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The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Janet Coombe longs for adventure and the freedom of the sea. She feels herself pulled fast under its spell, but in her heart she know she must sacrifice her dreams; she is a woman, and her place is in the home. So she marries Thomas, a boat-builder, and her restless spirit is passed down through her son, and on to his descendants”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Daphne du Maurier, and am slowly working my way through all of her novels. I am yet to find one I haven’t enjoyed, and ‘The Loving Spirit’, du Maurier’s debut novel, was no exception – just like all of the previous books of hers that I have read,  I simply could not put this one down. The book is split into four parts, the first telling the story of Janet Coombe; the second the story of her son, Joseph; the third the story of his son, Christopher; and the fourth the story of his daughter, Jennifer. The restless spirit of Janet, who longs to be away at sea but is chained to the home of her husband, is one I think many readers can sympathise with. Although Thomas is sweet and devoted, he is no match for the intelligence and the sense of adventure that exists in his wife, and is confused by her longing to escape; as readers, however, we often seek our own escape in books, and therefore Janet’s restlessness is easier to understand. The centre of Janet’s world is realigned, however, with the birth of her son, Joseph. She sees her own spirit in Joseph and the two form a close bond (which, admittedly, often seemed to me to be verging on incest, though I doubt this was  du Maurier’s intention) that is brutally severed with Janet’s death. Unable to bear the close knit town of Plyn after the loss of his mother, Joseph continues to live the life of a sailor that he embarked upon to his mother’s joy during her lifetime. When he returns to Plyn and determines to marry, however, his plans are almost thwarted by his younger brother, Phillip, who has grown into a cold, unforgiving young man filled with ambition and hate. By the end of Joseph’s tale, things are very unfortunate for him, and the third part of the book sees his wayward son Christopher, who abandoned the life of seafaring his father had planned for him to live a more comfortable life in London, return to Plyn with his wife and children. Narrowly missing the death of his father, Christopher joins with his cousins and tries to make a success of the shipbuilding business that his grandfather had owned, but is ruthlessly put down by Phillip at every turn. He has a strong bond with his youngest child, a girl named Jennifer, who is the protagonist of the final part of the book. Jennifer is strong-willed and, despite moving back to London with her mother after Christopher’s death, her heart longs to be back in Plyn. She returns there and ends up living with her miserly uncle Phillip, seeking revenge on him in every way she can before falling into danger herself.

Each of the parts of the book intertwine with one another, leading the reader through four generations of the Coombe family in a way that is both seamless and brilliant. Each story contains romance, trials and a love of the sea, and although I most enjoyed the sections of Joseph and Jennifer, the book as a whole was fantastic. There were twists in every part, yet the ending still left the reader pleased and with a sense of completion and satisfaction. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter, yet these two extraordinary women never knew one another. Nevertheless, their passionate and pioneering lives remained closely intertwined, their choices, aspirations and tragedies eerily similar. Both women became famous writers and wrote books that changed literary history, had passionate relationships with several men, were single mothers out of wedlock; both lived in exile, fought for their poisition in society, and interrogated ideas of how we should live.”

REVIEW: I have counted both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley among my historical idols  since I was introduced to them both by my fantastic English teacher during my AS level year: Wollstonecraft for her feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which addresses many areas that feminists such as myself still identify as areas that require change to this day; and Shelley for her novel Frankenstein, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as her tumultuous personal life. Until now, I have never before had the opportunity to read a biography covering this exceptional mother and daughter in one go. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Gordon chose to structure this biography; it can be difficult, initially, to understand how Wollstonecraft and Shelley can have led such similar lives, and how Wollstonecraft had such an influence on her daughter, when the two only shared the same earth for a matter of days. In structuring it so that the chapters alternate between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Gordon makes it easier for the reader to map out the parallels in the lives of these two women, looking at what they were each experiencing during the different stages of their lives. Gordon’s writing style itself is fantastic – the book flows almost like a novel, and is engaging from start to finish, with keen speculation and vivid description adding to the enjoyment of the reader, who may feel daunted by such a large non-fiction text without such additional flourishes. Gordon made me feel much closer to these two women, whom I have long considered as role models, and I feel I gained so much more understanding and sympathy from knowing more about their lives. It has also given me a new way to look at things when reading their written works, as I can now apply my knowledge of their backgrounds and the events occuring in their lives when writing to enhance my understanding of their novels, letters, diaries and tracts. I found it difficult to put this book down, something of a rarity with me and non-fiction, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literature, the women themselves or even those interested in the period from a historical perspective, as the lives of these women tell us much about the political climate and social expectations of the period.

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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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Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Lady Dona St Columb seems to revel in scandal: she is involved in every intrigue of the Restoration court. But secretly, the shallowness of court life disgusts her, and in her heart she longs for freedom and honest love. Retreating to Navron, her husband’s Cornish estate, she seeks peace and solitude away from London. But Navron is being used as the base for a French pirate, an outlaw hunted by all Cornwall. Instead of feeling fear, Dona’s thirst for adventure has never been more aroused; in Jean-Benoit Aubery she finds a sensitive man who would, like her, gamble his life for a moment’s joy. Together they embark upon a quest rife with danger and glory, one which will force Dona to make the ultimate choice; will she sacrifice her lover to certain death, or risk her own life to save him?”

REVIEW: Daphne du Maurier’s books always promise a gripping and adventurous read, and this novel was no different. ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ tells the story of the bored and beautiful courtier Dona, who escapes to the Navron estate in Cornwall with her children after a scandal at court forces her to realise how much she hates the pretense of courtly life. Living in relative freedom and developing a friendship with the mysterious servant William, Dona is interested to learn of the pirate activity taking place in the surrounding waters, which the local elite are determined to put an end to. Sneaking out of the house one day, she meets the man she discovers to be William’s master – the pirate Jean-Benoit Aubrey – whose ship, La Mouette, is residing in the creek close by Navron. The two soon become fascinated with one another, both similar personalities but from completely different worlds, and begin a passionate affair full of riotous quests. Things are complicated, however, by the arrival of Dona’s husband Harry and his close friend, Rockingham, who has long held an interest in Dona, at Navron. As the hunt for the pirates begins to gain momentum among the Cornish elite, finding its base in Dona’s own household, Dona has to make the choice of which side she is truly on, and work out where her loyalties – and her dreams – lie. The romance that develops between Dona and her Frenchman, and the adventures they share, makes for gripping reading, and we feel freed with Dona as she escapes the confines of the noble court life. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and wish the ending hadn’t been quite so mysterious, as I am desperate to know precisely what happened – but I shall say no more, for fear of ruining it!

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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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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.!