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Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: ‘This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived ‘a life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy’.

REVIEW: After a month-long summer break indulging myself by re-reading Harry Potter, I’m back, and with a book that is currently one of my favourites I’ve read this year. Lucy Worsley’s new biography of Jane Austen is one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time, showing us a completely new side to a woman who is generally believed to have written incredible novels, but otherwise been rather dull. Worsley focuses on the places that Jane called home throughout her lifetime, and how these places inspired her novels, hindered or encouraged her writing, and to what extent they can be perceived as a true home. Despite being a big Austen fan, I had not previously realised just how many times Jane and her family moved around, often dependent on the charity of relatives – particularly her many brothers. After the death of her father, Jane, her beloved sister Cassandra and her mother moved from place to place, two spinsters and a widow with little money to call their own, until they finally settled at Chawton, one of the places most associated with Jane Austen. Between her childhood home at Steventon and her final home at Chawton, Jane moved between a great number of cities including Southampton and, most popularly, Bath. However, as Worsley explains, things could have been very different for Jane had she chosen to marry. Modern readers of Austen’s novels tend to picture her as somewhat frustrated, able to write such beautifully romantic plots into her novels because she longed for such a life herself. Although suitors of Jane’s such as Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither are relatively well known, Worsley reveals the real story behind these two relationships, as well as revealing a further three prospective suitors for Jane’s hand in marriage. Had Jane accepted one of these offers, her life would surely have been more comfortable, and she may well have been able to provide for her sister and mother also. Yet, Jane did not settle for any of these suitors – it seems that, perhaps, she was as much in pursuit of real love as the characters in her novels were. This biography therefore shows us the real story behind many of the modern perceptions of Jane Austen, and was written in such a beautiful narrative style that it felt like a novel, making it incredibly easy to read for a work of non-fiction. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and, despite of course knowing how Jane’s tale would end, was so well-written that I found myself very emotional at the end of the book when Jane’s story came to a close. By introducing us to this hidden side of Jane, witty, fun, sarcastic and full of imagination, Worsley allows us to feel close to Jane; she makes her so accessible that the reader actually feels grief when reading of Jane’s death, despite it having taken place exactly two hundred years ago. This is an incredible biography and I would highly recommend it.

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Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Sisters Marianne and Elinor couldn’t be more different. Marianne is desperately romantic and longing to meet the man of her dreams, while Elinor takes a far more cautious approach to love. When the two of them move to the country with their family, miles away from London, there is little prospect of them finding anyone at all. But then they meet their new neighbours, including kind Edward Ferrers and the good-looking, dangerous Willoughby – and it seems happiness may be just round the corner after all. Things aren’t always as they appear to be though. Soon, both sisters will need to decide who to trust in their search for love: their family, their new friends, their heads – or their hearts?”

REVIEW: Despite this being one of my favourite of Austen’s novels, I have only read it once and I was quite young at the time, so despite having watched the film pretty much constantly since then I decided I needed a refresher on the original story. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ tells the story of Elinor and Marianne, two very different sisters who are forced into near poverty when their father dies and their home passes to their older brother and his domineering wife, who is determined to force the girls, their mother and their younger sister Margaret from their home. Upon moving to the countryside, however, Elinor and Marianne find themselves with a new circle of friends, many of them comical (I personally find Mr and Mrs Palmer very amusing), and with new love interests. Elinor is introduced to Edward Ferrers, the brother of her sister-in-law, and the two of them develop a warm relationship based on shared interests and understanding. Headstrong Marianne, however, enters into a much more dangerous relationship with Willoughby (who reminds me very much of the notorious Wickham from ‘Pride and Prejudice’), falling completely in love with him and embarking on a passionate courtship that eventually ends in heartbreak. The contrast between Elinor and Marianne really adds to the story, and it is heartwarming to see how their understanding of each other grows throughout the novel, changing their relationship with each other. Of course, being an Austen novel, despite the ups and downs of their romances the two girls both eventually find love; Elinor with Edward, and Marianne with the kindhearted Colonel Brandon, her champion from the beginning of the novel. This is a lighthearted, romantic and often amusing tale, with just enough scandal and drama involved to make it gripping – a true Austen masterpiece.

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Whatever Love Is by Rosie Rushton

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “When Frankie Price goes to live with her wealthy cousins, she finds herself part of a social scene that she’d only read about in magazines. Shy and overwhelmed, she retreats into her own passion; writing. But when the entire family is rocked by scandal, and her mate Ned comes under the spell of the beautiful but manipulative Alice, Frankie realises that she has to fight for the life she wants.”

REVIEW: Rosie Rushton has written a series of young adult novels based on each of Austen’s six full novels. I had read all of them when I was younger, and they encouraged me to move on to read Austen’s works themselves; all of which I now adore. I had not, however, read Whatever Love Is, Rushton’s adaptation of Mansfield Park, and picked it up when I happened to see it in a bookshop recently. I love the way Rushton makes the stories of Austen so accessible to teenage readers, and translates the characters almost seamlessly into modern times. I feel that the more rebellious characters of Mansfield Park – i.e. Henry, Mary and Tom – were always rather forward for Austen’s time, but Rushton manages to make even the sedate Fanny Price into a relatable and enjoyable modern character. Fanny is transformed into Frankie, a shy, awkward teenage girl who comes to live with the Bertrams after her mother’s mental breakdown and her father’s decision to travel. Her feelings for Ned (Edmund)  are made clear from the beginning of the novel, and she pours both these feelings and the discomfort she feels around the rest of the family into her writing. When Ned falls for the scheming Alice (Mary), and her brother decides to pursue Frankie, things become complicated. Frankie can see right through the Crawford siblings, but the other characters in the novel remain frustratingly unaware of their true characters, and the reader grows more attached to Frankie as she struggles to expose them whilst not causing any scandal or upset. This is a very enjoyable adaptation of Mansfield Park, and the ending left me with a smile on my face just as Austen’s novel did. I really enjoyed the way in which Rushton adapted the story to fit more with concepts of modern relationships and current ideas surrounding both romance and family, and would encourage any fans of Austen (even if, like myself, you are no longer a teenager!), to read this adaptation.

 

 

 

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Persuasion by Jane Austen

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Eight years ago, Anne rejected the man she loved because her friends and family persuaded her that he wasn’t rich or important enough. In all that time, she’s never found anyone to match Captain Wentworth – and now he’s back: successful, sophisticated and still single. Unfortunately for Anne, it’s his turn to reject her. With her snobbish father and spoiled sister always ready to embarrass her in polite society, and her refusal of Wentworth still fresh in everyone’s mind, Anne wonders if she’ll ever find the courage to follow her heart again. And if she does, what can she do to regain the affections of her Captain?”

REVIEW: I’m currently taking a module on Jane Austen and Georgian society at university, so I thought it would be a good time to go back to some of the novels that I couldn’t remember as well. Persuasion was one of the first Austen novels I read and, as a thirteen-year-old girl, I found myself feeling a great affinity with Anne – doesn’t ever girl have some point in her teenage years where she is spurned by a boy and consequently feels invisible? I know I did, and because of this relationship that my younger self developed with Anne, she has always been one of my favourite Austen characters. In returning to the novel whilst being in a much more stable position in my personal life, I found myself feeling much more sympathy for Anne than I had done when I was younger, when I simply saw Anne as an echo of myself. Anne Elliot seems to be the only rational, humane person in a family ruled by pride, stubbornness and snobbery. Her father refuses to face up to their money problems while her sister, Mary, constantly expects Anne to be at her beck and call and frequently embarrasses her with her overbearing nature; a nature that does not sit well in polite society. Anne is constantly forced to make sacrifices for her family; missing out on society gatherings to look after Mary’s sick child, for example, or playing the pianoforte while everyone around her dances and is merry (though this does appear to be something she herself prefers, as she clearly does not relish being the centre of attention). The biggest sacrifice Anne makes, however, is that of her own happiness, and this occurs before the timeline in which the book is set. Pressured by her interfering family and friends, Anne feels compelled to reject a proposal from the man she loves, Captain Wentworth. Consequently, when the book opens, she is twenty-seven and still on the shelf, with little hopes of getting married – until Captain Wentworth returns to Uppercross. He seems to pay little attention to Anne and appears to be instead focusing his attention on Louisa Musgrove, whilst Anne is unwilling drawn into an affection with Mr Elliot, her cousin, who turns out to be not quite as amiable as he seems. Being an Austen novel, both Wentworth and Anne eventually realise that misunderstanding and miscommunication have led to them delaying their reunion and, as they are both still in love, they are finally able to be joined in marriage after eight years of misery and longing on both their parts. I enjoyed this novel just as much the second time around as I did the first time I read it, and also found new messages within that I hadn’t understood or noticed when I read the novel before  – for this reason, I would highly recommend it.

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Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Sometimes it takes time to discover who you really are. And for Emma Woodhouse the journey is only just beginning. As she returns home to Norfolk from University, Emma starts to take charge. But as she begins to match-make various friends and neighbours, some important lessons about life and relationships await her…”

REVIEW: As followers of this blog may have noticed, I have read the previous two novels that have been published under the so-called Austen Project, which has had six different, well-known authors writing modern retellings of the six major Austen novels – as I had so greatly enjoyed Trollope’s rewrite of Sense and Sensibility and Val McDermid’s rewrite of Northanger Abbey, I was really looking forward to reading McCall Smith’s version of Emma. It was a good novel, with Emma re-interpreted brilliantly and the other characters instantly recognisable from the Austen original we know and love; Mr Woodhouse’s frantic obsession with cleanliness and disease was particularly amusing, as well as seeming accurate. The story progressed at a good pace and, while the reader often finds him or herself in conflict with Emma (as also happens many times in the original novel), by the end of the story we are glad that she has found her happy ending with George Knightley – though of course, a relationship with such an age gap is harder for the modern mind to comprehend, but McCall Smith made it fitting with the modern reader, who wanted it just as much as I suspect Austen’s Georgian audience would have. My only problem with the book was that, while I felt the previous two rewrites had been bought very successfully into modernity, I did sometimes still feel as though I were reading a Georgian novel whilst reading McCall Smith’s version. Some of the language and even some of the scandals seemed somewhat outdated and I feel some might have been bought further into the future. Overall, however, this was a very entertaining retelling of what is originally a very entertaining novel, and I would recommend it to fans of Austen.

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Longbourn by Jo Baker

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.”

REVIEW: As a huge Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice fan I was really looking forward to reading this book, which offers a view of the lives of the Bennet girls from a downstairs perspective. Sarah, the protagonist, is both likeable and easy to sympathise with as she yearns for a life beyond the gruelling routine of domestic service, and has some aspects of the famous Elizabeth Bennet about her in her intelligence and feisty spirit. Through Sarah we are introduced to her companions, who also work for the Bennet family – the quiet but gentle Mr Hill, the hardworking and loving Mrs Hill (his wife), Polly, the young maid-in-training, and a new arrival, James Smith, who comes to Longbourn in mysterious circumstances and remains silent on the matter of his past. Sarah is determined to find out who James is and where he has come from, but soon has her head turned by the Bingleys’ new servant, Ptolemy, who promises her a life of luxury and freedom with him in London. All of these events take place alongside the events we are so familiar with from Pride and Prejudice, which are reported from the perspective of the servants, and add an extra depth to Sarah’s story. Sarah’s close relationship with the elder Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, also ingratiates her with the reader as we know well of the goodness and kindness of these two characters. As Sarah and James begin to realise that they have feelings for each other, disaster strikes and James is forced to go on the run. It is at this point in the novel that we learn more of James’ background and, most importantly, his parentage, which is an excellent twist in the story. I really thoroughly enjoyed this book, which renewed my enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice as it felt as though I was experiencing it all over again, but in a new way. I did find myself disappointed slightly by the characterisation of Mr Bennet, whom I was always very fond of but who seemed far more ignorant of the feelings of others in Baker’s novel, and more driven by pride than Austen had led us to believe. This is the only minor flaw I found while reading the book, which I would highly recommend.!

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Catherine Morland, an unremarkable tomboy as a child, is thrown amongst all the ‘difficulties and dangers of Bath’ at the ripe age of seventeen. Armed with an unworldly charm and a vivid imagination, she must overcome the caprices of elegant society, encountering along the way such characters as the vacuous Mrs Allen, coquettish Isabella and the brash bully John Thorpe. Catherine’s invitation to Northanger Abbey, in her eyes a haven of coffins, skeletons and other Gothic devices, does lead to an adventure, though one she didn’t expect, and her misjudgement of the ambitious, somewhat villainous General Tilney is not wholly unjustified. However, with the aid of ‘unromantic’ hero Henry Tilney, Catherine gradually progresses towards maturity and self-knowledge”

REVIEW: I think part of the reason why I enjoyed this book so much was due to the great affinity I felt with the character of Catherine Morland. Much like Bronte’s Jane Eyre, she is never described as beautiful and rarely described as pretty, but she is full of a wit that makes her hugely entertaining. I related to her vivid imagination and the way it often leads her into trouble – as, I suspect, many readers will. As well as being widely considered a Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey is also a traditional Austen romance, with the typical unwanted suitor in the shape of bullish John Thorpe, the villain in the shape of General Tilney, and of course the hero – witty, well-read, handsome Henry Tilney. The character of Isabella also fulfills the role of the spiteful false friend, who is held up as a foil for Catherine, whose good nature and intelligence makes her instantly likeable. The book takes lots of interesting turns and is, as always with Austen, just as easy to read as a modern-day romance. The end is hugely fulfilling and made me smile for several minutes even once I had closed the book. I would recommend this as highly as any other of Austen’s works.