Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Jane Austen’

The Watsons by Jane Austen

 

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After reading The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn recently, I went to my book case to pull out my copy of Jane Austen’s The Watsons. Only a few chapters remain after the author abandoned the story. My copy contains an introduction and notes by Margaret Drabble of how Jane Austen intended the story to continue, as told to her sister Cassandra, then reported to her nieces many years later.

The Watsons starts with Emma Watson on her way to stay with neighbours to prepare for a ball. Emma is accompanied by her elder sister, Miss Watson, who is unable to attend the ball as she is to look after their invalid father. During the journey, Miss Watson gossips about the friends and neighbours who Emma can expect to meet at the ball, introducing us and Emma to them. These people are unknown to Emma as she has only recently returned to the neighbourhood, having lived with her aunt and uncle since she was a small child.

Emma was expected to have been her aunt and uncle’s heir, but after her uncle died her aunt unexpectedly remarried, and Emma returned to her own family home, with no further expectations. When Emma returns, she barely knows her own siblings.

At the ball, Emma won the heart of little Charles Blake, who came to dance with his sister (Miss Osborne) but was disappointed when she threw him over so she could dance with other men (who are adults and not related to her – understandable, but hard on little Charles). Emma asked Charles to dance and was noticed for her kindness as well as for her pretty face by the local suck-up, Mr Tom Musgrave, the high and mighty but socially inept Lord Osborne and Mr Howard, Charles’ gentlemanly tutor.

There was a little more to come after the ball, but the story was abandoned at around 17,000 words for reasons which are unknown, but guessed at. Some people think the story was too close to Jane Austen’s own story, while others suggest she was too miserable in Bath to continue, or to busy, or too lacking in privacy and time to write. Probably there are as many opinions as there are readers.

This may be arrogant of me but as a reader, I like to think I’m part of the story and have a say too! (shades of Lady Catherine de Bourgh?) but I think Jane Austen abandoned The Watsons partly because the story’s ending was too obvious to her. I am certain she would have had twists and turns coming up, but from the first few chapters seemed clear who the heroine, the villain and the hero were and what each of their trials would be.

The Watsons is fascinating though. The characters are interesting, some likeable and some not, due to Jane Austen’s knack of writing them so we know and recognise them for who they are in a few words.

 

 

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Jane Austen by Carol Shields

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Jane Austen, a biography by Carol Shields, left me feeling incredibly sad for the author’s version of Jane Austen. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was a sad and bitter woman who resented her restricted life.

The facts of Jane Austen’s life are probably well known even to casual readers. Born in England in 1775 to a rector and his wife, she was part of a large family living in a rural community. She was a daughter, sister, a friend, and later a sister-in-law and an aunt. Jane Austen never married, having been engaged once only to change her mind overnight. As an unmarried adult woman along with her sister Cassandra, she had little control over her the course of her life. When her father retired and moved to Bath, she went too. She wrote stories from a young age to amuse herself and her family but in Bath, she either did not want to write (having too much fun?) or was unable to (too miserable?), but after her father died she, her mother, Cassandra and another female friend moved to Chawton Cottage in rural Hampshire, where her writing ramped up again, revising Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication, followed by writing Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Jane Austen was working on The Watsons when she died in 1817 at the age of 41.

Carol Shields’ biography tells the story of a grown woman who had little opportunity to make her own decisions. Writing must have been an escape from reality, an opportunity for Jane Austen to live a private life or to experience other lives. She was poor and wanted her books to be published in order to make her fortune, but also wanted her ‘darling children’ to go out into the world to be loved by others.

My sadness came from the feeling of suppression and unhappiness which Carol Shields suggests Jane Austen must have suffered. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was an unhappy, bitter woman for most of her adult life, that she had a difficult relationship with her mother, and was suppressed by her sister Cassandra. Possibly so. I agree that mothers and adult daughters are better off not living together, and possibly the same could be said for adult sisters. As for being unhappy and bitter, maybe Jane Austen was sometimes. She did not write (or if she did, nothing survived) during the Bath years, she was poor and unmarried, and as a result, probably invisible in society. All of these are good reasons for being unhappy, at least occasionally.

However, I struggle to believe in Carol Shields’ ‘take’ on Jane Austen as a miserable and invisible woman. As a writer, she would have lived the lives her characters did, experiencing their sorrows and joys alongside them, then she would have had the amusement and enjoyment of experiencing her family’s reactions to her stories. Jane Austen’s writing style in much of her fiction and in her letters is amused and amusing and I don’t believe that someone who was bitter, unhappy and jealous could have sustained this particular writing voice. Later, she had the pleasure of her work being sold for publication, and of her works succeeding in the world. I’m not saying she was a little ray of sunshine all of the time, just that Carol Shields’ book felt unbalanced to me.

Jane Austen’s actual books and the heavily edited letters to her sister Cassandra and other family members are all we have of her writing. Memoirs written many years after her death by other family members provide further information, although these are difficult to believe in fully too, as they were written so long after her death by family who were presenting a particular image of their relative.

I also think the cover of my copy of this book is horrible, too. In my opinion, Jane Austen wouldn’t have liked it either.

Anyway, as a mad-keen Janeite, I’d love to know other people’s opinions on whether she was bitter and twisted, or full of fun and joy, or like most of us, a mixture of both. Carol Shields has her opinion, I have mine, and no doubt you have yours.

Also, if you were a writer, would you rather be poor and unknown for most of your life then become one of the world’s most enduring and loved authors for hundreds of years to follow, or to be rich and famous during your lifetime then quickly forgotten? Which do you think Jane Austen would have preferred?

Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady

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Sanditon is the novel Jane Austen was working on when she died. I believe she started writing it in January 1817 and wrote 11 or 12 chapters before stopping in March 1817, either because she got sick of the story or became too ill to continue. Jane Austen died 18 July 1817.

The story was not published until 1925, but the version I read had been completed by ‘Another Lady’ and published in 1975. I look forward to finding similar continuations by other authors to see where they take the story.

Jane Austen sets up the story with a husband and wife, Mr and Mrs Parker, travelling on a poor country road when their carriage overturns. The Heywood family come to their rescue and insist on the Parkers staying with them until Mr Parker’s injured ankle has recovered. Once it has, the Parkers continue to their home at Sanditon, taking with them Charlotte Heywood.

Sanditon is Mr Parker’s pride and joy. Old Sanditon is a small village near to the sea, although it is tucked away and protected from wild weather. New Sanditon, where the Parkers live, is right on the sea and Mr Parker has the intention of turning the town into a fashionable seaside resort with the assistance of Lady Denham, a wealthy neighbour.

A number of characters are introduced, including Miss Brereton, who is beautiful, young and poor and a much put-upon companion to Lady Denham, Sir Edward, who is Lady Denham’s nephew, a handful of other young women on the lookout for a husband, and more of the Parker family, including Mr Sidney Parker, who Charlotte found to have “a decided air of ease and fashion  and a lively countenance.” Mr Sidney Parker is also exactly the right age to emerge as the hero.

The Parker family are the funniest group of hypochondriacs ever written about. A letter read aloud by Mr Parker from his sister had me in stitches. The letter told all about everybody’s ailment; poor Susan had been suffering from the headache, and when ten leeches a day didn’t help, her sister Diana, the letter writer, convinced Susan the problem was with her gums, and so she had three teeth pulled. Diana advised that Susan’s “nerves are a good deal deranged. She can only speak in a whisper and fainted away twice this morning on poor Arthur’s trying to supress a cough.” I know Jane Austen meant for me to laugh until I cried when I read this.

Jane Austen’s work finished with Charlotte visiting Lady Denham, and reflecting on the irony of a large portrait over the fireplace of her second husband, (Lady Denham became a ‘Lady’ when they married), and a tucked away miniature of her first husband, Mr Hollis, from whom she got all of her money. In Charlotte’s words, “Poor Mr Hollis! It was impossible not to feel I’m hardly used: to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Henry Denham.”

We will never know where Jane Austen would have taken the story of Sanditon next. Plenty of characters had been introduced, Charlotte was clearly the heroine and there were some interesting events ticking away in the background. If Mr Sidney Parker wasn’t to be the hero, there was the promise of some friends of his arriving soon.

‘Another Lady’ continued the story quite well. There were a few red herrings regarding relationships (Emma set the precedent with Jane Fairfax and Mr Churchill), a villain who behaviour was far more melodramatic than any of Jane Austen’s own villains (think Mr Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, Mr Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility, Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park or John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey) and several characters who were quite nasty (Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice, Mr and Mrs Elton from Emma with a special mention to Mrs Norris from Mansfield Park).

The story finished on a high note with all of the mysteries being satisfactorily resolved and all of the appropriate couples either coming out into the open or realising their love for each other, although my biggest complaint about ‘Another Lady’ is that Charlotte and her hero went on and on and on about how much they loved each other once they finally got to that point. Seriously, they ‘lovey-dovey’ bits went on for pages, with Charlotte and her chap telling each other when they first realised they loved each other and how they thought that the other person did not love them, and how much they loved each other, and so on (and on and on and on, as I already said). Jane Austen would never have done that. Once her happy couples had no more misunderstandings about their feelings for each other, she politely left them on the page and in our imagination.

‘Another Lady’ continued the story in a good match to Jane Austen’s style and language. It wasn’t really obvious to me that the story had been finished by someone else other than a few clunky sections and the ‘lovey-dovey’ ending.

I’m sure other readers would agree with me when I say that if any more of Jane Austen’s works were ever to be found, it would be a dream come true.

Me and Mr Darcy by Alexandra Potter

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I haven’t read anything I’ve really enjoyed for ages. I’m bored with ‘Literature,’ tired of mysteries and crime and can’t be bothered with romance. There is obviously something wrong with me, because I don’t even feel like looking at photos of cakes in cook books.

Sometimes when I feel jaded, reading something light and bright cheers me up. I was hopeful that Me and Mr Darcy by Alexandra Potter would work, but unfortunately this book has also gone onto the list of books which I found a bit blah.

Emily Albright is an American who loves Pride and Prejudice. She impulsively decides to go on a guided tour of Jane Austen country and finds herself on a bus full of old ladies, an elderly male bus driver and a young, cute but arrogant, male journalist.

I might as well stop telling the story right now, because I expect you’ll be able to figure out how this one ends.

Possibly I’m not being fair to this author as I’m a bit tired lately, (long hours at work), but I truly wish I hadn’t wasted the hour I actually spent reading this book and the half hour I spent skimming through the remainder of the book, (just to make sure of the ending).

I know I have said this before, but I have to stop reading Jane Austen Fan Fiction. It’s too much like having a drink of water when you really want a frothy hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream. No more! (Until next time).

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

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Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid was written as part of the Austen Project, where contemporary authors re-write Jane Austen’s six major novels. This author is well known for her crime novels, which are very good.

I quite enjoyed Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey, but I did finish the book feeling slightly disappointed, as I always do after reading Jane Austen tribute novels, or sequels or whatever they are called. Nobody writes Jane Austen like Jane Austen. Still, I keep picking these novels up because I’m not ready to let go of my favourite author.

This version of Northanger Abbey is set in Scotland in the present time. Cat Morland, a 17 year old, home schooled, would-be-heroine, goes to Edinburgh for the festival with her wealthy neighbours, the Allens. In a whirlwind of social engagements, Cat meets and becomes besties with Bella Thorpe, who is keen on Cat’s brother, James. Bella wants Cat to fall in love with her brother Johnny, however Cat is already sweet on Henry Tilney, a young lawyer.

Cat becomes friends with Henry’s sister Ellie, both of whom appear to be bullied by their widowed father, General Tilney.

Really, I don’t know why I am telling you all of this. The story is the same as Jane Austen’s, just set in the present time. The characters have Facebook and mobile phones. Cat’s reading of choice features vampires, zombies and werewolves. Cat and Bella use expressions such as OMG and LOL. The faults and failings and the good points of the characters haven’t changed since the original Northanger Abbey. Cat is naïve and Ellie is sweet. Bella Thorpe is still a young woman on the make and her brother Johnny remains a jerk.

However, I have the same problem with Val McDermid’s version of events that I do with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Why would a young man, specifically Henry Tilney, who is a lawyer, fall in love with and remain in love with, a 17 year old girl? I think the age differences and intellectual differences between Catherine and Henry are too great for their relationship to work in real life. I can understand Henry’s initial interest in Cat’s pretty face and her lovely personality, but at some time in the future, he is going to be bored stupid with her. And then what? In Jane Austen’s time they would politely have lived separate lives, with Henry finding his amusement elsewhere, but in the present time, Henry would eventually move on and Cat’s heart will be been broken.

Regardless of my fault finding with the plot, I did enjoy this novel and would recommend it to fellow Janeites. In future though, I would prefer to read a Val McDermid crime novel though than her re-telling someone else’s story.

A Modern Day Persuasion by Kaitlin Saunders

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Do yourself a favour Janeites, re-read Jane Austen’s Persuasion instead of A Modern Day Persuasion, An Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Classic by Kaitlin Saunders.

This book needed a good, hard edit. Some famous writer or other (Elmore Leonard, to be precise) said that the trick to telling a good story is to leave out the boring bits, and someone should have told this author. There is far too much guff about what kind of tea minor characters drink, and lunches with celebrity cousins who aren’t interesting. Boring stuff that doesn’t move the story along doesn’t belong in the final cut.

To make matters worse, the grammar and punctuation are poor. I’m not an expert, far from it, but these sort of faults are annoying.

The author is also guilty of telling rather than showing the action.

As I said earlier, a reader will get far more pleasure from reading or re-reading Persuasion. However, if you really want to know what happens, seventeen year old Anne Elliot falls in love with twenty year old Rick Wentworth, a poor lifesaver. Too young to get married, they are parted by Anne’s family and godmother, who believe she can do better than Rick.

Years later, Rick returns to the area as a rich and successful novelist. Anne must have been living under a rock, because she had no idea what Rick had been up to during their time apart. (Seriously? You expect me to believe that?In this day and age, if you were still in love with an old flame, wouldn’t you Google them once in a while? I would. Also, Rick is a bestselling writer. Jane Austen heroines read. I found Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to be more believable).

Blah, blah, blah. Anne’s car breaks down, blah, blah, Anne’s nephew fell out of a tree, blah, blah, Anne has a haircut and makeover, blah, blah, enter Will Elliott, blah, blah, Rick thinks Anne is in love with Will, blah, blah, blah, fireworks, happily ever after. The reader probably fell asleep hours ago.

This book has cured me for the moment of Jane Austen tribute novels.

Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange

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Sigh…(of happiness). Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange left me feeling as if all is right with the world.

First, a disclaimer: Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen novel, and Captain Wentworth from Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen hero. As you might expect, Anne Elliott from Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen heroine. To re-visit their story in Captain Wentworth’s Diary was an unexpected pleasure.

In my opinion, Persuasion is the ultimate romance novel.

The plot summary of Persuasion is as follows. The major characters meet, and fall in love, only to be separated by reasons beyond their control. Now, pay attention to the next sentence everyone, because this is the reason why Persuasion is so wonderful. The separated lovers do not stop loving each other. They meet again, many years later, and after a series of misunderstandings, re-unite. At the end of the book you just know they are going to live happily ever after.

Captain Wentworth’s Diary tells of how he and Anne Elliott first met and fell in love, and is told via Frederick’s diary entries. Persuasion, by Jane Austen is told through Anne Elliott’s eyes and Anne and Frederick have already parted by the beginning of the story.

Frederick’s diary entries show him to be young and girl crazy, a sailor on shore leave who has his money burning a hole in his pockets. The reader knows Frederick will become a good  and successful man, as he is kind and straightforward, and most importantly values Anne, who is not treated with love or respect by her father and sister. Anne is clever and funny and pretty blossoms with Frederick’s attentions. During his visit to Somerset, she and Frederick become friends and eventually fall in love.

Despite agreeing to marry Frederick, Anne is persuaded by a family friend to break her engagement, so as not to hold him back in his career. There is also an element of snobbery in Anne’s friend’s advice not to marry him, as Anne is a Baronet’s daughter, and her friend believes Anne could do better for herself than a sailor.

When they part, Frederick, who is heartbroken and bitter, goes back to the Navy to make his fortune during the Napoleonic Wars. At this point in the story, Captain Wentworth’s Diary merges with Persuasion. Frederick returns eight years later as a rich man to Somerset, where he meets Anne again. Despite recognising that he still loves Anne, Frederick flirts with and considers marrying other girls. The girl he favours is headstrong, a characteristic Frederick believes is important, in light of Anne having been persuaded not to marry him. Frederick is compromised by the girl he has been flirting with and thinks he will have to marry her, but luckily for him she falls in love with someone else.

The next obstacle to Anne and Frederick’s happy ending is Frederick’s belief that Anne is to marry her cousin, who is to inherit the Baronetcy on her father’s death.

Frederick and Anne’s eventual realisation that they still love each other, have always loved each other and that they should have fought harder for each other in the beginning is satisfying but bittersweet.

Based on my enjoyment of Captain Wentworth’s Diary I will read more books by Amanda Grange and I would highly recommend this book to fellow Janeites.

 

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