Austenalia

New Year, New Look…

Last year I began the Year of Reading Dangerously to celebrate the theme of the 2019 JASNA Annual General Meeting, which was focused on Northanger Abbey. It was great fun and I plan to continue reading and commenting on more Gothic fiction this year. However, it is a new year, and I have decided to broaden my scope and include a category of posts entitled Austenalia, which will be related to all things Austen and Regency. You can still see the Year of Reading Dangerously by clicking on the tag for that, but those posts will also be in the Austenalia category for anyone who would like to begin at the beginning. I have almost finished Robert Morrison’s book, The Regency Years: during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern, and it will open the series later on this week.

Until then, happy new year and happy reading and teatotalling to all!

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

First, a Shout-out to a local Austin writer–yay!  This novel combines a few of my favorite things: spies, intrigue, and literature, oh my! I am sure other reviewers have pointed this out, but I would also like to make sure everyone notes the irony of the author’s first name being the name of the main character in the novel that this book is about, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. I think there might be some backstory there.  

The Secrets We Kept conjures up the early days of the CIA, when Ivy League frat boys dreamed of a world without communism and thought that they could win the propaganda war with the Soviets. The office girls were mostly typists and secretaries, but a few worked their way up–I have made a note to myself to do some research on early CIA work–there have been a rash of new histories and biographies coming our telling the stories of women we never knew about from the files, now that they are being declassified. I have found it inspirational lately that there are more writers and historians telling women’s stories.  Women who had previously been footnotes have been getting more press; some like Hedy Lamar, are even getting long overdue recognition. So I appreciate Prescott’s novel for going behind the scenes from a woman’s point of view.

The story follows a group of women who work in the typing pool of the CIA offices, when they were located on E Street in D.C, before Langley. The point of view changes as the story unfolds, with different women, some main characters, others bit players, but this is one of the best tools Prescott uses.  The shifting first person narrative lets the reader know more than any one character knows, so even though the reader is not omniscient, she almost feels that way. Parallel plots unfold. The first fictionalizes the circuitous route Boris Paternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago took–smuggled out of Russia and published first in Italy, then throughout the West.  This plot includes the now well known tale of its publication in Russian by the CIA and distribution to Soviet citizens attending the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Read more about that here. Pasternak was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As is often the case, the women in Pasternak’s life, including his inspiration for Lara don’t fare so well.  You’ll need to read the book. The other plot in the novel concerns a second generation Russian immigrant, displaced by the turmoil of World War II when her mother fled to the United States and her father was grabbed by secret police just as they were about to board a ship. Irina gets a job at the fledgling CIA as a typist, but is marked out early for “other work” because of her Russian background, fluency in the language, and various talents. 

The Secrets We Kept has much to recommend it. The characters are interesting and Prescott uses the chapter titles to track their growth and change over the course of the novel. Suspense abounds, especially in the scenes at the World’s Fair and the Italian publisher’s party, but neither gratuitous violence nor action derails the plot.  The reader sweats bullets when Irina is dressed as a nun trying to convince Russians to take the little book back to the USSR, read it, and pass it on. Prescott does a wonderful job evoking the period; the clothes, the manners, the way the men treat the women, it’s all there. In addition, the reader is treated to a different look at Boris Pasternak–he is a genius, but he had help, as so many geniuses do from the women in his life, who largely went unacknowledged. It is the Mistress’s story that gripped me the most.  She suffered for his art more than he did, at least in this telling.

This is a quiet novel, which will give the reader much to think on.  It successfully threads the needle by presenting the past without nostalgia and without harsh judgement by modern standards.  It is a story of struggle, love, and hope for the future. It is also the often untold story of women in history and literature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which character was your favorite and why?
  2. Do you think books can change the world? Why or why not–give examples.
  3. What do you think were the secrets referred to in the title?  How does the title have multiple meanings?
  4. Does this book make you want to read Dr. Zhivago?  Why or why not?
  5. Can you think of other examples where the history we know is not the whole story? 
  6. How can we make sure that “the rest of the story” is told moving forward?
  7. There are a lot of sacrifices in the novel–Irina’s mother and father, Pasternak’s mistress. Which characters in the novel do you think suffered the most? Which sacrifices were the most meaningful?  Can you think of any real life examples of sacrifices like the ones in the novel?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Once again I will be out of sync with the consensus.  I really hated this book, in fact, I was angry when I finished it because I felt like I had wasted my time.  I read it because my book group was reading it and because several people had told me it was wonderful–it also had glowing reviews in most of the usual places.

Well friends, they were all WRONG. Spoilers follow, so if you want to read the book and not know what is going to happen, stop reading this review now.

The idea that a little girl could raise herself in the swamp is just one of the many ridiculous plot devices readers are supposed to swallow. Since I did not see evidence that we were engaged in magical realism, I assume the writer meant for us to to think the story could have happened the way she describes. I won’t belabor it too much, but I would like to point out that it is possible to create characters who are damaged and have interesting backstories without making them objects of abject neglect and abuse by a WHOLE TOWN. (See Gillian Flynn or Louise Doughty) But then magically, a boy teaches her to read so she turns into a wildlife writer. Wait, maybe it was supposed to be magical realism after all, there is not really another explanation. Hmmmm…

She’s lonely, so of course she enters into a sexual relationship with someone she KNOWS to be unreliable, that makes total sense.  Also, the identity of the murderer was no surprise, she telegraphed it all the way through. Owens does get points though, for the poems.  They were interesting and added a dimension to Kya’s character. The mother. Come on–maybe you leave, but you walk off and leave a 5 year old child with an alcoholic abuser? I don’t buy it. I also don’t buy that NOT ONE of the siblings ever so much as considered taking Kya with them when they left or even checking on her until 20 years later. Please.  Consider the limits of my credulity exceeded.

So, I am not going to post any discussion questions for this one.  If you liked it, you can find questions on another site. I am still a little piqued that I wasted valuable reading time on this book. 👿

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Golden Hill by Frances Spufford

Golden HIll is an interesting niche novel, for those who enjoy older forms of writing, including a self-conscious, slightly intrusive narrator.  While I enjoyed the writing immensely, I will have to confess that I found the plot a little lacking. The book is set in 1746 New York. Richard Smith arrives from London mysteriously bearing a bill of exchange for an immense amount of money by New York standards, which he promptly presents to a local merchant.  Speculation about Smith’s purpose in New York runs rampant from the beginning, and where Spufford excels is the finely drawn characters and the web of connections between them, of which Smith is at first ignorant, but comes to know all too well by the time he leaves New York.

Perhaps this is why I was ultimately disappointed.  The writing is wonderful, the pace a little slow, but enjoyable, and the characters are all interesting, with backstories eked out gradually by Spufford for the most part.  However, when Smith’s errand is ultimately revealed, it seems to be a little anticlimactic–the clues to his true identity are still somewhat murky. One can’t help feeling let down, having read the whole book, that the end is not really an ending.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave one wishing for a sequel, although that could be its purpose. It feels more like Spufford ran out of steam and decided to just write the ending already. This reader wanted to know more about Smith, and why Tabitha has the reaction she does to him at the close of the novel. 

I am fully aware that this may have been a conscious decision by the author, but to this reader, too much was left unexplained at the end, and there was a hint of deus ex machina, again perhaps intentional.  Motives were not fully revealed, and actions that didn’t make sense occurred with too much frequency toward the end of the story, and many, many loose ends were left dangling.

If you choose to read this book anyway, and I probably would, because the positive aspects outweigh the negative–the clever asides and author to reader jokes alone are worth it–do so in the full knowledge that you may be left with a vaguely unsettled feeling at the end and not a full understanding of what just happened, which may in fact have been the author’s intent all along.

Here are some discussion questions for your book group:

  1. What historical aspects of the story did you find the most interesting? What were you unaware of, historically speaking, before reading this novel?
  2. Did you find Richard Smith a likeable character?  Do you think he was meant to be the hero of the story, or was someone else?  Explain.
  3. There was a lot of political maneuvering and spying in the novel. How do you think this works in the narrative? Does it reveal or obscure? Does it propel the main plot, or is it a subplot? Explain.
  4. Why do you think the author chose to reveal so little of Richard’s backstory?  What do we know versus what do we guess to be true about him?
  5. Which characters would you like to know more about?  Are there other characters whose stories you would like to see in a follow up novel? Which ones and why?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Full disclosure.  I am a HUGE fan of Atwood in general and The Handmaid’s Tale specifically, so keep in mind that my comments regarding this work are not unbiased.

First, I love the format. The alternating viewpoints give a full picture of what is happening in Gilead and outside of it, but interestingly, the first person narrator of each point of view still constrains what the reader can know. I know that some readers do not like this, but I find it an interesting format, reminiscent of an epistolary novel, which can be challenging for writers, but fantastic fun for readers. Les Liaisons Dangereuse or Lady Susan anyone?

Spoiler alert:  if you haven’t read the book, stop now.  The following paragraphs will discuss plot and character points that you will not want to know if you have not read the book.

I LOVE that Aunt Lydia turns out to be a resistance fighter!  Plus her character contains many contradictions, just like real people.  She wants to fight the patriarchy, but to do it, she decides that she may do some short term harm.  She enables resistance with her behind the scenes machinations–my favorite instance the one in which she manipulates Aunt Vidalia into doing her bidding. She moves the people around her like pieces on a chessboard and one cannot help but admire her ability to do so, however objectionable she is as a person. There is much fodder for a good book group discussion here, because Lydia raises the age old question–”Is it permissible to do wrong in the short term, if the ultimate goal is right?”  Or, to phrase it more simply, in Machiavellian terms, “do the ends justify the means?” I would argue that they do not, however, I am well aware that there is room for nuance. I would also argue that there is always a way to work for good by doing good; that trying to do good through nefarious means is the lazy way. If I use Aunt Lydia as an example of this–she could have made choices to do good at several turns, but she chose to stay silent and gather power around herself in order to do what she would claim was good in the BIG picture.  I would argue that she could have achieved the same purpose by being willing to sacrifice at some earlier point in the story. She herself acknowledges this when she writes about her early meetings with Commander Judd. She rationalizes her choices by saying she always had working against the system in mind, but is that really true? I am not sure she is a reliable narrator, which is something else to consider.
I also wonder how plausible it is to think that there would be enough resistance to topple a regime as repressive as Gilead in the short amount of time it exists.  I can see that having been used to freedom before, people would be less likely to accept severe limitations, but people in general can be extremely stubborn in defending something that is nonsensical. The question further arises, would there be a large enough number of people willing to make the sacrifice necessary to engage in real resistance, or would the sheeple just follow blindly as long as they were being fed and clothed? Something else to discuss.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood evokes America’s Puritan past to great effect by taking it to the extreme.  Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that something like Gilead could never happen in the modern world, but I think that recent events have proven me completely incorrect in this judgement. What I see as possible now is a new puritanism of the Left, which is just as unforgiving and inflexible as the religious puritanism of the past. The characters are finely drawn and fabulously imperfect. The suspense about the final outcome for the rulers of Gilead is palpable. I finished The Testaments in 4 days, and it only took that long because I had to go to work.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy dystopia, Atwood, or just want to read something infinitely  discussable.  

Below are some discussion questions for your Book Club.  Enjoy!

  1. How long had it been since you read The Handmaid’s Tale?  If it had been a long time or you had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, do you think it hindered your enjoyment of The Testaments?  Why or why not?
  2. Which character was your favorite and why?
  3. If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as Lydia?  As Becka? As Judd? Any of the other characters?
  4. What do you think you would do if you were rounded up as the women were at the beginning of Lydia’s story?  Do you see a way to respond to the situation that would have a better/different outcome to the way she responded?
  5. What parallels do you see between Gilead and modern society in the United States?  What parallels do you see between Gilead and Medieval Europe?
  6. How does intolerance manifest itself in Gilead? How does it manifest itself in modern society?  
  7. What role does the Bible play in Gilead’s society? 
  8. Even though it is not explicitly revealed in either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments, what kinds of events, issues do you imagine led up to the fighting which gave birth to Gilead?
  9. Why do you think Atwood chose the title she did?
  10. If you could give one piece of advice to your favorite character, what would it be?
Austenalia

The Mysteries of Udolpho, the final chapters…

Dear Reader,

I do apologize for taking so long to finish up with Mrs. Radcliffe’s enormous tome.  My goal was to finish it before the JASNA AGM, and I did, but just the day before on the plane, so it was only by a hair’s breadth.  Then the splendour of the AGM temporarily stalled my book reviewing plans. At long last, I will fill you in on what happens to Emily, whether Valencourt wins fair maiden, and what befalls the evil Montoni.

One of the sessions I attended was a talk by Marsha Huff entitled, “The Gothic Key,” in which Ms. Huff read Udolpho so that Janeites wouldn’t have to, as she so eloquently put it.  Many of the points she made were similar to those I have made, so I won’t belabor them. To review–Gothic fiction is very meta (before being meta was a thing!) and self referential–it refers to other Gothic novels, and the same images and tropes are recycled so that the reader knows what to expect, even though she (and it is always a she) is dying to find out what is behind the veil, just like Catherine!

When last we were together, I chose to discuss a few themes.  In this installment, I would like to point out the ways in which Austen explicitly refers to Udolpho in Northanger Abbey and elsewhere. There is one passage in particular, in which Henry goes on at length teasing Catherine about the Abbey. He asks whether she is prepared to “encounter all the horrors” (114) and be led around by an ancient housekeeper named Dorothy (115).  Of course, your footnotes may have told you he is teasing Catherine about one of the most tense series of scenes in Udolpho in which Emily is toured through the old castle by Dorothee and eventually sees what is behind the veil, although the reader must suffer through about 450 more pages before her curiosity is satisfied.  Spoiler: It is a wax work of a corpse–a weird form of penance being suffered by a minor character whose identity and crime is not revealed until the final two pages (I am not kidding) of Udolpho. Radcliffe obviously did not adhere to the “rules of composition” Austen did whilst composing Northanger Abbey (186). But I digress. 

One of Austen’s letters contains another explicit reference to Radcliffe.  In a letter dated Wednesday (March 2, 1814), Austen writes of having finished The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett, which Austen refers to as a “burlesque” of Mrs. Radlciffe’s style.  The Heroine was a parody of the Gothic, and this is an interesting tidbit to file away–Austen admired the book, and one wonders if reading this made her more determined to get the rights to Northanger Abbey back from Richard Crosby. The Heroine was published in 1813 and in 1816 Henry Austen bought back  the copyright for Northanger Abbey on behalf of his sister, Jane. 

In case you are still wondering what happened to our cast of characters from Udolpho…  After much wandering through the countryside, which Mrs. Radcliffe describes in excruciating and minute detail, Emily ends up back at La Vallee. Montoni is killed by banditti, Valencourt is suspected of having led a dissipated life, but is exonerated through the offices of a poor old servant woman he has been supporting. The portrait Emily’s father was carrying around turns out to have been his sister, Emily’s aunt–she is the murdered Marchioness of Dorothee.  So, Emily looks just like her, because she is her niece. Emily and Valencourt are wed, as are Blanche and her love. Ludovico even reappears to Annette’s everlasting joy. All’s well that ends well. 

Radclffe, after making the reader suffer through 672 pages of which only about 250 were necessary, ties everything up in a neat bow in the last few pages, just as Austen does in Northanger Abbey.  Hmmm. Radcliffe’s narrator also gets in a didactic aside, which causes this reader to wonder whether she wasn’t having a laugh at the reviewers who always seemed to like Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, but not anyone else’s…

“O! useful may it be to have shewn, that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune.” (672)

Verbose to the last.


I have enjoyed this year of reading dangerously so much, that I am going to continue with the Gothic for a while longer.  I will intersperse my thoughts on the Gothic with reviews and book discussions of other novels as well. I have found much more to explore in the rabbit hole of the Gothic, some of which I will write to you about next time, including the “Terrorist System of Novel Writing” from 1797.

***Photo from the writer’s tour of the Swem Library Rare Book collection at the College of William and Mary

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford UP, New York, 2008.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford UP, New York, 1992.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess


I got this book as an e-galley and I was really looking forward to it.  It had rave reviews and the pre-pub buzz was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. I should have known better, when I saw the protagonist referred to as a female Philip Roth. Full disclosure–though I have tried many times to read various titles by Philip Roth, I have never made it all the way to the end of one.  Usually I get about a third of the way through, and that is only because I make myself. Call me a Philistine if you want, but he is way too pe— absorbed for me. I have always found him self-consciously literary, and not in a good way. I mean, really, how literary is one man and his constant obsession with sex and his Johnson? Overrated, in my humble opinion…

Our heroine, if we dare call her that, is Eve Rosen, an aspiring writer who works for a small publishing house that really only has one author who makes them any money. Eve is desperate to become a part of the East Coast Literati, mostly snobs who summer in Truro, Massachusetts, summer playground of Boston academic and artistic elite. She leaves her publishing house gig to work as an assistant to one of these literary giants, Henry Grey. What follows is a boringly predictable May/September romance, in which Eve becomes Henry’s willing partner in adultery, brushing aside the much more interesting and actually available Jeremy Grand, who has incidentally written the next great American novel, and whom the Owner of the said small publishing house hopes will save him from bankruptcy and ignominy. Jeremy has an interesting secret, which I will not reveal in case any of you want to read the book.

What Dukess does well is depict the New England Literati as mostly self-absorbed and useless, though I am not sure if that was the point.  The reader wishes Eve were smarter than she is, though she eventually figures out that Henry is not worth her time. I suppose if you like Philip Roth, you might like this book, but for the rest of us (I would guess about 90%), it really isn’t worth spending your time reading it.  I finished it because I was on a plane without a lot of options, having already exhausted my video downloads and the print books I brought with me, if that tells you anything. 

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The French Lesson by Hallie Rubenhold

This novel popped up when I was doing an Amazon search for Hallie Rubenhold, because I thoroughly enjoyed her historical account of the Scandalous Lady W. (See my earlier post on that book here.) If you are looking for a fun summer read to keep you company in your beach chair or on your couch, or if you have finished streaming season 2 of The Crown on Netflix and need something else to fill your time with, The French Lesson is a pretty good choice; you could definitely do worse.

Set during the French Revolution, we follow our heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot as she follows her lover to Paris in 1792, against his wishes and advice. Henrietta, I must say, is a little bit annoying in her willful obtuseness.  I would not go so far as to say that she is an unreliable narrator, but she is awfully naive for a courtesan, or at least she pretends to be. I wasn’t sure the whole way through whether she didn’t realize what was going on or she was playing along for reasons of her own, but at the end that will become apparent, dear reader.

Henrietta fails to find her lover, as he is working undercover as a spy–no spoilers here, I promise this is apparent to the reader from the outset–and she takes refuge with Grace Dalrymple Elliot, notorious mistress of the Duc d”Orleans, among others, and spy for Royalists during The Terror. With Grace’s help, Henrietta enters the household of Orleans and befriends his current mistress, Madame de Buffon. 

Adventures and intrigue ensue…

The French Lesson is a quick, easy, and enjoyable read for those who like historical fiction. The characters are fairly well drawn, the plot is fast moving, and in the end everything is tied up rather neatly. My only real complaint is that Henrietta is a little too good to be true, as is her paramour, but that is to be expected in romance fiction. 

If your book club decides to read The French Lesson, here are a few questions for discussion:

  1. Why does Henrietta decide to ignore Allenham’s instructions for her to remain in Brussels?  Do you think she has other reasons than those she states?
  2. Why does Henrietta so easily fall prey to Savill?  Shouldn’t she have been a little more streetwise, considering her time among the demimonde?
  3. A historical truth is that a woman’s wealth was often in her possessions, such as jewelry, clothing, shoes, etc. Why is Henrietta so quick to abandon her only money at the hotel?  Why did she bring it in the first place? Why not leave it in Brussels?
  4. Do you like Henrietta?  Would you be friends with her?  What about Mrs. Elliot? Would you have been friends with her?  Why or why not?
  5. Madame de Buffon is a real historical person, as is Mrs. Elliot and the Duc d”Orleans.  Do you think Rubenhold did a good job weaving her story through the real life events and people?  Why or why not?
  6. Did you see the ending coming?  If you were writing the ending of this book, how would you have worked it out?
Austenalia

Year of Reading Dangerously: The Mysteries of Udolpho, volume I

Originally published in 1794 in four volumes, The Mysteries of Udolpho is probably the prototypical Gothic Novel. Regular readers will know that I did not read it first, though it is of primary importance to Catherine in Northanger Abbey, preferring instead to work my way through Walpole and Lewis in preparation for Udolpho.  I must say I am glad I did.  Walpole had the advantage over Mrs. Radcliffe in brevity and Lewis has it all over her for salaciousness, at least so far.

In Volume the First, we meet our cast of characters and do a little bit of traveling, so that we can endure the picaresque of which Henry insisted on tutoring Catherine. I find it highly improbable that anyone as flighty and fickle as Isabella could possibly have read Udolpho in its entirety.  I think she must have read excerpts at best.

Here is the breakdown of Volume I:

Chapters 1-6 our heroine, Emily manages to lose her mother and meet her beloved, Valencourt. She travels through the countryside with her father, who is in ill-health. There is a mysterious portrait and a supernatural forest. There is a lot of nature and description…

Chapters 7-12  Emily’s father dies, but not before making her promise to burn some papers in a very specific location of his closet–without reading them! Dear reader, you can easily see that this will not go as expected.  Who among us could actually keep such a promise, virtuous though we may be? Emily, now an orphan (I am sure you see a theme here among our heroines.) returns home under the nominal care of her mother’s sister, Madame Cheron, who is, shall we say, less than virtuous. Valencourt reappears in the story and asks permission to court Emily, which Madame Cheron wants to refuse, but then reluctantly gives, when she realizes he is the nephew of someone important to her. Montoni arrives on the scene and it is apparent that he will be the villain.

Chapters 13-14 Emily and Valencourt are engaged and nuptials are being planned, but the evil Montoni elopes with Madame Cheron and announces that the household will be moving to Venice, all the better for Montoni to gain control of Emily, my dear.  Madame Cheron remains clueless and Valencourt is thwarted in his efforts to see Emily or write to her, but they meet by chance and are able to indulge in a tearful farewell. Emily entreats Valencourt to remain calm–she fears he will challenge Montoni to a duel, and reminds him it is only one year until she reaches her majority and will no longer have to abide by Montoni’s will. Gloom, despair and agony on Emily and Valencourt, dear reader. Thus ends Volume I.

There is really so much here, that I will just choose a few themes to discuss as they relate to Northanger Abbey. First, let’s talk tropes. The orphan virgin, the bad chaperone, and the evil foreigner. These three tropes have all been present in the books so far–The Castle of Otranto and The Monk. Emily is so virtuous, she almost gives me a pain, but she is so sweet, you can’t help but like her, at least a little.  By the end of chapter 7, she is orphaned and under the guardianship of the bad chaperone, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron is a bad chaperone, because she doesn’t care about her charge, she is extremely self-absorbed, and by taking Montoni as her lover first and eloping with him later, she makes it difficult for Emily to maintain her engagement with Valencourt, or indeed with any gentleman. Finally, the evil foreigner, Montoni, embodies the dissipation of the Catholic Church, as interpreted by Protestant Englishmen and women. He is sly, sneaky, and willing to become the lover of Madame Cheron to get to Emily.  He plots, he thwarts, he is the supervillain we love to hate.

Austen uses these same tropes in Northanger Abbey–in fact she engages in literary shorthand with her readers by using the Gothic to fill in the details that are not explicit on the page. Catherine is not an actual orphan, but her trip to Bath with the Allens makes her a pseudo-orphan.  Her connection to home remains through her brother, but it is tenuous–she is left to figure things out mostly for herself, without much guidance. This is why Mrs. Allen is a bad chaperone–she talks incessantly of clothes and muslins, in fact, Henry Tilney charms her by discussing muslin himself-catching her off guard and winning her approval in one stroke. The Allens shouldn’t have let Catherine go riding with Thorpe alone–Mr. Allen doesn’t ask for enough details, and they really probably shouldn’t have let her go to Northanger Abbey without doing more checking. Mrs. Allen is self-absorbed in much the same way as Madame Cheron, minus the illicit love affairs. She is however, apparently somewhat younger than Mr. Allen, which makes one wonder…he very wealthy after all. Finally, the evil foreigner.  The evil foreigner in Northanger Abbey is off page, referred to by Thorpe in conversation with Catherine, and acknowledged by Henry in his “Remember we are English…” speech to Catherine, who is imagining all kinds of things that really would only happen in France, Spain, or Italy (a Catholic country), according to the English. Austen makes her point with tongue firmly in cheek.

Another hallmark of Gothic fiction, and really a lot of early fiction, is the use of books and reading to indicate the traits of the characters. In Udolpho, books are used as messengers to the reader. Valencourt proclaims his love for Emily through the gift of a book. “For some moments she was conscious of being beloved; then, a recollection of all the variations of tone and countenance, with which he had recited these sonnets…she wept over the memorial of his affection.” (58) Emily remembers her father after his death by spending time in his library and reading a book he had been reading, “To her the book appeared sacred and invaluable, she would not have moved it, or closed the page, which he had left open, for the treasures of the Indies.” (95)

As we know, the character depiction and action in Northanger Abbey depend on the reading habits of the players. Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho appears a virtuous reader–she and Valencourt share a love for poetry and reading is a large part of their courtship.

I await further developments in Volume II.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

I debated with myself about reading this book, since I had already watched the first 2 seasons of Victoria on Masterpiece/PBS.  I am not going to lie, I did not enjoy this novel as much as I did Goodwin’s earlier works–The Heiress and The Fortune Hunter.  Part of it may have been because I had already seen the series and really, the book doesn’t even get through the whole first season.  I also think that this one just wasn’t as good as the first two, but if I am completely honest, I will have to also say that I don’t find Victoria a compelling character.  In Goodwin’s novel she comes off as spoilt, headstrong, and whiny, not to mention more than a little self-absorbed. I was disappointed to learn from reading the endnotes that Ms. Goodwin spent many years reading Queen Victoria’s journals and letters; I was so hoping her portrayal was highly inaccurate. There are so few strong female leaders to look at from history that I hate to find that I don’t really like Victoria, or what is more important, respect her.  I have a much higher regard for Albert when all is said and done, at least for now. This is the same reaction I have had to the series. I love the costumes and the subplot involving Skerritt and Francatelli. In fact, I wasn’t planning on watching Season 3 until I saw that Laurence Fox is in it. I liked him in Inspector Morse, so I will be persuaded to tune in and at least give it a chance. I see some future nonfiction reading will be necessary to improve my factual knowledge in this area and I am hoping that my impression from the novel is fiction, just like the book. We’ll see…

The front cover of the copy I bought has an emblem which says “Reading Group Gold” from Macmillan. Whilst I am not sure I completely agree with the “gold” assessment, I can see where this would be a fun, easy read for a book group.  Toward that end, here are some discussion questions:

  1. Most of the novel is from Victoria’s point of view and she doesn’t extend her mother much compassion until her own “impossible” love interest in Lord Melbourn comes to a close. Do you think she should have realized sooner that her mother was in a difficult position?  Why was she so oblivious to the way her mother had to negotiate a very narrow path?
  2. Do you think someone like Melbourn would have been interested in Victoria as she was at eighteen and nineteen? What about her makes him love her?
  3. How is Lord Melbourn a tragic figure?  Does he act as if he thinks he is tragic, how or how not?
  4. Albert is characterized as very serious.  The other characters describe him as such and he has a sincere interest in reform and progress and modernity.  How does this contrast with Victoria’s character?
  5. What do you think of Uncle Leopold? Why do so many of the royal characters and others make such a big deal about Belgium being a “made up” country? How do you explain the fact that Victoria in the novel is so set against Uncle Leopold’s plan to marry her to Albert, but then she marries him?  This seems to be a plot hole. Do you think it is adequately explained in the novel, why or why not?
  6. The television series offers a more in depth look below stairs. If you have both seen the show and read the novel, do you think the novel suffers from this absence?  Why or why not?
  7. Can you see a great monarch in the young Victoria as portrayed by Goodwin, why or why not? How do you see Victoria of the novel maturing over time–what does her future self look like?
  8. Are you convinced of Albert’s love for Victoria in the novel?  If yes, what convinces you? If no, given Albert’s seriousness and honesty, how do you explain his decision to marry her?