Posts Tagged ‘Regency Era’

Longbourn by Jo Baker

June 11, 2014

LongbournI confess to being a Jane Austen fanatic. As such, I have read or tried to read many prequels, sequels, and retellings of Austen’s six novels, especially Pride and Prejudice.  Most aren’t very good, and I think the problem often lies in the author’s attempts to imitate Austen—to stick too closely to the original instead of making it their own.  No one can successfully imitate the literary genius of Jane Austen’s works.

Jo Baker succeeds because she uses Austen only as a starting point. Longbourn takes place during the events of Pride and Prejudice, but the main characters are the servants at Longbourn, the home of Elizabeth Bennet and her family. The reader sees what life is like for the people who must work long hours behind the scenes at backbreaking tasks to keep the household running smoothly.

The main character is Sarah, a young housemaid who has been working for the Bennets since she was orphaned as a girl. Sarah is grateful for her job, but she longs for something more. Then, as so often happens, two different but eligible men come into her life.  One is James Smith, a rough-around-the edges man with a mysterious past who is hired to work as a footman at Longbourn. The other is Ptolemy Bingley, a smooth and handsome mixed-race servant of Mr. Bingley, descended from slaves on the Bingley sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  Both men offer Sarah their love along with very different futures.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book, as Sarah contrasts her life with that of Elizabeth Bennet:

“Sarah wondered what it would be like, to live like this—life as a country dance, where everything is lovely, and graceful, and ordered, and every single turn is preordained, and not a foot may be set outside the measure. Not like Sarah’s own out-in-all-weathers haul and trudge, the wind howling and blustery, the creeping flowers in the hedgerows, the sudden sunshine.”

There were times in the book when I felt things were moving a little too slowly, but overall this is one of my favorite Austen retellings. I would recommend it not only for fans of Austen, but also for fans of historical fiction that features the everyday lives of ordinary people.

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The Love List by Deb Marlowe

March 12, 2014

Deb Marlowe’s newest book is a regency romance with more than a hint of suspense. It is set in London in 1814, where beautiful young Brynne Wilmott is engaged to the wealthy and powerful Lord Marstoke. Brynne realizes that her new fiancé is a scheming brute when he attempts to assault her in a quiet room at a ball shortly after their engagement. The assault is interrupted when the handsome Duke of Aldmere enters the room, searching for Lord Marstoke to speak to him about a serious family matter. Thankful for the reprieve, Brynne runs home to her father, only to realize that he still expects her to marry Marstoke in order to further his own political ambitions. Feeling totally abandoned, she flees to the well-known Hestia Wright for shelter.

Wright is a former courtesan and royal mistress, and her home, Half Moon House, is a shelter for any woman in trouble. What Brynne does not know is that Wright is also one of Lord Marstoke’s oldest enemies. Enraged, Marstoke plans to exact his revenge by publishing a Love List, similar to the actual Harris List of Covent Garden Ladies that was published 1757-1795, which was a directory of London’s ‘ladies of the night.’ Marstoke’s Love List will include Brynne and Wright, and involve the Duke of Aldmere’s family as well. Brynne and Aldmere must work together to stop Marstoke before it’s too late, while managing the growing attraction they feel for each other.

The Love List is the first in the new Half Moon House series by Deb Marlowe. You can meet Marlowe and hear more about this new series and her other historical romances in our Meet the Local Romance Authors program at North Regional Library on Saturday, March 22 at 2:30 p.m., or Eva Perry Regional Library on Sunday, March 23, at 2:30 p.m. Marlowe will be joining other local romance authors to discuss different types of romance novels and their creative processes. Please visit our website for more details.

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The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig

February 20, 2014

I’m a big fan of Jane Austen, so when I discovered that Austen herself is a character in this novel, I had to give it a try. I am glad I did. The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig  turned out to be a Regency-era romp, filled with adventure, humor, and romance. The story is set at Christmas, but it’s a fun read for any time of year.

The book is set in 1803 in Bath, England. The real Jane Austen was indeed living in Bath at that time. The fictional Jane Austen is a friend of the book’s heroine and main character, Arabella Dempsey. Arabella is a young woman who grew up with her rich aunt, receiving a good education along the way. But now, her aunt has married a young fortune hunter, and Arabella must return home to her father and three sisters. Finances there are tight, so Arabella takes a job as a teacher at Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.

Before long, Arabella stumbles into a possible conspiracy involving French spies, English aristocrats, and the English spy known as the Pink Carnation. Helping her is Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh, a clumsy but handsome aristocrat whose physical resemblance to the Pink Carnation often involves him in intrigue. As Arabella and Turnip work together to solve a mystery that begins with a message inside a Christmas pudding, they feel an unmistakable attraction for each other.

Arabella and Turnip are both helped and hindered in their investigation by an amusing cast of secondary characters. Besides Miss Austen, there is also Turnip’s sly and mischievous younger sister Sally, the obviously false Italian music instructor Signor Marconi, the terrifying Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, and a host of English gentlemen who seem to have come straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse story.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is one of a series of novels about the Pink Carnation and the men and women who work with him to thwart French plots against England. You don’t need to read the others to enjoy this one. While this is the first of these novels that I have read, it will not be the last.

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The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

January 15, 2014

This book is not your usual chronological biography. Each chapter is about an object owned by Austen herself or particular to her time and place in history. The book is lavishly illustrated with drawings and photographs of shawls, ivory miniatures, bathing machines, and other fascinating objects that figured in her life and work.

One of the best things about author Paula Byrne‘s approach is that it portrays Austen as a living person who is actively engaged with real things in the real world. She liked to dress in fine clothes and drew the pattern of some new lace she had bought in a letter to her sister Cassandra. She loved the ocean, and indeed the only portrait we can be absolutely sure is of her was painted by Cassandra as Jane looked out, apparently, over the sea. She loved playing games with children, particularly her numerous tribe of nephews and nieces, and called her box of spillikins (pick-up sticks) “a very valuable part of our household furniture.” All of this is rather unlike the picture of the demure spinster often depicted in her biographies.

The “real Jane Austen” loved to travel, to see plays and fireworks. One of her brothers owned a fashionable carriage called a barouche, and she loved to go riding in it. She also had the worldly knowledge needed to negotiate with her publisher after her brother, who had begun the negotiations, fell seriously ill. She was not above basking in the praise of her novels; in fact, she carefully recorded the comments of family and friends, and even enjoyed eavesdropping in libraries and bookstores when her books (their authorship still unknown) were discussed by customers.
One other nice aspect of this approach to a biography is that, unlike in a chronological biography, we don’t have to end with her death. Right up until the final paragraph we are celebrating Jane Austen’s life and savoring along with her the things she loved.

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Persuasion by Jane Austen

August 29, 2013

This may be the original “second chance at love” story. After all, the novel was still very young when Austen was writing in the early 1800s, and her characters and plots were often groundbreaking. Persuasion, her last completed novel, is no exception.

When she was 19 years old, Anne Elliot was persuaded to turn down the marriage proposal of Frederick Wentworth because he had no fortune or family connections to recommend him. As the novel opens, it is eight years later and Anne has never gotten over her love for Frederick. She has “lost her bloom” and is undervalued by almost everyone around her, especially her family who place too much emphasis on looks and vivaciousness. Now Frederick returns to the neighborhood, as handsome and vital as ever, having made a fortune as a naval captain. He’s still angry at Anne for turning him down, and so refuses to acknowledge, even to himself, that he continues to have feelings for her.

Besides the very relatable heroine and the very dashing hero, Persuasion has some fun supporting characters. There’s Anne’s father, a man so narcissistic that he has multiple mirrors in every room of the house. Anne’s sister Mary likes to complain and to fancy herself ill and ill-used. Of course, the book also has the requisite charming scoundrel who forms the third side of the love triangle. And let’s not forget Captain Benwick, the man who reads too much poetry, and who is presented as another possible partner for Anne. Frederick’s sister, Sophy Croft, is a favorite Austen character for her good sense and deep feeling.

The book ends with one of the most romantic letters in all literature. It’s part of why Persuasion is the second most popular Austen novel, close behind Pride and Prejudice. Read it and see for yourself.

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Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef

July 10, 2013

bookcover.phpWhat is it about Jane Austen’s writing that spurs the devotion of her many fans? As American writer W. Somerset Maugham once remarked, “Nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next.”

“Nothing very much” happened in Jane Austen’s life either, but her devoted followers (sometimes called “Janeites”) are eager to learn about it just the same.Catherine Reef’s biography, written for a young adult audience, is a great place to start. Like Austen herself, Reef chooses small but exquisite details to present a picture of the authoress that sparkles with life. Though I have read numerous biographies of Jane Austen, I learned several new things, especially about her youth. It is delightful to learn, for example, how early Jane’s wickedly arch sense of humor began to appear in her writing. In “Love and Freindship” (Jane’s own spelling), written when Jane was 14 years old, the heroine Sophia dies of a chill she caught when she fainted onto damp grass. Before her untimely death, she warns her friend Laura to beware of fainting fits: ‘Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreeable, yet believe me they will, in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your constitution.”

We read with sympathy and disappointment as Reef tells us of Jane’s young love with Tom LeFroy, the visiting nephew of a local family. Jane’s beloved sister, Cassandra, was away from home at the time, but Jane wrote her letters with tantalizing details of their courtship. Jane was sure he would propose, but when Tom’s family got wind of the near-engagement, they whisked him away to London. Marrying him off to the daughter of a penniless curate did not suit them, as the eighteenth century was a time when men were expected to “marry well”—that is, to marry a wealthy woman—unless they were already wealthy enough to defy society’s opinion. You cannot help but feel a pang for Jane when you see how in fiction she allows her heroines to overcome this fate of being abandoned for lack of money.

Indeed, it is the perfectly realized happy ending which crowns every Jane Austen novel that brings her the bulk of her fans. Critics may scowl at the banality of a happy ending, but many readers long to live in fantasy what is ardently sought and too often missed in real life. For the beautiful tying up of loose ends and the leveling of every obstacle that stands in the way of true love, I say:  “Long live Jane Austen!”

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What Matters in Jane Austen? 20 Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

March 21, 2013

Perhaps this is a book meant only for fans of Jane Austen, but what a book! In 20 chapters the author, an English professor at University College London, explores small details to illustrate the richness of Austen’s novels, and the originality of her style.

For example, in a chapter entitled “What do Characters Say When the Heroine is Not There?” Mullan analyses how Austen sometimes leaves her heroines behind to show us the thoughts and actions of other characters. Since all the books are told from the heroine’s point of view, this is a good trick and done very deftly.  It’s not easy to shift the point of view so seamlessly, but Austen accomplishes it over and over again. Mullan also points out that it is very rare for Austen to write a scene in which there are no women present. Rare, but not nonexistent. There are a very few of these scenes, and Mullan discusses them all.

One of my favorite chapters is “Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?”   I wasn’t too surprised to find that in Pride and Prejudice, Anne de Bourgh has no dialogue whatsoever. But, I did not expect to find that the same is true of Georgiana Darcy. While she certainly speaks to others, she is never quoted directly—her conversation is only reported by the narrator in general terms. The same is true of both Robert Martin and Mr. Perry in Emma, and of both Mr. Musgrove and Captain Benwick in Persuasion.

Other chapters explore questions like “What do Characters Read?”, “How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen”, and “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?”.

What Matters in Jane Austen is a fascinating and insightful look at one of the greatest and most popular novelists in the Western world. I’ve read a LOT of books about Austen, and this is one of my favorites.

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

March 15, 2013

You can tell this is Austen’s first completed novel. Its characters and themes are not as well developed as those in later novels, and the ending is a little too tidy. But Northanger Abbey has a real freshness about it, and many Fans of Austen find that they enjoy this book more each time they read it.

The heroine, Catherine Morland, is a naïve and charming young woman who leaves her home in the country to visit the tourist town of Bath, England. There she becomes fast friends with Isabella Thorpe, another young woman who shares Catherine’s love of gothic novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.  But Isabella is not as honest and loyal as she tries to appear. And her braggart brother John isn’t the dashing rake he so wants to appear to be. Catherine must figure this out for herself as she navigates the social circles in Bath.

In this effort she is aided by the truly charming Henry Tilney. At first, Henry teases Catherine and even condescends to her a little bit because of her lack of worldliness and her consequent gullibility and trusting nature. But Catherine is no fool, even if she is awfully young and inexperienced, and as the book progresses, Henry comes to appreciate her and to return the affection she so obviously feels for him.

Of course, there are complications. Henry’s father is a wealthy and proud man who insists that his son marry a woman with money of her own as well as high social status. But any Austen reader can tell you that everything is bound to work out all right. This is one of the reasons Jane Austen remains so popular after more than 200 years. Her books are like comfort food—something you can return to again and again knowing there will be no regrets.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

February 14, 2013

Do I really need to tell anyone about the plot of this famous classic? Is there a book lover alive who hasn’t heard about how middle-class Elizabeth Bennett meets rich Mr. Darcy, and how at first his pride and her prejudice create an instant dislike of each other? Is there anyone who hasn’t heard the famous first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”?

The larger question is, “Why do people still read and love Pride and Prejudice 200 years after its initial 1813 publication?” Perhaps it’s because there’s something for everyone in Austen’s novel. If you’re looking for humor, you will certainly find it in the characters of nervous Mrs. Bennett and pompous Mr. Collins. If it’s social commentary you’re after, then look no further than the character of Charlotte Lucas (one of my favorites), and Austen’s observations about the absolute necessity of marriage for genteel women. If it’s character development you crave, then Pride and Prejudice gives you Elizabeth Bennett, one of the most popular fictional characters ever created.

And of course, if you want a good love story, then Pride and Prejudice gives you the quintessential love story that introduced story and character elements that have become romantic clichés. You’ve got the spirited heroine and the brooding hero. They dislike each other at first, but gradually change their minds as they learn more about each other and themselves over the course of the novel. The hero undergoes the biggest change as he discovers the redemptive power of love.

What may be the most likely reason for Austen’s continued popularity and relevance is the realism of her novels. Austen was a great observer of people, and people haven’t changed in the last 200 years. Her characters are real people with real problems and failings. In her books we see ourselves.

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Greatest Hits: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

January 7, 2013

Join us the next five days and kick off the new year with The Book-A-Day Blog’s most popular posts of 2012!


Shades of Milk and HoneyKowal chose a fitting title for this Regency Era-with-a-magical-twist novel, for I found it both light and sweet. Jane Ellsworth, 28, has resigned herself to spinsterhood, but is still young enough to be jealous of her younger sister, Melody’s, beauty and likelihood of making a good marriage match. Melody, in turn, is envious of Jane’s talent with all the womanly arts that make a lady accomplished – especially her skill with glamour.


Glamour, the magic in this novel, is the manipulation of surrounding ether to create illusions or enhancements of sound, sight and smell. A variety of people seem to be able to work with glamour, but well-born ladies are taught how to use it to add beauty to their surroundings. Kowal does not let the magic overpower the story, it is simply an additional layer.


With the arrival of a mysterious glamourist, along with several other visitors to neighboring families in Dorchester, Jane and Melody begin competing for the attention of marriageable men. If you are a fan of Austen, you will surely recognize a fellow fan’s tribute to her and hopefully, like me, enjoy this pleasant romance.


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