Friday, August 30, 2013

Holidays at Pemberley Plus Giveaway at The Book Rat

 Austen in August rages on, and yesterday featured a sneak peak at one of the climaxes from my next novel, Holidays at Pemberley, or Third Encounters: A Tale of Less Pride & Prejudice Concludes (you can read the beginning of the novel at the page above). I don't usually share scenes that give so much away, but as everything from this book seems to be a spoiler to the previous two, I threw caution to the wind this time. Please check it out here and enter to win a copies of First Impressions and Second Glances while you're at it!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Mansfield Park Read Along Part One: Becoming Mrs. Norris

This is definitely a bit unorthodox, but I've made the same arguments for Mansfield a thousand times, and I don't currently have the energy to do it again. As Misty left the door open to creativity in her Austen in August Mansfield Park Read Along, I'm stepping through. This has been in my head for several years, but such a tale being thoroughly unmarketable, I've never acted on it. Know I am winging this. What you see is the rough draft. I have no idea where it will go, but I hope to have something like a coherent tale in the three posts allotted to Read Along responses. Here goes ...

Becoming Mrs. Norris: A Prequel
by Alexa Adams

Between them, the Misses Wards had 21,000 pounds, more than enough to cover the costs of their housing, feeding, and servants, and each year their uncle, the lawyer, presented the eldest with a tally sheet, detailing precisely why he was owed all of their interest earned. Miss Ward had learned not to question his figures, no matter how fantastic they might be. To do so would bring down upon her the dreaded charge of ingratitude, a sentiment Mr. Ward found particularly distasteful in his nieces, whose guardianship he only begrudgingly undertook. They made his inheritance, unlooked for and unneeded, more an encumbrance than fortune. What good to him, for whom the country held no pleasure, was his elder brother's modest estate? He often swore he would rather his brother had lived, though there was no love between them, and not so burdened him so, but the law declared the ladies his responsibility, and he was a strict upholder of the law.

In his eye, the three ladies were guilty of the unforgivable crime of being orphans. It was ludicrous to blame his brother: never intelligent and far to dead to feel his guilt. The two youngest Miss Wards were similarly vacuous, but the eldest was more capable. She alone was fully sensible of her culpability, and so for her did he reserve his most venomous complaints.

Knowing her privileged position within the household, Miss Ward did her best to protect Maria and Francis from his rage, and over the years she had learned how to minimize his fits of temper. At 21, having survived 11 years in his care, she knew how to best engage his meagre supply of sympathy.

Knocking on the open door, "Sir? May I claim a moment of your time?"

He looked up through a cloud of pipe smoke and fixed her with a glare before consulting his pocket watch. "You have two minutes."

She stepped into the terrible glare emanating from the great windows behind the desk, but she willed her eyes not to blink. Better to water mercilessly than display such a weakness before her guardian. "I request your permission to invite a gentleman to dinner tomorrow evening. He is calling upon Miss Maria now. This is the third time he has called since they were introduced at last week's assembly."

He sneered, eyes still on his watch. "I suppose I shall have to bear the expense of feeding all the foolish gentlemen who are susceptible to a pretty face and empty head. Who is he?"

"Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park." She tried to hide the satisfaction in the words.

He looked up. "Mr. Norris' guest? The baronet?"

"The same."

"He should not bothering with Maria. She's at least three thousand pounds short of being worthy of his interest."

"You underestimate the appeal of becoming manners and complaisance, Uncle."

"I doubt it," he snorted, "but if Sir Thomas fancies an empty headed wife, I shall not be the one to throw a rub in his way. Invite him for Thursday, when Richards dines. That will minimize the expense."

"Yes, Uncle," she replied and retreated, before he had the opportunity to scold that her two minutes had expired.

Rejoining her sisters in the drawing room was like reentering another world from that which lay just down the passage, sulfurous and bright. Maria's gentle laughter, like the sound of the angel she was, rang forth. "My dear sister!" she cried with an unusual degree of animation. "You will not believe what Sir Thomas has been telling us! He has property in the West Indies, and he has actually journeyed all that way to see it for himself! Can you imagine?"

Miss Ward beamed at her sister indulgently before casting her eyes towards Sir Thomas, whom she saw was just as charmed by Maria's innocence as she had always been. With uncharted pleasure she replied, "A gentleman of honor and intelligence must wish to be in command of all his interests. To leave land in the stewardship of others, with no supervision whatsoever, would be negligent."

Maria shook her curls in negation. "But what of the danger? I am glad, Sir Thomas," she said candidly, "that no hardship befell you on such a journey, but I hope you will never have occasion to ever so venture again. I do not know how I might bear the worry."

Sir Thomas looked as if he needed only the slightest urging to secure such a becoming display of concern as his very own. Miss Ward saw it all with an anticipation that boarded on pain. The prospect of such a match, and the liberation she associated with it, was like a wild fantasy come true.

It had long been brought to bear upon her how much depended on each of the sisters securing husbands. It was only the second evening she spent in her uncle's house, not a week following the death of both her parents, that she was first summoned into the forbidding office from which her uncle over saw all his concerns. There was no sun to blind her then, but the multitude of tallow candles which her uncle deemed necessary to illuminate his domain had much the same effect, their smoke combining with that of his cigar to make the ten-year old cough and gag.

He watched her silently until the fit subsided, making it perfectly clear that he had no intention of offering her any comfort, and then said, "Edmund would saddle me with sickly brats. If you are all inclined towards colds and ailments, I'll have you off to school at once."

"No, sir! That is ..."

"I'll not have my household disordered, do you understand? I can only guess what kind of liberality you are used to enjoying, but I will not have waste and idleness under my roof. The three of you will remain in my charge until you marry or reach the age of twenty-five, at which point you may undertake the guardianship of your sisters. Between that time and this, I suggest you busy yourselves in attaining those accomplishments that will secure my relief from your burden as soon as possible. The interest from your dowries may be used towards this end. I'll not fund such nonsense, of that you may be sure!"

A bewildered Miss Ward was abruptly dismissed and returned to her grieving sisters, still overcome by shock at the loss of family and home, as determined  to be married with the greatest possible swiftness as her uncle could hope. Their removal from Opperthon had been a heavy blow so close on the heels of their parent's carriage accident, but their uncle lived in Huntington when he was not in London, and having no affection for his familial home, he ordered the place shut up and gave the servants leave. Finding a tenant was proposed, but as no one ever emerged who was willing to meet Mr. Wards terms, the house had now stood empty for almost half her lifetime, all of which had been devoted to the goal of finding husbands for her sisters.

For herself, Miss Ward had long found security and satisfaction in the general assumption that she would, someday, marry Mr. Richards, her uncle's clerk. She liked James. They shared the ready sympathy of fellow sufferers at the hand of the same tyrant. His prospects were good enough to match her own ambitions, which were very modest, and their understanding freed her energy to focus on her sisters'. She could wish that he might be able to marry sooner, but such happiness must wait upon the advancement of his career (which Mr. Ward, considering his complaints against his nieces, was remarkably reluctant to promote) or the death of his maternal grandmother, a remarkably stout woman of 72, to whose small, free-hold property he was heir. A prize like Sir Thomas Bertram was hitherto unimaginable.

The entrance of the baronet to their society was a brilliant light shinning where all had always been dark. As soon as Miss Ward saw him at the assembly, she knew he would be an ideal husband for Maria. She busied herself for the first few sets positioning their chaperone, an elderly and somewhat feeble neighbor, so as to maximize the likelihood of capturing Sir Thomas' attention. The gratification of the introduction was quickly amplified by his request for Maria hand, a circumstance Miss Ward was certain would have taken much longer to occur if she hadn't been forward enough to suggest it. A second dance was claimed later in the evening, by which time all those attending were abuzz with Miss Maria's triumph. She smiled and received the congratulations of those so bold as to give them with her typical, languid grace. Miss Ward, on the other hand, saw the conquest as her own, and her satisfaction in this suddenly illuminated path towards liberation was palpable.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Amelia Webster at Austen in August, plus an Elegant Extracts Giveaway

 I just returned form five days in Texas with my family last night, and while the trip was lovely, the homecoming has been a series of minor crises. Sometimes its hard to get back into the rhythm of home.

It wasn't helpful that my daughter appropriated my Kindle for the entire trip, and the copy of Mansfield Park that I dutifully downloaded on to it in preparation for the Austen in August (at the read along (sign up here) has yet to be opened. Having already read all the magazines American Airlines has to offer, I broke down and bought a book in the Austin airport for the ride home: J. K. Rowling's A Casual Vacancy. It's awesome! I can't put it down.

Despite my distractions, Austen in August presses forward, and I'm actually featured there today. I've been making my Elegant Extracts books again, this time featuring a piece of Austen's juvenilia: a short epistolary piece entitled Amelia Webster. In my guest post (read it here), I dig into the short tale, examining it in the context of Austen's development as a writer. I hope you'll read it and enter to win one of three copies up for grabs!

Soon I will dig into Mansfield and post my thoughts on the first volume, but right now the people of Pagford are calling for my attention. They make the residents of Mansfield Park look downright cheery, even Mrs. Norris, but I'm afraid I can't bear to be out of their company right now.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Jane Austen's England by Roy and Leslie Adkins

I received this book for review from Viking Press. Jane Austen's England will be released on August 15th, and it is one of several books by Roy and Leslie Adkins, a spousal writing partnership. Here they attempt to "show how the mass of ordinary people ... lived and worked in [Jane Austen's] England," focusing not on the genteel society she depicts, but the working people who supported such elegance. It was a time where horribly brutality was both commonplace and extremely public, and they relate detailed instances of babies drowning in cesspools, the market for corpses, the dreadful treatment of animals, and all the horror of child labor. It is a far cry from the ballrooms and parlors Jane Austen's name brings to mind.

Then again, maybe it really isn't. The Adkinses in many ways succeed in painting a vivid picture of what life was like for the majority, but they "have relied upon the words of people who lived at the time" to do so, and most of those who left such writings lived rather genteel lives. Pretty much all the first-hand accounts come from people who are easily comparable to both Austen's fictional characters and those amongst whom she lived. I found it somewhat irritating that the authors insisted on referring to these people as middle-class, when I would definitely describe them as gentry. The primary and most likable voice is that of Reverend James Woodforde, an unmarried clergyman who held the living at Weston Longville in Norfolk for most of his life, and whose life and times correspond pretty exactly to that of George Austen, Jane's father (Woodforde was a few years younger and died two years sooner). He was at least well off enough to be a sufferer from gout. Another major voice belongs to William Holland, another rector, and a rather curmudgeonly one. Most quotes from him involve criticism of his fellow beings, and it's is not until about two thirds of the way through the book that we learn the reason for his bad attitude: four of his five children died within two weeks of each other from scarlet fever. Until he so gained my sympathy, I pretty much had him and his wife pegged as Mr. and Mrs. Elton. Nevertheless, some of his writings are the most interesting included, providing great insight into the inescapable force of gossip during the era. Still more interesting to me were the observations of foreign travelers to England, like Carl Moritz from Germany and Bejamin Silliman from the United States. Georgette Heyer fans will get a kick out of the hostility with which Moritz was treated upon arriving on foot at a coaching inn. The one obscure woman quoted is Nelly Weeton, a governess, and much is made of her inclusion in both the intro to the book and the publicity for it. I suppose female voices are hard to find, and an impoverished governess must always be a figure of interest, but Bronte devotees might find her experiences disappointingly pleasant. Except when her student died in blaze of fire, she seems to have had a very pleasant situation in the Lake District, and she was retained by her employer as companion to the lady of the house (a marriage worthy of Heyer) after the child's decease. 

Whenever relevant, Austen's letters are referenced. Her books are mentioned as well, but to less effect. Each chapter (organized by life events, from birth to death) begins with a quote from on of Austen's novels, but they don't always seem terribly well chosen. It is my suspicion that the authors are more familiar with her letters than her novels, which would make sense for the Adkinses, who are by profession archeologists, but Janeites reading this book might get frustrated with the simplified analysis of her writings. Unsurprisingly, it is usually Pride and Prejudice that is referenced. I admit to beginning this book with some suspicion as to why Jane Austen's name was in the title at all. Could this just be an attempt to capitalize on the Austen mania surrounding the 200th anniversary of P&P's publication? My concerns on that point were laid to rest in the chapter entitled "Dark Deeds," in which the authors tackle criminality. They make wonderful use of the case of Austen's aunt, Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, who was arrested on suspicion of stealing lace, to illustrate the massive inequalities of the justice system. Fascinatingly, William Holland wrote about the trial, assuming Mrs. Leigh-Perrot's guilt, even after she was found innocent. Here's red meat for the Janeite! Too bad they didn't leverage Cousin Eliza de Feuillide experience with the court system during William Hasting's impeachment trial to similar effect. 

What the book attempts is impressive. I was particularly enthralled when menstruation came up, a topic on which I have never found any information. Unfortunately, neither did the authors, but their conjectures on how women might have handled the situation makes this the only resource I have ever found on the subject. Pretty much every detail of daily life is dealt with in depth, presenting an often gory picture of a massively unequal society. While I heartily recommend it, there is one caveat: if you read Austen's works to escape the harshness of reality (as I imagine is the case for most of my readers), than this is probably not the book for you. Though not much of what I encountered in Jane Austen's England was surprising, having it all illustrated so vividly introduces the very real problem of how to read her books without being haunted by images of rats, decomposing bodies, and sewage. Shall I ever be able to write a ball scene again without mentioning the unbearable stench of unwashed flesh and putrid breath? I certainly hope so!   

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Musings on Elizabeth and Darcy, plus Various Announcements

 "Manners, Trojan!" Darcy scolded and then assured the man as he pulled open the ponderous sentinels, "Be easy; I sent no word, Jacob. Back by two," he warned. Nodding his thanks, he and Trojan left behind his ancestral lands with the express intention of escaping for a few hours the wrenching grip of sorrow and fear that had taken possession of it.
Once on the road to Lambton, Darcy loosed his restraint and allowed Trojan and himself to release of a good run. The horse's hooves kicked up an appalling amount of slush and mud, spattering him from head to toe, but what did it matter? The sense of abandon, of freedom was exactly what he needed! The cold air set his lungs to burning and his eyes to watering, but it felt marvelous, it felt ... alive!
I begin this musing remembering Pamela Aiden's remarkable portrayal of a young Fitzwilliam Darcy in A Lesson in Honour because I think she got him exactly right. Inside the rigid Mr. Darcy is a free spirit, one caged by responsibility and societal expectation. My most recent reading of Pride and Prejudice (I'm slowly making my way through David M. Shapard's revised and expanded annotated edition - his Annotated Northanger Abbey is due out October 1st! Can't wait!) has emphasized the notion of Elizabeth as a representation of the freedom he yearns for, particularly poignant at this moment:
In Meryton they parted; the two youngest repaired to the lodgings of one of the officers' wives, and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.
The image of Ms. Aiden's Young Master Darcy (a book I haven't read in more than two years, check out my review here) instantly came to mind when I read these familiar lines. Mr. Darcy is immediately torn by the dueling claims of propriety and his appreciation for the very wildness that Mr. Bingley's sisters later deride:
She was shewn into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. -- That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother's manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. -- Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion's justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.
His attraction to Elizabeth has already survived her indecorum in addressing him directly at the Lucas' party, instead of waiting for him, her social superior, to speak first, and when she proves her self to be further exceptional by declining (twice!) his offers to dance, his interest is further piqued. This small post is nothing more than an opportunity for me to bask in the joy of considering Elizabeth as Mr. Darcy longed for liberation, which makes her so much better than even a soulmate. As sure as he rescues her from a life of instability and poverty, she rescues him from the expectations of Lady Catherine and all those (which is to say near everybody) of her ilk. Is it not the measure of a perfect book when, after countless reading, it continues to produce new and unexpected sources of delight?

Now just a few bits of business. I have created a page where the finished version of the first chunk of Holidays at Pemberley may be read (look up, or click here). The book will be released on November 20th! Hurray! I'm so excited to have an actual publication date that I'm really not sure what to do with such priceless information. Action will dawn on me in time.

I also want to tout the upcoming Austen in August event at The Book Rat, one of my favorite annual celebrations of all things Jane. I get to participate a lot this year, and I'm really excited! I believe there will be reviews posted of First Impressions and Second Glances (maybe giveaway copies too?), and Holidays at Pemberley will receive it's first big push (if I get to provide an excerpt it will definitely be from a part not already posted here, so do check it out!). I'm also contributing a post on "Amelia Webster," (see Austen's Juvenilia) and the epistolary format, and I'm making some of my Elegant Extract books of the story for giveaway. Plus there's a Mansfield Park read along happening! I have no certain idea as to what other authors will be participating, but they are all sure to be wonderful, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. The fun starts August 18th!

One last note to everyone who was so kind as to provide feedback on my Jane and Bigley: Something Slightly Unsettling project. I'm removing the survey now as all who responded told me to go for it! This was just the encouragement I needed. Thank you! Look for the story on this blog before Halloween. I plan to release it in parts, just as I posted Emma & Elton, before publishing an ebook version.

Thanks for reading!