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Review: Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady

Posted April 5, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, that was fun! I’ve been hoping to read this book for ages, since it’s touted as the definitive version of Sanditon, Jane Austen’s unfinished work, but I was waiting patiently for it to come out in ebook form. But a clear-out of the loft produced a box full of old Georgette Heyer paperbacks, and amongst them this Signet book from 1975, the pages yellowed and brittle with age. I haven’t read a dead tree book in years, but this was one I couldn’t resist.

There was another reason for reading it, too, since I’m working through a rerun of the 2019 TV version, and it was an interesting comparison. Or rather, there is absolutely NO comparison. One is light-hearted, witty, elegant and charming. The other is… well, I’m tempted to say pointless. But enough of the TV version. This review is about the book.

Here’s the premise: Charlotte Heywood is taken up by Mr Tom Parker and his wife after the Parkers’ carriage suffers an accident outside the Heywood house. She is to stay with them at the small seaside town of Sanditon, which Mr Parker is busily trying to turn into a fashionable resort like Brighton, complete with sea bathing (from bathing machines!) and splendid views and lots and lots of bracing fresh air. Lady Denham is the other prime mover in this venture, and the first few chapters introduce an array of other characters: Mr Parker’s brother and sisters, hypochondriacs all; Sir Edward and Miss Denham, the impoverished aristocrats; Clara Brereton, the poor relation; wealthy mulatto Miss Lambe and her entourage; and finally, briefly glimpsed, the presumed hero of the book, Sydney Parker, yet another brother. That was as far as Jane Austen got, so everything else comes from the imagination of Another Lady.

Most of these characters are reasonably well defined from the start, but one is a complete enigma – Sydney Parker. Jane Austen tells us virtually nothing about him, so he’s a blank slate. Another Lady does a terrific job of making him a likable and very heroic hero, while also making him darkly enigmatic at times. He’s one of the most original characters I’ve come across, and I totally understand why Charlotte finds him so compelling. I find him compelling, too! This is one of those rare cases where all the other characters agree that Sydney is a charismatic, charming and intelligent man, and he actually behaves that way. I get so tired of Regency authors telling us that a character is clever when they continue to do blindingly stupid things, so it’s very pleasant to be able to say that Sydney really is clever. His cleverness trips him up sometimes, but he’s clever enough to get himself out of the mess.

The blurb describes Charlotte as ‘Jane Austen’s most captivating heroine’. That’s a bit misleading, because we don’t really know much about Jane Austen’s Charlotte at all, so this is really Another Lady’s Charlotte, and yes, she is rather captivating, a very practical girl who makes an interesting counterpoint to the flighty and up-in-the-boughs Parkers, with their constant schemes. She is also a very well brought up young lady, who gently reproves Sydney whenever he seems to wander into misguided territory. In fact, to begin with, she seems to disapprove of him rather thoroughly, as a frivolous chap with a mischievous or even a bad streak. But of course she comes round nicely.

The plot, such as it is, meanders about rather charmingly, with a visit to neighbouring resort Brinshore and some whimsical efforts to collect seaweed. Towards the end, it veers into melodramatic territory, seeming like one of the more extreme Georgette Heyers before resolving itself neatly and without fuss. A lovely read, and although it has too much focus on the romance to ever pretend to be an authentic Jane Austen, and the language never rises to her sublime heights (in particular, Another Lady never comes close to capturing Sir Edward’s pompous and long-winded verbiage), I enjoyed it enormously. Five stars. Thoroughly recommended.

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Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Posted May 20, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 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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TV series review: Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Posted June 20, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

What is there to say about this that hasn’t been said a thousand times already? This is the definitive version, the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version, the diving-in-the-lake version, the one that spawned a whole new love affair with Jane Austen and a spate of new dramatisations and inspired-by films, books and TV productions. I’ve been rewatching it for the fourth or fifth or sixth time, and enjoying it just as much as before, perhaps more so now that I know a little bit more about the Regency era than I did. Here are some random thoughts.

The first thing that struck me is how quickly it becomes obvious that Darcy is in love with Elizabeth. In previous viewings, Firth’s Darcy seemed like a bit of a stiff-necked so-and-so, whose proposal at Hunsford comes out of the blue. Yet his face often shows a softness as he looks at Elizabeth. Why did I never notice this before?

The second thing is that Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennet finally grated on me. I’ve read so many reviews complaining about her shrillness, but this was the first time I really noticed it.

I noticed, too, just how licentious Lydia is almost right from the start. When she bumps into Mr Collins on the landing, when she’s in her underwear, any well-brought-up young lady would be mortified, but Lydia screams with laughter. And she wants to go into Meryton early one day in order to catch the officers before they’re dressed (probably not seriously, but she shouldn’t even be thinking about such things).

Most of the characters I think are pretty well perfect for their roles. Mr Collins, Mr Bennet, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy are incomparable. Elizabeth I have reservations about, but I like her better with each viewing. I’ve never much liked Miss Bingley. She seems too obvious in her pursuit of Mr Darcy (but I suppose she is in the book as well).

I really liked that the six-episode format which gave the story room to breathe. No minor characters got wiped out, pretty much all the important scenes survived intact and there were few changes to the dialogue. I’m a particular fan of the piano scene at Rosings, where Elizabeth is to all intents and purposes flirting with Darcy through the medium of Colonel FitzWilliam (”Shall we ask your cousin why…?”). I adore this scene, because to her it’s lightweight joking around, but he’s genuinely responding to her and openly paying her compliments (”Your time has been much better spent.”). And his face when he looks at her is quite adoring. No wonder he assumed she was waiting for him to pay his addresses!

The letter is handled really well in this version. We see both Darcy’s determination to write it, staying up all night, and then Elizabeth’s reactions to it (’Insufferable presumption!’). And then the irony of her visit to Pemberley, when the housekeeper is praising Darcy to the skies, Mrs Gardiner is very confused and Elizabeth is unable to explain the discrepancy. And then the awkwardness of meeting Darcy again, his overwhelming civility and the way Mrs Gardiner immediately jumps to the obvious conclusion. This was all wonderful. And the meeting with Miss Darcy and Mr Bingley at the inn is perfect.

If I have any complaint at all about the later scenes, it is that the proposal falls short of expectations. Yes, it’s exactly as per the book, but, given the passion of earlier scenes – the first proposal, that moment of revelation in the inn when Elizabeth has just discovered Lydia’s folly, and the spirited debate with Lady Catherine – the final proposal really needs some fireworks. It needed it in the book, too, and it’s one of very few instances where I’d have been in favour of a little artistic licence.

But that apart, this version is, to my mind, well-nigh perfect. It stays true to the words and the spirit of the original, it captures the essence of all the characters, the acting, settings and costumes are awesome, and it gives the story the room it needs to breathe. The ensemble scenes, like the Meryton assembly and the ball at Netherfield are handled brilliantly, with little vignettes constantly firing off in the background, and all the major scenes are beautifully done. Scarcely a mis-step in the whole production.

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