until the errors started popping up in the narration itself, and not just in Emma’s words and thoughts. Even if the errors are there for comedic purposes, they are so frequent as to be distracting. A sampling: “So us four went” (2). “I have a very good sick-sense like that” (10). Black Hawk Down is “a nature documentary” (10). Eton becomes “Eaten.” Its fees “are more than Pakistan’s GDB” (11). “Guvment” (13). “Good radiance” (14). “Die-vorce” (14). She finds fault with Jonkers’ ex-wife for not being able “to speak English properly,” for being “a total uneducated,” and for not wearing “deodrant” (16, 18).She worries she “would become a laughing stop” (20). “He told me to stare her in the right direction” (21). “We have a group of ten friends, very reclusive and all because we don’t just invite anyone to join” (27). “Who does she think she is . . . Mitchell Obama?” (50) “I’ll go and see your prospectus brides” (23). Illiterate becomes “illitred” (27). “The garden was all land-escaped” (33). “Zafar works for a bank called Golden Sacks” (35). (I guess that’s logical!) A concussion becomes a “con-cushion,” and a CT scan becomes “city-scan” (8). Emma wasn’t completely ignorant of basic things. Why do this to the Pakistani Emma? She can’t multiply thirty by 40,000 because she “failed in Maths in Class” (34). When the maid first arrived, she was “a real down-and-out pheasant” (61). “All yesterday I was on tender hooks” (90). “At once I made a bee-hive for her” (92). “And it gets more worst” (69). She “was already up to her waste in it” (70). “I was dump-founded” (72). When Jonky stands up for himself, he goes “up in [her] steam” (56). She reminds herself that “looks can be receptive” (187). She watches Bride and Prejudice, which she calls an “adoption of an English TV series” (57). She thinks she has “soiled a suicide bomber all by” herself (58).

There are several interesting changes with the language that were more fascinating in linguistic studies than annoying like the mistakes (though to be honest, I know I’m supposed to be an adult, but I found “Aunt Pussy” a distracting name from the start 1). The narrator calls terrorists “beardo-weirdos” (25). The “situation” becomes “the sich” (62). “Get Togethers” are “GT” (64). Many italicized words (kothis, tau, Haan) have no immediate translation, and the lilt of the English is different (“it’s a bit bore that you have to climb fifty-five thousand steps” 2).

The premise of the story is that the narrator is married and has a kid and somehow gets roped into helping marry off her cousin Jonky, age 37, who is basically damaged goods. If she fails to secure him bride #2 by the end of the year, his mother, Aunt Pussy, will put some sort of spell on the narrator’s son, Kulchoo.

The narrator doesn’t appreciate Janoo, her husband, who could, I suppose, be Mr. Knightley-esque in that he’s smart and moral and hard-working. She considers him “serious,” with an interest in “world affairs and crops and his bore charity school that he runs in his village” (16). They are, of course, from the same “bagground,” which is very important to her, her mother, and her aunt (17). She thinks that because she has “a full house” and “everyone is always saying what a nice life” she has, she is happy (19, 18). Quickly we see that they have a terrible marriage; their values are completely at odds. He won’t go to a wedding with her because he “doesn’t like corrupt, crooked types” of people, and she won’t do “something useful,” like help their maid with her finances or teach English “to the girls in his charity school” (26, 28). Janoo thinks the women “should just let Jonkers find his own wife” (32). I thought briefly that Jonkers could be Mr. Elton, but no—Jonkers speaks well, corrects his cousin, and, other than being a little pathetic, seems like a good guy.

The narrator is completely self-absorbed. Of her appearance, she comments that she “put on green contacts (blue is so past it) and [her] new Tom Ford red lipstick and now [she is] looking just like Angelina Jolly” (5-6). Her maid’s mother dies, and the narrator’s big concern is “not only will [she] have to find a new wife for Jonkers [but also] a new maid for” herself (47).  When her husband disagrees with her that the maid is a “back-stabber-may-she-rot-in-hell,” she tells him that he doesn’t “deserve” her and should have “married [his] Oxen memsahib” (75). She’s “so depress, so depress” because she has “no maid to” pick up her clothes, straighten her shoes, bring her tea, and “plumb” her cushions—and oh, incidentally, she isn’t speaking to her husband (77). She steals a friend’s maid and then changes the girl’s name, denies the theft to her friend, and tells the maid to hide if ever the friend comes to visit.

She is also far more clueless than Emma; the lack of self-awareness might be amusing if it weren’t so appalling. She worries more about what people “will say” than about her son’s quality of life (84). She scorns her son’s “stuppid housemaster calling to say that [her] poor baby had been hit on the head with a cricket ball” but then is concerned primarily about “pass[ing] away [her]self” (7). Yet she keeps calling everyone else “stuppid” (21). (At least the kid takes after his father.) Thinking she’s charitable, this empty-headed woman sends fashion magazines and expired tranquilizers to a refugee camp. She comments on her own gentleness and gives as an example how, when she was little, instead of “squat[ting] flies with a big thump like everyone else,” she would “do it gently, slowly with four, five little taps” (138). Much more enjoyable for the flies, no doubt.

Her friends aren’t much better. The women are catty. At a wedding, they talk smack about the mother of the bride—right after praising it. Then they ask “what can you expect from someone whose name even no one had heard nine years ago?” (95) Sunny claims her own son “had three fatal accidents while playing polo” but “he’s still fine” (7). Fatal accidents? And he’s fine? And the narrator isn’t fazed by that but by the competitive nature of the boast. Mulloo finds fault with “a gay” who is dating an “American, even worse, [a] Christian” (42). The Emma character wants to defend the girl as being not “as bad as a Hindu or something” (42). Shaukat says the Americans, not the Taliban, are “doing the bombing” and that “they’re taking orders from Israel” (36-37). Zafar says “it [is] impossible for a Muslim to kill another Muslim” (39). In response to evidence to the contrary (who killed a million people during the Iraq and Iran war?), Zafar claims that the Americans did it. Jammy blames the Israelis. The main character is at least uncomfortable with these lies and shifts the chatter to ask about Zeenat’s highlights (39).

Her perspective is fascinating. She calls the Talibans “selfish” and “unconsiderate,” acting “as if Pakistan belongs to them” (87). Kulchoo says she is “polaroid about the Talibans” (80). In fact, the moments when she discusses what’s happening (“someone who Nina knows had her arms slashed with a naked blade . . . by a beardo [who] said he did it because she was wearing sleeveless”) are among the only compelling moments of this story (82). What is it like to be a middle-class Pakistani in this climate? War and bombings are constant backdrops. Perhaps it’s some justification for her focus on frivolity. She and her friends are religious, and the book does a good job showing the difference between regular observance and what she calls the “fundos” or sometimes, the “beardos.” She is, however, unbelievably naïve, not believing her intelligent husband when he tells her the mullahs are running “madrassahs where they take poor boys . . . and make them into suicide bombers while they send their own sons to nice schools” (158). She does, though, see that the mullah to whom she makes a donation reminds her too much of the man who attacked her and her friend.

Still, maybe these women are not quite “religious.” One character resentfully complains that she has “kept [her] fasts, said [her] prayers, done [her] charity, even gone on Umra twice and this is how Allah repays” her (173). Even our narrator, supposedly a pious woman, thinks her cousin hasn’t asked his mother for permission to marry because someone “must have slaughtered a black hen outside Aunt Pussy’s house and done something with the blood” (218). At least her “beliefs” are, sometimes anyway, to protect her son; she wants to “kill two sheep” because she’s “not taking any risks with Kulchoo” (225). But why would she think “there’s nothing like killing sheep to make G-d happy” (225)?

I liked our heroine for a brief moment when she visits a prospective bride for Jonkers and tries to encourage the poor, repressed girl to speak, but when it suits her personal needs to encourage Jonkers to marry into this despicable family, she changes her advice to him. I liked her again for a second when she talks back to a robber, but then she becomes a manipulator again. She “thinks” her husband believes she is traumatized by the robbery “because now he comes quietly” when she calls him. As a result, she thinks she’ll “keep it up for another five, six years at least” (164).

I kept looking for links to Emma. There are beatroots. Is that it? (169) Mulloo is sort of like Harriet—the robbery is like the gypsy attack (but no Frank to save her), and the advice the narrator “carefully” gives her not to start a catering business could be like the “say no to Robert Martin”—but not really (213).

At the end, when things start to change, our narrator really tries to fight her superstitions, even telling her mom she’s not “supercilious any more” (243). Though that’s not what she intended to say, she’s not wholly mistaken. When Janoo defends Jokers’ right to marry a “partner . . . with whom he feels at ease and with whom he shares interests [lest his]marriage [] be a very lonely experience,” our heroine is at least smart enough to ask her husband if he is lonely (220).She continues to name her make-up and her shoes, to judge a family for having a maid (rather than a guard) open the door, to scoff at a shawl for being wool (rather than “shahtoosh . . . or even pashmina” 229). Finally, though, she has an epiphany—inspired by Janoo, Jonkers, and the bravery of the woman Jonkers loves—and does what she can to make things right.

In boasting of her accomplishments in so doing, she says, “We had those standing-up heater-type things . . . they’re called brassieres” (245). Maybe her little mistakes have been funny all along, or maybe now that I can stand her, she’s finally amusing.

 

 

Published in: on June 21, 2013 at 2:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Darkness at Pemberley by T.H. White

When I first saw this title with this author, I did a double-take: I teach White’s unabridged The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn every year and thought I knew all about him—but I did not know he read our Jane and even wrote about her work!

So it was with no small expectations that I began reading. 1932. It felt so strange to imagine the world in which White lived. “’Phoned” was spelled with an initial apostrophe from a time in which “telephoned” was the verb (27). There were many words I didn’t know because (I think) they aren’t used any more. A “bedder,” according to wikipedia, is “short for ‘bedmaker’ and is a housekeeper in a college” in Cambridge and Durham; Oxford apparently calls the same job a “scout” (17).  Aspidistras turn out to be house-plants; did regular people know the name of the genus in 1932? (40) A prie-dieu is a prayer-desk (51). Perhaps in religious Christian communities those are still in use? “Bumptious,” according to merriam-webster.com, means “presumptuously, obtusely, and often noisily self-assertive,” but they asked me how I happened to come across this word, so apparently it’s not on the SAT top list (51). “She must bant”? (207) Does it really mean lose weight? I liked the cool expression: “he drove hell-for-leather” (216). Maybe we can bring that one back. A guy’s eyes are described as being close together—just like Jerry Cruncher’s! (40)

Language aside, here’s what’s basically going on, plot-wise: There’s a mystery involving a murdered freshman named Frazer. White introduces many characters and their actions before setting up the murder so the reader goes back to see what motives everyone has . . . to no avail. Yet. The double murder is at first confusing. The Sergeant says Beedon killed the kid and then himself, but it is too early to figure this out even assuming you do “get some queer fish in these universities” (19). Invisible ink! The master is using cocaine! “People who take drugs are sometimes very cunning” (31). Okay . . . it seems I’m reading for language now, rather than for story.

The back of the book says the university is easily recognizable as Cambridge (as apparently people who know the term “bedder” would immediately know), but I wondered, what is the connection to Pemberley? Did I get excited prematurely? As it turns out, this detective novel, which the back cover explains “became lost in the Depression years,” is really two detective stories.

The first takes place at the university. There is such a different type of investigation than would occur today. For example, a surgeon goes out and buys a pig and shoots it in all sorts of different ways to see what residue the bullet will leave and then to work backward and figure out what happened to the two men (68-69). The surgeon promises Inspector Buller that he will cleverly manipulate Sir Loftus, making the visitor think the doctor doesn’t understand the implications of his own experiment and having the visitor explain the meaning, first to the doctor and then to the coroner. The Inspector’s analysis of the gramophone evidence is a little confusing for a modern reader who didn’t grow up playing records very often (words like “tone-arm,” “catch,” and “speed indicator” 63). The revelation of information is also delivered in an unusual way. I wondered especially why the murderer would admit to the crime so freely (he even explains that he killed the kid because the kid happened to see him in the first victim’s room. This horrible man followed the kid home and “shot him dead”) (79). It gets worse: the one witness has also been killed, and the murderer takes a sick pleasure in revealing it to the inspector, whom he advises not to “hurry” since the body won’t move anyway (82) (which reminded me of Hamlet’s line to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but in a much less funny way). I also wondered why the inspector would go to the man he thinks murdered a colleague, tell him his suspicions, and then immediately regret his doing so? It doesn’t completely make sense until Mr. Darcy—yes, you read that right—does basically the same thing in part 2.

In part 2, the names Darcy and Pemberley finally appear, and the mystery for me is what on earth connection will there be? Sir Charles Darcy helped the Inspector two years earlier with a flat “tyre” (96). Elizabeth Darcy—”the Christian name had been in the family since the famous Elizabeth in 1813″—had told him Darcy’s tragic story and how he came to live at Pemberley with his sister after a misunderstanding during a cocaine bust left him a widower (97). Our Inspector is in love with Elizabeth (which means, in a way, he is the “Darcy” of the story, and the real Darcy is Bingley), and she with him, but neither knows the other’s feelings.

Buller confides the truth to Miss Darcy and Charles; he trusts them, and he has already resigned from his post in frustration that he hadn’t saved the porter (witness) (107). The murderer, meanwhile, “bullies his pupils” and is “so vain about his mental powers” in part “on account of his unappetising physique” (108). We, like Miss Darcy, worry a bit when Charles goes after Mauleverer, seemingly because, after experiencing evil in the cocaine guy, he hates evil. Since he is not himself amoral, however, he seeks a “fair fight” and actually warns the murderer, who enjoys murdering without one (114-15).

Charles grossly underestimates the power of evil. There are some delightful lines (Buller, for instance, says to Miss Darcy when they talk through possibilities: “we shall just have to pretend we’re in a detective story” 119), and other entertainments (such as Buller’s plan to keep Darcy locked in his bedroom for the rest of the week since it “would strike [Mauleverer] as a neat joke” to kill Darcy “within the week at the end of which” Darcy said he would kill Mauleverer [120]. After the week is up they will have to kill him), but the tale gets really creepy when the darkness literally moves to Pemberley, and everyone fears for Charles’ (and maybe their own) life.

Miss Darcy is uncomfortable planning to murder the stalker, but her view strikes me as odd: she says she’d rather her would-be suitor and brother “were murdering [the murderer] for revenge or hatred, or just for fun, than that [they] should be compelled to kill him at a distance out of fear that he will kill” them (169). Elizabeth seems to change Buller’s mind—they shouldn’t plan to kill the guy—and so the plans change again, though they don’t tell her. But then, when the fourth murder occurs, and then a kidnapping, followed by a terrifying journey through the chimney systems that reminded me of Jean Valjean traveling in the sewers, suddenly killing this guy—and soon—seems the only option to save these good people.

The murderer/stalker reminds me of a sick Poe protagonist, enjoying his victims’ suffering and the thrill of being in control. Several weird twists: the presence steals a toothbrush (later found to be “crawling with diphtheria”), has white hands but not a white face, and sneaks into Miss Darcy’s locked room while she is sleeping and then draws a skull in lipstick on her mirror (138)! Along the way, Buller’s friend Wilder shows up to help—of the story’s two mysteries, this one is much trickier! The killer’s plan for torturing his victims made me think there should be some sort of warning on the cover. The worst punishment is for Buller—who will be last so the psycho killer can tell him “all the news [about]. . . Charles’ last moments . . . and how he enjoyed them” (272).

Without giving too much away, key moments include Buller’s shift from “trying to prevent Mauleverer shooting him” (self-preservation) to shooting Mauleverer (and saving Buller’s innocent friends) (278). The romance part happens quickly, but it is satisfying nonetheless, and there’s even the suggestion that past wrongs may be redressed as much as they can.

The tale is not so Austeny in content, but it’s a great house and history, which must be why White selected it :-).

Published in: on May 22, 2013 at 8:58 pm  Comments (1)  

The Filthy Classics by Virginia Wade

I knew I shouldn’t proceed, based on the title and front cover alone, but doesn’t a great Austen novel teach us not to judge based on first impressions alone?  The back of the book didn’t allay any of my concerns, given the use of quotation marks for book titles and placement of commas outside, rather than inside, said quotation marks. None of the reviewers on the back cover provided his last name; one calls himself “Sir’s Kitten.”

I am open-minded, I kept reminding myself. Elizabeth narrates “Pride and Penetration” (maybe quotation marks are suitable if this is more a short story than a novel, I told myself, trying to mend first impressions). She describes herself as “dark-haired, fiery, and opinionated, the total opposite of a man magnet” (1). (Don’t smart men like women with opinions? If not, what hope do we have?) Interestingly, Mary is actually smart in this version, or at least so Elizabeth says, seemingly without irony. This version sounds more or less like the “usual” adaptation until Mr. Darcy “remove[s] his sunglasses” and lets his eyes travel “up and down the length of” Elizabeth’s body, which experiences some, uh, effects that are quite specific (5). This Elizabeth is really rude to Darcy who, when he takes a walk with her, is told she is “supposed to find a rich husband,” and, if he is rich, he should “drop to one knee and propose, moneybags” (7). Yuck. Way worse than Mrs. Bennet being the guilty party.

Given the anger, it is more surprising (though perhaps it shouldn’t be) how rapidly a sex scene occurs, followed by Darcy’s awkward “we should date” comment (11). He manages to offend Beth (at least the writer had the decency to alter the name) by telling Bingley what happened (though Beth had already told Jane so she has no real right to be offended by the, shall we say, kiss and tell). Oh, and by the way, Mr. Collins is into computer porn, and Mr. Wickham is into computer gambling.

As you might expect, there are grammar errors all over the place, in the words of characters who should know better. Beth says: “us girls took off laughing” and later, “My make up had more than likely been wiped off, but I could have cared less” (20, 33) (I won’t make this review mature audiences only by telling you how). Jane says: “If he’d been interested in me, he wouldn’t of left” (47). Mrs. Bennet’s errors we could allow if they were deliberate (“Put your father and I out of our misery”), but my suspicion is that none of these errors were made with the idea that they better tell the story (20).

Beth is less logical and less at ease than our Lizzy. In one moment, for instance, she claims “women don’t need men to rescue them anymore,” but in the next, she wishes that her “daddy could get a job” (21). On the phone with Catherine, Beth stutters “I . . . don’t think” (she’s about to marry Darcy) and adds that they “haven’t even dated really” (49).  This is no Elizabeth Bennet, but in 50 pages, it’s done, with very little fuss, other than a minor kidnapping and a sore bottom.

I had trouble imagining the same sexual fluency—at least for Elinor—in “Sense and Sexuality.” I thought at first this story would discuss just Marianne, but no. Though she has “only had two lovers in [her] twenty-four years,” this Elinor “love[s] sex” and has “a collection of dildos that would make a prostitute blush” (55-56).

Elinor’s grammar is as flawed as Beth’s and Jane’s—Edward, she recalls, “was a pleasant, quiet man who” she “found interesting” (53). Lucy Steele is described as “a friend of Mrs. Jennings daughter in law” (no apostrophe and no hyphens) (67). Pronouns are not Wade’s field: Elinor says that Mrs. Jennings wanted “Marianne and I to attend” (71). Later Elinor “tamped down the monster of jealously”—seriously (73). Possessives, too: Lucy is “staying at the Palmer’s for a while” (83). Elinor, too, “could have cared less”—but means the opposite (88).

There are also some interesting choices with logic. How can Marianne be playing Wii and Elinor say she’s “great” one month after their father died? (53) I suppose that’s little better than Willoughby and Marianne bonding over The Hunger Games and Adele (62). Lucy has diabetes, which she tells Elinor made an older boy feel sorry for her (“it’s expensive”) (68). They stay married so she has health insurance. I still despise her, but it’s so real a modern problem, it almost makes sense!

The descriptions of the sexual encounters are pretty similar from story to story, both the order of things and the phrasing and the choices, but just when I was feeling rather unimpressed because the racy scenes were so predictable, Mrs. Jennings turns out to be much more adventurous than I had expected :-).

Unfortunately for the main romances, part of the fulfillment of the happy ending comes from the waiting, the delay of the satisfaction. Short story versions can’t build that.

Nonetheless, I had gotten this far, so I couldn’t miss the adventures with Emma. Camp Highbury is where Emma and her father and Harriet Smith are spending their summer. The first time we see Mr. George Knightly (she spells it without the “e”), he is speaking “with a gorgeous brunette” who turns out to be Jane Fairfax, but his “gray eyes brighten[]” when he sees Emma (97). (At one point Harriet’s name got an extra t, so apparently the spelling of character names isn’t a key concern, 104). This Emma admits to being “horribly prideful” about her looks, but doesn’t the real Mr. Knightley say Emma is not vain in that way? (97) Why the gratuitous change? Ms. Bates is “on the janitorial staff” (grateful to have a “break from the factory”), and Robert Martin is “the head cook” (98-99).

Emma, like Elinor, has “only had sex with two people” (104). Again, the details felt too close to the other stories. I was also bothered by illogical details that never get sorted out, such as why, if Elton graduated from Harvard, does Emma insist on not revealing which school in Massachusetts she attended? (102) What, especially given Harriet’s dropping out of community college because she “kinda didn’t know what major was” (I swear: that’s exactly what it says), makes Emma think Elton and Harriet are “perfect” for each other? (101, 100)

But none of those weaknesses was as disturbing as when Emma says no to Mr. Elton, but that doesn’t stop him, and then she enjoys it. It certainly didn’t sound like an ideal message. Less appalling but still not good is the sequence of events between Emma and Mr. “Knightly,” who, after they have sex one night,  proposes the next day. Right away she says she loves him (137). This one might take the prize for being the most unfulfilling happy ending possible.

Published in: on April 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners by Josephine Ross and illustrated by Henrietta Web

Taking its subtitle from one of Emma’s lines (“compliments, charades, and horrible blunders”) , this is such a cute little book; I felt ready to pretend I was a Regency reader. Easy to read, the little guide presents a rule, followed by its exemplification in one of the novels or Jane Austen’s own life, with the understanding that Austen’s novels show that “the forms of manners which should be scrupulously observed are, invariably, those which contribute to the comfort, or dignity, of others” (5-6).

While reading, I learned that since it is the person of higher rank who requests an introduction, Mr. Darcy is communicating more than I had realized when, “on meeting Elizabeth Bennet in the environs of Pemberley, he asks her with impeccable courtesy” if he might introduce his sister to her (18). Unlike Emma, who, when she and Harriet meet with Robert Martin does not seek an introduction, Mr. Darcy asks for it but puts the power of choice in Elizabeth’s hands, which may suggest his impression of their equality (or even her superiority?). In a delightful discussion of fashion, which included the logical claim that “even in the realms of fashion, sense should prevail over sensibility,” I learned that “to question—or even compliment—anyone else, in person, on the details of dress may be regarded as impertinent” (78-79).

Though I might quibble with an occasional interpretation (for example, the book says Darcy declines “Mr. Bingley’s offer of introducing him to Elizabeth Bennet, with the ‘put-down’, or rebuff, ‘She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me,” but I think Darcy has already been introduced to Lizzy by that point, and Bingley is just trying to get his friend to dance 53), overall, I enjoyed the simple style, the truly lovely illustrations, and the sense that I was learning good manners just as a Regency woman would.

A most delightful moment occurred when, about half way through the text, I discovered it came with its own ribbon bookmark! It enhanced my sense of reading like a Regency girl!

Ross ends with a hope perhaps all of us share: “Whatever changes the passing years bring, it is to be hoped that the role of Manners as an integral component of both life and literature will never cease to be of interest to the world at large” (133).

Published in: on March 13, 2013 at 5:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James

This tale is for those of us who “always wished there was a seventh novel.” The idea of a lost Jane Austen novel is, of course, intriguing, but James really makes the reader wait for it. When heroine #1,who finds the Austen letter (I did wonder how there could be no mention by Jane of Sanditon ten months before the end), catches up with her old friend Michelle, we learn more about her: her name (Samantha), her age (31), her home (Southern California) (7). I tried not to smart at the comment that she is “still single at thirty-one” (7). Her description of trying to make a career out of teaching English in the community colleges made me glad I hadn’t gone that route! (32)

The guy we hope becomes the hero of Samantha’s life (that doctor will have to disappear—maybe he could cheat or something?) says early on that he doesn’t understand how Austen “became such a phenomenon” (29). Our heroine will obviously have to show him what he has been missing, and in so doing, she experiences such an adventure: a handsome man, a huge Georgian library, a family history, and the missing manuscript! It’s almost too much!

Once we begin the story within a story, we meet our seventh Austen novel’s heroine, young Rebecca Stanhope, aka heroine #2. This Rebecca loves walking, “climbing over stiles” and such (a little too obvious a Lizzy Bennet?) (106). Her father, Mr. Stanhope, sounds a lot like Mr. Austen—divinity degree, two daughters, “excellent husband and father,” married a woman with some inheritance, tutors “schoolboys he took in as boarders” and thus supplements his daughters’ education (58-59).  Jane is Rebecca, her own heroine, and the “obedient” Sarah is Cassandra. The “foundations of [Rebecca’s] carefully ordered life” are shaken when the girls are sent “to boarding school” (59). Funny: the father-daughter relationship is beautiful (Emma, Jane, me; Mr. Woodhouse, Rev. Austen, my dad), but this dad is obsessed with dirt the way Mr. Woodhouse is obsessed with health.

It seems like a happy la dee dah story (although I didn’t understand why Mr. Stanhope’s father’s money would gone to the second wife if the father had not altered the will. Wouldn’t it be the opposite? 58), and then, bam, one bad thing after another occurs to this sweet girl and her loving father. One of the ramifications of the bad news is the arrival of the new rector, whom we immediately see has special feelings for Rebecca. He buys her father’s book collection so she’ll have access to it, but of course she just thinks him “odious,” so we’re supposed to, too, for now (84).

Meanwhile, there’s another potential suitor—the one whom the heroine seriously considers. Dr. Watkins’ “air and address were unexceptionable, and his ease of manner reflected his education and good breeding” (so weren’t they exceptional?) (100). This doctor, too, is going to have to go, but it’s a greater challenge to figure out why. There’s also a new friend whose tone strikes us just the wrong way from the beginning (Miss Davenport, a wealthy orphan raised by her aunt, says it will be quieter at the aunt’s house than at the Morris’ “with all your children running about” 104. They’re not Miss Stanhope’s children anyway, but that’s rather rude from a friend! ) and a much more likeable version of Lady Catherine in the form of the aunt.  She advises Rebecca about her apparel, scoffs at a doctor being considered a gentleman, comments on how many children women should have, and  isn’t sure she should associate with their father since the rumor is he gambled away church money. Mrs. Harcourt “deliver[s] information” on “the minutiae of” the Miss Wabshaws’ lives, “from the ordering of meat, and the best time of year to plant potatoes, to the proper way to toast bread over the fire without singeing its corners” (151). This lady, though, to her credit, does listen to an intelligent young woman and even comments that an answer “surprises and delights” her (115). Rebecca’s friend is expected to marry Brook Mountague, a man who bores her, despite his wealth, good looks, and family connections. Her aunt has been planning the union much as Lady C planned Anne’s, so we, like Rebecca, have hope yet for Miss Davenport’s escape despite her often disconcerting behavior or disingenuousness.

There is a smart entr’acte, which provided both the reminder of what was happening in the framework story (I got so caught up in the new story I nearly lost track of the first!) and also the opportunity to say that, though the style of this novel “is certainly very similar,” it is also not “identical to,” say, Pride and Prejudice, which James has her heroine explain away with this being “Austen’s more youthful writing style” (128). (Maybe that answers my concern earlier about blatant foreshadowing when the text tells us, “on their last night . . . Rebecca . . . keenly felt her impending loss, knowing that it was the last time she would live there, as mistress of that house” 88).

When we return to Rebecca, eager as Samantha to learn what happens next, we find a precursor to Mr. Collins in the form of Humphrey Spangle, “a diminutive, heavy looking widower . . . more than twice Rebecca’s age,” who pays the ladies excessive compliments on “their gowns and shoes, the style and colour of their hair, and their beauty” (139). He has some of the false modesty of Mrs. Elton as well (he’s installing, for instance, “a splendid fountain, if [he does] say so [him]self” 140). We meet Miss Davenport’s intended when he arrives on scene with the new rector we have been thinking must play some part in Rebecca’s happiness. Brook is loud and pushy, but Mr. Clifton is calm and polite—and not a gambler—at least by comparison. Interesting now to have two of the men (the doctor and the rector) we think might be right for Rebecca in the same room. Clifton looks at Rebecca, but she, like Elizabeth after her, does not interpret it correctly (I assumed I was since I had the advantage of knowing P and P).

The missing manuscript provides humor, mystery, and romance. There is a hilarious, contradictory speech of a man who says first that reading books is “a great, tedious expenditure of time” and then that he has “the finest library in the country” (147). There is a bit of a mystery as well since Mr. Stanhope’s money has disappeared, and it looks like Mr. Clifton was not told the full story (159). James’ Austen cues the discerning reader into the facts showing that Mr. Clifton is good, and Jack Watkins not. I knew it when the latter uses a teasing voice to mock his host to Rebecca, but everyone assumes he’s great, and people are predisposed against the more reticent Mr. Clifton (169). Miss Davenport has a locket with a mysterious lock of hair in it (191). I suspected Miss Davenport was not to be trusted, but it wasn’t until her letter, in which, in one sentence she says the tears “are spilling down” her cheeks as she contemplates being separated from Rebecca “perhaps for ever” and in the next, professing her real concern that her gown be properly washed and returned the next day, that I understood her to be the beginnings of Isabella Thorpe (215).

In case the reader missed the prototype idea, James has our heroine contemplate aloud the idea that perhaps they “might find other similarities between this story and her other books” (221). The discerning reader starts doing that from the start. The first marriage proposal includes a dig at her father—like Mr. Collins’—and a description of his house. Rebecca’s lines foreshadow Elizabeth’s: “every gentleman ought to be [charming, intelligent, and good-looking] if he possibly can” (185). When the two young ladies discuss a prospective suitor for Rebecca, neither mentions his name—as when Emma and Harriet discuss the man who came to the latter’s rescue. Could they be speaking here of different men? Ooh, a tense dance like Elizabeth’s with Darcy—he means well and has no idea she’s going to lash out as she does. The distant cousins could be like the Jennings!  There are many echoes of Emma, particularly when Mr. Knightley returns to Highbury, having planned to propose to Emma, but Emma thinks he is planning to propose to someone else, so there is an awkward misunderstanding before the ultimate bliss. As in Emma, Mr. Woodhouse’s feelings need to be assessed right away, here, too, Mr. Stanhope’s view is central to the happiness of the young lovers. While shopping with her new hostess, Mrs. Newgate, Rebecca meets the sweet young woman we suspect will someday be her sister-in-law; this young lady is much more real than Miss Davenport, like Eleanor Tilney versus Isabella Thorpe.

The reader feels natural pride in Rebecca, who makes many good choices.  (I admit I was frustrated with her for not telling her father the full truth about what she knows. For instance, the inn-keeper involved in the gambling scandal insists Mr. Stanhope is guilty, and Rebecca burns the letter without telling her father what was said. Later, she doesn’t she tell him the full truth about the doctor.) We see one proposal that might tempt a less wise heroine, but not our Rebecca, who may not understand why her instinct says no, but knows it does. Austen usually gives a lot more detail about a heroine’s first proposal than the letter, but her, the manuscript casually mentions that Rebecca “received a proposal . . . from a young, florid gentleman with whom she had danced only one set,” and of course she refuses him (256).
Amelia turns out to be worse than Isabella, and this heroine recognizes that “Amelia seemed disingenuous and a bit pretentious”—so much more easily than dear Catherine Morland :-). (247)

I appreciated the info about where all the original Austen works are—The Watsons (Bodleian), Sanditon (King’s College), the Juvenalia and Lady Susan (New York Morgan Library!), and of course the two cancelled chapters of Persuasion in the British Library (389-90). I appreciated Mr. Stanhope’s wise words: “What do we really need to be happy, other than the affection of our family, a few good friends, a comfortable home, food on the table, and a worthwhile occupation to fill our days?” (124) I appreciated, in fact, almost everything about this delightful tale within a delightful tale.

Published in: on February 24, 2013 at 8:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pride and Prejudice with a Side of Grits by Jane Austen and Mary Calhoun Brown

I give this writer credit for trying to bring P and P into the American South, but the effort might be misplaced. By the end of chapter 1, I was annoyed by the southern dialect (which doesn’t happen when I actually am in the South) and by the shift from classy to country. Part of what we love about these novels is the sense of decorum and the subtlety of the language. Here, by contrast, Lizzy offers to “spit-shake” her mother and warns her sister that a man “ain’t gonna buy the cow if he can git the milk fer free” (16, 13). Flo (Mrs. Bennet), describes Dutch (Darcy) as “thank[ing] he’s hot snot on a silver platter” and says Benny (Mr. B.) should have joined them at the hoe-down to see Buford (Bingley), who “wuz all over Janie like flies to shit” (12, 11). We’re not in Austen’s land anymore.

The similes go too far—and too often, so that instead of capturing the essence of southern speech, they perpetuate stereotypes. Whether it’s Buford thinking “all the girls wuz jest as purty as puddin’ pie” or Dutch thinking the “town folks looked dumber ‘n a box of rocks, and the girls wuz so rough that maybe the dog had been keepin’ ’em under the porch to chew on,” I solely missed the non-figurative language of Austen (14). The language here was crude and unnecessary. I knew it was a bad sign when Mary sounded like the smartest one in the crowd. The narrator says Mary “always talked fancy,” which here just seems to be, like a normal person (16). The similes are constant: “It wuz so dry the trees wuz beggin’ the dogs fer a waterin'” (58). “Lizzy’s eyes flew open like two buckeyes in a barrel of buttermilk” (58). Some similes are repeated, especially “happy as a dog with two peters” and “serious as a heart attack” (142, 155, 214).

There are also a lot of clichés. Buford’s sisters wouldn’t wish one of Mrs. Benny’s visits “on their worst enemies” (18). Even Mr. Benny uses them, as when he tells his youngest daughters, excited about the Army National Guard coming to town, that they “don’t know shit from shinola” (23). When her weather predictions are validated, Flo “jest grinned like a fox in a henhouse” (25). Tammy (Caroline Bingley) “hated Lizzy with the heat of a thousand suns in the desert with no shade to be found” (44). “Benny’s daughters fell fer [Joe Wickham] hook, line and sinker” (55). When their “ain’t Fern” (Mrs. Philips) invites Joe to tea, “you couldn’t keep the girls away fer all the tea in China” (56). In a single paragraph, we’re given both “chew the fat” and “spill the beans” (58).  There’s even an occasional double simile, linked to a double cliché: “Lizzy’s face burned hot as the hinges of hell, red as a firetruck, and she wanted to jest crawl up in a ball and die on the spot” (74). We’ll leave the split infinitive (and other grammar errors that are not intentional, such as “the gravy Flo had made hid it’s game-y flavor” 49) out of this. Sometimes there are strange, contradictory back-to-back simile clichés, as in this instance: The narrator says “Lizzy wuz cool as a cucumber ’bout goin’ to Dutch’s farm,” but then the next line (in the next chapter) says “Lizzy was wound up like a top when they pulled in beside the Pembrook Farm sign” (160-61). In yet another seeming contradiction, one paragraph says “they listened fer the phone and nearly jumped out’a their socks when it did ring, but the next describes them missing a call when they’re “all out on the stoop drankin’ Jack ‘n Coke” (189). Cooter leaves four messages, which means the phone rang on four occasions, none of which the people supposedly waiting with bated breath (normally, I’d avoid the cliché, but here it seems appropriate) heard?

The people are kind of, um, gross. Even Buford “chuck[s] his chaw into the bushes so Janie wouldn’t have to look at it all brown in the side of his jaw” (18). Dutch, meanwhile, nearly gets “a woody thankin’ bout the way [Lizzy’s] hips moved when she walked” (19). Charlotte is “so skinny she had to run ’round in the shower to git wet” (15). Benny sends the girls to their aunt, saying he “wuz already stiff as a poker, and he couldn’t wait fer some ‘alone time’ with Flo” (57). Wickham says not getting the security job “fer the gov’ner of Kentucky” made him “so blue [he] wuz peein’ ink” (60). Getting the sisters to tell Lizzy about Janie’s condition “wuz like a-tryin’ to plait live eels in a bucket” (27). Yeah. I don’t really know what that means, but it sounds like it should be gross. Some lines are especially bad: “‘I’ll be all over her like stink on dog shit ’til she gets better,’ her tone as cold as a witch’s tit in a brass bra” (32). Really, it’s my own fault: I should have put the put down at that point. Or how about this one? “Janie knew all her hopes wuz dashed like a cardboard box full of baby kittens on the highway” (94). Flo hates “Billy Lucas so much that she wouldn’t piss down his ass if’n his guts wuz on fire” (91). This is not why we read Austen.

Maybe it’s my own lack of comprehension that is to blame. I never quite understood these four: Wickham “looked good enough to make you wanna smack yer granny” (57). DeeDee’s “voice wuz as quiet as a popcorn fart” (111). “She could’ve clapped her ninnies to thank that she had created feelin’s so strong in any man” (131). When Jane learns Joe’s real history with Dutch, she says that “Joe needs to paint his butt white and run with the antelope” (150). Here are the ones I think I at least figured out: Apparently needing to see a man about a horse means using the bathroom (126, 223). A guy who has “got sugar in his tank” is gay (147). And, according to urbandictionary.com, “suwanee” means, in essence, “I swear.” You’ll need that one since it is used repeatedly (though with a single, rather than a double “n”).

Mr. Collins (Cooter) is especially bad here. His first reason for marrying, for instance, is that “it’s better fer a preacher . . . to git his milk from his own cow” (78). (The milk thing appears several times, 97, 122). But Lizzy’s response is—groan—”I’m the wrong person fer this job, honest Injun” (79). Do people talk like this?  Mrs. Philips is Fern, who had “been lucky enough to snag the Assistant Manager of the Piggly Wiggly,” and Mr. Gardiner does “right well” selling “appliances in Nashv’lle” (23).  The Gardiners are Guthrie and Tildie. This time, Tildie sees right away that Wickham “wuz a bad egg” (you weren’t surprised to see a cliché, were you?) (99). Charlotte moves to Knoxv’lle. London is Nashv’lle. The promise of a tour of the Lakes here becomes the promise of Kentucky horse country, which makes Lizzy “happier ‘n a dog with two peters!” (106).

The writer does do a decent job matching up details. Dutch picks up a copy of Field and Stream Magazine, and Tammy picks one only “be’cuz Dutch wuz readin’ an earlier issue,” for example (40). Brown does a really good job following the structure of the original—even what happens in which chapters. I could follow the story because I know the story. Elizabeth, for instance, “didn’t know whether she hoped for or feared that Dutch would poke his head in fer a howdie” (172). The attics at Purvis Lodge, which you recall Mrs. Bennet saying are dreadful, become “a whole attic full of bats at that abandoned house on Wolf Creek,” but this house, Flo says, is salvageable (198). The accent and casual nature work nicely for the scene in which Mr. Bennet knows he will have three daughters married. Benny says, “If’n any fellers is out there waitin’ to git hitched to Mary or Kitty, send ’em on back. I ain’t got nuthin’ else to do but git rid of me some daughters” (243).

But there are also many changes that don’t seem warranted. Tammy, for instance, says she thinks “music’s too loud at most parties,” and Buford says he supposes they “could skip the music, but then it wouldn’t be much of a dance” (41). The original conversation is between Mary and Elizabeth, and the switch here seemed random. Lizzy actually says her mom is “’bout as dumb as a bucket full of rocks” in front of her mom, Dutch, Buford, and Tammy (34). Our Lizzy never does that. In this version, Mr. Collins’ calling his home “his humble abode” nearly makes Katie Jo—the Maria Lucas character—”wanna pee her pants fer laughin'” (107). On the walk to Miz M’s (Lady Catherine’s), the narrator explains Lizzy’s ease this way: “Lizzy had heard so much ’bout Miz M that she wuzn’t bothered by any of it, she jest wanted to have a face to put with the name” (111). The comma splice aside, this explanation doesn’t make sense. Katie Jo and Billy have heard the same details, but he keeps “fidgitin’ with his string tie,” and she is “bitin’ her fangernails clean off” (111). During Lizzy and Dutch’s conversation about the need for practice, she doesn’t say the key part: she holds herself responsible for not being better because she won’t take the trouble to practice! Without that, the resolution makes little sense (119). Miz M is less awful than she should be. When she’s dissing Lizzy’s fiddle, she interrupts herself (realizing the impoliteness of what she’s saying), and she says people “jest cain’t educate a child without good teachers” (112-13). She uses her knowledge of the community to make things better; when she hears of “somebody beatin’ their wife,” she makes Cooter address the topic in his sermon (115). Lizzy is worse, saying to Miz M, “Do you honestly b’lieve I’m gonna tell you my age?” (113). After the first meeting, Tildie says the opposite of what Mrs. Gardiner says: “they’s somethin’ ’bout the way Dutch hold his mouth that makes me thank he’s not as good as he lets on” (168). Their last name is Ledbetter? Why? Also illogical: “once years ago [Mr. Bennet, here Benny, had] saved ’bout five thousand dollars, hopin’ to give some to the girls when they got married, but how would he divide it”? (197) Um, how about a thousand each? Then, suddenly, “his little nest egg was long gone” (197). Why?

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the text, because, once I got used to the language and the coarseness, it was entertaining, and I give Brown credit for knowing the original well, but maybe crass, profanity, and regular comments about defecation have as much place in an Austen novel as, say, werewolves, vampires, and mummies.

Published in: on January 27, 2013 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Rock Star by Heather Lynn Rigaud

I’ll freely admit to some initial skepticism. The story begins with a list of which stars each character’s music is designed to echo and continues with a documentary of Darcy in which various people who know him—Richard Fitzwilliam, George Wickham, etc—discuss him at various stages of his (often tragedy-filled) life.

There are some editing errors (e.g. “This was what I wanted to.” To WHAT? p. 6), though not nearly the number we’ve been seeing lately.  Inserting grammar errors in the mouths of well-educated characters is a bit more egregious, as when Darcy says, of Georgiana, “She better not be skipping classes” (105). We’d hope Darcy would know there’s a missing “had” there. Charlotte may not, but her pronoun choice vexed this reader nonetheless: of Jane, she comments, “Charles and her spent the whole ride playing” (106). The narrator is not immune, as when this thought enters Elizabeth’s head about Wickham: “He had worked harder than her” (192). Really, this text had fewer mistakes than others, but why are there any? This is a book! Doesn’t that mean something anymore?

The text also is flawed by a few over-the-top—even for rock stars—comments, and even a few simply not smart choices. Chief among the latter was Jane’s tearful concern that people will say “she’s got a scar just like Harry Potter!” (94) Really? At least it’s not a cliché, however, unlike Elizabeth’s thought of Will that “he rankled her, like an itch she couldn’t reach to scratch,” which is too obvious as a sexual pun, and too hackneyed for anything else (45). Furthermore, stealing the drug plot point from Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason is NOT cool.

Worse, on several occasions, a character’s reaction (usually here, Elizabeth’s) just doesn’t make much sense, and other occurrences seem a bit too coincidental. When the two bands first meet, Darcy’s “keep your dicks clean” order is gross, but Elizabeth’s reaction doesn’t make much sense. Why does she think the comment means the guys think of them as whores? (21) Though I enjoyed the separate introduction scenes, it seems improbable that Darcy meets just Elizabeth; Bingley, Jane; and Robert, Charlotte. Once it’s clear that Jane and Charles get along nicely, it’s illogical that Elizabeth, who, at that point, does not like Darcy, would volunteer to ride in Slurry’s bus so Charles can ride with Jane. Charlotte would naturally volunteer so she could be with Richard, but, plot-wise, Rigaud needs Elizabeth on the bus (102). The speed is also occasionally off-base; one night with another guy (whose name suggests something evil, but then doesn’t deliver on that foreshadowing), and suddenly Caroline is not “carrying a torch for Darcy anymore” (189)? And the language . . . sigh. I know they’re rock bands, but this somehow feels like a violation of the “I don’t describe what I never could have been privy to” idea; do rock bands—supposedly with classy members—say things like: “I thought all three of you would do her together” (142)? More to the point, would even a modern Lizzy say that? I’m no rock star, but it seems crass. Her character is also a far cry from Austen’s Lizzy, as we see, for instance, when Elizabeth generates a good performance by “relish[ing] the power she (has) over” men (196). Yuck! She’s also inconsistent; first, she tells Lady Catherine that Elizabeth could hardly discuss a solo career “in front of [her] band mates,” but then she tells Lady Catherine that she doesn’t really want a “solo career” (149). Which is it? [Why is the first line in there—just to parallel the original’s parry about her age?]

This Elizabeth’s misunderstandings are far more frequent than they are in the original, and with less foundation. Darcy’s “brows come together” when Charles asks Jane to spend the day with him. We know Darcy doesn’t want Charles to make things awkward with their new partners, but Elizabeth assumes he thinks Jane is “using him to get what she would from him” (67). When she’s talking about growing up, Darcy’s stares at her deeply, and she thinks “he wasn’t enjoying her stories” because he’s “cold” (106). Elizabeth then misunderstands the effect of her undressing at the pool: Darcy jumps in the water, not because he isn’t “interested in watching” her but because he develops a problem only “cold water and exertion” can solve (138-39). She is an experienced woman, but she can’t figure that out? When she finally understands what he feels, we know there has to be some big fight or misunderstanding, but this reader really didn’t understand what Elizabeth is so upset about. It seems like conflict is introduced because there has to be conflict at this point in the story. Darcy seems like he did everything right . . . until she leaves, at which point, his character veers from what we know it to be; here, he hurls a vase and then pledges to teach her a lesson. Austen’s Darcy remakes himself after the failed proposal, and we wonder, at this point, how Rigaud is going to make that happen (262).

Criticism aside, this is a fun read. The background: Slurry (whose name’s significance only Elizabeth deduces) is the band Darcy formed with Wickham and Fitzwilliam to help deal with his anger; Darcy writes “anguished hard rock” (5). When Wickham behaves as himself (his actual crime is not revealed until rather late in the story), Bingley replaces Wickham as lead vocalist. Caroline (here, Charles’ twin) becomes tour manager (perfect job for her!).

As in any retelling, there are some changes to the original. Mary’s actually talented (and going to Julliard). I loved the camaraderie between Mary and Georgiana! The twist on Jane’s “illness” is clever, if a bit odd. Though Charlotte may be headed for the dread fate Austen gives her, Rigaud helps her escape in a most pleasant surprise change. Caroline, too, fares better here in the original. We actually feel pity for her (she really loves Darcy and isn’t just trying to snag a rich, well-positioned man), and is really a completely different character from Austen’s; Rigaud redeems her. The idea of a “California accent” made me smile (234); do people from other places think Californians have accents? The big awards ceremony becomes the Netherfield Ball—a reunion of sorts for Jane and Bingley and Darcy and Elizabeth, and Wickham tells Elizabeth he can’t go because of Darcy, so she gets angry at Darcy. The scene resolves, however . . . Uh, quite differently from the ball ;-).

The situations in which our two bands and six musicians find themselves lend themselves well to some new reasons for joy. The way Darcy handles Elizabeth when she’s nervous made me laugh, especially because he explains himself to her right after. The teasing goes both ways here! (116) The various reactions of band members to Richard’s problems with alcohol are SO in character. There’s a sweet scene, with Bingley soothing Jane, who panics before a flight (though Jane and Bingley have their first kiss on the plane in front of everyone? And why would Darcy ask other people: “why is Charles kissing Jane?” 51 Are they supposed to stop it?). Darcy has one of the great lines of the story when he says he didn’t study literature for his career; he studied it for his soul (108).

Though there are several mentions of the soul, this is very much a book about the body, and readers who elect to read it should be ready for the M rating it would earn if books earned such things.
Overall, a really fun, raunchy read.

Published in: on December 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz

I loved the premise: Jane Austen taught this young male “everything [he] know[s] about everything that matters” (1). He had not wanted to read her. At first, in fact, he was frustrated to have to read Emma (for a course at Columbia—good work, CU), and his narration of his reactions at the time to some of the seeming inanity—particularly that of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates—is hilarious for someone who knows and loves this text. We can see his struggle; he doesn’t yet understand why this is important, or that a normal person would be laughing.

This text is both a psychological analysis of a smart 20-something man who needs to learn he’s not so smart after all and the journey that changed him. Packed with smart-people allusions, the book engages the reader curious about this individual man’s life—then and now—and about the broader implications for all of humanity.

His conclusion with respect to the chattiness in Emma is that all those speeches are not simply there for us to laugh—the seemingly mundane discussion of day-to-day activities is actually what comprises “the fabric of our years” (13). Deresiewicz’s analysis of the meaning of Emma made me think about it differently, for instance the idea that Miss Bates, through her happiness in the face of negative circumstances, lives “the novel’s highest lesson of all” (30). Austen, he begins to realize, “had momentous truths to tell, but she concealed them in humble packages” (15). She embraced the little details of life, and “it didn’t matter how small the frame was, because it contained a whole world” (17).

Deresiewicz also comments on the writers he had previously admired, including many of the modernists, here, Nabokov and Eliot, “every line of whose work strutted its contempt for ordinary people” (34). Austen, by contrast, deals with regular people’s lives, and her “characters came to seem so vivid, so meaningful, because she put them down on the page exactly the way she placed her words: without condescension, without apology, but with a masterful talent for arrangement” (17). He tackles Romanticism more directly when he reflects on Pride and Prejudice. From it, he takes the idea that “head and heart can disagree, and . . . when they do, the head should win” (66). This philosophy, directly addressed by Sense and Sensibility, is the opposite of Romanticism, which prioritizes individual human emotion and which, Deresiewicz says, “gave rise to almost all the great art of the last two centuries” (67). His discussion of the Bronte versus Austen camps in grad school completely validated the dichotomy I have established with my students. They’re free to read that “immature and overwrought” Jane Eyre if they so choose, but I’ll be assigning a work of cool irony (70-71). Ultimately, Deresiewicz concludes that Austen’s works teach that “it is good to be in touch with your feelings, but it is even better if you also think about them” (98).

We really go on a journey with this young man, as he physically moves to a place of his own, as he renegotiates his father-son relationship, as he exits and enters romantic relationships, and as he decides how he wants to live. The catalyzing moment for his reflection is finally understanding Emma, but the journey takes him through all six. There are some especially insightful moments, including: reacting to P and P, “it is never enough to know that you have done wrong: you also have to feel it” (60); “it takes courage . . . to admit your mistakes, and even more courage to remember them” (64); adolescence is about “learning to trust” oneself,” and adulthood is about “learn[ing] to doubt” oneself (68); and “learning to read . . . means learning to live” (103).

Now not everything is perfect about this text. It seemed strange to me that a guy with an advanced degree in English uses the past tense to discuss characters in novels. Do they not teach that at Columbia? There were some scattered grammar annoyances—a preposition at the end of a sentence here or there, and a description of Elizabeth and Catherine being charming “unconsciously” (134). For the most part, however, I felt I was in the hands of someone who had masterfully understood the texts and his own life. He links them beautifully, particularly in the Mansfield Park chapter in which he comes to understand the New York socialites to whom he had been drawn much as readers, and certainly Edmund and his sisters, are to the the Crawfords.

Sometimes, the sheer genius of the ideas—both Austen’s and his own—became overwhelming. One of his best on Austen: The “sweetest form of usefulness” is to listen to someone else’s stories, thereby “acknowledging their humanity” (161). One of his personal best: novels “are training grounds for responding to the world, imaginative sanctuaries in which to hone and test our ethical judgments and choices” (99).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Deresiewicz also taught me some “little” things: Northanger would have been the equivalent of something like New Jersey” (86). In the “Learning to Learn” chapter, in which, actually, the author describes how he learned to teach, he draws multiple parallels between Jane Austen and Catherine Morland (which made me feel much better about being named CM in the Facebook quiz “which Austen heroine are you?”).

In fact, he made several interesting observations about being a truly good teacher. He notices that the professor who inspired him most “genuinely wanted to hear what [students] had to say” and tried to turn students into “better versions of themselves” (91). I didn’t expect to learn so much about my own task, but “the job of a teacher . . .is neither to affirm your students’ notions nor to fill them with your own. The job is to free them from both” (103).

The focus of the work, however, and the area in which Deresiewicz makes some of his most profound statements, is love—how to find it, how to be ready for it, and what to do with it once you have it. These concepts apply to friendships (“We make our friends our family, but we also make our family—or some of them—our friends” 184), and Austen helps the writer be a better friend to his friends and even to help one friend get sober (196). Like an Austen novel, this story builds up to the protagonist enjoying a real love match, but it is a longer, more uncertain journey for him than it is for most of our heroines and their heroes. I laughed a lot during his “I was spared no indignity” paragraph about dating (204). The dating, in conjunction with really thinking about Austen’s messages, helps him understand that “love is not something that happens TO you, suddenly or otherwise; it’s something you have to prepare yourself for” (220). The character of one’s lover “matters not only because you’re going to have to live with it, but [also] because it’s going to shape the person you become” (237). Thus, falling in love does not happen in a moment, Elinor’s method is preferable to Marianne’s, and “in Austen’s vision,” you cannot know the moment you fell; “you only discover you already have” (221-22). He understands now why Austen “always teasingly withheld” the actual declaration of love: “it was too private; it was none of our business. And that was the most romantic thing of all” (255).

In addressing the subject, Deresiewicz concludes that though Austen never married, “she did have children . . . Their names are Emma and Elizabeth and Catherine, Anne and Fanny and Elinor and Marianne. Their names are Henry and Edward and Wentworth and Willoughby, Mr. Collins and Miss Bates and Mr. Darcy. They were not long-lived, they are ageless” (246). Though Austen might have married, if she had, “we would not have been who we are, and she would not have been Jane Austen” (246).

It is Austen who sometimes offers lessons that are difficult for this young male reader to accept. “Of all of Austen’s beliefs about love, the hardest one [for Deresiewicz] to accept was this: not everyone is capable of it” for, to be capable of love, one must “possess a loving heart” (238-39). If one does, and if one is willing and able, not to remain “forever young” but to become “an adult,” then true love is possible (236). The end is perfect :-). Wait for it. Once you come to know this protagonist, the end can’t help but fulfill your hopes for him, and perhaps, for any intelligent man who gives—or is forced to give—Jane Austen a try.

Published in: on November 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The entire first paragraph of this best-seller is about books Madeleine Hanna has read, including “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters” (3). Ah, finally, we’re in the hands of a real writer, one who won a Pulitzer, attended Brown and Stanford, and likes the Oxford comma. It’s about time.

We learn quickly that Madeleine has an ex-friend named Mitchell Grammaticus (awesome name, like Saxo). The reason for their “break-up” sounds petty, which means there’s hope for them (15). She also has a boyfriend whom we immediately like because, in Madeleine’s Semiotics seminar, where they first meet, Leonard is the only one who comments on a writer’s coldness in discussing his mother’s suicide. When a peer says, “better cold than sentimental,” Leonard has the intelligence and confidence to question that preference (28).

It’s 1982. As our protagonist prepares to graduate (the narrator says of graduation: “shows of disobedience were commonplace at graduation ceremonies and, therefore, as time-honored as the traditions they tried to subvert” 116), Eugenides takes us back in time to understand her college trajectory. Madeleine had “become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” She is thus happy to become part of the exclusive “lit-crit” elite (studying Semiotics), but oh, the sacrifice. I remember reading that stuff. It isn’t what made me want to major in English (20). But this is hilarious: she’s drawn to it in part because Semiotics “smacked of revolution,” “dealt with provocative subjects,” and, even in the English Department, “where the concept of cool didn’t appear to obtain,” was clearly the cool way to study English (24-25). Professor Michael Zipperstein’s “conversion” from “close reading and biography-free” literary analysis to Roland Barthes’ deconstructionism leads to Madeleine experiencing romantic trouble as “the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love” (19). Eugenides has great fun at these people’s expense, describing them as “pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in” (21).

The course Madeleine takes junior year is called “The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James” (21). Her views of this new way of reading include this Eugenides gem: “When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely, clarity” (42). I really enjoyed Eugendies’ well-articulated bias against the same texts I found annoyingly pretentious, unnecessarily verbose, and kind of dull. “(Could ‘the access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality’ really be a subject?)” (47) Similarly, he describes Madeleine’s joy in reading a novel after this garbage in this way: “There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world” (47).

Though she certainly makes some questionable choices, our protagonist is likeable and funny. Even when she’s drunk and miserable over a break-up, for instance, she worries about how clean the bath towels are (85). During a rather erotic scene, some key parts are described in terms of a picnic: “nibbling all the treats . . . the meaty drumsticks, . . . the wrinkly truffles, the salty spoonfuls of olive tapenade” (66). But the ending of that delicious feast is even more painful than the book Madeleine throws at Leonard’s head.

Eugenides takes us into the heads of several characters—Madeleine and her two primary men, Mitchell and Leonard—but at different times, and each view feels real and compelling. By “Pilgrims,” we’re following two pairs: Madeleine and her lithium-taking Leonard who may or may not be ready to commit to her rather than to be committed, and Mitchell and Larry, moving to India via Paris. Mitchell is so thoughtful and articulate and insightful that his professor wants to get him a full scholarship to a renowned divinity school of his choosing (99). Mitchell comes to understand religious feelings as arising, not “from going to church or reading the Bible but from the most private interior experiences” (93). A friend of Leonard’s who happens to be a pysch major cautions Madeleine that “people don’t save other people. People save themselves” (124). It sounds so simple, but many people find the prospect of saving someone else appealing.

The story then goes back in time and after graduation and tells us the stories of the other parts of the lives of Leonard, Mitchell, and Madeleine. Such an interesting structure: first Maddy, then Mitchell, Mitchell being jealous of Leonard, Catholicism, then Leonard, mentions of Islam, then Leonard being jealous of Mitchell, then Quakers, then Mitchell and Leonard sharing religious experience (that happens first, but we don’t learn about it until later), then Leonard using religion to change his status. It is a plot in which each piece is carefully interwoven with other pieces, and the end, though it didn’t give me the Austen resolution for which I always hope, did feel right for this story. An engaging story, both emotionally and intellectually.

Published in: on October 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Echoes of Pemberley by Cynthia Ingram Hensley

Sean Kelley is having some trouble with his dad, so he leaves his native Ireland and travels to Derbyshire where we first meet him befriending English pub-goers. He will be working for Bennet Darcy, who owns Pemberley and “just about everything . . . left and right” (9). Almost immediately, aloof but beautiful Catie Darcy comes into the bar and orders two cokes. The tension begins.

This Mr. Darcy turns out to be an older brother, married with twins, with a much younger sister—like Darcy and Georgiana. We first meet them buying a round of drinks for everyone in the Green Man. He’s really tough on her; she likes romance novels—the story of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam is a “favorite” of hers—and her brother wants her to focus on getting into Cambridge (17). Sarah Darcy, Bennet’s wife, seems to be Elizabeth-like, which Hensley cues us into by remarking on her eyes as her “most outstanding feature” and by Sarah’s being especially kind to people who work for them (24). She also seems to lighten her husband’s manners a bit. Meanwhile, something’s going on that threatens Darcy’s “family’s good name,” and he shares few details with his wife (and even fewer with his sister) (30). Catie owes much to Georgiana—natural gifts at piano, respect for her older brother, first the loss of her mother then her father, living in Pemberley, believing in love—but her personality is so different the similarities don’t seem unrealistic.

The usual romantic order of things is thrown somewhat: before Sean and Catie formally meet, they encounter each other when Catie is stark naked (swimming). When she hastily dresses, the ensuing conversation is both rife with sexual tension and highly entertaining as each tries to best the other. Catie and Sean are clearly drawn to each other, though they aren’t very nice to each other. When he realizes he said something to make her cry, however, he feels terrible. Hensley reminds us cleverly that “first impressions” are not always correct (136).

In addition to the two love stories, or potential love stories, Hensley provides a family mystery. Catie gives us a little Northanger Abbey by discovering an ancestor’s personal diary under her bed—the diary that tells the very story from which big brother has been trying to shield Catie. Information about the family scandal is revealed when we’d least expect it—right after an immediate threat to the family occurs of a very different nature, or maybe not so different.

There are also constant reminders that, though the Bennet brother and sister live as best they can, they are always under the shadow of losing their parents so young. There is, for instance, a heart-rending scene in which Catie imagines her daddy telling her the story of Darcy and Elizabeth but then he disappears and she wakes up crying, “Daddy, come back” (46). I know the feeling. This pair of siblings is named after Elizabeth and Darcy, which we learn in an eerie way; Catie crouches down and brushes “clean the soft green grass in front of” the graves of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth (174). The spirits of the departed “live” through their descendents here.   In one of the most truly beautiful moments of this story, Catie acts with great kindness to a young woman who desperately needs help, and Ben hears his father leading him to value what Catie wants to do (272). My eyes filled with tears at the closeness between brother sister, between women of the same age but different worlds, and between departed father and still-living child.

No Pride and Prejudice would be complete without Wickham, and here, Aiden Hirst seems to fill the role (allusion to The Hursts?). He seems too forward—and not Sean—for our liking right away, and he makes Catie uncomfortable. Though we distrust him immediately, we don’t immediately understand what he wants since his family seems to have plenty of money.

Hensley gives us a good reminder about aspirin at the first sign of a heart attack.

Though the various threads of the story are well-developed and connected, the novel does have some errors. Here is a sampling: “The bulk of her parent’s wealth” (80).”Being a lover of all things equine, the American Wild West fascinated Bennet Darcy” (97). She was annoyed “waiting on him” (134). I also found it odd that Catie and Bennet call each other “sis” and “brother,” that a husband calls his wife “Mother” when the kids aren’t around, and that formal Ben welcomes his nanny home by saying they’re “bloody well glad” she’s back, but those are inconsistencies rather than errors (249, 264).

I loved the afterword, which includes several key details that hearken back to the original P and P and show us that we love these new characters in part because they love our familiar characters as we do—and are also like them. Our hero literally gallops “in on a white mount wearing a top hat and a morning coat” to propose, and I was left thinking, so that’s not just my fantasy?! (285)

Published in: on September 24, 2012 at 8:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dear Mr. Darcy by Amanda Grange

Grange retells Pride and Prejudice in epistolary form, as Austen originally wrote Sense and Sensibility and, possibly, First Impressions. As a result, we learn background information that adds depth to our understanding of key characters. Mr. Darcy Senior’s last letter to his son contains even more expectations of a lady worthy of Pemberley than Caroline could devise, but the advice helps us understand Darcy’s reluctance to select a bride from the women he is meeting. We hear, for the first time, the details of Darcy’s father’s death, and the effect on his son. Darcy’s description of the people at his father’s funeral made me cry; I remember feeling similarly. He tells his aunt, for instance, that he “was comforted by the sight which met [his] eyes, for the road was lined with people . . . all gathered to pay their last respects.” They join the procession, giving Darcy “strength by their presence and by the obvious love they had felt for” his father (9). Darcy also says he feels his father’s spirit is still with him, he has his words to guide him, and he knows he was “fortunate to have him as [his] father” (10).

Grange also shares with us some happy background information, such as how Darcy and Bingley became friends and Mrs. Bennet’s first name (Janet! I feel like Amanda Price discovering Claude :-). I was also entertained to read Darcy’s thoughts on matrimony, as expressed to Colonel Fitzwilliam: “How refreshing it would be to find someone who did not like me!” and “I will never rid myself of [my reserve], as it is a Darcy family trait and unavoidable” (35, 34).

We learn more about Bingley’s family, including that his mom is still very much alive during his courtship of Jane. Bingley’s father is amazingly uneducated. If this is his descent, it’s no wonder Caroline is so bitchy in her efforts to distance herself from it (but I wondered how she and Charles speak as well as they do. They’re in school, yes, but this is a big jump) (36-37). Also, they have four other siblings in addition to Louisa, and I wondered, if that were true, why we would hear nothing of them during Austen’s tale. The mom is as scheming as Mrs. Bennet. She and Caroline have made it clear to Bingley why they wish to know Darcy, and it is Darcy himself who tells Bingley to bring his sisters to Pemberley in consideration of his friend’s comfort. Caroline is her usual bragging self, casually slipping in information to a former school chum (and likely gossip) of this nature: “when you reply, I beg you will address your letter to Miss Caroline Bingley, Pemberley, Derbyshire, for we are on our way there to spend the summer with Charles’ dearest friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy” (45). I haven’t decided if this is better or worse than a Facebook check-in, which would achieve the same goal of spreading the news quickly. Both girls are embarrassed by their mother’s lack of education, but Louisa is more practical and sees the scorn people have for her sister. It’s funny to hear Charles practically begging his mother to take Caroline off his hands; “are you sure you do not need her for a few weeks, Ma?” he asks (100). The first letter from Caroline to Darcy shocked me. They aren’t engaged or related; what a violation of propriety! How could she think THAT would impress him?

In Grange’s version, we see more of the view Darcy has to combat within his own world. Darcy’s view of marriage reminds me of my own more than any other Austen character. He has seen his own parents’ love, and he “would like the same” (77). He has “met any number of accomplished,” attractive and smart people, “but none of them tempt” him (76). Sigh. He asks rhetorically “where am I to find” this type of marriage, and there is so clear answer (77). His cousin, Philip, by contrast, thinks of marriage more as Charlotte does and offers to share his list of acceptable women with Darcy.  Darcy’s cousin Philip provides the stereotypically arrogant voice of the upper-class. He says, after encouraging Darcy to get over his “infatuation” with Elizabeth, that Bingley is not “good enough for Georgiana” because “his family are in trade” (294).

Wickham, meanwhile, is sneaky as we would expect. His manipulative letter is beautifully constructed— designed to persuade Darcy that Wickham has seen the error of his ways and will use his reformation to save others. But of course Darcy’s no fool, and his abrupt response is perfectly clear. In this one, Darcy turns white and Wickham, red, and we know that because each tells his correspondent what he saw upon their encounter.

Poor Anne De Bourgh. She wants painting lessons and some time in the fresh air, but Lady Catherine says being outdoors is “injurious” to Anne’s health (92). Anne’s letters are some of the funniest to read, however, perhaps because we know so little about her from Austen, and because she’s living in the belly of the beast. It’s Lady Catherine who hires Mrs. Younge, and patronizingly says to young Darcy, “you need not trouble yourself over the matter of Georgiana’s companion” (101). Even at 15, however, Georgiana says to Darcy that she is not “convinced that Mrs. Younge always knows the right way to go on” (111). In Hunsford, meanwhile, the reason Lady Catherine advises Mr. Collins to marry is an impromptu one, brought about by a less than “entirely satisfactory” pool of quadrille one evening (136).

Mary’s really in fine form here.  Grange imagines a family of daughters who must leave Netherfield because their father has succumbed to drink and can’t pay the mortgage. This plot twist yields three young ladies with whom the Bennet girls correspond. Mary’s letters are the most entertaining of the pairings. She and her equally priggish friend have a “select circle of Learned Women” that they’d like to invite Mrs. Radcliffe to join (229). When Mary shares her views on virtue after Lydia’s disappearance, she interprets Elizabeth’s silence as admiration. She then confides to Lucy that she feels Charlotte “succumbed to the lure of Mr. Collins’ masculine charms” (349). I was undecided whether I was more appalled by her sense that Charlotte has betrayed good values by marrying at all or that Mr. Collins possesses any “charms” that would attract a normal woman. Mary also asks Mrs. Bennet for an owl because “she is a follower of the goddess Athena” (379). Sweet Georgiana assumes the organ Mary plays the wedding “must have several keys missing, for it sounded very odd” (381).

About 127 pages in, the story as we know it begins, with Mr. Bennet refusing to visit Mr. Bingley. I do miss Elizabeth’s voice. When it appears, it sounds a lot like Austen. “Poor Mr. Bingley” had just moved in and “already he is considered as the rightful property of one or other of us” (130).

This is a clever way of navigating the story with constantly shifting viewpoints. In one section, Lydia tells her friend Eleanor how excited she is to dance with Wickham at the Netherfield Ball, then Lizzy tells Susan that Wickham did not attend, then Mary tells Lucy that Elizabeth was jealous of Mary’s performance at the ball and that’s why she directed her father to stop it. We first see the contents of Darcy’s key letter to Elizabeth only through Elizabeth’s letter to Susan, which delays our knowing about Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana because Elizabeth won’t reveal Darcy’s private information, even to her dear friend. On another occasion, one letter has Darcy telling Colonel Fitzwilliam he’s going to propose again, and the next is a letter from Kitty, which prolongs our wait, just as Darcy’s has been. We don’t hear details until Lizzy reveals all to Charlotte, who suspected Darcy’s feelings early on.

Of only one addition must I express disapproval. Grange changes Darcy’s feelings after the proposal, having him say he feels “ashamed” of himself “for ever having thought well of her” (263). Everything else is delightful, including some great lines in a Darcy letter to Colonel Fitzwilliam: of the time when he visits her at the inn, he comments, “I wanted to stay longer. I would have been happy to remain there for the rest of my life” (314). He imagines Elizabeth in Pemberley, “bringing it back to life, for,” he says, “ever since [his] parents died, a part of Pemberley has been dead” (314). And, as we might expect, some of our heartiest laughs come from the mouth of Lady Catherine. My favorite comes in the form of the very worst insult Lady Catherine can devise; after telling Darcy he is “no longer a nephew of” hers, she warns him that, if he marries Elizabeth, his “daughters will run off with stable hands” and—brace yourself—his “sons will become attorneys” (373).

Published in: on September 6, 2012 at 7:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell

Though the lengthy list of characters at the beginning of this Reconstruction-era Pride and Prejudice made me feel like I was about to read a Russian novel, it also reminded me that I was in good, steady hands; Caldwell clearly thought through what he was creating here, even mixing historical figures with versions of Austen characters from multiple novels, and I learned details about the Civil War I hadn’t studied since A.P. U.S. in 11th grade. With this list, a map, and a loving introduction to his wife Barbara, whom he calls his “life, [his] love, [his] muse,” I was ready to give this unusual variation my attention.

Darcy is a war hero, and Bingley the surgeon who nurses him back to health. An older brother of Elizabeth (here, Beth) has died of influenza while serving in the Ohio infantry, which leaves Beth prejudiced against southerners, who, she assumes, all owned slaves and have faulty morals (7). There’s a horrible scene early on between a group of Yankee soldiers and Darcy and Bingley, in which the latter act nobly but the former—led by Whitehead (Wickham) and Pyke (evil associate of Wickham’s) don’t.

When next we meet our characters, the evil Whitehead is on dining terms with the Bennets, and Jane is already engaged to Bingley. Things come together quite differently from the other variations I have read and reviewed, but everything is more or less in keeping with the tenor of the original. Darcy offends Elizabeth when first they meet as she is riding on the land that is his to protect, but he’s also a gentleman whose identity she does not learn until later. Even offended, she is notably struck by his eyes (almost the reverse of what happens in P & P; here she’s the interloper who doesn’t know the natives, and even as she is determined to dislike what she sees, she can’t help but be drawn to him.) In their first dance, at Jane and Bingley’s wedding, it is Elizabeth who stubbornly resists talking, but Darcy lets her be. These changes reduce any reader frustration with Darcy; instead, we are intrigued by the mystery of his past: what exactly happened between the present and the past scene with Whitehead?

Though Elizabeth recognizes right away that Whitehead isn’t bright or attentive enough to merit her attentions (he, unlike Darcy, cannot remember, let alone understand the clever significance of, her horse’s name), she does credit his assertions about Darcy, in this version, that he’s a half-breed. Shocking as that information may be, Elizabeth understands that race is not a character flaw, and we and she are led to distrust Whitehouse even more for claiming that Darcy’s being “one-quarter Indian” explains why Darcy “won’t let bygones be bygones” (47). Whitehead, meanwhile, works with Cate (Lady Catherine who, in this version, is not a blood relative of Darcy’s and is much more evil) to sell flood land to a black family trying to establish themselves. Whitehead’s motives are racism and greed; Cate’s, apathy for other humans and greed.

It has been a trend in texts I’ve reviewed as of late that Wickham is nefarious in his plots and schemes; this text is no exception. Whitehead is a loathsome creature, and his companions are no better. Because even more than female virtue is at stake here, the consequences are more dire than they would have been, even had Lydia not been saved. Denny, a harmless sod in P & P, poses a big threat here—both to Whitehead and to Darcy—and it is revealing that Whitehead plans to use Denny and then kill him, not that the reader wants Denny alive. He has a fondness for young girls and is so violent with them that even Mrs. Younge objects to “giving” him one of her prostitutes (87).

This text is not all danger and shooting and farming, however. As Darcy wrestles with his feelings for Beth, Caldwell gives us some pretty sensual scenes. (Fascinating to me how the first time a man and woman use each other’s Christian names takes on such an erotic quality during this time.) Mary is a regular person here, though a bit naïve and arrogant in her view of Catholics (I’ll save you that shocker by not revealing the context), and her love story is most interesting. Caldwell uses many familiar names here; a bank manager is Bertram, a minister is Tilney, a teller is Rushworth, a well-dressed businessman is Knightley, and a Thorpe and a Churchill make appearances as well. Lady Catherine has a most intriguing butler, a variation, I suppose, on Mrs. Jenkinson, but a lot more fun.

There are some significant changes from the original, too, location and time aside. Since Jane marries Bingley early on, Darcy’s offense against her, which Elizabeth learns just before the first proposal, is of a different nature—but here, it isn’t actually an offense; she just misunderstands it as such. Here, Mr. Collins is far too repugnant to be anywhere near Charlotte (and you thought he was bad in P & P!); instead, she has quite another suitor, whose identity might surprise an Austen reader. In this version, Mr. Bennet seems to suspect right away that Darcy is drawn to Beth, yet he is still surprised when that becomes more patently clear. And in this one, the advice Beth gives her father, which he then promptly ignores, is of a different, but equally serious, nature.

There are several little mysteries along the journey, some violence, a good deal of racism, and a lot of love. If ever you have wanted to read about American Reconstruction, Lizzy on a horse next to Darcy, or passion in a churchyard, this “Pride and Prejudice meets Gone with the Wind” is a book you should read (Sharon Lathan).

Published in: on August 23, 2012 at 6:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pride and Prejudice: A Royal Disposition by Amy Cecil

Okay. This one starts at the beginning of P and P, uses Austen’s words, and then adds some. Usually I hate these because the assumption is Austen’s text leaves something out. Here, Cecil actually presumes to alter several of Austen’s key lines. She even changes some Austen details, such as having Elizabeth immediately question everyone’s first impressions and immediately looking at Darcy “with great admiration” (38). He goes over to apologize! What? A shockingly different tale!

How little I was prepared for Cecil’s plan. Though not everything makes perfect sense (e.g. If Lizzy is “known” to be Mr. Bennet’s sister’s child, why is she raised as a daughter and not as a niece? 12-13), the background story is interesting, and we get it fairly early on, so only we and Mr. Bennet are “in the know.” We enjoy the heavy dramatic irony, then, knowing where the story is headed.

I noticed right away that the book has sort of a weird lay-out and no named publisher, so I’m assuming this is self-published—and self-edited, which explains, in part, the grammar and typographical errors throughout the text. I’ll begin by sharing a few in the more egregious sin category:  “He felt that his purpose for living now lied with her” (31). “Although, Jane thought that it was refreshing to see Lizzy show an interest” (43). Semi-colon abuse occurs repeatedly (47, 53). Verbs are used incorrectly. One doesn’t “relent her attentions”—unless one is the narrator of this story (83). The Duke reminds himself “to expect or antagonize over nothing more” (96). He later tells Mr. Bennet that the latter has “raised incredible and quite remarkable young lady” (145). Caroline Bingley is called “Carolina” (173). Georgiana says to Darcy that she is “so happy for your Fitzwilliam” (175).

In fact, language errors aside, many details don’t completely make sense. Why would Mrs. Bennet ridicule Mrs. Hurst’s clothing? (43) And how, if, when Darcy apologizes, Elizabeth is still sitting in the same spot she was when Darcy first offended her, would Mrs. Bennet know that Darcy had spoken ill of Lizzy in the first place? (40-43) Mr. Bingley takes over the estate from his uncle? Then he is old money, and we know he isn’t (45). What happened to origins in trade? Even if Bingley’s father were a second son, the younger brother of a lord would not go into trade! Illogical: if Sir William thinks Darcy will say no, why would he offer up Elizabeth as a dance partner? (54) Awkward jumps: Elizabeth walks to Netherfield NOT knowing Jane has taken ill? Why cut that part out? (59)

There are also details that are either completely unnecessary or directly from a movie version and not from the novel. Darcy’s eyes are blue and Lizzy’s green. Is that necessary? Such specificity felt strangely limiting. Additions to the dialogue do not enhance it. Austen’s lines are great in many cases because they are so succinct. When Caroline, for instance, tries to bond with Darcy by insulting Elizabeth, there are so many more words in this version that the sting of Darcy’s unexpected rebuttal is lessened (63). But at least those ARE Darcy’s lines. Far worse interpretations occur with lines such as, “the expression” of those eyes “pierced his soul,” which comes right from Matthew MacFadyen’s mouth (51). A “fearsome thing to behold” similarly comes from Keira Knightley, not from Elizabeth Bennet (67). Lizzy and the dogs is from the BBC (76). The “About the Author” section even says now Cecil “just watches the movie over and over (and over) again” (381). While I certainly understand that pleasure, perhaps the best sequels/retellings occur when the author is most familiar with the novel.

Much to my surprise, however, I started to notice the changing of Austen’s lines less and the compelling story, more, as Cecil’s version progressed. Mr. Bennet has a big secret in this variation, and also quite a temper, which he uses to keep Mrs. Bennet from making a mess of everything. In this version, Darcy wants to declare his intentions early on but worries Elizabeth might refuse him. It becomes a fun story with differences from any version we have read or seen, including such instances as the Duke meeting his daughter, Darcy getting jealous, and Elizabeth catching on to Wickham right away. Just when all seems well, the Lady Catherine visit changes everything in a very different way from the original. I suspected that the circumstances of Elizabeth’s birth might turn out to be just what was needed, but, for a long time, that is not what happens. Why does no one think to use the information to reassure Elizabeth? Or even Lady Catherine? On the other hand, waiting for Darcy’s realization is good, too. I loved the irony that Elizabeth wears the pearls the Duke gave her mother—with his coat of arms on the clasp—to the opera he invites her to attend! (249)

By this point, the story has become so compelling I hardly noticed the grammar errors—well, almost (“They both commented on how wonderful she played” 305). The last 100 pages or so just fly, and there are moments when any fan of Lizzy and Darcy squeals aloud with delight at how their lives develop.

And of course, who could not enjoy a story in which the characters, like us, go shopping and then need a “refreshing afternoon nap” (311)?

Published in: on July 24, 2012 at 1:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Professor Smith establishes her ethos as a storyteller from the earliest moments of this story. Her task involves answering the question: “the special connection that people feel with Austen’s world, this Austen magic—would it happen with people in another country, reading Austen in translation?” (xi) I could certainly relate to the author in her dedication of her work to her “fabulous, understanding mother and the memory of” her father. Before she ventures off to Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina, she gets her mom a computer (for e-mails) and visits her father’s grave (xiii). When Smith talks later about catching up with her mom on the phone, she says: “Hearing her voice . . . made me happy” (320). I know the feeling! Sounds like a nice girl.

This book reads both as the story of a year in a woman’s life and as a travelogue. As she tells the stories, Smith includes analysis of language, discussion of Austen, and broader ideas of education and love. As such, All Roads Lead to Austen appeals on many levels. I learned more about the Spanish language (I had wondered why, for instance, the second part of the Spanish-language version of P and P is not capitalized), and Smith draws lines between the Austen and the Bronte schools: people feel they know “a Willoughby or two” but not “Rochester’s wife” (ix-x). As a result, the “Bronte World is to be viewed and enjoyed at a distance, but Austenland is a place where people feel inclined to get cozy with the locals” (x). I like that she justifies talking about love lives in school to learn Spanish—“all in the name of education—you’ve got to use a lot of Spanish vocabulary to describe people’s love lives”—just as my little group once did in Hebrew class (7). I found the discussions of the pace of life—eating, conversations, etc—fascinating. I often find myself rushing, but I love Austen, for whom Smith advises students to “slow things down . . . to open up to the elegant pace of her novels” (31). I also like the little pictures that accompany each chapter.

In Guatemala, Smith finds that the women do relate very well to P and P—same problems, emphasis on family and romance. The novel also provides an escape from “stories with blood and crime,” which they have “too much of” in their country (43). The Guatemalan women say that some kinds of pride are good and some bad (like assumptions about race: Maya—bad, Ladino—good) (45, 38). Reading about life in Guatemala also made me remember how grateful I am; in the U.S., we “see the military as there to support us, not oppress us,” the way the average Guatemalan sees the military there. Because there are more “sharply marked” gender roles in Guatemala, P and P “just might resonate on [even] more levels” there (52-53).

In Mexico, Smith teaches us about fotonovelas and the subgenres, as told cleverly via the prism of: what would each type of tale do with the Catherine Morland story? (63-65). Reading books for pleasure is different in this community, as is the noise on the streets, and the creatures that enter Smith’s home at all hours of day (lizards—both cuizas and garrobos) and night (bats) (74). She seems so at ease—even with bats flying through the house—that it was strangely comforting to see how uncomfortable she got at the boxing match, with the heat, the closely-packed bodies, and the alcohol-chugging pregnant woman. Until she gets sick.

In Ecuador, Smith is aided by a blond American transplant who married an Ecuadorian. Betsy organizes two reading groups with which Smith will work, one affectionately called Mrs. Gardiner; the other, Lady Catherine. I especially enjoyed Smith’s imagining of how Austen would respond to the “suffering artiste” mentality: “if one finds it so draining to write, a search for a more invigorating profession might be in order. Clergymen seem to live comfortably enough” (127).

I also enjoyed Smith’s self-reflection when she meets a group of people new to her (not all of whom are native Ecuadorians): “As for Fernanda, well, I’d never heard a single stereotype about Uruguayans, so I was forced to deal with her as a real live individual”—i.e., the way we should deal with everyone we meet! (132) A group of Ecuadorian women help Smith—who, in turn, helps us—see that, since “going off in a corner with a book is, on a basic level, a selfish act,” it is often difficult for women to make sure it happens—and we should be grateful for “anyone who’ll fight for the right to sit down with a good book” (164). She writes an interesting reflection on key differences between the reactions of the groups in Mexico and Guatemala, on the one hand, and Ecuador, on the other, largely as a result of education, opportunity, and class.

As a character in her own story, Smith sometimes seems a little flaky—she “lost the contact information Betsy had given her,” she doesn’t do much research even when she falls seriously ill, she even makes up a name and identity when Rafael introduces himself, and she heads into a Chilean riot to take a photo (153, 154). But she’s real, and she wants the real thing, even commenting on her own upbringing: “They say that negative parental role models can make relationships hard for people later in life—but I’m here to say that positive ones can be tough to live up to as well” (147). It’s also fun to watch her experience new books and new cultural norms. (In Chile, country #4, for instance, she learns from a colleague that university professors don’t date doormen, so if you say yes to coffee, he’ll assume you just want sex).  Smith draws connections among readers in all three Americas who are “taken with Austen’s emphasis on courtesy” (208).

Country #5 is Paraguay, about whose history she—and I—learned. There’s real cause for anger at the 1 percent in Asuncion, where a dictatorship and brutal war left the population a ghost of its former self, there are “lengthy curfews,” 77% of the land is owned by the 1%, and children are read fairy tales whose purpose seems to be to frighten them to obey their parents (and stay out of the jungle) (262, 265).

Throughout the five visits, there is a lot of build-up to Argentina. I had had no idea there were such stereotypes about Argentinians throughout the rest of Central and South America, but it was interesting to have Smith hear them in every country she visited and see some of them validated and some invalidated in country #6. I loved, of course, that in her efforts to throw together an Emma book group, she enlists a brooding man to whom she feels strangely drawn and three Jewish ladies (one of them the “petite blue-eyed blond” who works as a reference librarian)(296). Though I found all the reading groups stimulating in their own ways, the Argentinean group did offer, for me, the most sophisticated commentary on a work. A sampling: the structure of the sentences is deliberate because “in Austen’s day you’d savor a novel like this, page by page, for a month,” but the “weightiness” of style is balanced by “her use of short chapters,” which also help suggest that the story is “about little events” that “build on each other” (331-32). Mr. Woodhouse they deemed “almost sinister” because “he’s an absolute manipulator,” “so utterly passive that he’s active” (334-35). In terms of geography, “this small town . . . could be any small town anywhere,” which is why it resonates now, even thousands of miles away: “all of these things are what we’ll deal with as long as human beings exist” (336).

This group tackles the competing challenges of translating a work, cultural influences of the Spanish versus the French versus the British on Argentina, the link and lack thereof between economics and culture, and women’s rights. They do so with bald honesty. (I can hardly imagine following this discussion in a language not my own! Smith reminds us of her limitations, but somehow our experience never feels limited.) One woman says she didn’t like Austen before because she “was forced to read her too early. Austen really isn’t for fourteen-year-olds, you know” (337). I do know, actually. Much as I love her, unless I have reason to believe a student that age will “get it,” I usually do advise students to wait, and, if they’re not really strong independent readers, maybe to study one with an adult who knows it well before venturing off independently. I don’t think I do that with any other writer, but . . . an Austen novel is such a joyful experience, and I hate for them to miss the joy, or worse, to think there’s no joy to be had, and never go back.

Smith learns a lot on her journey, and so do readers, even about things we thought we already knew. (Case in point: “There is no way to say ‘I am’ or ‘I have’ in Hebrew,” Teresa teaches Smith (346). I must have known that, but I had never really contemplated the ramifications of that linguistic difference until Smith made me think about it in this way.) She was also struck by these key bits of understanding: 1) “People’s circumstances color how they respond to everything.” 2) In Latin America, someone from here should not say simply “I’m an American” to mean I’m from the United States—after all, “we’re all Americans” (360). And finally, 3) “I love teaching because I love learning, and none of us is a finished product” (360).

I’d love to see some professional development exploring THAT this fall.

Published in: on July 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Austentatious by Alyssa Goodnight

In a direct embrace of the usual misspelling, Goodnight sets her tale in Austin where the ever-sensible Nicola James buys “the perfect Austenesque” journal and is mystified when her own words adjust into a message she did not intend when she wrote them (2). Of course, she’s not any more content to let that be than any Austen heroine would. She also seems to want a “weird” shirt. (I never quite figured that one out.)

Though it may not bode well for our heroine, I love that she compares men in her life to various Austen men. Dr. Batten would approve, I think. For instance, the cute guy in a nearby cubicle is “the Mr. Knightley of [her] imagination: self-assured, serious-minded, and sexy” (42). She struggles to identify the Scot she meets after Fairy Jane offers some provocative advice. We sense this Scot is too good to be true and that our heroine is misunderstanding Austen’s advice in the journal, but even when the big revelation happens, it doesn’t quite cast aspersions on Sean’s character. We’re left thinking, “that’s it?” Or maybe something else is going on, yet to be revealed. I’d be tempted to think it has really been Brett (guy #2) all along, but he asked her to pay her own bill over lunch, so, no. By the time the truth is revealed, I’m surprised: the guy’s good! I thought there must be something wrong with him! Is that because Nic thought so, even as she ditched work to be with him? Have I been led to think one way by a narrator who makes me trust my heroine’s logic and then shows me how my heroine made a mistake? (Sounds familiar J). At least Nic had the presence of mind to request her man wear a kilt on the adventure.

Our heroine is entertaining (one of the first concerns she has with a sojourn to Scotland is that “the closest Mexican restaurant [would be] hundreds of miles” away, for instance 254), but Goodnight surrounds her with a host of interesting friends as well.  In particular, I enjoyed her pink-haired friend Beck who, when asked what two people, living or dead, she’d “invite to dinner,” answered “Jane Austen and Colin Firth” (240). Though occasionally something annoying slips in (How is her world “literally on fire”? 268 For what kind of people does “lust shimm[y] up” their “spine[s]”? 92 Why does she keep calling a mean shop owner a Nazi?), for the most part, the only lackluster character is the guy Nic doesn’t end up falling for. On her journey, we get a double romance, a lesbian social scene, an allusion to “Costanza” (you can hardly go wrong in the hands of a Seinfeld devotee 183), and an interesting explanation for why Elizabeth Bennet so appeals to us: “If a person is clever and sensible—maybe a little charming—things could . . . turn out all right” (16).

As they do for everyone we cheer on in this magical Texan tale.

Published in: on June 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mr. Darcy Forever by Victoria Connelly

Connelly does something you might not expect in a book with Mr. Darcy as a titular figure: she retells Sense and Sensibility (in a modern setting).

There’s the now-familiar awkwardness as these characters not only realize but also acknowledge their similarities to Austen’s heroines, this time, Mia’s to Marianne’s (and therefore the narrator’s to Elinor’s) (2). Later, too, when a link is obvious, Connelly makes the characters self-aware so it’s not annoying. When Shelley wants to introduce Mia to an older man, Mia resists, and the reader is thinking, “it’s Colonel Brandon!” Then Shelley says, “Just remember Colonel Brandon wasn’t exactly in the first flush of youth, and he’s one of my favorite heroes” (35). Somehow that frankness helps the story be more believable than it could otherwise be.

The structure of the novel is, at first, a bit bewildering. “Why did we skip ahead three years and miss what happened that week at Barton Cottage? Will we get that later?” I wondered. (“We must,” my reasonable side told me.) At the end of chapter 2, the link between the Barton Cottage episode and current analysis became clearer. Now I understood: this story will explain what happened, and, I hoped, remedy the rift. Similarly, when the narrator took us back to Sarah’s germ-worrying childhood, I wondered why (and also how it happened that these germ-worryers are so common in Austen fiction now). This one really has OCD. It turned out that Connelly’s strategy for organization of the story really worked: catalyzing incident, forward in time, then back (meanwhile switching between the sisters’ stories), then, finally when they’re in the same place, staying in the present. Structurally even, it corresponds with Sense and Sensibility: Elinor’s love story gets wrapped up first.

The language varied from pretty (“It was as if spring had danced over everything, leaving no surface untouched” 6) to irritating (a typo in an otherwise touching scene: “I want to seem right now” about a baby an aunt wants to see 283 AND missing quotation marks in a key revelation of love scene! 312), but overall, the premise (two close sisters have had some terrible falling-out, and now, as each returns to Bath for the first time without the other for the Jane Austen Festival, she is thinking about her sister) worked for me, and, I think, for the novel.

Published in: on April 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Dashwood Sisters Tell All by Beth Pattillo

This modern version of Sense and Sensibility is a fun one. I was thrilled to see, listed as the very first to whom Pattillo dedicated her third in the series, Bob and Claire! How delightful! There’s also an intriguing premise: two sisters are forced by the will of their mother, who wanted them to bond, to go on a walking tour of Jane Austen’s England and, together, decide where to scatter their mom’s ashes. Only then will they get their inheritance (3).

The characters are easy to identify. Our narrator, the sensible sister, is Elinor (Ellen). The one who made them late because she was giving herself a facial is Marianne (Mimi). The distinguished group leader with “unmistakable military bearing” is Colonel Brandon (Tom Braddock) (3). I assumed at first, since Pattillo seemed to be making this discernment easy for us, that Melissa must be Lucy Steele, the high-school sweetheart, but when Ellen sees Daniel Edwards again (we don’t find out his last name until the picnic, but by then we already know who is he), he has already split from her, so maybe not, and then that plot piece wasn’t picked up the way Lucy Steele is, so not really. Each of our heroines has some personal trouble to work out, but this story is also very much about their working out their relationship with each other, the goal of their dying mother when she devised this plan. Each feels alone, each grieves differently, and each feels her sister doesn’t understand her.

I was surprised when Mimi first took over the narration from Ellen, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. If Austen’s argument is that we need a balance of sense and sensibility, why should Pattillo’s differ? I grew easily accustomed to seeing the plot unfold through the eyes of both sisters. The links to Austen personally made the story work on yet another level: the sisters in Pattillo’s story, the sisters in Sense and Sensibility, and the sisters Jane and Cassandra Austen. Cassandra and Tom are like Elinor and Edward; Jane and Lefroy or Jack Smith are like Marianne and Willoughby, except Willoughby’s betrayal and removal are quite different here. (Who is this Jack Smith, supposed love interest of Jane’s?) Pattillo is more direct than the usual writer about the parallels and the characters’ awareness of them: Mimi, upon reading S and S, finds “Elinor and Marianne’s similarity to Ellen and (Mimi) . . . just short of eerie,” but then Pattillo deftly redirects our attention to “the similarity between the Austen sisters and the fictional Dashwood girls” (168).

I was always relating to their plight, especially when Mimi finds herself in an awkward, new-man situation. Without thinking, she uses the present tense when speaking about her mother, who has passed away just six months earlier. That change to past tense is something with which I still struggle when I talk about my dad. But when the new man starts to ask more questions, Mimi thinks: “Now I would have to take the conversation in a morbid direction, a situation I’d learned long ago to avoid with a new man” (56). I can so relate to that! When Ethan doesn’t respond, it’s a sign to the audience he isn’t right for her (or for any compassionate person), but she still tries to capture his attention.

In a conversation between Ellen and the man she once loved, Daniel says he thinks Jane would be “proud of all the happiness she’s brought to people” (118). In light of the early passing of Jane Austen and Ellen and Mimi’s mother, his question makes a reader contemplate, as does Ellen, “what would I leave behind when my time came?” (118)

On a lighter note, I loved the details of the walking tour—the Steventon stuff is just like I remember; it feels like I’m there again. Twenty minutes in JA’s Chawton cottage? Quel horreur! Not nearly enough. The students I brought there gathered in the gardens and told me, when I went to check on them, that they would wait there happily while I spent as much time as I wanted in there.

Tom, too, is sensitive and kind, and even Mimi warms to him, relatively early on (if Marianne’s affection for Colonel Brandon’s is our comparison point). When the nettles get her, Tom immediately grabs the solution—dockweed, for those of you contemplating a journey to Hampshire any time soon. Mimi’s excuse for acting silly with an attractive, eligible man is not that she’s young and inexperienced and passionate, but here, that she is passionate, 36, “still single,” and starting to worry (157). But when she finds the real thing, their exchange struck me. She says: “I waited for you for so many years. What took you so long?” And he says, “I got here as soon as I could” (220). Beautifully said!

As the week of Austen progresses, even the sisters start to piece together that they have more in common than they realize, but Pattillo helps us see parallels right away by juxtaposing their thoughts and their reactions to what they are experiencing—everything from the heat to Mimi’s appearance.

In addition to all these delights, there is also the mystery of Cassandra’s diary, Ellen and Mimi’s mother’s connection to it and to the tour adviser, and the lives of the Austen sisters themselves. Pattillo’s latest is a true pleasure to read.

Published in: on March 17, 2012 at 7:57 am  Leave a Comment  

A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice

I’m always a little surprised when someone presents me with a Jane Austen variation about which I haven’t even heard, but I was pleasantly so when two former students, Ryan Kuromiya and Jake Zeleznick, brought it to me for my baby daughter at our annual reunion picnic earlier this week. Their comment was they wanted me to “start her off with good literature early.” Though Briella crawled away while I was still reading her page 1, I read it on my own the following morning in the few quiet minutes before another delightfully frenetic day began, and I can recommend it without reservation.

The adapters, Tess Gammell and Alex Goodwin, clearly know and respect Jane Austen and her text. They are also properly humble, giving front of the book space to the guinea pigs who star in the show but not to their own bios or even names, which finally appear at the end of the text after Jane Austen’s and after a wish that readers, if we have “fallen a little bit in love with guinea pigs as well as with Mr. Darcy” as a result of their little book, consider “supporting [a] local rescue center.”

The text itself honors Austen as well, maintaining her three volume structure and keeping as many of the lines as the authors could reasonably fit into this type of adaptation. The structure is consistent and easy to follow: the text appears on the left, formal and eloquent like Jane’s with occasional simpler summary sentences and a small relevant picture of something (e.g. a violin on the page describing the Netherfield Ball or a soldier’s drum on the page introducing Wickham); a photo of guinea pigs dressed in period costume appears on the right with a quotation, either of Austen’s narrator or of one of the characters, unattributed.

The photos are adorable, largely because the guinea pigs are, and I say that as someone not particularly fond of rodents in any shape or form. My favorites included the shot of Lady Catherine in a ridiculous multi-colored costume with hat larger than she is and the close-up of Elizabeth behind a comment on the inability to describe her fine eyes. In the two failed proposals, Elizabeth is higher up than the man and therefore looks like the authority figure.

I missed Mr. Bennet here, but that’s really the only flaw I could find with this charming adaptation. It isn’t really designed for children, but my own may get to enjoy it a little before the general public would (okay, the general public probably won’t be purchasing this text). And you, dear reader, will definitely find it worth a few quiet minutes one morning before the world makes its demands, however pleasant, of you.

Published in: on July 19, 2016 at 9:19 pm  Comments (3)