Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal

Napoleon has abdicated and the Continent is at last safe for Jane and Vincent to chance a honeymoon in Belgium. The two are glamourists, magical illusionists who can create living scenes at will and cause people to disappear in a bubble of invisibility. The French-Belgian world is more open and more intrigue-filled than anything Jane is accustomed to but she quickly resuscitates her shabby French and tries to understand why her husband seems to be hiding something from her. Glamour in Glass is a fantasy set in the language and era of Jane Austen by Mary Robinette Kowal, who goes to some lengths to excise most words that wouldn’t have existed in Austen’s day.

Newlywed Jane is not as accomplished as David but she is the one who comes up with the idea to trap a glamour in glass, inventing a bauble which does magic, although the beta model only works in direct sunlight. It also takes so much energy from her that she falls ill and is nauseous and exhausted for days. Meanwhile Vincent rides out to meet with clients daily without Jane and she is frantic to know what is going on.  As the reason for her illness becomes clear, she makes a shocking discovery about the man she married and the dangerous secret he has kept from her.

And then Napoleon escapes captivity and marches back to Paris and Brits Jane and Vincent are trapped in political intrigue and betrayal, a torturous captivity and a life-threatening bid for escape.  The whole glamour thing is so unusual that it takes some energy on the part of the reader to maintain the illusion. But Glamour in Glass is worth the work. It’s a terrific story with a few surprising twists and turns, characters who behave uncharacteristically to add surprises to the plot and reasonably accurate enough history to be convincing. Good book. Odd but good  idea. Kowal published a well-received prequel to this adventure and it’s probably worth hunting for so I’ll put it on my non-urgent library list for the day when I have the time to read purely for pleasure and escape again.

Glamour in Glass   Mary Robinette Kowal | Tor Books   2012

The Art of Fiction – David Lodge

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David Lodge collected a series of newspaper columns and embellished them–restoring the edited-for-length bits–to make this exploration of how fiction is constructed. As a writer, I find The Art of Fiction fascinating, if somewhat frustrating. There’s a little bit of everything in it: beginnings, point of view, time shift, showing and telling, stream of consciousness, epistolary novels, magic realism, weather, comic novels, different voices, suspense, surrealism, narrative structure, unreliable narrators, symbolism–a long list. There’s even a chapter about lists.

Each subject is illustrated with an excerpt from a novel that Lodge diligently deconstructs to show how the thing works. Pretty useful but occasionally too ambiguous to leave you with a clear sense of how you might achieve the same effect, or what the general elements of a particular style might be. Lodge rips through some of my favorite writers–John Fowles, Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, et cetera, et cetera, and points out what I never noticed. There are a lot of classic and sort of contemporary (not current) excerpts and their authors.

Fun things poke their heads up in the middle of serious topics. For “Repetition,” we get an excerpt form Hemingway’s “In Another Country” that sounds as if Gertrude Stein wrote it. “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in  the fall in Milan and the dark came very early…It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”  Oh, Ernest, how was I ever so smitten with you?

Lodge reminds us that chapters are not a sacred law of novels and early fiction was one continuous flow of writing without chapter breaks. This can be exhausting to read–note James Joyce–and chapters can serve to give the reader a breather or transition from one time or place to another. Sir Walter Scott started the fad for introducing a chapter with an epigraphic quotation. I’ve recently read mysteries where each chapter was introduced by a chocolate recipe. Distracting but delectable.

The Art of Fiction is worth a read. It opens your eyes to what the writer is really doing  to manipulate the reader–at times, successfully, at other times, annoyingly. I’m going to give it a quick re-read before I have to return  it to the library. Much to learn but little time to ponder it.

The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts   David Lodge | Viking   1993

Midnight in Austenland – Shannon Hale

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Shannon Hale writes funny, sharp YA books so Midnight in Austenland held real promise of being entertaining. It was a trip. A key to this weird stumble down the rabbit hole is in the novels Hale cites as part of her research: Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Jane Eyre, a lot of Agatha Christie and Northhanger Abbey. Toss in a little chicklit, too, I’m guessing, for good measure. But not too much. Hers isn’t a ditzy, designer-label heroine–just a confused one. When Charlotte Kinder, the divorced mother of two barely adolescent kids, decides to thaw her frozen heart on a Jane Austen re-enactment vacation she expects pre-scripted nineteenth-century romance, not bloody murder. But bloody–actually bloodless–murder is what she gets.

Charlotte can’t get past the calculating, cheating, cold fish who replaced her non-theatening husband and then moved out to marry his girlfriend, Justice. That’s a name? Even hippies didn’t name their kids Justice–but it may signify the comeuppance James Kinder is due, if only Charlotte will open her eyes and see him for who he really is. She has some trouble with that (see name: Kinder) so off to England and an estate called Pembroke Park and a brooding actor named Mallery who is assigned to court her in the Austen manner and propose at a fancy ball on her last night in the costume drama. Living in a Jane Austen novel should take her mind off things.

From the beginning, the story lurches a bit immodestly from the corsets and crumpets world Charlotte has entered to random recollections from her past that conveniently explain her present neuroses. You have to pay attention–but it’s okay because there are some funny lines and a certain vertigo involved in vacationers adopting Regency personas. The kids, when Charlotte slips off to a nearby inn to check in with them by cell phone, are adjusting too well to vacation with dad and the new step-mom, who sounds like a clueless jerk on the phone. The parlour game of murder awakens Charlotte’s childhood fears of the dark and gives her something to really be afraid of. Despite her inadvertant creation of a wildly successful online gardening and landscape architecture business, Charlotte has about as much self-confidence as a limp rag–her necessary character arc is pretty obvious. The girl has issues but so does everyone else in the game.

Almost immediately, she is convinced there has been a real murder and sets out to uncover proof, endangering herself–or maybe just intensifying the trappings of the theater that surrounds her. Did she see a dead hand in a secret room, or was it a clue? Is someone from the household missing and are those tire tracks going from the house to a pond in the woods? Cars are not allowed anywhere near the estate and stables, so whose tire tracks might those be? How does the celebrity-in-disguise maintain such a perfect illusion of a consumption victim, complete with gray pallor, episodes of shaking and sweating and frequent retirements to her room? Are Mallery’s fervent protestations of love part of the script or is he for real? Why does her “brother,” another of the actors, always seem to have her back? Who set the fire that destroyed a charming cottage at the edge of the property?

Charlotte spends half her time hunting murderers and the other half hunting for her authentic self. She is desperate to fall in love–just for two weeks–but she doubts everything. After a while, you do, too. When are these people speaking as themselves? Ever? Never? Right up to the end I expected to have the curtain pulled back and the pupptmasters revealed. Midnight in Austenland is crazier than that, though. The real stuff is as fantastical as anything Austen would have dreamed up–more, in fact, as Austen made high art of the most ordinary quotidian and Hale treats the most improbable events as commonplace.

It was an amusing read, witty in spots, consistently superficial, but madcap as a comedy of manners, claustrophobic as a country cozy, not convincingly gothic, and wrapped up expertly in the final chapter and the helpful epilogue. It’s not The Princess Academy but a kind of grown-up fairytale with a sort of a princess who survives long enough to do the happily-ever-after bit  at the end.  

Midnight in Austenland: A Novel   Shannon Hale | Bloomsbury USA  2012

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James

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Death Comes to Pemberley is a P.D. James tour de force—a Jane Austen novel with a murder mystery at its heart. James is the grand dame of the British murder mystery and an Austen enthusiast. She has captured the world of Pride and Prejudice in characters, convention and idiom—so you almost feel as if you are reading a long-lost manuscript in which Austen experimented with the mystery genre. Murder might not be Austen’s cup of tea but James seems to have delighted in the dynamics of great English estates and social protocols on the cusp of the nineteenth century.

On the eve of the annual Lady Anne’s Ball, as Pemberley is in a frenzy of preparation, Elizabeth manages the bustle with practiced aplomb as she worries about the suitors for Georgiana’s hand. Mr. Darcy’s little sister is grown up now—Darcy and Elizabeth have two treasured sons and most of the Bennet sisters are married. An army officer and a solicitor, both possessed of appropriate fortunes, are vying for Georgiana and Elizabeth considers how to broach the subject with Darcy and which choice will make Georgiana happiest.

But such concerns are driven nearly out of mind when a coach with an hysterical Lydia–the bad-girl Bennet sister–arrives in the middle of the night. She is screaming about murder in the dark woods abutting Pemberley and a search party is assembled, the doctor is called in to see to Lydia and the men in the house set out to discover what happened. Murder most foul, of course, and Wickham, Lydia’s ne-er-do-well husband, is discovered, inebriated and blood-covered, wailing over the corpse.

This is a complicated predicament—the social implications may be as damaging as the crime—and life is upended in the aftermath of the event. Is the family of servants living in an old house in the woodland near to the scene of the murder involved? Can Darcy prevent a distressing incident from Georgiana’s past from surfacing as part of the murder investigation? Will there be the scandal and calamity of a hanging in the family if Wickham is found guilty? Why is there no evidence of another presence in the woods that night–or any apparent intention behind the crime?

Motive is key to the solution in this puzzle. Without it you can suspect a vague pattern of guilt and opportunity but never sort it out or attach names to any of the victims—and there are more victims than the single dead body might indicate. James doesn’t shirk character development—the feuds and venom of the times are delicious but they pale in the presence of social graces and higher virtues—alas. Enmity in Austen is tempered by good manners and that remains a hallmark of Pemberley and its inhabitants—the human heart is examined and its rancors reduced sensibly.

Death Comes to Pemberley is interesting and a fun read. It’s satisfying to revisit Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy to see how their life together unfolds. The novel feels true to Austen, even if she would never have stooped so low as to subject her creations to the rigors of a detective story. There are some redeeming developments in the end that spell out a less chaotic future for the residents of Pemberley as they age into the mists of their fictional, sequel-free lives. James could probably keep this going with more homicidal episodes on the estate but I might vote for the return of Adam Dalgliesh, professional detective, over Fitzwilliam Darcy, landed investigator. A literary, no-nonsense gumshoe on the trail of a killer is more entertaining fare than the courteous lord of the manor, who has too many of his edges softened by maturity and a happy marriage to project his old, brusque and roguish appeal.

Death Comes to Pemberley   P.D. James | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

Writing Jane Austen — Elizabeth Aston

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Georgina Jackson is the author of a critically acclaimed, award-winning, dismally selling, dismal novel set in her favorite grim era of British history. The acclaim was spectacular, two years ago, but the writer’s block she now has is equally spectacular and her bank account is teetering on the edge of empty when her rude, bitchy, intimidating agent calls with a deal.

Writing Jane Austen tracks the tortuous passage of a novelist through the wilds of plotting and writing a book she doesn’t believe she can pull off. What Gina’s awful but brilliant agent has negotiated for her is a contract to finish a recently discovered first chapter of a lost Jane Austen novel. The work will make Gina a household name and, more importantly, fill up that disastrous bank account. One problem—she hasn’t read a word of Austen doesn’t want to and can’t imagine how to pull off such a feat on a killer deadline with 3,000 handwritten Austen words as her point of departure.

This is a “Perils of Georgina” book as our heroine encounters evidence of Austen everywhere, writes nothing, dodges the incessant phone calls and demands of the horrible agent, a horrible publisher and his horrible researcher sister. She leases the garret of a London townhouse owned by an academic who needs the rent. His movie star girlfriend is on location in Ireland so he has a lot of time to commiserate with Gina as she thrashes on the hook of the contract. His oboe-playing kid sister runs away from her boarding school and shows up at the front door, ready to dye her hair purple, argue Austen’s case with Gina and refuse to attend any school because the discipline bores her.

Gina visits a few locations that Jane Austen inhabited or used for her novels, keeps resisting the assignment, drinks a lot of coffee and goes for long walks, trying to discover some method to call forth a book channeled from an author she knows almost nothing about. Gradually, her life begins to resemble an Austen novel and one day she finally picks up Pride and Prejudice, gets hooked and reads all six of Jane Austen’s books in a sleepless marathon. Which doesn’t solve her writer’s block. At least she now likes Austen.

Elizabeth Aston sprinkles her adventure with country estates, costume parties, kidnappings, phantasms from the pages of Jane Austen’s books that visit Gina in odd moments, lots of chat about writers, not writing, novel ways to write a novel, failed attempts to write a novel. The procrastination is so tangible in the book it nearly becomes a character. It made me downright uncomfortable, being an accomplished procrastinator myself. Complications straight out of an Austen plot pop up everywhere, the dialog slips in and out of Austen scenes, the landed gentry share the same intrigues, piques and obsessions as Austen’s characters. The love stories are no surprise and end in happily ever afters with well-matched couples triumphing over minor adversities to wed.

Gina eventually writes a book, after Jane Austen turns her life and her writing upside down. But what happens to it and to Gina is not precisely what you expected, dear reader. It’s fine and funny, though, and Writing Jane Austen is purely entertaining and well done. You might want to settle down with Emma or Mansfield Park at the end of it and lose yourself in genuine Austen territory, not a bad way to be inspired by a book.       

Writing Jane Austen: A Novel   Elizabeth Aston |  Touchstone  2010


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