One of My Best Friends: Pride and Prejudice

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The name of my blog is Some of My Best Friends… As in, some of my best friends are books. Well, one of my best friends had a birthday last month. As a friend I did not make as big a deal about another year passing- especially since it was the big 2-0-0. Sure, the UK commemorated it on a stamp and people are throwing big parties, even festivals, but I thought we could celebrate in a more low-key way.

So, that was the plan… until people started bad-mouthing my friend. Evey classic author has his/her naysayers, it can only be expected. What surprised me were the attackers and their reasoning. Women who are considered feminist and well-read behaving as though they were hipsters and this classic was some indie band gone mainstream. One writer even asked whether Pride and Prejudice was really just an old fashioned version of Twilight. Twilight??

I realized there was a theme. The writers seemed to confuse Pride and Prejudice with the spin-offs. Unfortunately, there is a reason for that:

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Well, not exactly Colin Firth or even the (most wonderful) 1996 BBC miniseries. Rather the cult following it cultivated with the prequels and sequels of questionable merit, any number of advice books with quotes or characters’ traits as their basis, or retellings of the novel’s events. The romanticizing of a character and glorifying him more than one imagines Austen would have ever believed possible has created a trap. Of course, Darcy has always been a romantic character, but then you had Bridget Jones’ Diary and others take it to the next level of pop culture. When literature becomes pop culture it becomes a whole new creature which can detract from the original story.

Another issue some seem to have with Pride and Prejudice is the lack of tortured men like Rochester saddled with his crazy attic wife in Jane Eyre or the brooding Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. It is true Austen’s men are more stoic and hide their emotions, but does that make them less romantic or worthy? Both kinds of storytelling speak to the era they were written in and to say one is right and one is wrong seems to limit literature in a way I find surprising.

The only reason I can seem to find for blurring Pride and Prejudice with all the spin-offs is perhaps these critics have not read it for many years. If that is the case, I implore these people spend time with my friend and give the story a read with an open mind and try to enjoy Austen’s sharp wit and satirical eye.

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Upstairs and Downstairs with Fay Weldon’s Habits of the House

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I know I am not alone when I say am addicted to Downton Abbey and, to a lesser extent, the recent reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs. Period dramas have always intrigued me. If any story- television, movie, or book- has rich period details, I am easily hooked. At the same time, it is easy to romanticize a period when all you see are wealthy people having parties in fancy clothes and even easier to forget what life was like for the lower classes at the very same time. Weldon presents a more troubled reality for both her upstairs and downstairs characters in Habits of the House.

When I saw the advanced reader’s copy of Habits of the House I picked it up without even reading the description because it was written by Fay Weldon, who wrote the pilot of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. With the show in mind as I read, I was both pleased and even surprised by the book itself.

Habits of the House begins as the London season of 1899 is winding down. Lord Robert, the Earl of Dilberne, has lost a considerable amount of the family fortune in African mine speculations as what we now know would become the Second Boer War is beginning. He turns his attentions- and hopes- to his son, Arthur, as the possible solution to their financial troubles. Lady Isobel, with the unappreciated aid of her maid Grace, susses out a newly arrived American heiress. Minnie might be an unsophisticated American in their eyes, but she has what so many British ladies lack- a fortune.

I picked this one up after a series of “strike outs” with books I could not quite get into. Weldon writes in short, snappy chapters that give you all the detail you need to imagine characters and places, but is not verbose. Two hours quickly passed when I first sat down to read and I could have kept going if I had not been pulled away by a social obligation.

No one character in Habits of the House is truly good, but none of them are truly bad either. They all, upstairs and downstairs, have their character flaws but develop enough through this fun read that I am eager for the second in the series to spend more time with them.

If you come to this book expecting prim and proper historical fiction, be warned Weldon does spice it up with descriptions of visits to prostitutes, trysts, and even the marriage bed. After the initial surprise, I was glad for these scenes. Stories from the Victorian period are often told with a nice varnish on them and it was refreshing to read a book that acknowledged human sexuality is not diminished just because it is not socially en vogue.

Fans of Downton Abbey who are at a loss after the end of the third season last week or anyone who enjoys a fun historical read will enjoy Habits of the House. Two more in the series are expected in summer and late fall of 2013 to keep fans sated until next season.

Endless Love: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

I listened to this a little while ago and when time passed, I figured I would skip reviewing it. Facing Valentine’s Day and because it really is a good read, I changed my mind.

My former roommate recommended Susanna Kearsley to me a couple years ago. Through an award I was judging, I had the opportunity to listen to The Winter Sea. While I have previously confessed on this blog my fondness for historical romances featuring heroines with more modern sensibilities, I do have to say straight-up romances sometimes leave me annoyed. In The Winter Sea Kearsley presented romance in both our time and in 1708, jumping between time periods as she often does in her books I have been told. Though hesitant, I pressed on in large part due to Rosalyn Landor’s wonderful narration.

The Winter Sea begins when Carrie McClelland, a writer in our time, decides to abandon France as the setting for her next book and instead travels to Scotland to research the attempted Jacobite uprising of 1708. Once there, she finds herself mysteriously drawn to the ruins of Slains Castle. The pull goes beyond historical interest as Carrie’s vivid dreams of past events in the area seem to actually be memories of another person- Sophie Paterson, a distant relative.

In 1708, Sophie Paterson is a young woman living with family in Slains Castle. Though not a part of it, she is aware her family members and their peers are plotting to bring Prince James, “The Pretender”, to England to challenge Queen Anne for the throne. James has been recognized by the French and the Catholic Church as King James III of England and King James the VIII of Scotland. In the swirl of intrigue and deception surrounding her, Sophie meets John Murray.

Sophie and John’s relationship grows into a deep love even as the political plotting becomes more dangerous. Kearsley gives readers a nice blend of romance, rich historical detail, and real characters but never “dumbs it down”. I stayed awake too late more than a few nights because I was so caught up in Sophie and John’s tale in particular.

In the present, handsome history professor Graham provides Carrie with a romance all her own. The relationship is a nice side story to Sophie and John’s without being a wasted story arc or too distracting. Kearsley handles the balance well by not creating unnecessary drama in this relationship allowing Carrie, and the reader, to focus on Sophie, John, and the planned rebellion. Lauren Willig should take notes for her series.

A couple twists along the way made me unsure what I thought of the story, but, ultimately, I have to say this was finely crafted historical romance. If you have a chance to listen to Rosalyn Landor read it, I recommend her highly. Her narration lent to the pace and feel of the scenes and her ability to give each character, including the men, distinctive voices was outstanding.