In 1815, Jane Austen published Emma, dedicated by permission (or rather command) to the Prince Regent, who was Austen’s highest profile fan, keeping a...moreIn 1815, Jane Austen published Emma, dedicated by permission (or rather command) to the Prince Regent, who was Austen’s highest profile fan, keeping a set of her novels in all his residences. What is less well known is that during Queen Victoria’s reign, the Prince’s beautifully bound presentation copy of Emma was relegated to the servants’ library. And apparently it wasn’t too popular there, which is why it remains in excellent condition today.
Despite attracting patronage from aristocracy and royalty, Jane Austen was never among the bestsellers of her day. She chose not to write in popular genres such as Gothic and historical fiction, and while authors such as Ann Radcliffe could sell their work for thousands of pounds, her earnings were in the hundreds. In the 1820s, with her works out of print, it seemed she was destined to fade into literary history. So how did the world learn to appreciate her?
Claire Harman opens this entertaining meta-biography with a preface establishing Austen’s current place in popular culture. She then tracks Austen’s reputation chronologically through her lifetime and on to the present day. What I found most fascinating: the influence of Austen on the long-forgotten “silver fork” novels of the 1820s; the important role nostalgia for a pre-industrial past played in reviving interest in her work; how the unflattering sketch of her by her sister Cassandra had to be “Photoshopped” to make it appeal to Victorian readers; the popularity of her books in First World War trenches and why men think the heroes and the romance in her books are unrealistic. There’s thorough coverage of the 1990s spate of dramatisations and the seemingly endless stream of prequels, sequels and spin-offs. Harman quotes Sourcebooks editor Deb Werksman as saying that Austen’s relatively small body of work left her public forever wanting more: “‘Anything that will evoke the work of Jane Austen becomes very appealing.’”
I did have some reservations about Jane’s Fame: its recitation of the myriad Austen references in popular culture sometimes reads more like a list than an analysis. As Harman suggests, the more pervasive such references become, the less meaning they retain. Also, not all of the images Harman discusses are illustrated (or easily findable online) – although these gaps may be down to the rights-holders rather than the author. That said, this is an essential read for any ‘Janeite’ - or anyone seeking to understand Austen's global popularity. (less)
It was the title of this 1858 novel which attracted me. In the mid-nineteenth century Mayfair was an aristocratic residential district of London. The...moreIt was the title of this 1858 novel which attracted me. In the mid-nineteenth century Mayfair was an aristocratic residential district of London. The most expensive section on the British Monopoly board, today it contains some of the world’s most expensive real estate. The Morals of May Fair promises to lift the lid on the sins of Victorian high society.
And fortunately the book lives up to its promise. Although it begins in Brittany, where disillusioned young writer Philip Earnscliffe unexpectedly finds love with the beautiful Marguerite St John, most of the novel is set in London, where husband-hunting young women try to blag seats in boxes at the theatre, French counts declare love on moonlit balconies, and actresses entertain their lovers in mirror-lined boudoirs. The writing is excellent, atmospheric with Gothic touches for the scenes in Brittany, and later cynically observant of London society.
…Miss Georgy came down unexpectedly one fine day, to see “dear Marguerite;” – prepared, as she said, to forgive and forget everything, and have a long, friendly morning together.
The standing commencement of these “mornings” of female affection being for one friend to say something mortifying to the other, Miss de Burgh had opened proceedings by commenting very plainly upon her young relative’s ill looks.
Georgy de Burgh is a ferociously determined social climber – just the sort of girl for whom this kind of book was written, incidentally – and a fabulous character. If only I could say the same for Philip and Marguerite. Philip is lacking in moral courage and wedded to the double standard (at one point he complains that neither his wife nor his mistress are showing him any loyalty). Marguerite falls victim to the Victorian fetishisation of female ignorance and inexperience – euphemistically referred to as “innocence” – and the author never really allows her to come alive. In the first chapter we’re told that:
She was a young girl of scarcely sixteen, and a countenance of more perfect, and almost infantine sweetness, it would be difficult to conceive…As it had never entered into her head, or that of her father, that she was approaching the age of womanhood, she was still dressed like a mere child, in a little muslin frock, without any ornament of lace or ruffle, and so short in the skirts as to allow a full view of her tiny feet in their well-worn house slippers.
Sixteen and it’s never entered her head that she is approaching the age of womanhood? She must still be awaiting the onset of menstruation – which makes it seem all the more icky when Philip (who is in his twenties) turns up at the gate of her father’s chateau, dripping wet, in the middle of a stormy night, falls instantly in love and starts romancing her. The reader knows Philip is married. Marguerite doesn’t. This would be bad enough behaviour today, but was far worse in the Victorian era when a woman’s good reputation was of paramount importance and even the fact of her having been in love before might be enough for a potential suitor to reject her. At this point I was getting sympathetic to Marguerite, but then she ruined it all. Idiotically, she gets caught by the tide (during another storm) when she takes Philip to see a local grotto. She’s lived in the area her entire life and knows the spot well, yet this is her response when Philip, who thinks it’s a good idea to wait out the storm in the grotto, mentions that the tide is rising:
“The tide!” repeated Marguerite. “Is the tide rising?”
“I should think it was halfway in; see, it has surrounded yonder black rock, which seemed a mile from the sea when we first looked out. But we have plenty of time.”
“We have not!” cried Marguerite, seizing his hand, while her own grew cold and damp with sudden terror. “The gabarier told me not to remain in the grotto one moment after the tide had turned, and it is already halfway in.”
“Child, you should have told me sooner,” was Philip’s calm reply.
As contrived as the situation is, it has to be said that this is one of the most exciting scenes of the novel. As Philip and Marguerite, facing death in each other’s arms, feel freed to confess the truth to each other, it’s also a neat way of moving the plot forward without making Marguerite into the sort of girl who would chase a married man.
The Morals of May Fair is very much of its time. Like many midcentury novels, it feels padded, due to the pressure on authors to produce a work which would fill three volumes. The circulating libraries were the main buyers of books in this period and they rented out one volume at a time, thus a work in three volumes maximised their profit and became the industry standard. (I read an undated one-volume edition which, interestingly, has a summary of the action on every other page, for example: “Proof of Rose’s Treachery”, “The Last Meeting”, “The Old Passion Recalled.”) In this case the padding takes the form of an subplot around the mysterious history of one of Philip’s actress friends. As it bears no relation to the main plot, in essence it continues the eighteenth-century tradition of breaking up the main narrative to tell the life stories of various characters despite this doing nothing whatsoever to forward the action. There’s also some heavy foreshadowing and some anti-spoilers – i.e. pieces of information that the reader should have had earlier, but didn’t. (Like the existence of Marguerite’s Secret Diary).
The libraries took a dim view of any subject matter considered unsuitable for female perusal, and were especially concerned to protect the cluelessness innocence of young girls. This presents Edwards with somewhat of a problem in the latter half of the book: how to get a heroine in love with a married man past the censor. Her solution is to continue insisting on Marguerite’s “holy innocence” and childlike nature. As Marguerite is now a society beauty with half the men in London at her feet, this seems more than a bit ridiculous and has the effect of negating the character development she does experience. However, Edwards makes it clear that a bit more worldly wisdom would have been helpful to Marguerite, so perhaps she was trying some stealthy subversion here.
The Morals of May Fair was written at a crossroads of literary traditions. The influence of the silver fork novels which became fashionable in the 1820s is clear from the title and the London setting. From the eighteenth century it inherits the story-within-a-story tradition, the storms, chateaux and ruined chapels of Gothic fiction, plus some tropes which Jane Austen had mocked in Northanger Abbey (Marguerite is a heroine who never reads novels and who sings as well as a professional despite being completely untaught). But although the book deals with an ingenue coming out into society, Marguerite has a lot more to deal with than the linear progression towards a love match of an Austen or Burney heroine. The theme of adulterous love looks forward to the sensation novels which were to be so hugely popular in the 1860s. While not as complex as Lady Audley’s Secret or The Woman in White, The Morals of May Fair is an excellent story well worth seeking out by anyone who enjoys Victorian popular fiction. (less)
This 1942 novel was a Florence King recommendation, and she has yet to let me down. The Valley of Decision, the story of a Pittsburgh steel mill-ownin...moreThis 1942 novel was a Florence King recommendation, and she has yet to let me down. The Valley of Decision, the story of a Pittsburgh steel mill-owning family from the 1870s to the 1940s, is an epic, sweeping saga - a bestseller in its day, filmed in 1945.
The book opens on the day the well-to-do Clarissa Scott employs Irish teenager Mary Rafferty as a maid. Mary lives to see Clarissa’s great-great-grandchildren, and over the intervening years it is Mary who, elevated to housekeeper/companion, becomes the family’s rock, settling disputes, keeping up traditions, providing nurture and support. Despite her long-term romance with Paul, the son and heir, this is less a Cinderella fantasy than a novel about the importance of duty and sacrifice – not a very popular concept today. (The irresponsible 1920s, the period with which the book is least in sympathy, are covered in a token chapter). Mary’s service at home is paralleled by the military service of the men in the book and by the mill’s contribution to various war efforts. Some of the book’s patriotism appears simplistic (I couldn’t agree, for example, with the idea that all wars are part of the same war – wars are fought for different reasons in different circumstances) and one of Paul and Mary’s conversations struck a note somewhere between jingoism and mawkishness:
“You see?” Paul said. He put his hand on her shoulder and his blue eyes stared deep into hers. “Anybody else might think me a sentimental fool, ” he said softly. “But you know me. You really know me. I tell you,” he said, “any time this country gets in a scrap, it’s my scrap and this mill’s scrap. Highspeed saws and fancy springs are all right in their place – but this mill makes death for anyone that bothers the U.S.A.”
“Oh, Paul. I-I love to hear you talk that way.” Her eyes were wet and shining.
But the final section, which shifts the focus to journalist Claire’s experiences in 1930s central Europe, contains a powerful anti-isolationist argument in the form of a graphic account of the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia which followed the Munich Agreement.
Even without two world wars, the book would be meaty: there are elopements, liaisons, feuds, betrayals, nervous breakdowns, strikes and boardroom battles galore. While there’s plenty about the history of Pittsburgh and of the steel industry, the story ranges much further afield. Clarissa’s daughter Constance lives in great luxury in Europe, bankrolled (it’s implied but never stated) by the Prince of Wales, and the descriptions of her lifestyle almost drip off the page:
Constance, in a black velvet dinner gown and great pearls, sat at the head of the table critically attentive and judicious as perfect soles followed perfect turtle soup, a garnished filet of buttery red beef followed the soles, artichokes from the South of France followed that, a huge pâté en croute appeared with the salad, and a frozen bombe masked in golden spun sugar brought – Mary hoped – the formidable meal to a close. But no, there was the savoury to cope with, peppery devilled mushrooms on thrones of toast. There was sherry with the soup, Meursault with the fish, Richebourg with the beef, and Mary actually shuddered when Constance, helping herself to the sweet, said, “Champagne, Radford. The Cordon Rouge.”
This is a long, ambitious work. Like the 1947 film The Courtneys of Curzon Street (which may have been inspired by this), it is set against the background of enormous social and technological change and offers the opportunity to reinterpret the Victorian past in the light of Freudian analysis. The Valley of Decision has the faults of its genre. It sags somewhat in the middle, some plot twists appear contrived and melodramatic, and more than once moments of crisis are skipped over in favour of the everyday. But Marcia Davenport has enough talent to make the everyday fascinating, to evoke a vanished world and, most of the time, to keep the pages turning very fast indeed. (less)
This 1944 American Gothic novel is in the same category as Annemarie Selinko's Desiree for me: I'm glad I got round to reading it but I wish I'd got t...moreThis 1944 American Gothic novel is in the same category as Annemarie Selinko's Desiree for me: I'm glad I got round to reading it but I wish I'd got to it sooner, because I would have enjoyed it a lot more in my teens.
Dragonwyck follows in the tradition of Jane Eyre and Rebecca as far as plot and tone are concerned. Farm girl Miranda is catapulted into high society when her wealthy cousin Nicholas van Ryn employs her as a governess. Like Seton's later, historical heroine, Katherine Swynford, Miranda finds herself attracted to a man who married for convenience and whose wife is portrayed as deeply unattractive. Nicholas is desperate for a son and heir and when it seems he will never get one from his wife, his eye falls on Miranda. Has she scooped the jackpot or drawn the short straw?
Anya Seton has constructed a powerful story with a fascinating background - the final overthrow of the patriarchal and paternalistic manorial system imported by Dutch settlers - but she occasionally allows detail to overwhelm the action and introduces too many minor characters who have little to do other than observe the drama unfold. The narrative is powered by the strong chemistry between her two central characters. Nicholas is pretty clearly a sociopath in a socialite's clothing (I lost sympathy with this type of Byronic abuser some years ago, so the book was less appealing to me on that score). I did like Miranda though. She is young, naive, in love with everything money can buy and a bit in love with herself. But I couldn't blame her for preferring life at Dragonwyck to a life of toil and childrearing at the farm. She pays the price for her luxury lifestyle and grows up a lot in the course of the book.
A Gothic novel is like a Victoria sponge - stick to the time-tested recipe and you can't go wrong. Dragonwyck has all the right ingredients - a haunted mansion, a young girl in peril, a hero, an anti-hero and plenty of atmosphere. The Hudson River setting gives it a more unusual flavouring and introduces the theme of the emergence of American society from its European antecedents, politically, socially and artistically. Nicholas's Gothic Revival house is a powerful symbol of the bad old ways which have to be rejected in order to create the brighter future the characters look forward to at the end of the book.(less)
I loved Catherine Delors's debut novel, Mistress of the Revolution, so my expectations for For the King were high, and I’m delighted to say that the b...moreI loved Catherine Delors's debut novel, Mistress of the Revolution, so my expectations for For the King were high, and I’m delighted to say that the book did not disappoint. An historical thriller, it deals with the failed assassination attempt on Napoleon in Paris on Christmas Eve 1800 – or, in French Revolutionary parlance, the 3rd of the month of Nivose (translation: Frosty) of Year Nine of the Republic.
For the King follows the investigation after the attack, which, although it failed to harm Napoleon, killed and maimed many other people. The central character is Roch Miquel, the son of a tavern owner who has risen to be Chief of Police. Roch is convinced from the start that the Royalist faction is behind the plot, but unfortunately his patron and superior, the untrustworthy Fouché, is anxious to assign the blame to the ex-Jacobins who also want to see Bonaparte fall – among them Roch’s father.
And the lady on the cover? Roch is involved with Blanche Coudert, the beautiful young wife of a newly-rich banker. But his relationship to her comes under strain in the course of the investigation. You may notice that the cover image is from later in the 19th century, so the dress has been digitally altered to conform to the high waistline fashionable in 1800!
Although the cover highlights the romantic subplot, the main drive of the book is the chase after the assassins. This is a fast-paced read which never sacrifices atmosphere and is rich with details gleaned from archival research.
A very accomplished second novel and a wonderful read.
I received an ARC of For the King from the author. Read my full review and Q&A with Catherine Delors here:
As she began work on this 1943 saga, du Maurier told her publisher, Victor Gollancz, that it would be 'endless, full of birth and death, and love and...moreAs she began work on this 1943 saga, du Maurier told her publisher, Victor Gollancz, that it would be 'endless, full of birth and death, and love and disaster.' Especially disaster. The story begins in 1820 as Copper John, patriarch of the Anglo-Irish Brodrick family, prepares to mine Hungry Hill for copper. Unfortunately, he neglects to ask permission of the hill first, and for the next hundred years, malevolent as Caradhras, it visits its vengeance on one generation of the family after another.
The book, while long by wartime standards - the first British edition has tiny print and incredibly narrow margins - isn't long enough for a chronicle of five generations. Successive family members are born and rapidly grow up only to be whisked from the scene by the latest catastrophe, which has often been telegraphed pages in advance. The men, apart from Copper John, are flawed and weak; the women are stronger, but overwhelmed by circumstances. By the beginning of part four I was wishing the Balrog would just come out of the mountain and put them all out of their misery.
(view spoiler)[Disaster strikes early as Copper John's heir, Henry, dies abroad of tuberculosis. That leaves his brother John as master of the mine - until he dies of diptheria. Fortunately he doesn't give it to the children, but that doesn't help the eldest, Johnnie, who dies of drink in his mid-twenties. The next heir, Hal, is repudiated by his father and subsequently falls down the mineshaft. The women don't fare much better. Copper John's daughter Jane is killed at eighteen in a mudslide orchestrated by her own father (don't ask). Her sister-in-law Fanny-Rosa, whom we first meet as a wild beauty who strips down to go skinny dipping whenever she feels like it, turns to compulsive gambling and finishes her days in an asylum. Her daughter-in-law Katherine dies in childbirth. (hide spoiler)]
However, this was exactly where the book started to pick up for me. Du Maurier's most powerful novels focus on a single drama played out among a small number of characters, and are written in the first person. Hungry Hill has a vast cast, a wide scope and third-person narration. Towards the end of the book, when the narrative concentrates on telling the story of the last days of the mine and of the impact of its closure on the community, it becomes much more compelling. This is a novel about decline and decay, a theme all too relevant to a twentieth-century readership who had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression and were about to witness the final days of the British Empire. It's not exactly the escapist commercial read critics condemned it as, but neither is it as good as it could have been. Like the mine itself, it's an ambitious undertaking which suffers from fluctuating fortunes and in the end, fails to pay off as richly as hoped.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)