Month: May 2019

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Posted May 20, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is perhaps Jane Austen’s most neglected novel, if ‘neglected’ is a word that can be applied to Austen at all. Pride and Prejudice is the monster towering over everything else, but the romantic difficulties of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, the whimsy of Northanger Abbey and the elegant plotting of Emma all outshine poor, plodding Mansfield Park, which doesn’t even have much of the author’s acid humour to leaven it.

But Mansfield Park is, in many ways, the most intriguing of them all, because the heart of it is about morality. The other books touch on the subject, of course, usually when the smiling, handsome rogue is revealed to be a total villain, but Mansfield Park brings it front and centre stage in the character of Edmund – a man with the most delicate sense of propriety himself, who has (in effect) raised his cousin Fanny to his own high principles, and yet he succumbs to a woman of dodgy morals while Fanny resolutely refuses her rakish suitor.

These two characters, and the counterpoint in the Crawford siblings, are very problematic for modern readers. Edmund and Fanny, with their high moral standards and censorious tone, come across as downright prudish at times, while Mary and Henry Crawford are witty and lively and thoroughly appealing. Their dodgy morals just aren’t so obvious to us, and even if we notice them, we wonder just what is so wrong about much of what they do.

Fanny’s other problem is that she resolutely refuses to marry Henry Crawford, and this, too, is hard to understand. She has been brought up as the poor relation, forever grateful for any crumbs falling from the table. She’s sensible, intelligent and dutiful, she knows perfectly well that she’ll never get another offer as good (as her uncle uncompromisingly points out to her), and she knows how much it will benefit her impoverished family enormously. Yet she turns him down because he flirted with her cousins, and because she’s secretly in love with Edmund. And here is where Austen’s logic falters, because she shows us very clearly the result of marrying for love alone in Fanny’s own ramshackle family. Yet she has Fanny holding out to the bitter end for love, in defiance of common sense. The rational solution is for her to tell Henry Crawford that she wants to see him prove that he can be faithful for at least a year before considering his offer. He would fail, of course.

The ending is pretty silly. I’m not a big fan of Austen’s overly-dramatic denouements, but this one is the worst of them. Henry Crawford may have been all sorts of a feckless fool, but I’ve always thought he was too astute to ever run away with a married woman, and Julia’s elopement made even less sense. And then Austen has the problem that her hero, who has been in love with one woman for virtually the entire book, has to abruptly do an about turn in the final chapter to marry the heroine. Plausible? Not much.

But beneath the wobbly plotting, there are some interesting themes cropping up. Nature or nurture, for instance, and whether goodness is inherent or learnt, with the contrast between Fanny and her cousins. Her siblings William and Susan are also examples of characters with innate good qualities, despite their upbringing. Then there is the gulf between wealth and poverty, and the interesting (but never explored) fact that Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth comes from presumably slave-worked plantations in the West Indies, at a time when abolitionism was in the ascendancy. There is the indolence of Lady Bertram and Fanny’s mother, contrasted with the constant busyness of Mrs Norris. There is the selfishness of Tom Bertram, the Crawfords and Mrs Norris, and the too-good-to-be-true unselfishness of Fanny, who abruptly becomes very selfish indeed when faced with the prospect of marrying Henry Crawford. Sometimes these contrasts are almost too strongly drawn, but they give the book a depth that, say, Pride and Prejudice never reaches.

In the end, this is an interesting book, not an easy read, but thought-provoking. The plotting wobbles keep this to four stars for me.

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Review: The Girl In The Gatehouse by Julie Klassen

Posted May 19, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is very much my sort of book. Slow, gentle and engrossing, the characters have time to live and breathe and the plot to unwind without haste. It’s not for those who like a lot of angst and brow-beating – everything here is much lower key than that. I disliked a previous Klassen (The Silent Governess) for its overblown melodrama, but this one is refreshingly different.

Here’s the premise: Mariah Aubrey has been banished from her family after a scandal (it’s presumed sexual, but the details aren’t revealed until quite late in the book). She’s given a home in a disused gatehouse by a distant relation with a single servant to support her, and essentially abandoned by her family to get by as best she can. With no other income, she resorts to writing novels in secret. This is such a standard trope of Regencies these days, but here the author makes the comparison with Jane Austen explicit by quoting her several times in chapter headings.

The hero is Captain Matthew Bryant, returning to England successful and wealthy after the Napoleonic wars, and here again the Austen comparison is blatant, for this is none other than a thinly disguised Captain Wentworth. Unlike Miss Austen’s hero, however, Captain Bryant has not forgotten his first love who rejected his suit, and is determined to demonstrate to her that he is now eminently suitable by leasing the estate wherein our heroine’s gatehouse resides.

There is a complicated side plot involving the owner of the estate Bryant leases, an array of minor characters divided neatly into the good and evil camps, a local workhouse with surprisingly wholesome inhabitants, and a shedload of coincidences abounding. However, the headline romance is rock solid, with the obvious attraction between the two tempered by Bryant’s grim determination to win back his former love, and Mariah’s murky past. I very much enjoyed the slow build of the relationship between them, and their interactions felt very real.

I was quite confused by the gatehouse itself. Since it became a plot point, I’d have liked one feature explained in detail early on – that even though the gate alongside is securely locked, it’s possible to get from one side to the other by going through the gatehouse. There’s a door on each side. That wasn’t at all clear to me until very late in the book (I’m used to gates that have a lodge inside the gates and separate from them), so it confused me to no end when people seemed to magically pass through the locked gate.

Towards the end, the subplots devolve into melodrama rather, there are far too many minor hiccups between our star-crossed lovers (once they realise This Is Love, I like them to just get on with it and not dither about) and the epilogue is stuffed with completely implausible and sugar-sweet conversions, but I still enjoyed the story very much. Four stars.

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Review: Lady Saves The Duke by Annabelle Anders

Posted May 4, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I loved this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and for all the right reasons. It’s riddled with silly anachronisms and Americanisms and (shock, horror!) I didn’t mind a bit because it was so much fun to read.

Here’s the premise: our heroine Abigail is dwindling into spinsterhood after her only season in London went disastrously wrong. Her mother hasn’t quite given up on her, however, and wheedles her a place at a stylish house party, where she encounters the tragic figure of hero Alex (who’s a duke, naturally), whose wife and children died in an accident. They don’t seem to have much in common, until a wardrobe malfunction and a chance meeting in the library at night upends both their lives. Abigail is ruined again, and the duke has to make things right. Or he could marry her…

I liked both the main characters. They felt believably three-dimensional, especially given their personal histories. So many authors throw in a past tragedy to draw reader sympathy and attempt to give a character depth, but it rarely works. Anders, however, is a strong enough writer to pull it off, and the internal thought processes of Abigail and Alex, and their conflicting emotions, were very convincing.

There’s only one part of this book where, for me, the plot logic failed. Abigail’s decision to go for a midnight stroll around a house full of men, especially given her history, defies all common sense. And then, meeting Alex in the library, why on earth did she not simply run back to her room? But it’s an essential part of the plot that brings them together, so I’ll let it pass.

From then on, the whole story works wonderfully, and if there are a few over the top moments (Abigail getting to church, for instance), they never strayed from amusing to absurd. As a marriage of convenience story, with the two protagonists inching towards a working arrangement and then (surprise!) to love, this one is hard to beat. But be warned, the sex scenes are moderately graphic, so if that’s not for you, this one’s best avoided. It’s not perfect in the historical accuracy department, by a long chalk, but it was so well-written that it got a pass from me (something that hardly ever happens). However, if gotten and fall and so on will push your buttons, then avoid. For me, it’s a rare five star.

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Review: A Lady’s Prerogative by Annabelle Anders

Posted May 3, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is the third book of the Lord Love a Lady series that I’ve read, although I got them out of order. I started with #3, to which I gave five stars, then #1, which mustered four stars, and then I came to this book, which is #2 in the series, and I started to get worried.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first, such as it is. Our heroine is Natalie, the girl who sensibly released the Duke of Cortland from their betrothal in book 1 so that he could marry his true love, Lilly. Now Natalie’s branded a jilt, and confined to the country estate of her parents to rusticate for a while. She’s bored and looking for a little excitement, when into her life wanders unredeemed rake Garrett. There could have been some interesting ways to take a story like this, but sadly the author chose the most obvious and well-worn one, and the first half of the book becomes in essence one long bout of foreplay.

I don’t have any issues with sex in a Regency romance, but it does have to conform to a degree of plausibility. This particular case has a number of problems in that regard. Firstly, Natalie. Having set her up in book 1 as the oh-so-cool and composed ladylike type, suddenly she’s a walking bundle of overwrought emotions, essentially throwing herself at Garrett’s head. Then there’s Garrett himself. He’s old enough and experienced enough to keep himself under control and not respond when the daughter of his host tries, in her innocence, to seduce him. And then there are Natalie’s parents. What on earth are they thinking, not merely to invite an acknowledged rake to a house party with their vulnerable daughter, but to allow them to wander off together unchaperoned and even, at one point, to hint that Garrett might be an acceptable husband for her? It’s unconscionable. It would serve them right if he did what rakes are known for, and got her pregnant.

So the first half of the book is the two finding a dozen different ways to sneak off and be alone, and do some of the things that well-brought-up young ladies shouldn’t even know about. But then the sub-plot kicks in, the book lurches into melodrama and suddenly the author’s talent shines through again, releasing all that soul-searching and emotion that I so enjoyed in the other two books. Now, there are plenty of issues with plausibility in the second half of the book, too, plus all the Americanisms that pepper all these books, but none of that mattered a bit. I got thoroughly swept up in the story, really enjoyed the way the two characters resolved their differences and got very teary-eyed when they got their happy ending. Extra brownie points for knowing the law regarding the earldom, as well. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of five stars for me, but it’s a very good four stars.

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Review: Nobody’s Lady by Annabelle Anders

Posted May 2, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Michael Redmond, now the Duke of Cortland, has been ambushed on his way to London by highway robbers, who have stolen his coach and horses. He makes his way on foot to an inn, where he bumps into a face from the past, Lilly Bridges, now the widowed Lady Beauchamp. There’s a lot of history between them, but he’s now embarked on an urgent political mission and is betrothed, to boot, so that past must stay buried – if it can.

So right from the start, it’s clear that there’s a whole heap of sexual tension between these two. We see their past history unfolding in parallel with the present day events, but we’re already aware of their tragedy – that they should have married, but because of a misunderstanding, it never happened. She married the widower of her older sister, and he never married, although he’s recently betrothed himself unemotionally to the daughter of a political ally.

I’m not normally keen on the overworked trope of the Great Misunderstanding, but the author here makes it more credible than most such scenarios. There’s one major flaw in the logic, though. Lilly married her dead sister’s husband (a baron), a union frowned on by the church, because when a man and woman marry, they become ‘one flesh’. This means that her sisters are theoretically his sisters too, so a marriage to the deceased wife’s sister becomes incestuous. In theory. In practice, this was such a pragmatic solution to the problem of a widower with children that it actually happened quite a lot. One of Jane Austen’s brothers did exactly this. And, contrary to the statements in the books, such marriages are not illegal. It’s far, far more complicated than that. Such a marriage was voidable. That meant that it was perfectly legal until someone challenged it, at which point it became void, the marriage no longer existed and any children were rendered illegitimate.

That uncertainty made it unlikely in the extreme that any responsible nobleman would contract such a marriage because of the risk that a male heir might be suddenly disinherited. On the other side of the coin, no responsible father would push his daughter into such a union, either, because of the risk that she would be left without the protection of a husband. It would be disastrous. The whole premise of the book is that Lilly’s father persuades her to marry for security, when in fact he was putting her into a very uncertain and potentially ruinous situation.

That aside, the question of whether such a marriage would be scandalous is an interesting one. Lilly’s baron husband would have been listed in Debrett’s Peerage, together with the names of both his wives, so the matter could hardly be kept secret. It wasn’t a sensible choice for a peer, but I don’t know just how much of a scandal it would cause. These are interesting questions, and I applaud the author for treading in such murky legal territory, even if she doesn’t quite get all the complexities straight.

But this is just the background to the romantic difficulties faced by our two protagonists. Michael and Lilly find themselves thrown together by circumstance, and increasingly unable to keep their hands off each other. Neither of them is the restrained Regency type so beloved of Georgette Heyer. Lust overcomes them with increasing frequency and in a range of implausible al fresco settings. The sex scenes are tastefully done, but moderately graphic, so beware if that’s not your thing. It’s fairly obvious where things are going, but how they get there is always interesting. The ending is fairly dramatic, with a huge coincidence and an over-the-top villain, but I enjoyed it nevertheless, and everybody got what they wanted in the end.

Of the characters, I liked Lilly very much. She was enchantingly natural and genuine, following her heart more than her head but never regretting what she’s done. Michael I had a bit less sympathy for. Considering the position he was in, with his marriage fast approaching, he really was very bad about keeping his breeches buttoned with Lilly. He was constantly overcome with uncontrollable lust, and then swamped with guilt afterwards. Pro tip: feeling guilty doesn’t excuse the lapse in behaviour. By contrast, compare the actions of Michael’s friend Danbury. He’s a very contented bachelor, but he happily agrees to pretend to be a suitor to Lilly to deflect attention from her relationship with Michael, and when things go pear-shaped, he gallantly prepares to marry her to get everyone out of the pickle. That is a true hero.

Now, for those who are sensitive about anachronisms, this book is riddled with them, and the Americanisms are so egregious that I can’t believe the author even tried to avoid modern usage. The one that made me shudder from horror is ‘go potty’ (in a toilet context). This isn’t a British expression even today, and certainly not in the Regency era. I found myself sufficiently swept up in the story not to mind too much, but if swathes of ‘visit with’ and ‘passed’ and ‘off of’ and ‘gotten’ would upset you, this author is best avoided.

It’s actually a pity the author didn’t let a (British) proofreader loose on the book, because if the anachronisms could have been ironed out, this would have been a fine story indeed. The romance and the heart-breaking situation the protagonists find themselves in are examined in unswerving detail, the other characters are quite properly kept in the background, and there’s plenty of angst and deep emotion to satisfy even the most discerning reader. I loved it, and only the horrible anachronisms keep it to four stars.

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