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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Gentle Readers, This review discusses an historical novel based on one of Jane Austen’s least admired characters, Mary Bennet. Katherine Cowley manages to keep my interest in the growth of Mary in her self-confidence and talents.

The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception is Katherine Cowley’s third installment of a series of five books based on Mr and Mrs Bennet’s middle daughter. Cowley, in her three published novels, has captured Mary’s qualities and mannerisms, as well as her vulnerability and insecurities. In three novels Mary’s been transformed from a character living in the shadows of her vivacious sisters to a woman with the daring and tenacity of a spy. The background of the three novels is the Napoleonic Wars. 

Covers of Katherine Cowley's first three books

In the first novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, we met Mary sitting by her father’s deathbed alone at night. During this sad time, she anticipated a life of silent misery under the rule of her widowed mother. In the early hours someone knocks on the door. Enter Lady Trafford and her nephew Mr Withrow. Claiming to be a distant relation, she invites Mary to visit her in a castle along the shores of the Sussex Coast. Lady Trafford sees a silent strength in Mary and recognizes her isolation from her family, and her patience, and accurate observations. After a time as her guest, she invites Mary to become a spy and promises to train her. 

Author Katherine Cowley astutely endears the reader to Austen’s Mary, while pointing out the skills that this middle sister learned as she lived in her sisters’ shadows, for Mary’s strength as a spy lies in her natural state of invisibility. She’s a nobody. Anonymous and unnoticed. Therefore, she’s the perfect spy. She’s also a stickler for keeping copious and accurate notes. 

Oh, Mary’s still self-deprecating and annoyingly awkward, but these traits are familiar to the Austen reader. Her transformation as a double agent and her release from dependency on her family as an unmarried female makes sense. (Read my review of the novel in this link.)

In book two of the series, entitled The True Confessions of a London Spy, Mary travels to London to ostensibly visit the Darcys, who are residing in their splendid London townhouse. We see this couple through Mary’s eyes. Better yet, her younger sister Kitty is visiting as well, as is Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. Cowley’s descriptions of Mary’s interactions and perceptions with her relatives and acquaintances are developed in a satisfying way.  

In True Confessions Mary must wend her way to follow Mr Darcy’s strict rules for single female visitors to his house and the freedom she needs to spy on an assortment of gentlemen, one of whom is suspected of murder. The author writes a fascinating account of our revisit with a beloved Austen couple along with Mary’s growing self-awareness and as a spy. Better yet, Mary receives her first proposal!  In this novel the reader discovers that while Mary does not regard herself as particularly beautiful or interesting, some men found her fascinating. Cowley threads many historical details in this tale, while keeping the spotlight on our spy heroine.

Book Three takes us to The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, one of five novels she’s contracted to write for Tule Publishing. The third installment about Mary’s journey as a spy does not disappoint. In this book, she and the spy team of Lady Tafford and Mr Whitford are shipped off to Brussels, a city that plays an important part in the events prior to the battle of Waterloo. Mary’s honed her spy skills. She’s learned to shoot a pistol and has improved her disguises in a variety of roles and accents.

Cowley weaves fiction and history together in a way that satisfies both my love for historical novels and romance. Her Mary Bennet is written with great respect towards Austen’s character. 

As a wide-eyed and bushy tailed 20-something and in love with Jane Austen’s novels, I was aghast to learn she had written only six. In desperation to find another Austen, I turned to Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. My flat mate and I DEVOURED them. Now, in my (ahem) more mature age, I appreciate Heyer’s historical novels more than her light comedies.

Heyer’s An Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride are considered to be so historically accurate that few find fault with her research. Cowley’s writing style is her own; like Heyer she weaves a romance and a mystery into an account of the weeks prior to Waterloo. The Book Tour’s media kit succinctly states:

Life changes once again for British spy Miss Mary Bennet when Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from the Isle of Elba. Mary quickly departs England for Brussels, the city where the Allied forces prepare for war against the French. But shortly after her arrival, one of the Duke of Wellington’s best officers is murdered, an event which threatens to break the delicate alliance between the Allies.

Investigating the murder forces Mary into precarious levels of espionage, role-playing, and deception with her new partner, Mr. Withrow-the nephew and heir of her prominent sponsor, and the spy with whom she’s often at odds. Together, they court danger and discovery as they play dual roles gathering intelligence for the British. But soon Mary realizes that her growing feelings towards Mr. Withrow put her heart in as much danger as her life. And then there’s another murder.

Mary will need to unmask the murderer before more people are killed, but can she do so and remain hidden in the background?”

While Cowley is spare in her descriptions, she offers more details than Austen. She includes important characters like Sir Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, Prussian General Blücher and William of Orange (later King William II of The Netherlands), who at the time of Waterloo was a Lieutenant-General. All interact with Mary in her various guises. I found Cowley’s details of Brussels with its many canals and the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball satisfying. She did not dwell overly long on the battle, but gave it enough pages to recount its horrors, just as she provided more than an amuse-bouche to Mary’s budding romance. 

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One last observation for purists: At the end of the book, Cowley acknowledges that for the sake of her plot she changed some historical facts. She lists them and mentions why the changes were made. Of Cowley’s three novels, I found this one the most satisfying and look forward to reading the remaining two Mary Bennet adventures.

Author Bio

Katherine-Cowley-225x300

Author Catherine Cowley

Katherine Cowley read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when she was ten years old, which started a lifelong obsession with Jane Austen. Her debut novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her Mary Bennet spy series continues with the novels The True Confessions of a London Spy and The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception. Katherine loves history, chocolate, traveling, and playing the piano, and she has taught writing classes at Western Michigan University.

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One bookshop. Fifty-one rules. Three women who break them all.

Natalie Jenner, the internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, has gifted us with her newest book, Bloomsbury Girls, just in time for summer! It’s a compelling and heartwarming story of a century-old bookstore and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.

Book Description:

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances–most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time–Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others–these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

Purchase the Book HERE

My Review

Bloomsbury Girls is the perfect read for those of us who love a story that’s set in a bookstore and is filled with books and bookish people. As I began to read, it first reminded me of 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, a slim volume that is forever memorable for most of us who have read it and/or seen the film. I enjoy books where the setting (the house, the shop, the city) is so special and memorable that it becomes like another character in the reader’s mind. In Jenner’s novel, Bloomsbury Books itself is a very much alive and poignant character–and one I enjoyed immensely.

Beyond the setting and the great bibliophile feels the book provides, Jenner has done an exquisite job of weaving together a beautiful cast of characters and their individual stories. There is depth and complexity to each character, each couple, each department head, each story arc.

Finally, the storylines surrounding the three lead female characters are delightfully drawn. I found myself intrigued by each one, enjoying their individual stories as well as the bigger plot at hand. When they begin to work together and their stories begin to tie together and intertwine, it’s intriguing and delightful. The things they accomplish when they link arms is truly inspiring.

Overall, this is a fun, summery read filled with all the good things I love most. I hope you’ll stop in and visit Bloomsbury Books. Though it may seem like an ordinary British bookstore at first glance, there is so much more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.

Audiobook

If you have a long car trip ahead, or if you prefer to listen to your books while you work, the audio version of this book promises to be incredible. Acclaimed actor and narrator Juliet Stevenson, CBE, narrated the audiobook for Bloomsbury Girls, with a performance that has been called “vocal virtuosity.”

Stevenson is best known for her roles in Emma, Truly, Madly, Deeply, Bend it Like Beckham, Mona Lisa Smile, Being Julia, and Infamous. She is also the BAFTA-nominated and Olivier Award-winning star of many Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre productions. Regarded as one of the finest audiobook narrators working today, Stevenson’s other recent narrations include Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia and the collected works of Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier.

Listen to the beginning of the audiobook here:

Stream Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner, audiobook introduction from MacmillanAudio | Listen online for free on SoundCloud

About the Author

NATALIE JENNER is the author of the instant international bestseller The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls. A Goodreads Choice Award runner-up for historical fiction and finalist for best debut novel, The Jane Austen Society was a USA Today and #1 national bestseller, and has been sold for translation in twenty countries. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie has been a corporate lawyer, career coach and, most recently, an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. Visit her website to learn more.



RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog. She is the bestselling author of The Little Women Devotional, The Anne of Green Gables Devotional and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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A Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

“Mr. Curtis’s [the apothecary’s] opinions were succinct . . . He looked at me–and into me, by way of a lanthorn beam directed down my throat–and pronounced me in want only of a period of rest and refreshment.”–Jane and the Year Without a Summer

Jane and the Year Without a Summer by Stephanie Barron is the newest “Jane Austen Mystery.”

Jane and the Year Without a Summer is the fourteenth book in a delightful series by Stephanie Barron. The novels show Jane Austen solving mysteries. I’ve enjoyed all of them! In the first of the series, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, she solved the murder of an earl in 1802. In each book, actual events, people, and places in Jane’s life are mixed with fiction, mystery, and a little romance.

In Jane and the Year Without a Summer, we’ve reached May 1816. So we’re nearing the end, sadly. Jane is suffering from the disease that will eventually kill her. But, of course, she doesn’t know that yet. So she goes to Cheltenham Spa with Cassandra to try the waters. She hates them, but, as always, gets involved in, and solves, a mystery. And she meets up with a romantic interest from a previous book.

You can enjoy this story without having read earlier books in the series. It’s been quite some time since I read the previous book, and I still followed this one easily.

Nothing really mysterious happens until over a third of the way through the book. But I enjoyed hanging out with Jane and Cassandra until then, and appreciating the real historical details woven into their story. The family is experiencing hard times, with Henry’s bank failure; Edward fighting a lawsuit; and Charles surviving a shipwreck and facing an inquiry over the loss of his ship. The apothecary tells Jane she needs a rest, so she uses some of her income from Emma to take Cassandra to a popular spa town.

The Year Without a Summer

At their boarding house, they meet a clergyman who calls himself a “man of Science.” (Though “natural philosophy” or “natural history” would have been more common terms used at the time.)  He prophesies apocalyptic desolations on the earth, based on an actual event.

Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted the year before (1815), the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history.  It filled the world’s atmosphere with ash for several years. This made 1816 a “year without a summer,” when crops failed and people went hungry around the globe. 

Austen experienced a wet, cool summer. John Constable pictures a storm moving in over Weymouth Bay that year, 1816. Public domain via wikiart.

Medicine

In another area of science, we hear the dubious medical advice of the Alton apothecary and the Cheltenham doctor. A real doctor is mentioned, though, who revolutionized medicine during Austen’s time by inventing vaccines.

Edward Jenner lived in Cheltenham at the time. He discovered that he could give people cowpox in order to prevent smallpox. (“Vaccination” comes from Latin “vacca,” meaning cow.)  Jane thinks that he “is of such dubious brilliance that some regard him as the Devil, and others as a god.” She says she was vaccinated by her friend Madame Lefroy, a clergyman’s wife who did vaccinate many people in her parish, near the Austens’ parish.

James Gillray’s 1802 cartoon, “The Cow-Pock, or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!” shows cows emerging from the bodies of people being vaccinated, illustrating the public’s fears of vaccination. Public domain via wikipedia.

“Weaknesses” of Women

The Cheltenham doctor Jane consults claims that her health problems are due to “an excess of uterine influence.” He claims that “denying the organ its proper function of childbearing” causes it to release poisons into the body, causing “every kind of affliction” common to women! Jane doesn’t think much of his advice. She comments to Cassandra that childbearing itself is even worse; some of their relatives died in childbirth.

Attitudes toward women are threaded through the novel. Jane’s brother James tells her, “the female mind is too weak to support the rigors of composition, and must necessarily fall into vice.” Jane, of course, ignores this. I’m wondering if James ever said anything like this (readers, do you know?), or if it’s just a reflection of popular attitudes. James wrote a poem, after the publication of Sense and Sensibility, praising her writing and adjuring her to continue writing. So if he said something like this later, it was quite a change.

[Spoiler alert—skip this paragraph if you wish.] The mysteries of the novel center around a frail young invalid, Miss Williams. She is trying to achieve independence. Her wealthy father’s will gave her an inheritance when she married, but she will lose control of it if she gets pregnant (or dies). So she becomes anorexic, refusing to eat. One of Barron’s many helpful notes tells us that anorexia frequently prevented menstruation and conception. So women sometimes used that choice as a way to control their own lives. However, when people close to “Miss Williams” die, questions arise. Is her wastrel husband trying to kill her to get her inheritance? Or is something else going on?

Stephanie Barron not only tells a compelling story, she has obviously done her research on Jane Austen’s life and world. We learn fun details ranging from how transparencies were made and displayed, to how much Princess Charlotte’s wedding gown cost.

I think any Austen fan will enjoy reading about Jane Austen’s fictional adventures during “the year without a summer.”

Jane and the Year Without a Summer comes out on Feb. 8. Enjoy!

Brenda S. Cox also posts on “Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen,” and is working on a book entitled “Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England.”

For a scholarly examination, see Tambora and the “Year Without a Summer” of 1816 

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I had the great pleasure of “meeting” Zöe Wheddon, author of Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd, online earlier this year. Her book immediate caught my eye because I’ve always been intrigued by the friendship between Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd. (You can read my book review here.) We started to chat and instantly hit it off. She’s a kindred spirit for sure!

The following is my interview with Zöe about her writing process, her thoughts on friendship, and some of her favorite highlights from her research for Jane Austen’s Best Friend. Zöe grew up and lives in Austen’s Hampshire countryside, and I think you’ll enjoy her unique perspective.

Question: What was it about Jane and Martha’s friendship that intrigued you and what inspired you to write this book?

Answer: I had been reading lots of biographies about Jane Austen following taking part in the Basingstoke Book Bench Art Trail to commemorate the bicentenary of her death and I was volunteering at Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House, at Chawton in Alton. Martha just seemed to pop out of her bedroom one day and say hello to me. I was so compelled to find out more when I discovered that Martha had lived with Jane for such a long long time. It struck me as a rare and poignant position that she held within the household, a quiet yet fundamental person in Janes’ circle, someone very close knit with her but who was not a blood relative. I had to know more about this person – I knew she must have been pretty special for Jane to keep her so close and for so long. I was so surprised to learn that there was nothing much written about Martha and the more I researched the more amazed and intrigued I became.  I was delighted to learn that this lovely lady had been there for Jane and it honestly made me so happy to find out about the different elements of their friendship, I just had to find out more.

Question: Can you tell us about some of the ways Martha impacted Jane’s life as a woman and as a writer? Why did Jane and Martha have such a strong bond?

Answer: Jane met Martha at an important time in her life, she was fresh back from boarding school and turning 13, when Martha moved into the neighbourhood. 10 years older than Jane, she was a breath of fresh air, with that curious mixture of sense and sense of humour and the pair became thick as thieves. I think that Martha and Jane were kindred spirits who brought out the best in one another. The fact that they had so much in common helped, but that they both wanted to explore their talents and creative ideas also drew them closer together. They were the type of best friends that shared that special and unique blend of being able to encourage each other and also, at the same time, to not let each other off the hook. Their strongest bond was their shared Christian faith which meant so much to them both in terms of identity but their sense of humour was the glue that held them together. 

Question: Describe your research process for this book. What were some of your personal highlights?

Answer: I started by reading all of Jane’s letters and looking for any reference to Martha and her family – we don’t have many of Jane’s letters left, for as we know her sister Cassandra burnt them all, which was an Austen family tradition, but we have quite a few either written to Martha or talking about her. I loved the humorous side eye that Jane gave Martha in them – I felt as if I was listening in on one of their private conversations.

I also read lots of family diaries, including the pocket books that belonged to Martha’s sister Mary and family Wills and letters. I truly love being in an archive, as it is thrilling to open up original documents that are hundreds of years old.

I also visited lots of significant places in Martha’s life. I was struck at how the scenery and landscape of their shared Hampshire experiences reflected that of Jane’s novels. It was so incredible to go back to different locations and see what is left too. Sometimes there was a whole building or church, albeit extended and amended, sometimes there was one simple entrance tower, as in the case of the church where Martha married Francis Austen, and sometimes there was a housing estate built right on top – How I would have loved to have seen the real Portsdown Lodge.

I also did lots and lots of reading and spent many hours curled up on the floor in my local library or typing away in a coffee shop. Reading and researching and then heading back out on their trail and discovering different elements that still existed was a huge thrill. Visiting Martha’s grave was very special, to trace her life from start to finish and to marvel at all she had experienced was humbling.

I started out being very envious of Martha, being Jane’s best friend, but by the end of my journey, I was pretty envious of Jane – Martha was one amazing lady.

Question: How have your friendships shaped your life and why do you think close friendships are so important?

Answer: Like Jane Austen, I too have a small circle of friends, and it is a cliché to say it, but my husband, Matt, who I have been married to for 30 years really is my best friend. We have grown up together, having got married quite young at 19 and 21 respectively. There is something so lovely about having so many memories and in jokes and that sort of short hand that best friends have. I have another special friend who goes back years too, and the best thing is that it doesn’t matter if we don’t see each other for a while – we just seem to pick up where we left off, which is lovely. I also have a friend with whom I can keep everything real, we know we can tell each other how we are truly feeling and that we will be understood, without any judgement. I think everyone needs at least one friend that they know they can call in the middle of the night or the middle of an emergency – knowing that they are in your corner helps keep us sane.

Question: What has your experience been growing up and living in Jane Austen’s Hampshire?

Answer: My grandparents lived in Overton, a village just next door to Jane Austen’s Steventon and I visited often as a child. I feel so lucky to be able to relate to the settings and the countryside in Jane’s novels, as they always seem like another character in themselves to me, and through this shared experience, I have always felt such a personal and profound connection to Jane Austen. Locally we are so proud of Jane. For the bicentenary of her death the town commissioned a statue of her, to be placed in the market square, just outside the Town Hall and opposite where she is believed to have danced at local balls. Knowing that she lived and moved and had her being in the same places as I do has always felt magical.

In fact, the reason I started researching Martha Lloyd in the first place was after taking part in an Art Trail of Book Benches scattered across the local Hampshire area; at sites Jane visited, stayed at and lived in. Each bench was designed and painted by a local artist. (See photo below of me sitting on the one outside St. Nicholas’ Church in Steventon.) This experience plunged me into a reading frenzy. I read every biography of Jane that I could get my hands on. As I read more, I started volunteering at Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House and I kept hearing Martha’s name mentioned here and there.  I spotted her in my mind’s eye, on the edge of this special family group. I imagined what that must have felt like, and so I started following her – I had to know more. I felt that Martha might be able to teach me something about Jane that other biographers could not. Thrillingly, I was right.

Question: Do you continue to visit the Jane Austen sites often? 

Answer: I visit Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House on a regular basis, as often as I can and at least twice a year, because they feel like such special places. Truly. With just a short, 45-minute drive I can be walking where Jane walked, taking in the views which are fundamentally unchanged from when she gazed upon the same verdure. I just love it.

Question: When did you start reading Austen?

Answer: I started reading Austen at the age of about 9. I remember being intrigued by a set of books with such long and unusual titles. I loved the alliteration ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and even though I didn’t really know what they meant, they seemed so enigmatic to me. I wish I still had those copies.

Question: Do you feel as though being a “Hampshire girl” yourself has given you special insight into Austen’s life?

Answer: I have always felt deeply rooted in Hampshire; I love that I have the same feeling of ‘home’ there that Jane and Martha did. Researching the book and venturing out into the local environs, I tangibly felt their strong bond weaved within their shared environment and surroundings. They both adored walking, getting out and about, exploring and enjoying the natural world. To a large extent time stands still when you are out in the countryside and it is a privilege that as a Hampshire girl one can feel closer to them there, out in the fields, than anywhere else. 


Thank you to Zöe for taking the time to answer my questions! I’m sure you can now see why I was interested in this book and in knowing more about Zöe’s life and writing. It’s especially lovely to read a book about our beloved Jane that is written from the viewpoint of an author who is a Hampshire girl herself. -Rachel


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A native of Jane Austen’s beloved county of Hampshire, Zöe Wheddon lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their 3 grown up children and their cat Leia. When she is not researching or writing, Zöe can be found in the classroom teaching Spanish and French or singing ABBA songs loudly in her kitchen. People can get to know her better at www.zoewheddon.co.uk.

Zoe Wheddon, Author

SOCIAL MEDIA

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ABOUT THE BOOK

JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD is a heart-warming examination of the ‘recipe for friendship’ between Jane Austen, (with whom all Janeites are best friends in their imaginations,) and Martha Lloyd. In looking back somewhat longingly at Martha and Jane’s strong and enduring bond we can examine all their interests, including the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats.

Through an examination of the defining moments of their shared lives together, the book gives readers an insight into the inner circle of the famously enigmatic and private authoress and the life changing force of their friendship.

All fans for Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that. JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Each chapter details fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

Available in the USA with Pen and Sword/Casemate.


Amazon (US)
Barnes and Noble (US)
Bookshop.org (UK)


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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by Brenda S. Cox

“Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” – Sanditon

This is the only time Jane Austen clearly introduces a black or mixed-race character in her fiction. And we don’t know what direction she was going to go with this young lady. (Though obviously the producers of Sanditon have made their own speculations, as have the authors of completions of the novel. My favorite completion, by the way, is here.)

My favorite completion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon is by Jane Austen and “Another Lady.”

Austen’s inclusion of a mixed-race character raises questions for us today:

  • How many black and mixed-race people were there in Austen’s England?
  • Is she likely to have known any of them?
  • What were their lives like?
  • How did Austen’s society view them and treat them?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic, and it’s hard to find solid answers. However, the series of posts that I’m starting today will look at the question from different angles. We’ll start today with some indications from fiction of Austen’s time. Then we’ll look at statistics from official records, using Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories.  We’ll also look at what art of the time can tell us, and consider the lives of some individual black and mixed-race people. Each of these lenses will give us a little clearer picture of black people’s lives in Austen’s England.

Miss Lambe

Miss Lambe is “half mulatto.” Nowadays “mulatto” is an offensive term, as it is based on the word “mule”; mixed-race people were believed to be sterile like mules. (Though there must have been plenty of evidence to the contrary!) But I don’t think Austen is using it pejoratively. She is simply describing Miss Lambe’s background. It sounds like Miss Lambe had a parent who was half-black and half-white, most likely her mother, and a white parent. Such pairings were quite common in the West Indies. A plantation owner might well leave his wealth to a mixed-race child.

Austen calls Miss Lambe “chilly and tender.” “Chilly” probably meant that the weather of England was too cold for her, compared to the West Indies where she grew up. “Tender” probably meant that she was delicate, easily becoming ill. Though as I imagine Miss Lambe, I like to think that “tender” also meant she was kind and gentle.

Austen sometimes describes people, such as Marianne Dashwood and Henry Tilney, as having a “brown” complexion. There’s been some speculation that she may mean to imply mixed racial backgrounds. That’s possible, but it seems a little unlikely to me. It sounds like Austen is just describing minor variations in skin tones. She usually pairs “brown” skin with dark eyes and dark hair. In one other reference, Miss Bingley says Elizabeth Bennet has become “brown and coarse.” Darcy says she is tanned from traveling in the summer.

The Woman of Colour is an anonymous novel published in 1808 about an heiress like Miss Lambe. The modern version edited by Lyndon J. Dominique includes much helpful background information and excerpts from other fiction and nonfiction of the time.

Back to Miss Lambe. We can get some idea of what her life might have been like from a novel of the time. The Woman of Colour: A Tale  was published anonymously in London in 1808, nine years before Austen began writing Sanditon. Professor Lyndon J. Dominique has edited a modern version, full of helpful background information.

Modern scholars speculate that the writer was herself a “woman of colour,” the mixed-race daughter of a West Indies planter, but we don’t know for sure who wrote the book. “People of color” may be used today to describe people of various races. However, eighteenth-century British people used it to refer to certain groups of free people in the Americas. Some included free black people, but others used the term only for those of mixed race (p. 21 in The Woman of Colour).

The novel is a series of letters from Olivia Fairfield to her former governess in Jamaica. Olivia, the daughter of a white plantation owner and a black slave, is on her way to England. Her loving father knows that because of her skin color she will never be treated as an equal by the planters of Jamaica. So he arranges that after his death she will travel to England. In England, laws and attitudes toward mixed-race people were less harsh, and tender-hearted Olivia wouldn’t have to see the suffering of the black people she identifies with. Her father, in his will, has arranged for her to marry her cousin, who will then inherit her fortune.

Already we find an interesting contrast. While black people were often treated horrifically in the West Indies, they found more acceptance in England itself.

Prejudices

The story shows some examples of prejudices that black and mixed-race people experienced in England at this time. Olivia and her black maid are called names, and yet they earn a place in society.

At her first English ball, Olivia is “an object of pretty general curiosity” (84). She says, “My colour, you know, renders me remarkable” (84). People stare at her “as if they had been invited purposely to see the untamed savage at a shilling a piece!” However, one gentleman, who calls her a “native,” adds, “In native elegance unrivalled! . . . More grace, more expression, more characteristic dignity, I never yet beheld in one female figure!” His friend calls her a “sable goddess.” Olivia enjoys the dancing, but complains that rather than rational people, she finds only “folly and dissimulation” (88).

Olivia’s maid Dido is a black woman. Though not enslaved, she seems the stereotype of the faithful black slave. She speaks in “half-broken language” (57), presumably a Jamaican dialect. She loves Olivia dearly and serves her faithfully. Olivia also loves Dido. In town, Dido says she is called names like “blacky” and “wowsky” and “squabby” and “guashy,” “and all because she has a skin not quite so white,–God Almighty help them all.” (“Wowski” was the name of an American Indian woman in a novel of 1787; “Quasheba” was the name of dark-skinned characters in novels of 1767 and 1798.) Dido says even a maid treats her like a slave. But she looks forward to their home in the countryside, where she will be the housekeeper and be in charge. Once in the country, she wins the affection of the “peasants” with her warm heart (105).

Olivia’s husband’s young nephew George thinks Olivia’s skin is “dirty” and Dido’s even dirtier. Olivia explains to him, “The same God that made you made me . . . the poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of the world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, any more than you can make yours black” (79).

They go on to discuss the evils of slavery. The child has heard the coachman saying that “black slaves are no better than horses over there,” and Olivia explains, “Those black slaves are, by some cruel masters, obliged to work like horses . . . but God Almighty created them men, equal with their masters, if they had the same advantages, and the same blessings of education.” Olivia says that human feelings and religious principles, as well as “kindred claims,” impel her to pray for the end of slavery, the emancipation of her brethren (80-81).

Once Olivia is married and living in the countryside, she meets “East Indian Nabobs,” a family who made their fortune in India, and finds them proud and selfish. However, she is completely accepted into the social circles of her area. The most prejudice she experiences is from her sister-in-law, who is a conniving, selfish woman.

The Woman of Colour: A Tale  shows some of the prejudices against black and mixed-race people in England. Nevertheless, it also implies that people of color were fully accepted in English society, particularly if they had wealth, like Austen’s Miss Lambe.

Jane Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy made the earliest attempt to complete Sanditon.

Religious Themes

The novel has many Christian themes. At this time, Christians in England, led by William Wilberforce’s “Clapham Sect,” were pushing strongly to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Literature was one of their most important means of raising public awareness and calling for compassion for oppressed people. Evangelical Hannah More was writing tracts like “The Sorrows of Yamba: or, The Negro Woman’s Lament,” a story about an enslaved woman whose baby died in her arms on a slave ship. William Cowper, Jane Austen’s beloved poet, wrote poems condemning slavery. Cowper wrote, “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad? . . . 
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.” (This wasn’t strictly true, in legal terms, but was widely believed. It does point out the radical difference, though, between British colonies where slavery was part of the economy, and Britain itself.) While we don’t know who wrote The Woman of Colour, the book seems to fit with other such literature that put a human face on enslaved peoples and called for Christian compassion toward them.

Olivia’s mother was her father’s slave and his mistress. He taught her Christian faith, which she accepted eagerly. But she also learned from the church that her relationship with him was wrong, since they weren’t married. She confronted him, but he was too proud and too prejudiced to marry her. She died in childbirth. Olivia’s father raised her, gave her a good education, then sent her to England.

Her cousin Augustus, a good man, is at first repelled by Olivia’s dark complexion. However, he soon realizes that she has “a noble and dignified soul.”

Olivia is “a stranger in a strange land, where she is more likely to receive contumely [contempt] than consideration . . . a superior being, and . . . the child of humanity, the citizen of the world, with a heart teeming with benevolence and mercy towards every living creature!—She is accomplished and elegant; but her accomplishments are not the superficial acquirements of the day,–they are the result of application and genius in unison” (102-3).

In fact, Augustus and Olivia, both epitomes of beauty, intelligence, and virtue, seem to be made for each other. They marry and live happily. But—I won’t spoil it—something happens to destroy their happiness. Interestingly, the person who destroys their marriage is motivated by greed, jealousy, and class prejudices, not racial prejudices.

Olivia ends up alone, but she bears it well and peacefully. Throughout the story, she turns to God in all her trials and fears. The story ends by spelling out the moral: In times of calamity, we should seek God. Faith in God can enable us to become resigned to any hard situation.

The original editor adds that if the book can “teach [even] one skeptical European to look with a compassionate eye towards the despised native of Africa—then, whether Olivia Fairfield’s be a real or an imaginary character, I shall not regret that I have edited the Letters of a Woman of Colour!” (189)

Another cover for Sanditon completed by “Another Lady”; other completions are also available by other authors.

Other Fiction of Austen’s Time

Lyndon J. Dominique, who edited the modern version of The Woman of Colour: A Tale, provides a timeline of “Women of Color in Drama and Long Prose Fiction” from 1605 to 1861. He lists 37 publications during Austen’s lifetime with black or mixed-race characters, including Sanditon. It seems likely that as an avid reader, Austen was probably familiar with some of these, or earlier ones.

Dominique includes excerpts from a few of these works, including:

Lucy Peacock’s “The Creole” (1786). A creole heiress (who may be white or mixed-race) loses her fortune to an unscrupulous husband. Only her “honest negroes” console her (196). Again there is a Christian message. The creole lady writes, “Surely . . . we have no right to tyrannize over, and treat as brutes, those who will doubtless one day be made partakers with us of an immortality. Have they not the same faculties, the same passions, and the same innate sense of good and evil? Should we, then, who are enlightened by the holy precepts of Christianity, refuse to stretch forth the friendly hand, to point these human affections to the most laudable purposes, the glory of God, and the real advantage of society?” (196) She frees her slaves.

Agnes Musgrave’s Solemn Injunctions (1798).  At a boarding school, a girl is jealous of a talented, amiable young lady from the West Indies. So she “insinuates” that the girl has black ancestry and should be rejected. The other West Indian girls bring the prejudices of the islands with them to school. “In the West Indies the distinction is kept up by the women with so scrupulous an exactness, as never to mix, on equal terms, with people so descended”: they would not mix with any “child of mixed blood whose ancestors within the fourth degree of descent were negroes” (215). Here again the prejudices of the West Indies are much stronger than the prejudices of England.

Other stories include mixed-race heiresses like Olivia who are beautiful, well-educated, and virtuous Christians. They also include people who condemn “vulgar” black people. It appears that some of these stories, like The Woman of Colour, were written at least partly to help counteract prejudices and support anti-slavery causes.

I suspect Jane Austen’s Miss Lambe would have been a more balanced character then those we find in other novels of the time. Austen did not write stereotypes. However, Austen was strongly opposed to slavery* and probably would have presented Miss Lambe positively.

The Woman of Colour also includes nonfiction excerpts of the time which confirm some of the attitudes and situations represented in the novel. For example, a copy of a Jamaican planter’s will, leaving his fortune to his “reputed daughters” born of his black mistress, shows that there were mixed-race West Indian heiresses.

Next month we’ll look at who the black people in England were at this time, how they got there, and what social classes they belonged to. Scholar Kathleen Chater searched through a huge number of primary sources to find that information, so I’ll share some of that with you, from her book Untold Histories.

If you are familiar with other fiction of Austen’s era that includes black characters, tell us about those characters! Or, if you’ve read The Woman of Colour, what did you learn from it or think about it?

Learning More

On Friday, April 9, from 5:00 – 6:30 PM EDT, Professor Dominique will be giving an online seminar on “Political Blackness in The Woman of Colour,” discussing the novel he edited. You can sign up at Jane Austen & Co. The recorded talk is now available there.

If you want to start exploring more on this topic on your own, in the tabs above, under History, scroll down until you find the section I’ve added on Black History, or see Resources. It will give you a wide variety of resources to start investigating.

*I don’t intend to look at slavery in the British colonies, or abolition, in this series, but you’ll also find sources addressing those areas among the resources listed. “Austen and Antigua—Slavery in Her Time”  is a good discussion of Jane Austen’s comments on slavery and her family’s connections with slave plantations.

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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