Posts Tagged ‘Source Books’

Mansfield Park Revisited: A Jane Austen Entertainment is a re-release of a Joan Aiken novel that was originally published in 1984. The book begins four years after Fanny and Edmund marry. Sir Thomas Bertram has died unexpectedly and his interests in Antigua need tending. Fanny and Edmund, now parents, are chosen to go, since Lady Bertram is hesitant to part with Tom, the heir. They take their son with them but leave their young daughter behind. As readers, we re-meet Fanny briefly, but the major protagonist is Susan Price, her young sister, who has turned into a sensible young woman – more forceful in her opinions and actions than Fanny – but equally devoted to Lady Bertram’s comfort.

Mrs. Norris has also died. Julia Yates, sister to the pariah Maria (did Jane Austen intend for those two words to rhyme?) takes over the Mrs. Norris role as a petty, peevish, mean, and spiteful woman.

Miss Julia Bertram, having been so ill-judged as to marry the younger son of a peer, had soon, on becoming more closely acquainted with the limited extent of her huband’s fortune, decided to quit the doubtful pleasures of life in London on a straitened income, and console herself by becoming queen of a smaller society. She had persuaded her husband, the Honourable John Yates, to purchase a respectable property in Northamptonshire, not too far distant from Mansfield Park, therefore able to be illumined by some of its lustre. Since the, by almost daily visits to Mansfield, and by longer visits amounting to several months during the course of the year, Mrs. Yates was able to reduce materially her own domestic expenditure …

While Julia tries to make Susan’s life miserable, she does not succeed, for Susan can see right through her. Thus she ultimately fails to put Susan in her place, despite her repeated attempts to lord it over her younger cousin. Tom and Susan are like oil and water for no discernable reason, except that Tom feels that Susan often oversteps her bounds and Susan thinks him lacking in substance and character. He spends his time learning the ropes as the heir to the Bertram fortune and pursuing his love of horses and racing. More sober and grown up than the man limned by Jane Austen, Tom still has much to learn about life and women.

Joan Aiken’s talent lies in developing Jane Austen’s characters further, and she captures Lady Bertram with exquisite perfection in passages such as this, when Edmund suggests leaving his daughter, Mary, behind:

The little dear. Of course we shall be happy to have her,” sighed Lady Bertram, anticipating no inconvenience to herself in this arrangement, as indeed there would not be, for she could be quite certain that three-year-old Mary would be devotedly cared for by her aunt Susan.

Mary and Henry Crawford re-appear in the district shortly after Fanny and Edmund depart, which is when the plot truly becomes interesting. Without giving too much away let me just say that I was surprised by the turns this book takes. Mary Crawford has changed greatly, which is all I will reveal, except to mention that Tom becomes intrigued with her and that their association changes his life in a significant way. We also re-meet William, Fanny’s and Susan’s brother, who has now become the captain of his own ship. Several other new and interesting characters are also introduced, which keeps the story fresh.

Joan’s tale moves quickly and at times I could not put the book down. What I found missing from this very short but good novel was Jane’s sure sense of irony and wit. Ms. Aiken has writing talent (how could she not, being Conrad Aiken’s daughter and Jane Aiken Hodge’s sister?) but she fails to convey the tender emotions and human insights that distinguish a great author from a good writer. One key scene in the novel fell decidedly flat, and where I should have cried I could not. Ms. Aiken’s description of the event was so matter-of-fact she might have been describing a simple farewell instead of a wrenching death scene. I kept contrasting this scene with the way Jane Austen wrote about Marianne’s illness in Sense and Sensibility, and it was like comparing night to day.

As I said, the book is short (201 pages) and perhaps this is why I felt a bereft at the end. I wanted more time spent on how Tom and Susan finally change their minds about each other and begin to think of the other in a romantic way. As usual I am finding fault where others may not, for all in all I enjoyed the book thoroughly. Joan Aiken (1924-2004) might not have the stature of a Jane Austen, but she was a darned good writer and could spin an interesting yarn.

You can purchase the book from SourceBooks at this link.

  • Joan Aiken, (1924-2004) the author, is the daughter of the distinguished author Conrad Aiken and sister to Jane Aiken-Hodge, an author who has written about Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.

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Gentle Readers, Source Books has reissued a number of Georgette Heyer novels, including two historical novels, The Spanish Bride and Royal Escape, which is about Charles II’s escape to Europe after his defeat by Cromwell. Coincidentally, NPR’s Nancy Pearl chose another Heyer historical novel, Infamous Army, as one of her recommended summer reads.

Hillary Major, a friend and colleague who had never read a Georgette Heyer novel, but who is quite knowledgeable about life and historical events of the era, agreed to review Royal Escape for this blog.

Let’s give Georgette Heyer and her publicists props for her subtitles; she certainly tells it like it is: “a novel in which a daredevil king with a price on his head fools his enemies and terrifies his friends.”

Rightly or wrongly, Heyer expects her reader to know her history – that, though defeated by Cromwell’s forces in 1651 and exiled to Europe for most of a decade, Charles II assumed the throne in 1660, when England’s monarchy was restored (by invitation of Parliament). Thus, despite quite a bit of action in Royal Escape, this is not a novel of suspense. Instead, it’s truly a character study. Heyer spends the length of the novel fleshing out her “daredevil king” and exploring the effects his journey through the English countryside have on Charles the man. Charles is without a doubt the book’s most complex character – foolishly brash in the opening pages as he urges the defeated Scots army to greater efforts; nearly despairing as he contemplates capture or a life in exile (while hiding out in a big tree); saucy in his overtures to a tavern mistress; reckless in risking his life (and his companions’) for a spot of lunch; coolly determined in his plan to disguise himself as a servant despite the indignities. On the whole, however, Heyer’s Charles comes across as confident, persistent, charming, unshakeable in the face of danger – in fact, not so surprisingly, an air of majesty hangs about him like a mantle.

What keeps the book interesting are the small details of how a royal intruder affect the life of an everyday Englishman or woman. From the poor householders who, quite against their will, find themselves slaughtering a neighbor’s sheep for the king’s mutton supper to the not-so-secret Catholic noble who finds his home’s hidey-holes a bit overcrowded with priest, pupils, and royalty, Charles disrupts business-as-usual wherever he goes.

The large cast of minor characters are not treated with as much depth as is the person of Charles: by and large, each is exactly what he seems to be: the poor but loyal farmer, the stern and loyal ex-soldier, the loyal servant, the loyalist noblewoman, the staunchly loyal nobleman. (Get the picture?) True, Heyer adds a twist to some of these types: the steadfast fop, for example, is hardly a literary cliché. And Heyer makes it clear that women are an integral part of the king’s escape, dramatizing such quandaries as whether giving the king the best eiderdown will damage his masquerade as a servingman. While her older female characters are generally wise dames indeed, her younger women fall victim to some rather unfortunate typecasting. Jane is the first young lady to assist Charles in his pose as a servant and escort; she is both sensitive and sensible, the romantic heroine who doesn’t (quite) give in to the romance. The next young woman to perform the role, however, is cast as foolish, fearful, and perhaps even a bit of slut – this despite the fact that she faces even more real danger than Jane and that her fears are quite well-founded. Georgette, couldn’t you be a bit kinder to womankind?

In the end, the almost-too-sweet Jane is the character who best sums up the tone of the novel (as she assures her cousin Harry Lassels that she does not intend to give in to Charles’ not-so-subtle advances):

“I shall not regret, Harry. You spoke of our journey as an adventure. Indeed, it is one, and I have thought that since the King is merry we should be so too. We shall never have another adventure like to this, you and I…. He will go his way, and we ours, but this will be a little part of our lives that we shall remember always, like a fairy tale told us in our childhood. You are anxious because the King kissed me, but you need not fear for me. I am not for him, since I am not a princess to whom he may offer marriage, and not a trollop whom he would make mistress. … In my heart, I know him for an easy lover, but no ravisher.”

Between Heyer’s idealized worldview and the informed reader’s confidence of an eventual happy ending, Royal Escape reads a bit like an advertisement for monarchy. This said, it’s certainly an entertaining one. I shall not regret my first Georgette Heyer read; indeed, I rather enjoyed the journey. Who wouldn’t want to abandon her cynicism (and occasionally her good sense) and, like Jane, join Charles and company on a merry adventure?


My other Georgette Heyer Reviews:

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