The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

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  I normally steer clear of the vast numbers of books “inspired by” Pride and Prejudice which have appeared over the past 25 years.  The quantity of them out there is truly astounding: there must be thousands!  However,  I decided to try this one because I felt that Mary Bennet deserved a break.

Much as I love Jane Austen’s books, it has to be said that some of her characters are more pantomimish than nuanced, and also that some of her characters seem to deserve a lot more sympathy than she gives them.  Mrs Bennet is mercilessly mocked, even though she’s the only one who seems to appreciate the precarious position that her daughters are in.  And Mary never does anyone any harm – she’s hardly Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe – but neither the author nor any of the other characters have a kind word to say to her or about her.  She’s the only plain one in a family of five girls, the odd one out in between two pairs of sisters who are also close friends, and, sadly but not unrealistically (in her time and maybe even in ours), no-one puts much value on her intelligence – good looks, charm and money are what matter.  Poor Mary.

In this book, Mary blossoms, due largely to the support of her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner.  It’s lovely to see the Gardiners – and remember that the last two sentences of Pride and Prejudice are actually about them –  given a prominent role.  And she finds herself being pursued round the Lake District by two handsome men!   Furthermore, I’m convinced that the unnamed inn in Grasmere where they’re all staying is the place where I stay when I go to the Lakes, and, being very Lake-sick at the moment, I’m inordinately jealous of them.  Yes, I do know that that’s beside the point.  But I am.

Some parts of this don’t ring particularly true, and none of the Jane Austen fanfic novels are ever going to live up to the original books, but this isn’t bad.

How do you judge books like this?  On their own merits, or by comparison with the originals.  Well, if you’re going to use someone else’s characters and someone else’s world, then you have to expect to be judged on whether or not you show the characters behaving in a way which fits in with how they do in the “canon” book(s).  For the most part, in this book, they do here.  The only one who doesn’t is Charlotte, who’s become rather unkind.  That’s explained, not unrealistically, as the result of being married to someone she neither likes nor respects; but it’s a shame, because she’s such a lovely character.  She’s desperate for Elizabeth to find happiness, and she’s not the slightest bit jealous when Elizabeth bags Mr Darcy.  I wish Janice Hadlow hadn’t chosen to change her so much.  But everyone else is much as they were.

As for the general atmosphere of the book … most of it’s OK, but Jane Austen would never have shown Elizabeth thinking about how much she’d like to hold Mr Darcy’s hand or stroke his hair, and certainly not about “what they would be to each other” once they were married.  OK, I’m sure she did, but we don’t see it.  And things go rather bonkers towards the end, when one of Mary’s suitors proposes that they forget about the ties of polite society and go off and live in unmarried bliss in a villa in Italy!   All right, the Georgians weren’t the Victorians, and some quite scandalous stuff goes on in Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice, but that was a bit much.

So what actually happens?  Well, the first part of the book is about the events of Pride and Prejudice.  Some passages are copied out word for word.  Rather strangely, one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s speeches is copied out word for word in a later part of the book, set two years after Lady Catherine actually said it.  There’s a nice friendship between Mary and Mrs Hill, and seeing things from Mary’s viewpoint is interesting.  Imagine her humiliation at the Netherfield ball, when Mr Bennet tells her to stop singing and give someone else a go.  And there are strong hints that she thought she and Mr Collins might be a good match – only for Charlotte Lucas to get in there first.  We hear a lot more about that here.

Then the author kills Mr Bennet off – which is rather sad, but necessary for the rest of the plot.  The Collinses move into Longbourn, and Mrs Bennet and Mary are out on their ear.  However, Mary is not Miss Bates: she’s never going to end up “sinking lower” and struggling for money, because Jane and Elizabeth are both now married to wealthy men and will never see her stuck.  Incidentally, Kitty is, in accordance with Jane Austen’s own letters, now married to a clergyman near Pemberley, but she doesn’t appear in this book, and nor do the Wickhams.

Mrs Bennet and Mary move in with the Bingleys, but Caroline Bingley’s also there, and makes Mary’s life a misery.  So Mary goes to stay with the Darcys, but feels distinctly surplus to requirements there.  She then, being fond of Charlotte and missing Longbourn, asks if she can stay with the Collinses.  And here we see Mr Collins being treated more sympathetically – he thought Charlotte really liked him, and has now had to accept that it was a marriage of convenience for her.  He and Mary, both being keen on reading and studying, become quite close … and Charlotte gets jealous and tries to get rid of her by hinting that Lady Catherine find her a job as a governess.  The portrayal of Charlotte really didn’t work for me, I have to say, but I liked the portrayal of Mr Collins.  He seems a lot more real and a lot less caricatured here.

So Mary then goes off to visit the Gardiners, and this works out brilliantly.  She likes living in London, and grows in self-confidence in a happy home.  She’s also persuaded by Mrs Gardiner that she deserves some nice clothes, which suit her better.  We learn that she never used to bother much about her clothes, because she thought she didn’t deserve nice clothes.  That used to be me in the late 1980s!  I used to insist that I didn’t “like” trendy clothes, but the truth was that I thought a fat girl didn’t deserve to have anything nice to wear, and that people’d just laugh at me if I looked like I was trying to make an effort.  So I did find it very touching and realistic that we were told Mary never made much effort with her appearance because she felt that, as a plain girl, it wasn’t appropriate.

Along comes an attractive, personable and eligible relative of Mrs Gardiner’s, a young lawyer, Tom Hayward.  Jane Austen said that Mary married one of Mr Phillips’s clerks, so maybe that was where the idea of the lawyer came from?   But, in keeping with Austen-esque tradition, the course of true love doesn’t runs smooth.  Along next comes his friend, Mr Ryder – who turns out to be a connection of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s, living on an allowance provided by her.  It seems rather unlikely that Mr Darcy has never mentioned this man.  And, if Lady Catherine is supporting her young male relatives, what about Colonel Fitzwilliam, who’s never mentioned?   It’s also a rather unlikely coincidence.  But then Jane Austen’s books are full of unlikely coincidences.  Any of her heroines can usually guarantee that any new person they meet will have a complicated history with someone they already know!

Mr Ryder is being pursued by Caroline Bingley, but takes a shine to Mary.  The Gardiners then decide to take the trip to the Lake District which had to be postponed in Pride and Prejudice, and ask Tom to go with them.  This seems a bit implausible, and indeed improper, as does the amount of time which Mary spends alone both with Tom and with Mr Ryder.  However, off they go.  They duly arrive, via Windermere, in Grasmere … only for Mr Ryder, Caroline Bingley, and Mr and Mrs Hurst all to turn up at the same hotel.  There’s an outing which ends in drama, and a misunderstanding which results in Tom Hayward making his excuses and going home.

Once everyone’s back in London, some interesting points are made about how Mary, as a woman, is unable to contact Tom to try to clear things up between them.  And, if Mr Ryder proposes, should she accept him, on the grounds that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, rather than turn him down in the hope that Tom will come back to her?  Of course, everything turns out OK in the end, and Mary and Tom get married and live happily every after, but her dilemma’s certainly interesting.  Elizabeth didn’t like Mr Collins, Catherine Morland didn’t like John Thorpe and Fanny Price didn’t like Henry Crawford, but what if their unwanted suitors had been all right, and possibly worth settling for?   It gets stupid when what Mr Ryder offers isn’t marriage, but, until then, Mary faced a thought-provoking choice.  We get the feeling that she’d say no anyway, because she really loves Tom, but she only really has that choice because she’s got the options of a home with the Gardiners, the Bingleys or the Darcys.  So there’s quite a bit to think about there.

And, hooray, we see Mary getting the better of Caroline Bingley!   How many of us have longed to stand up to a bitchy bully, but not had the confidence to do so?   Very satisfying.

I don’t know that the book was entirely satisfying, but I certainly never got upset and frustrated, as I’ve sometimes done before with reading fanfic/spin-off/rip-off novels.  Don’t get me started on the dreadful Scarlett, the so-called sequel to Gone With The Wind.  In fact, as I got towards the end, I couldn’t put it down until Tom came back.  I won’t be reading any more of the Jane Austen fanfic novels, because I’m not really that keen on the idea of them, but I’m not sorry that I read this.  Mary deserved a break!

 

 

International Women’s Day – 10 influential female authors

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Seeing as it’s International Women’s Day, and seeing as we’re getting a film version of “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret” and a TV series of the “Malory Towers” books (please, please don’t let them mess them up!), let’s have a list of ten female authors whose books have played a big part in my (admittedly not very exciting) life  These aren’t necessarily my favourite authors, or the authors of my favourite books, but they’ve all been significant.  Starting with Enid Blyton, because most things start with Enid Blyton.  And ending with Helen Fielding, because Bridget Jones shows us that, even once you accept that you’re never going to be Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara or Emma Harte, all women are still heroines in their own way.

  1. Enid Blyton – I did read Chicken Licken and Huckle the Cat and various other things, when I was about 3, but then I got into the Noddy books and the Amelia Jane books, and, for the next few years, it was all about Enid Blyton.  The adventure stories, the mystery stories, and, of course, the school stories.  People can say what they like about Enid Blyton, but she has a unique place in our culture, and (for what it’s worth!) in my life.  She gets kids into reading.  That’s important

2.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer – starting with Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School, when I was 8.   The Chalet School books are the greatest school stories ever.  My first holiday without my mum and dad (unless you count a school trip to Paris) was to Austria.  And, from October 2004 – OMG, that’s over 15 years ago! – onwards, I’ve been privileged to be part of a wonderful online community which I just can’t imagine life without, and that all started with the Chalet School books.  I don’t know where I’d be otherwise, I really don’t!

3.  Judy Blume – as well as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, my particular favourites are It’s Not the End of the World and Deenie, but, between the ages of about 10 and 13, I read most of her books (the ones which were around then).  And, yes, I read Forever.  Everyone read Forever!  I will never be able to meet anyone called Ralph without sniggering.  But Margaret’s the standout heroine … although I did spend several years giving every day a grade, like Karen did!  Judy Blume wrote (and still writes) about all the things which Girls’ Own authors didn’t, but never in a prurient or sensationalist way.  I forget who, but one author said that Judy Blume taught her all she needed to know about being a girl.  I wouldn’t go that far, but her books are definitely important.  Also, Forever was our “naughty book”.  All groups of tweenagers/teenagers should have a “naughty book” – it’s a rite of passage!

4.  Barbara Taylor Bradford.  The transition phase!  Moving on from what are now called “young adult” books to Proper Grown Up ’80s blockbusters.  OK, OK, A Woman of Substance was actually published in the late ’70s, but I didn’t read it until the mid-’80s.  For a lot of people in my class, the infamous Virginia Andrews books were the transition books, but for me it was all about Emma Harte, the ultimate ’80s rags-to-riches heroine, the Northern working-class woman who made it in a man’s world.  None of BTB’s other books are anything like as good, but that one was the first Big Grown Up Book I read, and it was a really good one.

5. Jane Austen – whose books I keep coming back to, over and over again.  They’re over 200 years old and they still say so much.  Helen Fielding could borrow heavily from them in the 1990s and still be completely relevant.

6. Colleen McCullough – I don’t think any other book I’ve ever read, not even the greatest novel of all time (coming up next!) has the sort of emotional and descriptive passages that The Thorn Birds does.  It is incredible.  I’m always quoting bits of it, usually to myself, when I’m being melodramatic … which is quite often.  Oh, to be able to write like that!  I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they’re just not a patch on it, but that one book … what an achievement.  It says so much about how people think and feel, and just how people work.  Meggie’s the heroine, and Justine’s the one who gets to live happily ever after, but the most interesting character is Fee (Fiona).  I often think about things that Fee said.

7.  Margaret Mitchell – because Gone With The Wind is the greatest novel ever written.  No, it wouldn’t be written today, but it wasn’t written today.  The characters, the emotion, the way it draws you in, the strength of the book and the strength of Scarlett O’Hara. And Scarlett and Ashley – the sadness of loving someone with whom you can’t connect.  I once decided to re-read the whole book in a day, and I was in bits afterwards, even though it wasn’t the first time I’d read it, because how do you deal with coming down from that?  And, ultimately, it’s about female survival. Yes, Rhett’s the one who helps Scarlett out in times of crisis – and, weirdly, I quote Rhett even more than I quote Scarlett – but it’s Melanie who’s really got her back, and it’s about Scarlett and Melanie both surviving, in their different ways, when their world collapses.  No Gotterdammerung for either of them.

8. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Her Morland books and her recent War At Home books are good, but her Kirov Trilogy‘s her crowning achievement, for me, and they’re the best Russian historical fiction books I’ve ever read.  They really took me much deeper into Russia, into Russian history and culture, than I’d been before … and I’ve never really come out!  I think Annette Motley’s Men on White Horses was the first adult Russian historical fiction book I read, and even that was a couple of years after I’d really got into Russian history, but the Kirov books are special.

9.  Jean Plaidy  – not because her books are all-time classics, but because, even after getting a degree in “medieval and modern history”, I still didn’t quite get medieval history until Jean Plaidy’s books showed me how fascinating it could be.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Anne O’Brien and Sharon Penman actually write better medieval historical fiction than Jean Plaidy did, but hers were the ones I came too first.  At school, we had one year of medieval history, which was largely about motte and bailey castles and the lives of monks.  Why would anyone think that 11-year-old girls wanted to know about the lives of monks?!  At university, it was German emperors and Anglo-Saxon peasants.  Hardly anyone signed up for the optional medieval history modules, after that: everyone flocked to the modern history ones.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for showing me what all those teachers, doctors and professors failed to!!

and finally … 10. Helen Fielding.  You think that you’re going to be part of the in-crowd at school, and have lots of adventures.  Failing that, you at least think people are going to play fair by you, if you try to be nice to them.  Judy Blume does, to be fair, help you to accept that sometimes they’re not – Blubber is great for that.  Then you hope that’s life’s going to be full of romance, like it is in Jane Austen books, and success, like it is in Barbara Taylor Bradford books.  Or that, even if you’re not destined to be the person who gets it all, at least it’ll be full of drama and emotion, like it is for Jean Plaidy’s royal heroines, for Meggie, for Anna (in the Kirov books) and, most of all, for Scarlett.  And then you realise that you’re getting upset because you’ve put on 2lbs even though all you’ve been doing is lying in bed overnight, and that you’re running late for work again, not that you actually want to go to work, and that everyone else seems to have everything way more sorted than you.  It’s not good.  That is not how heroines’ lives turn out.  But, hooray, there is Bridget Jones, the heroine whose life hasn’t turned out like heroines’ lives are supposed to do either!  So, yep, Bridget shows us that we’re actually all heroines.

And there are always books … to take you wherever and whenever you want to go to.

So hooray for Bridget, hooray for books, and hooray for wonderful female authors.

“Honourable mentions” for Laura Ingalls Wilder, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, Sue Townsend, Charlotte Bronte, Maisie Mosco, Helen Forrester, Maeve Binchy (because everyone in my class at school was obsessed with one of her books, in 1988), Pamela Belle and Reay Tannahill.   But that would have been another 10, and then I’d have thought of another 10 …

Emma

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It is a truth universally acknowledged (or ought to be), that there is no charm equal to tea, cake and daffodils.  This film isn’t going to win any Oscars, but it’s so pretty.  Practically every indoor scene involves either copious amounts of tea being drunk, from ever-so-elegant porcelain cups, and copious amounts of beautifully-presented cake being eaten, or else perfectly-executed country dancing.  Practically every outdoor scene involves stunning shots of beautiful, open English countryside, under clear blue skies; and the springtime scenes show glorious hosts of golden daffodils dancing along peaceful river banks.  Folk songs play in the background.  The houses are all exquisitely decorated.  The clothes are beautiful, and anyone who was upset over the lack of elaborate coiffures in Little Women will find that this more than makes up for it.   You get to see Mr Knightley’s bare bottom as well, but what are bottoms to tea, cake and daffodils?

Anyway, Mr Knightley would never have wandered around with a bare bottom, even in his own home; although Frank Churchill probably did it all the time.  Mr Knightley is a bit more passionate and unconventional, and a bit less stuffy, in this than he is in the book – although lying on the floor isn’t exactly in the same league as diving into the lake at Lyme Park with a white shirt on.  And any unpleasant hint of his having been interested in Emma when she was 13 has been removed.  However, other than that (and a rather bizarre scene involving a nosebleed), it sticks fairly closely to the book, apart from a few slight tweaks at the end.  Oh, and apart from Emma pulling her skirt up to hitch up her undergarments.  I have no idea why either that scene or the bare bottom scene are included, but never mind.

Frank Churchill could have been a bit more dashing, though.  And, whilst I’m not generally a fan of editing historical books to bring them in line with modern sensibilities, I do rather wish that they’d taken out the reference to Harriet being set upon by gypsies and just said that she’d been set upon.  But, other than that, it worked pretty well.  I don’t think it’s Jane Austen’s most interesting book.  There’s something vaguely unsatisfactory about the fact that beautiful, rich, Emma never even goes as far as Bath or London, and it’s also really annoying that sweet Jane Fairfax ends up with an idiot like Frank Churchill.  But that’s the story, and I’m glad that the scriptwriters didn’t play about with it too much, because I don’t see the point of deciding to make a book into a film or TV series and then changing the story.

There’s always a lot of talk about the fact that we’re supposed to dislike Emma but that most people actually don’t.  She’s a busybody, but she’s generally quite good-hearted – and she makes some good points about men preferring a pretty face to a well-informed mind.  She’s the queen bee of her community, and anyone so young in that position would be a bit spoilt.  The crucial “badly done” scene is quite well done (sorry!) – we see how genuinely hurt Miss Bates is, how embarrassed everyone else is, how Mr Knightley is the only one who points out that it was badly done … and how Emma is genuinely sorry for the offence she’s caused.  It’s not my favourite Jane Austen book, but I think that that’s one of the best Jane Austen scenes.

One of the tweaks towards the end is so that Emma’s the one who persuades Robert Martin to ask Harriet again, so she gets a bit of extra redemption there.  Other than that, it’s pretty much according to the book, with a few bits missed out so that it all fits in.  The comic/fool characters are rather OTT, but that’s how Jane Austen writes them.  Harriet comes across very well: we’re reminded that just because someone isn’t very bright doesn’t mean that they might not be a valued friend for their good nature.  And, of course, we’re reminded, in the “badly done” scene, to remember that everyone has feelings, and that it’s never OK to mock or humiliate another human soul.

Emma’s thoughtless, not malicious, though.  No-one in this book is really nasty.  Frank Churchill’s behaviour is reprehensible, but he doesn’t treat women in the appalling way that Mr Wickham or Mr Willoughby do.  Mrs Elton is annoying and vulgar, but she isn’t a schemer like Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe.  Mr Woodhouse is an idiot, but he’s harmless.  There’s nothing really nasty.  It’s a nice story.  And it’s a nice film.

We’re not still going to be talking about this in 25 years’ time (how on earth has it been 25 years?!) like we are with the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – although, to be fair, you can do a lot more in a mini-series than in a film – but it’s still well worth seeing.  All that tea, and all that cake, and all those daffodils …

 

 

 

 

Novels That Shaped Our World – BBC 2

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This featured a bloke from Prestwich as the choice of guest to talk about social mores in Jane Austen novels, which might rather suggest that North Manchester should be full of Mr Darcys, Captain Wentworths and Henry Tilneys. Sadly, it is not, but, hey, that’s life.  It was a surprisingly interesting hour’s TV, though: it didn’t look that good from the trailers, but I decided to give it a go anyway, and I’m glad I did.

Not many of the books on the BBC’s “100 novels that changed our world” list would have been my choices, there are a lot of omissions I find surprising, and, quite frankly, I’ve never even heard of some of the ones they’ve included; but I think that people sometimes get too worked up over 100 most influential/must-read/must-watch/must-see lists. We’ve all got our own likes and dislikes, and no-one’s saying that anyone else’s are right or wrong. Most of the novels discussed in the first episode weren’t even chosen from the list, which was rather strange, and a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to seeing how they were going to get Pride and Prejudice, Ballet Shoes, Forever, Riders and Adrian Mole all in there together! – but some very good points were made about the history of the novel, and how that ties in with the history of women’s role in society.

When it started off by talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, I had an awful feeling that the impression I’d got from the trailers had been right, and it was just going to be an hour of women slagging off men and saying that everything written more than a few years ago was anti-feminist, but it wasn’t. It soon moved on to female characters in early novels – first of all by noting that Robinson Crusoe, the 300th anniversary of which was the reason for the series, virtually ignores women, and then by discussing Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740, in which the heroine’s employer tries to sexually assault her, only stops when she faints, and she then falls in love with him and marries him! This was apparently considered very romantic at the time – to the extent that the book’s considered to have had a huge effect on the development of novels, and it was one of the first books to generate associated memorabilia.

Then it moved on to how novel-reading itself came to be seen as a women’s thing – something which my class at school discussed at length whilst we were studying Northanger Abbey – and how Gothic novels became popular, and also more realistic novels such as those of Jane Austen. It mentioned the sarcasm about Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey: perhaps, if there’d been time, have mentioned the sarcasm about “sentimental” novels in Sense and Sensibility. I love Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice is definitely in my top 5 all-time favourite books but I do sometimes wonder why she found it necessary to be so sarky about other people’s choice of reading matter! As I’ve just said, we’ve all got our own likes and dislikes. But most things about Jane Austen’s books are wonderful 🙂 , and that was made clear … not least by Howard Jacobson, who used to be my grandparents’ next door neighbour.

The emphasis then shifted to the authors themselves, and what attitudes towards them in the 19th century said about attitudes towards women – notably people’s surprise at finding that Frankenstein had been written by a woman, and the use of male or gender-neutral pseudonyms by George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. I could have lived without some of the “drama” stuff – what did someone driving a taxi have to do with Frankenstein?! – but I appreciate that the modern idea seems to be that people don’t like just watching a lot of discussion in a studio.

From there, it moved on to politics, and the importance of suffragette novels, which was extremely interesting – it’s an aspect of the suffragette movement which is often overlooked. I didn’t find the talk about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando so interesting, partly because I’ve never read it, but some good points were made about how ideas about gender fluidity are certainly not a recent thing.

I was about to say that it came bang up to date with a discussion about Bridget Jones’s Diary, but, hard as it is to believe, that book is now nearly 25 years old! I believe that the BBC have commissioned a documentary for its silver anniversary next year. 25 years of big pants and “singletons”! It’s such an honest book. OK, it annoys the hell out of me that Bridget is so stressed about her weight when she never weighs more than 9 1/2 stone – I would give almost anything to be 9 1/2 stone – but it does say so much about modern women in the real world. Then it finished by talking about novels written for and or about black women.

It was great, because it managed to include discussion about the role of women, about transgender identity, and of issues particularly affecting black women, without anyone making insulting comments about men, or howling that Robinson Crusoe and practically every other novel ever written should be banned for being racist, sexist and everything else-ist. It was just a very interesting discussion by people who clearly loved books, and whose lives had been significantly influenced by them.

Of the 100 books on the list produced to accompany this series, there are only 8 which I’d say were favourites of mine. I haven’t read most of them, and I’ve never even heard of a few of them. There are plenty which I am extremely surprised haven’t been included. But it doesn’t matter. No-one’s saying that you’ve “got” to have read all or most of the novels on this list. No-one’s insulting your faves by not including them. And, sadly, no-one’s saying that Mr Darcy, Captain Wentworth and Henry Tilney are about to come wandering along my street. But what’s important is that people are talking about books. The BBC’s selection of novels may not have shaped your world, but some books probably have done. A lot of novels have shaped my world. Hooray for novels!!!

 

Sanditon – ITV. Wrong ending.

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The endings of Jane Austen’s books aren’t always entirely convincing – you really do have to suspend your credulity with Sense and Sensibility, when Lucy Steele goes off with her fiance’s brother and Marianne Dashwood suddenly decides she’s in love with Colonel Brandon after having spent practically the entire book being in love with Willoughby – but they are always happy. Everyone gets married and, we presume, lives happily ever after. That is how Jane Austen books finish. And that is how Sanditon would have finished, had she lived long enough to finish writing it. Sunday night, 9 o’clock, period drama time. Three people had been stabbed in the Arndale Centre, Turkey had invaded Syria, no-one was doing anything about Yemen, United’s season was going from bad to worse … I needed escapism. Me and everyone else.  That’s what Sunday night period drama is for.

That meant Charlotte marrying Sidney, Esther marrying Lord Babington, some sort of redemption for Clara, and, possibly, Georgiana marrying Arthur. Charlotte and Sidney were obviously the main couple, but I also had my fingers crossed for daft-but-sweet Arthur winning the heart and hand of the beautiful heiress and proving that fat people can have happy endings (authors generally reserve them for thin people) too. The only snag was that there wasn’t a partner for nice young James Stringer, but he’d been offered a good job so he was still getting a happy ending of sorts. And Sanditon had been saved, by Sophie Winkleman making it the centre of high society and strongly hinting that she’d bring members of the Royal Family to visit. Well, she *is* married to the Queen’s cousin. Sorted. Or, at least, it should have been. But it wasn’t.  What on earth did Andrew Davies think he was playing at?  Sorry – not funny, not clever. Just wrong.  It feels like a school bully’s played a nasty practical joke and is taking great pleasure in having spoilt things for the rest of the class 😦 .

To be fair, Esther and Lord Babington did get married, and, hopefully, lived happily ever after. It wasn’t very clear what had happened to Clara, but, OK, she wasn’t my priority. James had been offered an apprenticeship to an architect. Georgiana and Arthur were smiling and laughing and dancing together, and she even patted his arm. He told his sister that he didn’t understand women and couldn’t imagine being married, but obviously he was just saying that, right? Sidney kept trying to propose to Charlotte but kept being interrupted, but clearly this was just to heighten the suspense. Finally, they were alone together, and he was just about to ask … and then Esther’s stupid brother caused a scene, and Sidney had to go and chuck him out (could someone else not have done this)?

Now, we’d already seen that Mr Stringer senior had accidentally started a fire. So presumably someone was going to be heroic and save him. Maybe Sidney, to make himself look even more dashing (in a brooding kind of way) and attractive? Or perhaps Arthur, thus impressing Georgiana? Or maybe even Edward, to redeem himself? No. Andrew Davies just had to spoil it. Stringer senior was burnt to death. Poor, lovely Stringer junior, who’d argued with him just beforehand, was left guilt-ridden, grief-stricken, and feeling obliged to give up his new job. And stupid Tom Parker hadn’t paid the insurance.

So how were the Parkers going to pay for the rebuilding? Well, obviously, Georgiana would marry Arthur, and lend her new brother-in-law the money.  Not that there was any reason why Georgiana’s money should have had to be spent on sorting out Tom’s mess, but it seemed to be the only reason all this’d happened.  In the meantime, Sidney took off to London, but told Charlotte that they would finish their “conversation” (i.e. the proposal) when he got back. Whilst it was pretty mean to kill off poor Mr Stringer, I couldn’t believe that at least Charlotte and Sidney weren’t going to get their happy ending, and hopefully Georgiana and Arthur too.

Then … oh FFS, how many more twists in the tale did Davies think we needed? Sidney got back, and announced that he was going to marry his rich ex, Eliza Campion. She who’d dumped him for someone much richer, and then been widowed … and had hoped to get back with him before he’d made it clear he wanted to marry Charlotte. It wasn’t even convincing. If she was so keen on him that she was prepared to marry him presumably knowing that he was only after her money, why hadn’t she married him in the first place? No matter – surely it was only a twist in the tale. As soon as Georgiana decided to marry Arthur, and offered to lend Tom the money, Sidney would be free to marry Charlotte.

And, hooray! At the last minute, as Charlotte was on her way home, her coach was stopped, on a very dramatic-looking clifftop, by a man on horseback. And, whaddaya know, it was Sidney!! Yay!! He’d come to tell her that it was all sorted. Or even that he’d decided to leave Tom to sort out his own financial mess, which, TBH, you couldn’t have blamed him for. Expecting your brother to dump his true love and marry someone else because you tried to cut costs by not paying the insurance is pushing it a bit, by anyone’s standards.

No. Andrew Davies was just enjoying getting everyone’s hopes up. Sidney said that he’d come to say goodbye. Then he rode off. And Charlotte, presumably, went home.  Scarlett O’Hara would have proclaimed that tomorrow she’d find a way to get him back, but Charlotte was too nice to do anything that would’ve stopped dozy Tom from being able to rebuild Sanditon.  So she didn’t say anything.  And that was it.

As I said, not funny, not clever. I’m sure Davies thought he was being very clever, but he really wasn’t. Come on, give us a break. There’s enough misery in the world. We wanted escapism. We wanted a happy ending. This was Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, so it should have been given a Jane Austen-esque ending. ITV were happy enough to take her name in vain to publicise it. Maybe the idea is that there’s going to be a second series. The Arthur-Georgiana situation was left unresolved as well, and a lot of Sanditon itself needs rebuilding, so there’s scope for one – but Jane Austen books don’t have sequels. They end with the heroine getting her man/the heroines getting their men. They don’t end like this.

No doubt some smirking or earnest types will tell us that real life doesn’t usually throw up happy endings and that we shouldn’t be so pathetic as to want them for fictional characters, but we do. This isn’t real life. That’s the whole point. It’s escapism. And Andrew Davies just spoilt it for us. Not clever. Not funny. Just nasty. Like a school bully playing a nasty trick and getting a kick out of spoiling things for everyone else.  That’s just how this feels – like a school bully’s made fun of us all.  Not impressed, Mr Davies.  Not impressed at all.

 

Sanditon – ITV

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I really wanted to enjoy this, especially with Poldark finishing; and I did, but with a lot of reservations. On the positive side, I loved how Andrew Davies had interpreted the characters and their friendships. Lady Denham was superb, Charlotte Heywood appealing and Miss Denham gloriously bitchy; and Sidney Parker displayed traits of both Mr Darcy and Mr Knightley. On the negative side, he’d gone so overboard in trying to “sex it up” that I got the distinct feeling that he was more interested in trying to grab headlines than in entertaining viewers. Male nude bathing period during the Regency period, OK, but not streaking across the beach! The ball ended up more like the Oom-pah-pah scene from Oliver! than something from a Jane Austen book, the suggestions of incest were gratuitous; and Sir Edward Denham and Clara Brereton were supposed to be having a quiet private conversation, not getting up to all sorts in the woods. And a bit more humour wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, in between the shots of bare backsides and wild waltzing, plenty of interesting questions were posed as to how the story might pan out, and I’ll be sticking with it. But I don’t think we’ll still be talking about this in twenty years’ time.  Or even twenty weeks’ time.

The late Georgian era was not the Victorian era. Jane Austen’s books are hardly puritanical. Colonel Brandon’s childhood sweetheart had an illegitimate child and a string of lovers, Maria Rushworth (nee Bertram) left her husband and ran off with Henry Crawford, and Lydia Bennet was quite happy to live with Mr Wickham before they got married. But many of the scenes in last night’s episode just didn’t fit with her writing at all. They weren’t even historically accurate: the waltz was still considered quite shocking in 1816, when the book was set (the manuscript makes the date clear, although last night’s programme didn’t), and wouldn’t have been danced by unmarried couples at a respectable ball. And they weren’t even attractive. Mr Darcy in a wet shirt – yes. Ross Poldark scything with no top on – yes. Bare bums jiggling about on the shore – er, no, thanks.

Bare bums aside, this was always going to beg a lot of questions because Jane Austen was only able to write so little of the story before her final illness. What there is of the book tells us virtually nothing about some of the characters, and we have no real idea how everything was going to unfold or whom she intended to end up with whom. It’s also different from her other books in that it centres on, as Lady Denham summed it up, “industry and enterprise”, rather than the world of the country gentry.

Andrew Davies has developed what we are told about the characters, and I like the way he’s done that. Charlotte was in on the action from the first, with plenty of Elizabeth Bennet’s liveliness but with a touch of Catherine Morland’s naivete, and made a very appealing heroine. Clara Brereton, played by Lily Sacofsky from Didsbury – quick shout out to a fellow Mancunian there 😉 – , was reminiscent of Jane Fairfax – although Jane wouldn’t have been getting up to no good in the woods. Sidney Parker, who’s presumably going to be the hero, was being rude like Mr Darcy, delivering lectures like Mr Knightley, and generally being all dark and handsome and brooding. Arthur Parker was a bit of a comic caricature, but a lot of Austen’s characters are like that – think Mr Collins, or Anne Steele. Sir Edward Denham was very slimy, and Esther Denham very bitchy – I was going to say like a more sophisticated version of Isabella Thorpe, but she didn’t even try to be friendly with anyone!

The one main character whom we haven’t really met yet is Miss Lambe, who, as Austen’s only non-white character, will inevitably attract a lot of attention from viewers and reviewers. All Austen really tells us about us is that she’s “sickly”, the word she uses to describe Anne de Bourgh, which isn’t promising at all – I’m afraid Austen had no patience with health problems! But it looks as if Davies has imagined her being rather more like Caroline Bingley – a bit snooty and very confident, and much more interesting than Anne de Bourgh! The star of the show, though, was Lady Denham, played by Anne Reid. Absolutely brilliant! Like the Dowager Countess of Grantham crossed with a Coronation Street battleaxe. I can’t rave about her enough! I bet she gets all the best lines. And good lines are much more important than streaking across beaches.

The 9pm on Sunday timeslot’s now iconic. It’s the period drama timeslot. But Beecham House was disappointing, the last series of Victoria was too full of historical inaccuracies, the final series (sob!!) of Poldark got rather silly and now it doesn’t look as if Sanditon‘s going to live up to the high standards set by earlier series either. Thank heavens for Gentleman Jack, which raised the bar right back up! I just wish the rest of this year’s period dramas had matched it. It doesn’t look as if this one’s going to. But there were some promising aspects to the first episode, and, hey, maybe it’ll get better!

 

Sanditon by Jane Austen (Facebook group reading challenge)

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The forthcoming ITV adaptation of this, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, apparently includes three men skinny-dipping in the sea.  Austen did not actually write that scene 😉 .  She didn’t actually write very much of this at all, before she had to stop work due to ill-health.  I’m not sure what she’d have made of people reading her unfinished work, much less of people making up their own endings to it; but it’s a promising start, and not necessarily what you’d expect of Jane Austen.  It’s set in a Sussex seaside resort – it’d probably make a wonderful sitcom, the genuinely funny kind that we used to get in the ’70s and ’80s – and there’s quite a big cast.  It includes a mixed race character, which was a first for Austen, and a wealthy widow who’s the queen of the town of Sanditon.  Our heroine is Charlotte Heywood, who’s staying with family friends, there are various other young single people, and presumably they were all going to be paired off after various misunderstandings and revelations.  However, there just isn’t very much of it – Jane Austen set the scene, but sadly wasn’t able to get much further.

It helpfully refers to Waterloo, so we know that it’s set some time between the Battle of Waterloo, in June 1815, and early 1817, when Jane Austen had to give up writing.  It’s summer, so it must be the summer of 1816.  I do like to know when books are set, and, apart from Persuasion, her other books don’t make it clear!   So it’s set in peacetime – not that the wars ever seem to bother Austen characters very much – and it’s set during the Regency, the Prince Regent famously being very keen on Brighton.  We don’t know exactly where Sanditon is, but it’s somewhere near Brighton and Eastbourne, but, unlike them, at this point fairly undeveloped.  There are all sorts of glorious Austen sarcastic remarks … oops, I mean “ironic” remarks.  We did Northanger Abbey at school, and the teacher went berserk if anyone talked about Jane Austen being “sarcastic”.  “Ironic,” she would say indignantly.

Anyway.  There are lots of ironic remarks sending up the fad for sea air and sea bathing.  Health fads are nothing new – although most of us are unable to take advantage of any which involve going on holiday for weeks at a time!  I’m actually a great believer in sea air, but, as this book delights in pointing out, at that time there were a lot of hypochondriacs who decided that they had all sorts of ailments which sea air and sea bathing would cure, and Jane Austen did love to poke fun at people she saw as being a bit daft.

Unusually, the book doesn’t start with the heroine, but with an initially unnamed lady and gentleman whose carriage overturns in the Sussex countryside.  They turn out to be Mr and Mrs Parker: Mr Parker is an entrepreneur who’s hoping to make Sanditon the next “in” seaside place.  This is really something different for Austen: she didn’t normally “do” entrepreneurs.  They’re helped out by the Heywoods, and they, apart from having 14 children (13 of whom aren’t even named) are a more typical Austen family – gentry, but of limited means.  The Parkers take Charlotte Heywood, one of the daughters, back to Sanditon with them.  They’re desperate to get tourism going in Sanditon, and news of any new arrival is greeted with great excitement.

Charlotte was clearly set to be the main character, but the book doesn’t revolve around her in the way that Austen’s other books revolve around their heroines.  There’s a lot about Lady Denham, the aforementioned wealthy widow, and her niece, the sweet and beautiful but dowerless Clara Brereton.  Then there’s Miss Lambe, the “half mulatto” 17-year-old West Indian heiress, who like Anne de Bourgh is extremely rich but sickly.  She’s one of a group of schoolgirls spending the summer in Sanditon, but we don’t really get chance to know any of them.  Assorted other characters arrive in Sanditon, but, before Austen was able to do anything much other than set the scene, that was it: she wasn’t able to write any more.  It’s not even clear who was going to be the hero.

How very frustrating!   I’m sure Andrew Davies has done a good job of it, but we’ll never know what Jane Austen intended to happen – and that’s a shame, because it was shaping up to be very good, and also a bit different from her other books.  I’ve read them all so many times that I practically know them off by heart, but, for some reason, I’d never read this one before.  The Sunday night 9pm slot, the famous Downton Abbey slot, always gets people talking, so, once the ITV series gets going, I’m sure that Sanditon will be being talked about everywhere!  But, in terms of what Jane Austen actually wrote, there isn’t really very much to say.  Unfulfilled promise!

 

Book Bub Valentine’s Day challenge – top ten literary crushes!

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To mark Valentine’s Day, Book Bub posted a list of top book crushes.  I’d never heard of some of them, probably because I don’t read fantasy novels, but the ones I did know were a mixed bag.  Heathcliff – the man who kidnaps young girls and forces them into marrying their cousins.  Mr Rochester – the man who keeps his wife locked up in the attic and tries to commit bigamy with the governess.  Seriously?!  But Gilbert Blythe, Rhett Butler and Mr Darcy – ah, that’s a bit more like it!   Atticus Finch – well, I suppose he gets marks for integrity, but he’s not really all that interesting.  They were all blokes, and there didn’t seem to be a corresponding list of women, which was a bit weird, but maybe they think it’s only blokes who attract admiration from readers!

OK, I need to think of a list of ten.  Excluding people who actually existed, which rules out the major characters of quite a lot of my books!   And, seeing as I can’t make decisions and would never manage to put them in order, this is going to have to be in alphabetical order.

  1. Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables. Gilbert seems to have made most of the other lists I’ve seen, as well!
  2. Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. OK, he’s very annoying, and I would probably get on much better with Ashley Wilkes, who usually had his head in the clouds and his nose in a book, but I love the way Rhett’s always there when he’s needed. There’s a lot to be said for that.
  3. Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia. Preferably as played by Ben Barnes in the film. So much nicer than Peter or Edmund!
  4. Guy Charlton from the Sadler’s Wells books. Everyone laughs at me for this!   OK, teenage Guy, in the Marjorie and Patience books, is a bit of a pain, but Guy as an adult, sorting out Nigel for bullying Jane, rescuing Jane when she gets lost on a Scottish mountain in New Year’s Eve, and then telling her that he quite understands that she’s putting her career before him (unlike Sebastian Scott, who gets in a huge strop when Veronica prioritises her career) … if I was doing this in order, Guy would definitely be at or near the top of the list. And everyone laughs at me for this.
  5. Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. OK, another one who can be annoying, but he’s also there when he’s needed. He’s also a wonderful brother. Oh, and he owns Pemberley. Shame about the first name, though. OK, I know it was his mother’s maiden name, but what did Elizabeth call him in private? Fitz? Will?
  6. Angelo Ibanez from the Sadler’s Wells books.   The Sadler’s Wells books are very romantic!   And I need a Spaniard on the list 🙂 . Angelo, unlike his annoying friend Sebastian, is a perfect gentleman who is polite to everyone and never sarcastic … and he comes to Caroline’s rescue when her life seems to be a mess, and sweeps her off her feet into a new world of personal and professional success. My two favourite Sadler’s Wells girls are Mariella and Caroline, but I think Caroline edges it because I sympathise with her weight traumas!   Having been the fat kid, Caroline becomes beautiful and glamorous at the age of fifteen, when her puppy fat magically disappears. For years, I hoped that that would happen to me. It never did! But that all got bound up in my head with the idea of being swept off your feet with someone like Angelo, so I’ve always liked him. Even though he isn’t Guy.
  7. Count Sergei Nikolayevitch Kirov from the Kirov saga. This is the first Count Sergei, who dies in the first book, not his half-brother, who dies in the second book!   Well, I’ve got to have a Russian in here somewhere, haven’t I?! This is a really melancholy Russian story – Sergei is in love with Anna, his sisters’ English governess, and asks her to marry him. He adores her, and he’s so sweet, but she turns him down. He then finds out that she’s actually in love with his father. His stepmother conveniently dies, and Anna and the father live happily ever after, but poor Sergei is killed in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s very sad 😦 .
  8. Orry Main from North and South. Preferably as played by the late, great Patrick Swayze in the TV series. All right, as his life spirals downwards he walks around looking a mess and drinks too much, but nobody’s perfect, and I do sympathise with that feeling of your life getting out of control. He’s the perfect honourable gentleman – like Ashley Wilkes is meant to be, but without Ashley’s wimpishness
  9. Dr Jem Russell from the Chalet School books. Not only does he take on Madge’s sister, wards, nieces, nephews and sundry other hangers-on, but he’s fine with Madge continuing to run her own business after they’re married – as Rhett Butler is with Scarlett. Best of all, when Madge is upset because people are making unkind remarks about her weight, and decides that she needs to go on a diet, he tells her that she looks fine as she is. That earns him a huge amount of gold stars. I have heard so many nasty remarks about weight over the years that I remember every time anyone’s ever said anything complimentary to me, even really random things like the time I asked a bloke in a newsagent’s in town if he had any sugar free Polo mints and he said I didn’t need to worry about having sugar free stuff. Bless!   I remember all the nasty remarks, of which there’ve been far more, as well, so I love Jem for telling Madge that she looked fine as she was
  10. Captain Frederick Wentworth from Persuasion. I love the way that he goes back to Anne, his first love, when there are younger and prettier girls after him. He’s lovely.

There.  Ten!   A lot of my favourite books don’t feature on this list, because they don’t seem to have decent heroes.  I’m not sure what that says about anything!    And, if anyone does happen to be reading this, please make your own suggestions!   Just not Heathcliff or Mr Rochester, please

 

Lists – ten historical places in time I’d like to visit

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This was a blog challenge idea, and it sounded so easy … but it wasn’t. I was originally going to try to tie it into particular books, but I didn’t get very far with that.  Would I really want to be caught up in the Siege of Atlanta, with or without Rhett Butler to help me escape?  Or in Russia in 1812, with everything being burned to stop the Grande Armee in its tracks?   Or negotiating the politics of the Tudor courts?   One of the balls in Jane Austen books would be a lot more peaceful, but I would very definitely be classed as “not handsome enough to tempt me“. Back to the drawing board.   Try just general places, without specific books.  And the first one has to be Victorian Manchester.  I’m so predictable, aren’t I?

1 – Victorian Manchester. Yes, I know all about the condition of the working-classes: I have read Engels’ book several times.  But this was a time of confidence, and belief, and hope.  This was a time when people believed they could change the world.  Peterloo (OK, that’s Georgian, not Victorian) – it was a tragedy, but it began with the genuine belief that people could win their rights.  The Chartists carried that on, and so did the Suffragettes.  The Anti Corn Law League, the whole campaign for free trade – we even named the Free Trade Hall after it!   The glorious buildings – to have the confidence to do that, even after the Cotton Famine.  The ideas of self-improvement and self-help, and the growth of the trade union movement.  That’s what the world’s missing now – the confidence that we can change things for the better, and getting out there and fighting for it.

And 9 more, in no particular order.

2 – Elizabethan England, again for that feeling of hope and confidence, moving on from the internal turmoil of the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation. Well, until it all went pear-shaped in Charles I’s time, but no-one would have seen that coming back in the Gloriana days.  The flourishing of culture, as well.  I can’t be doing with Shakespeare, but he does symbolise the English Renaissance.  Yes, I know that the Elizabethan Age gets rather mythologised, but you can’t have myths unless you’ve got something to start with.

3 – Venice in the 18th century. I was going to say the Renaissance, but I’m not an arty person, for one thing, and Renaissance Italy involved too much fighting and political chaos and religious intolerance.  Venice in the 18th century, all that grandeur and glamour and elegance, would be a much better bet.  I’ve even got Carnevale masks: I wore them when I went to the Venice Carnival for my, ahem, “significant” birthday in 2015.

4 – Vienna in the late 19th century.  Music and waltzing, literature and philosophy.  I quite fancy the idea of sitting in a Viennese coffee house, exchanging ideas with great minds … who would probably think I was talking a load of utter rubbish and be totally unimpressed with my support for Slavic nationalists. But still.

5 – The Caliphate of Cordoba. OK, this is another one that’s probably been mythologised into a lot more of a Golden Age than it actually was, but there is certainly something in the idea of La Convivencia, the flourishing of Christian and Jewish and Islamic culture together.  We’ve come so far from that, and sometimes it seems as if we’re getting further away from it rather than getting closer towards it again.

6 – I’ve got to have Russia in here somewhere!   I want to be a romantic Slavophile.  I want to walk around wearing a red sarafan (I have actually worn one once) and go on about mysticism and melancholy and the “going to the people” and peasant communes.  Er, except that most of that is romantic rubbish.  I could be a noble in St Petersburg, but that really doesn’t work at all with being a romantic Slavophile.  Oh dear.  I’m going to have to be a revolutionary instead, aren’t I?

7 – The Lake District in the time of the Romantic poets. Hooray – I can get away with Romanticism in this one!   Maybe I could stay with Wordsworth in Grasmere?

8 – I’ve got to have America in here somewhere, as well, but it’s a bit difficult to say that I actually want to be there during “my” period of American history, the 1840s to the 1870s. The Twelve Oaks barbecue does sound like good fun, until war gets declared in the middle of it, but, quite apart from the fact that, as with a Jane Austen ball, I’d be the person no-one wanted to sit with or dance with, it’s a slaveholding society and I just couldn’t be there.  No – it’s going to have to be the American Dream, the immigrants sailing into New York and hoping that they’re going to find that the streets are paved with gold.  OK, it’d probably mean ending up doing backbreaking work in horrible conditions, but, again, it’s that feeling of hope, that belief, that you can make the world a better place and be part of it.

9 – India with Gandhi. I normally refuse to class anything later than the First World War as “history”, but I watched the Gandhi film again recently, and I’ve been reading up on Indian history, and … that incredible idea that you can bring about change by non-violent civil resistance, and the hope – even if it did turn out to be futile – of religious tolerance and co-operation.  There are a lot of groups of people now who have little hope – the Rohingyas spring to mind – but what an inspiration that time was.

10 – Do you know what, I actually do want to go to a Jane Austen era ball? I’d get over no-one wanting to dance with me!   At least the clothes of the time were fairly loose, so I wouldn’t look as fat in them as I would in clothes from some other time periods.  I like that idea of the county society in Jane Austen books, that you did get invited to parties and balls as a matter of course, and weren’t sat at home wondering how you’d get to meet new people.  I am absolutely useless at social occasions and would probably have hated it all in practice, but I do like the idea in theory.  I mean, Mary Bennet does seem to enjoy the balls, doesn’t she, even though everyone thinks she’s weird?  I like the idea of visiting spa towns and “taking the waters” as well.

I just wish I could match all these times and places up to books! But most of the best historical fiction’s set against a background of war and turmoil.  Is that because it appeals to authors, it appeals to readers, or it appeals to me?  And, if anyone’s reading this, please tell me when and where you’d like to go, and if any of our ideas match.  If they do, maybe we can build a time machine and go there together 🙂 .