Need a tea time treat? Try this…

Tea Brack made from the recipe at King Arthur Flour, here. The only changes I made to the recipe were to add lemon zest from one lemon and use Jack Daniels Tennessee Apple Whiskey instead of Irish Whiskey. It’s delicious and a wonderful addition to your afternoon tea. The Harney & Sons Paris Tea from World Market is fantastic–slightly floral scented Black Tea. Give both a try with your latest book!

The Regency Years by Robert Morrison

The full title is The Regency Years: during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern. Morrison’s book is highly readable and engaging, while maintaining a level of scholarly rigor not often seen in works marketed to a lay audience.  For those interested, there is a wealth of endnotes and reference lists. I will be investigating several as soon as possible. Hats off to Norton for including them.  I am happy to see academic historians, such as Morrison seeking to write accessible history that still adheres to the standards of the discipline.

Morrison’s main argument goes something like this: The Regency, though only a decade (~1811-1820), was a time of many world altering events and an explosion of creative output in almost all areas, including literature and the arts, science, engineering, and even politics throughout the world, but particularly in Britain.  Because of these events and the outsize personalities of many of the creatives, the Regency is where we should look for the roots of modernity, rather than the Victorian era. He gathers evidence from areas as diverse as sport and other forms of entertainment, sex, and landscape design. He manages to include the words of several women, albeit mostly of the upper classes, as well as evidence from the lives of free people of color. Although the scope is Britain, he makes the effort to take into account different perspectives, such as North Americans, including native people, and views from other colonized areas and people. He does not flinch from taking a hard look at from whence the prosperity of the Regency arose–often the backs of the working classes along with colonial expansion and exploitation. He uses the contradictions of the Regent himself–an urbane supporter of the arts who could also be crude and gluttonous for more than just food and drink–as a symbol of the contradictions of the Regency–a time of glorious literature and great advancements in science during which the wealth gap became ever wider and whole swathes of society lived in abject poverty and filth. 

At several points he seems to be using the Regency as a warning to us in the present;  the struggles for political representation and fairness engaged in by the working classes mostly ended badly, such as the Peterloo Massacre, because of the government’s overriding fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain. During much of the Regency, Wellington is fighting Napoleon somewhere. The warning isn’t that the people will be defeated, but that they have a point and that protest can lead to positive change without violence. 

During the Regency, radical orators, politicians, novelists, satirists, caricaturists, philanthropists, poets and journalists assailed the entrenched hierarchies of Church and State from every available angle, and focused in particular on the trumped-up, tricked-out Regent as a symbol of all that was wrong with Britain. Their strategies loosened the grip of Regency intolerance. Their courage and insight remain as inspiration to those who seek to carry on their work… (63).

While I enjoyed the book immensely and would highly recommend it for learning more about the Regency period, I am less certain that Morrison’s argument that the Regency is the root of modernity is completely convincing.  I don’t disagree, and he has more than enough evidence for the first part of his argument about the Regency as a watershed politically and creatively, it is difficult to trace the origins of a concept such as modernity. To be fair, Morrison is does show convincingly that the Regency era marks the beginning of realistic novel writing as opposed to Gothic/Romances (NOTE: this usage of Romance is the more classical meaning of a genre in which a hero has a quest), but he also rightly points out that the most popular novelist at the time was Walter Scott who situated his works squarely in the Romance category, albeit the newish genre of Historical Romance.  Even though Scott and the Regent admired Austen’s works, they never achieved the popularity of Scott’s during her own lifetime. In retrospect, Austen’s reputation outstripped that of Scott (for more about that read this recent article by Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser–you may recognize the license plate!), but this makes the case for realistic novel writing as a “movement” of Regency rather less sure. 

Likewise Morrison’s tracing of protest movements.  Though he argues successfully that they existed and that ideas about nonviolence may be traced to some stars of Regency protests, ultimately there is no indication that anything actually changed as a result. Even Peterloo did not really bring about any desired change. “Liverpool’s government was unrepentant. It tried, convicted, and imprisoned several radical leaders…It passed the notorious Six Acts, which introduced harsh measures of control over assembly, the popular press, and the bearing or arms” (56). Morrison is continuing the conversation about the significance of the Regency which will likely continue as more evidence is discovered, sifted, sorted, and analyzed.

Morrison’s use of a core cast of Regency characters lends continuity and a sense of intimacy to his work. He draws heavily from Byron, Leigh Hunt, Austen, The Wordsworths, Scott, two sets of Lambs, and Hazlitt among others.  By using evidence from these luminaries in each chapter, the reader gains a sense of the familiar that serves as a throughline for the book as it describes wide ranging aspects of the Regency. Morrison, not unsurprisingly, uses evidence most frequently from figures he has written about before in his other works.  This is both a strength–because he knows them well–and a weakness, because it limits the evidence. However, it is not a serious weakness and his conscious decisions to look for representations from all classes and types of people offsets any real criticism for sticking with his cast of Regency characters. It would be impossible not to limit the evidence somehow or else risk a book too long to read comfortably.

I recommend Morrison’s work to those with an interest in the Regency period–it is entertaining and informative, as well as being methodically sound. Enjoy!

Austen in Austin

Book Sculpture by Mike Stilkey

Yesterday, we had our regional Jane Austen Society of North America regional meeting–it was a great way to start off the year. We heard a wonderful talk by the president of JASNA entitled, “Jane Austen, Working Woman,” followed by a visit to the Harry Ransom Center to view the “Austen in Austin” exhibit, a part of a larger exhibit, Stories to Tell. Our tour was lead by Janine Barchas, UT professor and the curator of the Austen cases. Unfortunately, the exhibit closed today, but Janeites should know that the HRC owns the Austen family copies of her works–with annotations made by Cassandra. The photo below shows one of the annotations, but it is very faint. It is in a copy of Persuasion, and it reads, “Dear Jane, these words should be written in letters of gold.”

Another hidden gem from the exhibit is an association copy of Persuasion owned by T. H. White. White penned a locked room mystery based on Austen’s characters in 1932, “Darkness at Pemberly”, which was also adapted for a Radio BBC program. I will be looking to see if I can find a recording, but in the meantime, you can read the story here at project Gutenburg.

More Austenalia to come soon!

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!

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?

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 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 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?

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 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.