TV Review: ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (1980)

November 28, 2017 Review 0

These older series are interesting little pieces of history in their own right, and the differences between versions can be illuminating. This version is nearly forty years old, and it shows in some aspects – the sets and costumes, for instance, are far more stagey than modern TV, but the actors, brought up in the grand British traditions of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC, know how to enunciate properly so that the viewer doesn’t need subtitles to understand what’s going on.

Of the actors, the only one I recognised was Tracey Childs (Marianne), who was also in another 80’s drama, Howard’s Way. I thought she made an excellent Marianne, capturing nicely her over-exuberant and emotional personality. She was particularly effective in the distraught London scenes. Irene Richards, as Elinor, was less effective, I thought. She captured effectively neither the practical, down-to-earth side of her character, nor the deep-seated emotions bubbling beneath the surface. I also found her movements to be rather stilted, but perhaps that was an attempt to convey her repressed nature.

Of the minor characters, Mrs Jennings was given a much bigger and more sympathetic role here, turning her from a comedy figure teasing the girls about their lovers to a genuinely maternal person. I liked her the better for it, but it didn’t feel true to the book. The other characters were competent without standing out particularly. Lady Middleton had more of a role in this version, being far more lively than in the book (some versions cut her out altogether). Margaret was the one who got the chop here, but I don’t think the story was any the worse for it.

The one seminal scene by which I judge any adaptation of this book is the occasion when Elinor is called upon to tell Edward that Colonel Brandon has given him a living, so enabling him to marry Lucy Steele. The pathos in the scene, and the subtext which both the reader/viewer and the characters themselves are equally aware of, that Elinor and Edward are very much in love and Edward is only marrying to honourably uphold a longstanding and bitterly regretted engagement, makes it one of the most profoundly moving scenes ever written. It needs superb acting skills but no other embellishment. The Emma Thompson version captured this perfectly, while the 2008 version resorted to overacting and oozing emotionalism. This version is pretty good, too, and stuck to the original words for maximum effect.

The settings lost a certain wildness. Barton Cottage was chocolate box pretty, and nowhere near the sea, and Marianne’s propensity to walk in the rain was lost. I thought an opportunity was lost to portray the sisters’ characters through their clothes, but they seemed to wear very similar garments. Elinor’s in particular I felt should have been plainer, less decorated, to demonstrate her practical nature, and the frill of curled hair round her face was entirely wrong. None of the dresses looked quite right, to me. Maybe they economised by not using authentic materials, so that although they superficially looked all right, they didn’t sit or drape properly.

One aspect that bothered me a great deal was a certain degree of impropriety in the sisters. The number of times one or other of them was left alone in a room with a man was shocking! Elinor was constantly showing people out (that’s what the servants are for, dear), and when Colonel Brandon was brought into Marianne’s bedroom and then left alone with her – I clutched my pearls, I can tell you. But maybe all that was in the book, who knows.

A competent adaptation, I thought, and enjoyable to watch but not my favourite.


Review: ‘Stolen Waters’ by Beth Andrews

November 26, 2017 Review 0

I bought this way back at the beginning of the year when I was researching the West Indies in the Regency era, but the book that needed the research was published in March, and here I am only just getting round to doing my research. Ah well.

The premise is interesting: an upper-class English woman, Sarah, is travelling to the West Indies to join her new husband on his sugar plantation. Accompanying her is a Spanish girl, Maria, acting as maid and companion. The journey and the arrival on the (mythical) island of St Edmunds are fascinating glimpses into the era, and nicely drawn. But it soon becomes clear that the heart of the book is not the setting or the historical aspects, but the convoluted love lives of the main characters, including Sarah’s husband, Matthew, and his mulatto cousin Jacob, who has been brought up as an English gentleman. This rapidly devolves into a lot of angsty hand-wringing, followed by… well, you can probably guess the way things go.

Now I have no problem with the romance side of things, but I did find the pairings somewhat problematic and the surprise at the inevitable consequences hard to believe. So ultimately this didn’t work for me at all, and I ended up skimming to get to the end. But it’s nicely written, and the depiction of English Regency manners dropped into the tropical setting is very convincing. There are some nice side characters, and if the care for the welfare of the slaves seemed a bit too modern, and the hurricanes, water spouts and the like a bit too plot-convenient and symbolic, it’s still an interesting view of a very unusual aspect of Regency life. Recommended for anyone who doesn’t mind the rather overwrought romantic agonising, but it wasn’t my sort of book at all, which keeps it to three stars.


Review: ‘A Place of Confinement’ by Anna Dean

October 30, 2017 Review 0

This series is a collection of little gems: beautifully written tales that never, ever impose modern sensibilities on the characters, and manage to combine Jane Austen’s wit and observational skills with the amateur sleuthing of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The romance is subtle and clever, with the obstacles being intellectual and philosophical ones, rather than the usual tired old tropes. This is the fourth book of the series, and although the romance finally reaches a satisfactory conclusion here, I really, really hope there will be more to come about these delightful characters.

At the start of the book, Miss Dido Kent is in disgrace, having shown a reluctance to entertain a marriage offer from the local clergyman, a widowed gentleman with a pew and a half of children from his first marriage. At the age of thirty six, Dido is very much on the shelf, and with her family in some financial difficulties, her marriage would relieve them of the expense of housing, feeding and clothing her, and she should, of course, accept the offer gratefully. The reader knows, as her family do not, that she has another offer on the table, from the charming Mr William Lomax, but he has financial difficulties of his own paying off the debts of his son, and he also disapproves of Dido’s propensity to rush off furiously investigating every odd circumstance that turns up.

Dido has been sent off to act as companion to her wealthy Aunt Manners, which state may either make her appreciate the value of the clergyman’s attentions or perhaps induce Aunt Manners to leave her some money. But naturally Dido immediately falls into the middle of a mystery, which she feels obliged to attempt to unravel. For once, however, Mr Lomax encourages her to some extent, because his own son (he of the debts) is in the middle of the drama, and likely to hang for murder unless Dido can solve the mystery.

As with all these books, many of the seminal events, and Dido’s thoughts on them, are revealed in long, musing letters to her sister, Eliza. I did wonder how much poor Eliza would be obliged to pay for these huge missives, for the cost of letters was enormous in those days. Still, let that pass. My biggest criticism of these books has always been the number of times Dido just happens to bump into someone who reveals crucial information, or else she just happens to see something, or (even more unlikely) people just happen to show her things or tell her things or urge her to find out things. Which is very convenient for the plot, but a little implausible.

Not that any of that matters. I so seldom find a book these days that is nothing but a pure joy to read, but the Dido Kent books definitely fall into that category. Highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: ‘A Woman of Consequence’ by Anna Dean

October 30, 2017 Review 0

I loved the first two in this charming series where Miss Marple meets Jane Austen, and I gobbled this one up in just as much delight. The writing is pure pleasure, with a rich tapestry of historical detail woven effortlessly into the letters and thoughts of spinster Miss Dido Kent. There are few people who can capture the style of Jane Austen, and while some come close with language and settings, Anna Dean is the only author I’ve found who also has Austen-ite levels of wit.

In this book, Dido’s family has suffered some financial reverses, and the cottage she shares with her sister Eliza has been given up. Dido is now living under her brother’s roof, suffering the jibes of her unkind sister-in-law, required to live in a cold little attic room and generally treated as an unpaid servant. That doesn’t stop her from visiting the neighbours at Madderstone Abbey, and when a girl falls from the steps of the abbey ruins after apparently seeing a ghost, and then a body is found in the pond, Dido is asked to use her investigative skills to uncover the truth.

The ongoing slow-burn romance with Mr William Lomax inches a little further towards a resolution, although the two still have their quite forcible arguments about the propriety of what Dido is doing, and whether it’s proper for a well-bred lady to concern herself with murders and other goings-on. I enjoy the romance every bit as much as the murder mysteries in these books, but these differences of opinion are beginning to seem repetitive now.

The resolution of the mystery is both highly implausible and excessively convoluted, and a part of it involves a character who is barely introduced until about 80% of the way into the book, so that felt like a bit of a cheat. However, it all fitted together very nicely, so I’m not going to grumble too much. Besides, the book was such a joy to read that these complaints pale into insignificance. Another delightful five star read.


Review: ‘Lord of Scoundrels’ by Loretta Chase

October 29, 2017 Review 0

So this is basic Regency plot number one. Tortured and unlovable hero – check. Spirited and independent heroine – check. Unredeemed rake – check. Determined spinster – check. True love conquers all – check. Evil sidekick – check. Reluctant marriage – check. Hero becomes besotted pussy cat – check. And instalust – check, check, check. So we all know how this one goes.

There are no mysteries at all in the underlying plot, and the hero and heroine are such over the top caricatures turned up to eleven that it’s almost off-putting. I don’t mind a bit of exaggeration for effect, but the Marquess of Dain, the hero, is so grotesque in both looks and behaviour that it’s hard to imagine what anyone would see in him. But Jessica Trent, our heroine, isn’t just anyone. She’s a highly intelligent bluestocking, and beautiful, naturally. And somehow she falls in lust with Dain at first sight.

So far, so unbelievable. But what saves this book totally is the dialogue, which is not just witty but downright clever. The two are drawn together by that animal passion that exists largely between the covers of books, where they just cannot keep their hands off each other, and as they fight their attraction and also spar to best each other, their behaviour and battles of words grow increasingly outrageous. I have to say I enjoyed this part of the book enormously, and laughed out loud at some of the crazy things they said and did to each other. I never knew what was coming next.

By the middle of the book, when they decide to get married, things go off the boil somewhat, and much of the later difficulties could have been resolved if the two had just sat down and talked it over. The subplots are pretty silly, too, and the nonsensical ending and rapid transformation of the snarling and bitter hero into a rational and loving human being keep it to four stars.


Review: ‘Sprig Muslin’ by Georgette Heyer

October 17, 2017 Review 0

There’s one thing you can say about Heyer – she’s not at all predictable. One never knows quite what oddball characters and situations will spring up. This is one of her books where the actual heroine, that is, the love interest of the hero, is almost a minor character, subservient to the action, and the scene-stealer is the typical bouncy and troublesome ingenue. So far, so normal.

The premise is that Sir Gareth Ludlow is on his way to offer marriage to a suitable lady, one he’s known for years, but isn’t in love with. His much-loved fiance died seven years earlier and he’s finally decided he can’t put off matrimony any longer and chooses shy and very much on-the-shelf Lady Hester. But on the way, he crosses paths with Amanda, the aforementioned ingenue, who is risking her reputation by travelling alone. Honourable Sir Gareth is determined to save her from himself, so scoops her up and takes her to Hester’s house for safe-keeping. Amanda, of course, doesn’t want to be kept safe, and is determined to have her own way in whatever ingenious manner springs to her fertile imagination.

What follows is an entertaining romp, totally silly of course, which succeeds in throwing hero and heroine together in such a way that he comes to appreciate her, and she, who has loved him for years, finally feels able to accept him. And the ingenue and everyone else get appropriate happy endings as well, as is always the case with Heyer. Very enjoyable and funny, although I’m not a huge fan of these silly bits of girls rampaging around the countryside. Nor could I quite understand why Lady Hester would refuse Sir Gareth’s perfectly sensible offer of marriage in the first place. That made no sense at all. Even if he wasn’t in love with her at the time, he would have got round to it in the end. As indeed he did. However, I liked Sir Gareth and Lady Hester, so this one merits four stars from me.


Review: ‘Bath Tangle’ by Georgette Heyer

October 17, 2017 Review 0

This is a fairly typical Heyer – an over-dominant and worldly male and a gooseish and very silly ingenue female, with a wide difference in ages. Fortunately, these two spend some time betrothed but they don’t in the end marry, because the real heroine of the book is not at all gooseish or silly, and is just as over-dominant a the male. For once, Heyer makes the hero and heroine a good, if tempestuous, match for each other.

The book has a nice premise. When the Earl of Spenborough dies, he leaves behind a very young widow, and an unmarried daughter several years older than the widow. Fanny, the widow, is sweet, charming, timid, uncomfortable in high society and distressed by the slightest breach in propriety. Serena, the daughter, is very much her father’s daughter – wild, wilful, as hard a rider to hounds as any man, and determined to have her own way in everything. And when she discovers that her father has left her fortune and the right of approval of her marriage to the man she once jilted, the Marquis of Rotherham, sparks fly. But when Fanny and Serena move to Bath, and Serena meets up with old flame Hector, and Rotherham randomly betroths himself to gooseish little Emily, the stage is set for the Bath Tangle of the title.

Naturally, matters eventually resolve themselves into happiness for all, but along the way there are some very funny moments, some lovely side characters and a great deal to enjoy. The hero and heroine are not my favourites – Serena is too hoydenish for my liking, and I prefer the Freddy Standen style of hero, rather than these rogueish, sometimes rakish, types. But Fanny, Hector and the delightful, if not very respectable, granny of Emily’s make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. Four stars.


Review: ‘Lord John’s Dilemma’ by G G Vandagriff

October 7, 2017 Review 0

This is one of those books that is perfectly readable, without ever setting the world on fire. There’s nothing too terrible about it, but also nothing to render it particularly memorable, either. It’s just a pleasant read, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

The Lord John of the title is a younger son returning from Waterloo wounded and battle-weary. The book describes it as melancholia, which we would now call depression or (in this case) PTSD, but I liked the use of the old-fashioned term. He’s set his mind on marrying the daughter of the pushy neighbours, a lovely girl who’s eminently suitable and rich, and is also conveniently in love with him. Unfortunately, he keeps getting distracted by the neighbours’ new governess, who needs rescuing at regular intervals (by our hero, naturally), but is also not what she seems. This sets up a nicely arranged mix of characters, as well as the dilemma of the title.

The writing is rather good, although there are Americanisms a-plenty (off of, for instance, and fall instead of autumn). Also, although the scene of waltzing in the field of yellow daisies is wonderful and romantic and beautifully evocative, I have no idea what sort of yellow daisies might be growing in the English countryside. Bit of a puzzle, that (I suspect they’re meant to be sunflowers). This book also supports my hypothesis that no American author ever really gets to grips with the British peerage. Our hero is the younger son of an earl, and therefore would not be called Lord John at all (he’d be the Honourable Mr John Whatever). However, these are minor quibbles which never interfered with my enjoyment of the book, and both the story and the characters are nicely done.

Things go off the boil at the end, with an improbable rival for the heroine’s hand, and a dependence on an impausibility, but nevertheless, it rated four stars.


Review: ‘The Dashing Widow’ by Elizabeth Bramwell

October 5, 2017 Review 0

You don’t read much about widows in Regency romances, with the focus very much on the unmarried ingenue or her slightly older independent-minded sister, so this book is a refreshing change. Abigail Merriweather is thoroughly disapproved of by London’s high society, since she has the temerity to be a widow who doesn’t know her place, and is always getting into scrapes. Worse, her money comes from trade, courtesy of her conveniently deceased husband. And when her friend helps to introduce Abby to London ways, the most disapproving of all is the friend’s brother, the Earl of Gloucester.

This is a charming and well-written story that had me chuckling. It’s rare to find anyone who can emulate the lightness of touch and romantic tangles of Georgette Heyer, but this author can. There were a few Heyer-esque phrases that didn’t ring quite true – ‘up to the snuff’ and ‘outside of the enough’, which should be ‘up to snuff’ and ‘outside of enough’. But otherwise, I noticed few mistakes.

It’s fairly frivolous and lighthearted, and it’s also very short (and stopped at 88% on my Kindle, the remainder filled with samples of the author’s other books), but if you’re looking for a quick and amusing read in the style of Georgette Heyer, this is one to try. Four stars.


TV review: Pride and Prejudice (1980)

September 15, 2017 Review 0

A lot of reviews praise this version for its fresh feel, but I found it very stilted, and actually disliked it pretty strongly. Elizabeth was flat, Darcy was stiff and arrogant almost all the way through, Mr Bennet was unpleasant, Mrs Bennet was… oh, actually, she was all right. Lady Catherine was good, too, but you have to be pretty ham-fisted to get that wrong, and she was the right age for the mother of an unmarried daughter. And hallelujah for a version which actually does something with Anne de Burgh, and makes her into a sympathetic character. Mr Collins was not funny enough. In fact the whole production largely lost its wit.

And that was, perhaps, the biggest problem with Elizabeth. In the book she’s lively, irreverent, quick-witted and very, very funny. As portrayed here, there’s nothing funny about her at all. She reads her lines as if she’s struggling with the antiquated language, and then she smiles all the time to lighten the tone. It makes her seem like the sort of sweet, simpering miss that’s the very antithesis of the real Elizabeth!

Darcy had only one facial expression all the way through until the final scene. It was very, very hard to see what any woman would find attractive about him. One scene in particular summarises the way his character is portrayed. After he gives Elizabeth her letter, he is seen walked steadily away from her…and away and away and away… the whole time she reads, he never varies his pace or direction. Yet this is the defining moment in the book for Darcy. He’s proposed and been rejected in the most brutal fashion, and been forced to re-evaluate his conduct and explain himself to her. He is in the process of a major change of character, yet the scene says exactly the opposite, that he remains unswerving in his manner and methods. Completely, utterly wrong.

The camera work is of the era, I suppose, and the costumes the same – almost right, but not quite. And all the men seemed to dress the same, with no distinction of rank. Only Lady Catherine had the properly aristocratic elaborate costume. And I did wonder what happened to the Bennet sisters’ dresses at the end, when they changed style quite abruptly, as if a different designer was called in at the last minute. The script used quite a lot of the author’s original words, even from the narration, but then used them in the wrong place or put them in the mouths of the wrong characters, which had a strangely jarring effect.

A dreadful piece of work, and not recommended at all, except for completists.