Saturday, March 20, 2010

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Scandalous Widow by Evelyn Richardson -- Regency Romance
Lady Catherine Granville is a young widow who has been ruthlessly shoved aside by the greedy new Lord Granville and his social climbing wife. Though Catherine has been left with enough money to live comfortably, she can't rest unless she's doing good works. Her latest and most ambitious project is an academy for young ladies to learn how to be more than "decorative objects for the marriage mart." Unfortunately for Catherine, the new Lord and Lady Granville are furious about having their name connected with trade and will do anything to shut down Catherine's school. Lady Granville turns to her lover, the rakish Marquess of Charlmont to order Catherine to cease and desist. Flattered into agreeing to try, Lord Charlmont decides to investigate Catherine's school for his headstrong niece. When Lord Charlmont and Lady Catherine Granville meet, they discover that they had once been friends, ten years ago during Catherine's first season, but their friendship was ended when Charlmont ran off. Charlmont would like to renew his friendship with Catherine, whom he greatly admires, but she resents the intrusion of a man into her well-ordered life. Charlmont doesn't give up easily and there may come a time when Catherine needs his assistance to fight against the injustices of the world and her heart may not be up to the task. Catherine is an incredibly admirable character because she is so fiercely independent and unwilling to rely on anyone for help. She is true to her beliefs, even in the end. Charlmont, rake that he seems to be, is deeper than he appears and as his story unfolded, I grew to respect him as well. Though the characters think and act very modern, there was a growing reform movement at the time and certainly there were educated, strong-minded women and followers of Mary Wollstonecraft, so I am willing to believe it. It's a romance novel and not a serious work. I enjoyed this novel and if you like well-developed characters and plots with meaning, you will too.

A Foreign Affair by Evelyn Richardson -- Regency Romance
The Princess Louisa von Hohenbachern and her daughter, Miss Helena Deveraux have come from their minor German principality to Vienna for the Congress of Vienna. Hoping to enjoy herself while her husband is away, Princess von Hohenbachern strikes up a flirtation with the handsome Lord Major Brett Stanford, in town as a French translator on request from Wellington. Helena eschews the social scene, preferring instead to study politics. Helena also enjoys racing her horse in the park, where she happens to spy Lord Major Stanford practicing tricks on his handsome stallion. Helena discovers that the Lord Major is her mother's latest flirt when he mistakes her for a maid in her own house. She takes delight in watching his discomfort when he learns her true identity and soon the two are discussing politics and horses, forming a close relationship that may be more than Helena is prepared to admit. Helena is determined to be independent and self-reliant. She has seen too much of what happens when passion burns out and refuses to allow that to happen to her. When Napolean escapes from Elba, their entire way of life is threatened and Helena must realize the truth of what is at stake. This is a quiet, better than average Regency. The heroine and hero slowly come to terms with their feelings for one another. The beginning of the book is very slow with entirely too much politics. As one who doesn't remember her European history class, I found the discussions confusing and tedious. I really liked the romance, though. It developed slowly and realistically over time as the characters share a passion for politics that develops into something more. The downside to the plot is the little bit of intrigue that never really develops. I really liked Helena and could relate to her a lot. She's a modern heroine, typical of Richardson's novels, but she's also a Regency heroine with realistic expectations about relationships. Brett is a softer, quieter hero than Richardson's usual rakes and tonnish gentlemen, but I kind of liked the change because it made the romance develop better when he wasn't lusting after Helena or visiting his mistress. The political tensions add a nice element to the story and move the romance forward. The writing is really good, aside from the boring political elements and I think this is one of the better Regencies out there, but not one of the best.

The Rake and the Wallflower by Allison Lane -- Regency Romance
Miss Mary Seabrook has accompanied her sister Laura to London for their come-out. Promised by her brother-in-law that she would be able to meet others who share her scholarly interests in birds, Mary looks forward to the Season. The Season does not turn out to be quite what Mary expected. First, there's her sister Laura, a diamond of the first water and a spoiled brat determined to get rid of Mary and outshine everyone else. While hiding from the advances of an overly familiar gentleman, Mary takes to sketching the members of the ton as the animals their personalities most resemble. Lord Grayson is also hiding from scheming minxes, like Mary's sister, who think they are attracted to him because of his dangerous past. When Gray discovers Mary and her sketches, he is intrigued. Sensing that Mary is shy and nervous, he immediately puts her at ease, as he has often done for other shy misses in the past, much to his regret. One of those shy misses took her own life, accusing him of getting her with child. The incident of Miss Turner, combined with another young miss who set out to trap him into marriage by scheming, have contributed to his social ruination. Mary knows she shouldn't be talking with Gray, but he's so kind that she can't help liking him. Laura becomes a sensation, though not in the way she dreamed of, and is determined to have her own way and ruin her reputation and Mary's as well. Gray helps Mary find her confidence in order to save herself and when mysterious and dangerous happenings start to affect Gray, Mary is convinced he's innocent of all past wrongdoing and is determined to catch the would-be murderer and the true seducer of poor Miss Turner. Along the way, Mary falls for this kind, sensitive man who shares her scholarly interests and he discovers the pleasure of finding a woman who appreciates him for his own sake and not just his scandalous reputation.I had a hard time liking this book. Mary and Gray are both likable and I wouldn't even classify Gray as a rake. He's much more kind and sensitive than most other Regency heroes thanks to his bullying father and kind mother. Laura is deranged and I can't think of why anyone wouldn't see through her. She belongs in a mental institution, even though they were nasty places. The plot leaves a lot to be desired. It's somewhat long and the mysteries seem to be solved too easily once the villains were discovered. There isn't a full explanation of what exactly happened to Mary's family 18 months ago. She shares a little bit of the story with Gray and Laura's story also comes out but I was left wondering what happened to Mary's father and Catherine's first husband. The plot is also darker than I would prefer and the characters have a hard time controlling their passions and get a little bit too carried away in some incredibly stupid and pointless scenes. This book falls high on the AAR subtle category. I wouldn't recommend this one to true devotees of good literature or well-written Regency novels.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Harriet Jacobs: a play based on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs
a play based on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Kami Rushell Smith as Harriet
photo by Elizabeth Stewart, Providence Black Repertory Co.

Harriet Jacobs, a play inspired by Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Lydia R. Diamond

The Underground Railway presented Harriet Jacobs in early 2010. The play is based on the slave memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.

Harriet was a house slave on a plantation in the south in the 1830s. Her Granny was free and owned a bakery in town. Harriet is in love with a slave carpenter named Tom, who belongs to another master on another plantation. When Tom seeks out the master to purchase and marry Harriet, the master burns Tom's money and says he'll say Harriet for $850 when "hell freezes over!" Tom disappears from Harriet's life, leaving her brokenhearted and subject to the master's advances and mistress's hatred for the rest of her life.

Unable to bear the idea of giving in to the sexual advances of her owner, Harriet makes the choice to give virtue up to a wealthy white lawyer who offers her a little bit of kindness. She bears him two children and becomes estranged from her Granny, who had made her promise to never use her body as a bargaining chip. When the master threatens to sell Harriet's children, she runs to her Granny with the babies. Granny hides Harriet a small crawl space above the rafters in a shed! The children's father buys them and places them with Granny, where Harriet watches them through a hole in the roof for seven years before finally escaping north.

Though the shed was dark, cramped, too cold or too hot, Harriet finds her voice and freedom on her own terms.

The play was incredible! There are 8 actors who play all the characters, and each actor is African-American. The white characters are differentiated by the way they dress. All the actors did a fabulous job, especially Harriet. She was bright and loved to read and dream and was faced with a lifetime of unimaginable horror, yet she maintained her dignity and determination throughout.

Read more about the play at Central Square Theater's website and blog.

Friday, March 12, 2010

What I've Read Lately

What I've Read Lately . . .

Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland -- Middle Grades/ YA  Austenesque Fiction 
12 year-
old Polly Madassa dreams of the days when Elizabeth Bennet walked the halls of Pemberley with Mr. Darcy and Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables) rambled down Lover's Lane. Polly lives and breathes her two favorite novels, even attempting to speak like a 19th century heroine. In the small seaside town where her parents own a bakery, Polly searches for real life Elizabeths, Darcys, Annes and Gilberts for her nearest and dearest. She also wants to regain the affections of her dearest sister and must deal with an unwanted suitor. Though things don't always go the way she planned, Polly never gives up until she sees the truth of the situation. Polly is a modern tween equivalent of Jane Austen's Emma. Like Emma, Polly is certain she is right and ignores what is right under her nose. I can really relate to Polly and her love of old-fashioned romances. I remember speaking and dressing like a 19th century heroine, too and that made Polly all the more of an appealing heroine. The other characters are real people who inhabit the real, modern world with problems of their own that many readers will be able to relate to. This is a sweet, charming novel that girls (and women) who dream of being Elizabeth and Anne will love.

ne's Lady by Evelyn Richardson -- Regency Romance
Lady Althea Beauchamp has always been the dutiful daughter her parents wanted and now, in her first Season, she finds her wishes at odds with her parents'. Her parents, of course, wish her to find a husband who with the perfec
t bloodlines, society connections and political connections. Althea wants nothing more than to return to the country and manage an estate. Her distaste for young gentlemen of the ton has earned her the nickname "Ice Princess." Althea is lonely and unhappy until she locks eyes with the cynical misogynist Gareth de Vere, Marquess of Harwood. Gareth dislikes Society functions and well-bred women. He is bullied by his scheming mother to attend her every wish and hates it. Gareth and Althea discover a shared passion for cards and in each other, a clever mind and excellent card partners. They discover they have more in common than just cards and become friends. Soon Althea is playing the card game of her life in order to accomplish her dreams and become the person she's always wanted to be. What she didn't count on was a certain handsome Bachelor Marquess intruding into her private world and her lack of power to resist him. Althea and Gareth are intelligent and have interesting back stories which allow them to share a common bond, which I really liked. As much as I liked the characters though, I found this story rather long and slow. There are detailed descriptions of card playing and estate management that really weren't necessary to move the plot along. I really liked Althea and hoped for her happiness almost as much as she wished for it. I wasn't crazy about the Marquess. He acts like a love-sick schoolboy turned crazy stalker! I also disliked that the Marquess frequents the boudoir of a certain opera dancer, even after meeting Althea. I found myself hoping that Althea would make a different choice than she did. Overall, this is a slightly above average Regency but I wouldn't give it more than 3 out of 5 stars or place it on my keeper shelf. It's a good one to get from your local library.

Breach of Promise by Elisabeth Fairchild -- Regency Romance
The hero, Philip Chalmondelay, Marquess of Chalmondelay, Earl of Rockford (name is not written correctly) flees on his wedding day after discovering the betrayal of his betrothed. He winds up in Chipping Camden, where he rents a manor house from Miss Susan Fairford and wishes to remain incognito by lying to her and everyone else. Susan is distrustful of her tenant and suspicious of strange men ever since her husband absconded on her wedding day stealing her fortune. Susan earns money through beekeeping. She trusts the bees more than she trusts men, at least until she meets Philip. Philip and Susan are physically attracted to one another, he lusts after her, they get to know each other better but she still doesn't trust him. Then Susan's ability to trust Philip is called into question when his past catches up to him. Susan is forced to confront her feelings for Philip and how much she's willing to trust her feelings and how far she's willing to go for them. This book is a bit too long and not much happens in the plot until halfway through and then it gets bogged down and some issues are left kind of unresolved. The whole plot is unbelievable. There is no good reason for Susan to believe that Philip was a villain after he had already pretty much told her he had had his heart broken. There was also no way that the action/ "secret" that precipitates Philip leaving Chipping Camden for London could have happened in that short amount of time. The story just doesn't ring true for me and I also disliked all the sensuality and lusting after each other. Sexual tension is OK as long as it's done right and this was not. It would rate somewhere between subtle and warm on All About Romance's scale. Sadly, this was another dud that I won't be reading ever again.

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- Adult Victorian Traditional Romance

This book, written by the author of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, is an adult romance that set the pace for traditional romances by Georgette Heyer and other writers. The heroine, Emily Fox-Seton is very poor, but manages to get by on 20 pounds a year. She's not very bright, but she's good and kind and everyone loves to take advantage of her good nature. Lady Maria Bayne invites Emily to her house party in the country to assist with the duties of party planning and hosting. The guests include a widowed writer, an American heiress, the beautiful daughter of an impoverished Irish peer, Lady Agatha Slade and the widowed Marquis of Walderhurst, on the hunt for a new wife. Emily becomes invaluable to the hostess and befriends Lady Agatha and helps the younger girl bear her troubles. Emily catches the interest of the Marquis and soon becomes his bride! Emily loves her husband and he enjoys her company. Upon hearing of the Marquis's marriage, his black sheep heir, Osborne and his wife leave India and return to England to determine how to prevent the title from passing to Walderhusrst and Emily's prospective heir to their own. Kind Emily takes pity on Osborne's wife and tries to ease her burdens, but old hatreds die hard and the Osbornes may or may not be involved in a plot to take Emily's life. The plot is fairly typical though not predictable. It takes awhile for the story to get going and then it turns gothic. I didn't really like Emily because she was too kind and good and didn't stand up for herself, but I wanted her to have the happy ending she deserved. The Marquis is hardly in the book, but he seems like a decent fellow if you like dull heroes. If you've read and liked the traditional romances of Georgette Heyer, then you will probably enjoy this book.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What I've Read Lately

What I've Read Lately . . .

I apologize to my readers (if there are any? Please comment if you are reading this so I know I am not talking to myself) for being so behind on my reading. I've been too busy and burned out from school to do any pleasure reading but without further ado, I bring you a post in which I review the last few books I have read.

Legacy by Cayla Kluver -- YA Fantasy
Sixteen years ago, the kingdoms of Hytanica and Cokyri were at war. Sixteen years ago, forty-nine newborn boys disappeared from Hytanica and only forty-eight bodies were returned. Since that time, hostilities have ceased and life has gone on as normal in Hytanica, where Princess Alera is celebrating her seventeenth birthday and her last before she must chose a husband who will take over her father's crown and rule the kingdom. Alera's father, the king, has hand-picked the handsome Steldor, a member of the King's Elite Guard, as his hair and Alera's husband-to-be. Alera has little say in the matter, for women are not highly regarded in Hytanica. However, Alera's independent nature rebels against a match with the cocky young man and she strives to make her voice heard. The only person who listens is her bodyguard, London. When a Cokyrian is found in Hytanica, a teenage boy with a mysterious past, Alera is immediately drawn to him. The boy, Narian, begins to show Alera how to find her voice because in his country women are regarded as better than men. Soon danger threatens the kingdom and Alera is faced with the difficult decision of whether to carry out her duties or live her own life.

This is the same old fantasy story you've probably read 100 times already and not a very original take on the prophecy plot (see Harry Potter and Firebringer by
David Clement-Davies for examples of how the story is done right). Nothing much happens in the book and it took a long time before I could even get into it and then when I couldn't put it down, it ended unsatisfactorily in the middle of the story with nothing resolved. Some reviewers are calling the book's ending a cliffhanger, but in order for it to be that, there needed to be a plot. I would say the book stops in the middle of the story rather than it being a cliffhanger. None of the characters were particularly remarkable. Alera is the usual independent princess being forced into a marriage she doesn't want and experiencing a coming-of-age journey that will help her face her future. Narian is sufficiently mysterious enough to capture my attention, at least until the mysterious surrounding him are revealed. Steldor comes across as disgusting and despicable most of the time but it's hard to tell what he's truly like. The King is benevolent but unyielding and totally clueless and most of what's actually happening. The Queen only has a few lines until she retires early to bed and is nothing more than a vehicle for introducing some of the mystery. Overall, this book is not a great effort though I am dying to read the sequel but probably won't because by then I will have forgotten all about this unremarkable book.

Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede -- YA Historical Fantasy
Kim has lived on the streets her whole life and is sharp and cunning as they come. Disguised as a boy, she lives by her wits, doing what she can to survive. When a wealthy gentleman offers her a large sum of money to case a street magician's wagon, Kim thinks it will be an easy job. She gets more than she bargained for when she becomes involved with Mairelon the Magician. Soon, Kim is on the run with Mairelon as they search for the magical Saltash Set of dinnerware and uncover a plot that could threaten both Kim and Mairelon. This book is filled with excellent period details about the gritty realities of 19th century London. There are also good descriptions of upper-class life, as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Kim and Mairelon make a good team and I enjoyed their witty dialogue. There are many light moments in this novel, including a screwball comedy scene that will have you laughing out loud. My biggest complaint with this book is that there are way too many characters. I had a really hard time following who they all were and what they wanted. Another problem for some readers may be the excessive use of street slang. For someone who isn't experienced in reading it, it could be difficult, but I've read that type of slang before and can usually understand the meaning from the context. This book is set in a world just like the one Wrede and Caroline Stevermer created in Sorcery & Cecilia. If you've read that and you're looking for more of the same, then you should definitely pick up this book.

The Magician's Ward by Patricia C. Wrede -- YA Historical Fantasy
In this sequel to Mairelon the Magician, Kim is back, this time as Mairelon's ward, and facing the previously unknown horrors of London Society! Kim enjoys her magic lessons with Mairelon but dreads Society. Chaperoned by Mairelon's strict aunt and eccentric mother, Kim is unprepared for Society's reaction to their newest debutante. She tries to appeal to her guardian, but he is mostly interested in the mysterious nighttime prowler who is attempting to steal a rare, magical book from his library. When something terrible happens, Kim must draw on her newfound magical knowledge, as well as her old street smarts to solve the mystery and save her guardian. Romance lovers will also be delighted to learn that there's time in her busy schedule for courtship and perhaps romance as well. This sequel is every bit as good as the original. It's more of a straightforward period/fantasy mystery than screwball comedy, but there are lighthearted moments. Kim is even more interesting now that she's a wizard and Mairelon is just as charming as ever.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy

A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy

The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

I recently had the pleasure of viewing this exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The exhibit showcases letters, manuscripts, books and other items belonging to and relating to Jane Austen's life, works and legacy. For the non Janeites among us (the term was first coined in the 1890s, when Miss Austen's works enjoyed a resurgence in popularity), there are biographical panels that provide a timeline of her life.

The exhibition is organized into three sections: Austen's life and personal letters, her works, her legacy, and concludes with the documentary-style film.

An excellent selection of caricatures of James Gillray (1756–1815), a noted caricature artist of the day. He lampoons fashion, social conventions (including matrimony) and even royalty.

Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal (1792) (King George III)

The best part of the exhibit is of course Miss Austen's manuscript letters and fragment drafts of Lady Susan and The Watsons. The Morgan has the most Jane Austen letters in the world! (How can I be the curator of THAT collection?!) Jane's letters were often written on every available inch of paper, making them difficult to read, even for one practiced in reading old writing. Standing there, reading Jane's letters, seeing them in her own handwriting is awe-inspiring!

Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Autograph letter signed, dated Godmersham, 20–22 June 1808 to Cassandra Austen (detail)
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1920; MA 977.16
Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

On one letter, she drew a lace pattern to show her sister. Some letters have small sections where pieces were cut out by her sister Cassandra. The sections are very small and were obviously cut with delicate scissors. The missing sections don't take away from the thrill of actually reading Jane Austen's handwriting! Cassandra cut out pieces that she considered inappropriate; perhaps Jane was writing critically of someone or writing about delicate health matters.

The 12 page fragment of The Watsons is an extreme rough draft version, complete with sentences scribbled out. The divine Jane Austen didn't produce the perfect novel in one shot! This is the most difficult of all the manuscripts to read because it is not a fair copy. Lady Susan, on the other hand, is a fair copy and easy to read. It's a little odd reading a letter in Miss Austen's handwriting but signed Susan!

Another section provides more visuals for Jane Austen's world, including illustrations from the books and portraits of what her characters may have looked like, including Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin) by William Blake. When she saw this portrait in London, Austen remarked that this was just as she imagined Mrs. Bingley (Jane Bennet) to look.

William Blake (1757–1827)
Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin)
Stipple etching/engraving with mezzotint, printed in dark brown on wove paper, 1820
Gift of Charles Ryskamp in memory of Michael S. Currier; 1998.36:4
Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

I have seen this image in books and on the internet, but it is much better to see it in person alongside Miss Austen's manuscripts.

Other illustrations by later artists also provide visuals for Jane Austen's world.

Isabel Bishop (1902–1988)
Scene from Pride and Prejudice: "The examination of all the letters which Jane had written to her." 20th century
Pen and black ink, gray wash, over pencil
Gift of Mrs. Robert E. Blum in honor of Charles Ryskamp on his 10th anniversary as director, 1979; 1979.32:15
Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.
Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

Other paintings show what the grand estates of the day looked like and other places Jane Austen may have been familiar with.

Paul Sandby (1731–1809)
View in a Park
Pen and black ink, watercolor, over faint indications in pencil, on paper, eighteenth century.
Purchased as the gift of the Fellows; 1963.Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY
Steel engraving after a sketch by Cassandra Austen; evidently executed as a frontispiece portrait for James Edward Austen-Leigh's biography of Austen entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen
London: Richard Bentley, 1870
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1925; MA 1034.1

Jane Austen's legacy is astounding as the last section showcases. There are rare copies of early, illustrated editions of Austen's books. Austen's books were out of print from her death until the late nineteenth century when they were rereleased with beautiful, if maybe not quite accurate, illustrations. That's when the term Janeite was coined and women began to really read and admire Miss Austen the way they do today. Later writers enjoyed the works of and were influenced by Austen, including Sir Walter Scott, Vladimir Nabokov (!), William Butler Yeats, and Rudyard Kipling.

The many movie adaptations are also mentioned and a lovely portrait of Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy hangs on the wall. :swoon:

This is an incredible exhibit and a must-see for all Janeites! Even the most casual fans can appreciate and enjoy the manuscripts on display. It must be an archivist's dream come true to curate that collection! I loved seeing everything in real life and learning more about one of my favorite authors.

(Yoohoo Morgan Library, I'm available for hire!)