Brandon to the Rescue: Sense & Sensibility Read-Along, Chapters 37 - 42 

So we finally see why Lucy needed an older, stupid sister. Everything in Austen has a purpose, and who was going to reveal the engagement if not Anne (aka Nancy, which apparently is a nickname for Anne, which I only glean from this novel and have never heard from any other source)? I think Anne might have been an after-thought, or at least a late addition, as Austen solved the problem of how to let the cat out of the bag. And I imagine her rejoicing at the opportunity for such ridicule. I mean, how much fun is this character? She is everything Austen loves to mock, and still so real, and almost likeable in her lamentable idiocy. 

Allow me to just interject here to point out how unmarried sisters were addressed in the old days, in case this has been a source of confusion, or just so you have something interesting to say at a cocktail party. The eldest unmarried sister is always Miss (Last Name), so Elinor is Miss Dashwood, Anne is Miss Steele, and Jane is Miss Bennett. All other unmarried sisters are called Miss (First Name (+Last Name, usually), so we have Miss Marianne Dashwood, Miss Lucy Steele and Miss Elizabeth Bennett, though sometimes, in less formal circumstances, just Miss Marianne, Miss Lucy and Miss Elizabeth. Ladies might, if close, just call each other by their first names, as would family members, but only if no one else was around. And, to make matters confusing, if only the younger sister was around, and there was not risk of confusion, they too could just be called Miss (Last Name). But this was not common. I mention it only to elucidate should you come across an instance of this and find it a contradiction. 

Well, at least Elinor will get a rest from all the teasing about Mr. F! But honestly, what a relief to have this all out, for Elinor to be able to talk to her own sister about it. When I think about the restraint of Elinor in keeping this secret to herself, I am struck by the heroism of it. I don’t think I could keep that much to myself ever. I can’t even keep mum when a car cuts me off or uses the wrong lane in a roundabout. I sort of wonder whether anyone keeps any secrets with such solemnity any more. Was this normal for the period, or was Elinor equally remarkable even in her own time?

And does anyone else notice how much emphasis is put on the mistaken belief by everyone that Elinor will marry Colonel Brandon? How would you feel if she did marry him in the end, if Marianne died of the illness that has struck her just now in the story, from walking out in the long, wet grass, dreaming about what could have been with Willoughby if he hadn’t been such a total shit? 

I am finding this novel to be quite a lot darker than Austen’s other work. If Marianne dies, Elinor and Brandon could find solace in each other. And I have to say, I am not overly fond of Marianne as a character. We’d all feel for Edward certainly, if he has to marry Lucy forever, but that’s hardly the point. It would be quite a realistic ending, I think, and befitting the tone of the book. But I guess it wouldn’t be very Austen. I mean, that’s what we have the Brontes for, right? And let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We haven’t yet read about everyone’s ultimate fates. 

But I will say that I do think Colonel Brandon is really central to the story. He, more than anyone, I think, exemplifies all Jane Austen’s ideals.

Also, Alan Rickman. My heart. I confess, I would be predisposed to love him because of that portrayal, so expertly exhibited in both the performance and the direction. But in reading over the book, it is clear that he is the standard of both sense and sensibility. He is loving, kind, deep in his feelings and bold and generous in his actions. Yet he is careful. He is not overly demonstrative or rash. He is intelligent, perceptive, measured, humble and warm. Personally, I think Elinor could do much, much worse, and he is quite well suited to her disposition. He has great respect and admiration for her, and seeks her guidance on matters of importance to those near her. He is thoughtful and gentlemanly. Let’s be honest; I’d marry him. Especially if he was actually Alan Rickman.

The Gloves are Off! Sense & Sensibility Read-Along, Chapters 33 - 36 

This might be the shortest section yet, but I have the most to say about it. Here are the readings.

My secret reason for doing this read-along is that I wanted the chance to share my bitter, bitter disappointment, 8 years and more brewing, over the 2008 mini series adaptation of this book. And now that we have got through the critical plot points in the novel, I am free to spit my venom.
I must preface this tirade by saying that I do not blame the actors. I never blame the actors. Who wouldn’t want to be in this production? And you have to do what the script and the director tell you, so it is really not the fault of the thespians. All of them actually gave very good performances, quite excellent in some cases.

The person I blame is Andrew Davies, the great, genius, mastermind screenwriter responsible for almost every BBC costume drama you or I have ever watched. He wrote the screenplay for the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. He wrote every Dickens mini series I have ever seen, as well as all the Gaskell ones and a thousand others. All have been excellent, artistic, insightful, and sensitive to the original work. So, you can imagine my excitement when I found out he was going to be adapting Sense and Sensibility into a mini series! Finally, all the little gems were going to get the time they needed to shine. All the characters would have space to show their nuances, their brilliancy. All would be given the treatment of Mr. Davies’ exceptional skill and talent.

And consequently, imagine my disappointment, having waited months for the release of this anticipated masterpiece, when it was ruined in the VERY FIRST SCENE!!!! Having read the book with me, you will see that Willoughby, though not so restrained in his expressions as would please Elinor, is otherwise loved by all, including the reader. We have NO CAUSE to suspect his true nature, which is WHAT MAKES THE STORY WORK! If you have not seen the mini series, brace yourself for this news: The very first scene is of Willoughby seducing young Eliza! Our very first information is that THIS MAN IS A ROGUE! BEWARE! I could probably just about tolerate everything else, but that, the very opening, was the absolute limit for me. With that given away, what is even the point of the story? Austen’s whole careful construction is gutted from the start.

And then, we have Mr. Edward Ferars. He rides in on a white horse, all tall and handsome and dashing (seriously? Edward? Did you READ Austen’s description of him?) Later, he has to go out and chop wood in the rain, to work out his manly angst over his conflicting passions. In an interview, Andrew Davies actually said he didn’t think the men in the novel were good enough, and he had to improve them by making them more strong and masculine. Is he completely missing the point? Did he not read the bit where Marianne complains to her mother about how Edward is NOT dashing? Does he not get that he is SUPPOSED to be kind of awkward and intellectual and that this suits Elinor?

And furthermore, in the interview, Andrew Davies says they wanted to differentiate themselves from the film, but it was almost like they made a mini series of the film in some ways, as they replicated certain things that were in the film but not the book! And, my first thought on seeing Edward (who had not yet come to notoriety as Matthew in Downton Abbey), was that he looked exactly like a young Hugh Grant! Honestly, tell me I’m making this up:

Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars and Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars. Tell me I'm making this up.

So then we meet Willoughby again in Devonshire, and not only are we, the audience, on guard against him because of that ridiculous opening scene, but they actually have Colonel Brandon take Willoughby aside and press him as to his intentions towards Marianne! What the actual Ferrars!
Brandon has no reason to suspect Willoughby of anything at this point. As far as anyone is supposed to know, he is to inherit the old mansion, he likes to hunt, and he has his own house at Combe Magna. He likes dogs and dancing into the night. And in what possible world would a gentleman like Brandon, who has absolutely no relationship with Marianne, and who is extremely well-bred and genteel, ever, ever, EVER, take it upon himself to confront another gentleman about his conduct (which is not even questionable) towards a young lady? It’s beyond absurd. It’s infuriating. It undermines everything.

Then, as if Brandon has not been made enough of a barbarous fool, we see him London, after Marianne’s disappointment, barge in on Elinor and thrust at her everything he knows to Willoughby’s detriment. There is no delicate attempt to raise the matter of another gentleman’s reputation, no indication he appreciates the awkwardness and difficulty of the matter, no half a page’s dialogue of allusion and suggestion and attempt to force an inquiry from Elinor. To so defame another gentleman to so destroy his reputation to a lady, would not have been undertaken lightly by Brandon, and is NOT taken so as Austen wrote it! It’s abominable. And it’s not like they have the excuse that they were pressed for time. They had a whole mini series! And Emma Thompson still had her Colonel Brandon undergo all the necessary preliminaries within a film of under two hours’ duration.

And that is the real crime here. There is so much material to explore, so much that by necessity has to be cut from a film, but that would be delicious to indulge in all the space of time allowed by a mini series, and they chose so little. Instead, they spent half the film on redundant scenic shots of the Devonshire countryside, like it was some sort of BBC travel program. (Nothing against a good BBC travel program, but that is not the point.) It was as though they were trying to copy the 1995 Pride and Prejudice film adaptation. It had a similar feeling of moody introspection and glassy, aesthetic. I really think that comparison is enough to convey my sentiments.

In its defence, it did have some great performances. As I said, the actors were not to be faulted. The role of Elinor has gained much critical attention, and I would support that, while adding that Marianne was also excellent. Though I don’t know why they always make Marianne shorter than Elinor, when it specifies in the book that she is taller. It’s a small point, I know, when there is so much to consider in casting, but Jane Austen didn’t give much description, so I feel like what she does say must be important and ought to be heeded. But that’s my only real beef with the casting, so that’s pretty small. I mean, Willoughby looks like a blackguard, but with his charactre ruined so early on, I’m not sure that’s really a casting issue.

Possibly the only truly great thing about this adaptation is that it included the character of Anne Steele, who is a highlight for me, and was not included in the film version.

I have this dream of making a historical drama based on this book, like Downton Abbey, but Regency. There is so much to go into. The first chapter alone could almost be a whole season, and we could give space to all the characters, playing out all the scenes that must have happened but are not spelled out in the book. I mean, we would all know how things “ended” but that wouldn’t be the point. There’d be lots of chances for witty quips and jibes and lovely gowns and pretty rooms. Do you think anyone would watch that? I’m probably insane. But then, there are a lot of other insane people out there...

Please do share your thoughts below. Feel free to take me on in my harsh opinions, or my veneration of the film, or my madness in thinking anyone would want to watch hours and hours of this book on TV. I always look forward to a good debate!

Bastards Unlimited: Sense & Sensibility Read-Along, Chapters 26 - 32 

This is a short section, but so much happens in these chapters! Here are the videos of the readings, if you want to listen first, or after.

Two mysteries are resolved in one, as the clever Miss Austen weaves her tangled web. Mr. Willoughby's character is revealed through the sad history of the friend whom he so egregiously slandered in previous scenes. "Colonel Brandon is someone whom everybody thinks well of and nobody remembers to talk to." Oh, bitter twist of fate! Nobody will think well of YOU hereafter.

"There are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure." What a thing to say of the hero who is off to succor the maiden whose distress you have caused by your little party of pleasure! And the Brontës thought Austen wasn't dark enough. Ha!

Just because it's readable doesn't mean it's fluff. And Eliza? I mean Brandon's cousin. Any thoughts on her story? Anyone still think Austen didn't have anything to say on the plight of women? I have considered writing a prequel to this book that told her story. But it would be too sad and not very Austenian, ironically. My prequel will focus on Edward and Lucy, since I know you are all dying to know. Though I am sure the story of Eliza seems more serious and legitimate, like Wide Sargasso Sea, except there isn't any race issue in Eliza's story, so maybe not quite. Unless I made one up. But that seems contrived.

But in all of this, I keep being struck by the thought that I know so many Mrs. Jennings. Does anyone not? Excessively officious older ladies who completely misapprehend the wish of others to be left alone? I half suspect I am Mrs. Jennings, in fact.

And how awful is Marianne? I really think she is. Clearly, I am on Austen's side on this point. Obviously, she is behind Elinor and the arguments in favour of prudence. But I don't know if it's necessary to go that far. It is possible to be unrestrained and yet still kind, and polite. To consider other people's feelings and to question one's own superiority is not inconsistent with sincerity. But if you read this book in the light of the Wollstonecraft passage I quoted last week, perhaps that is the point. Women are praised for their "sensibility" but really, it makes them awful people. Isn't it better to be rational? Marianne's sensibility, and Eliza's, leave them susceptible to the whims of men like Willoughby and Colonel Brandon's brother.

Some would say this is a criticism of a world which is so brutal to women, and maybe it is. But I hear the pragmatic Austen saying, what are you going to do about it? This is the world. It sucks. She was no activist, unless all artists are activists, for holding a mirror up to the world in all its harshness.

But back to the book itself. Does anyone else just want Elinor to yell at everyone to just F@$& OFF? Or is that just me? Maybe that is the point as well. She can't. She is dependent on Mrs. Jennings, and while a man in her situation could be his own master, she could not. Men can be as disagreeable as they like. Just look at Mr. Palmer. He's running for Parliament!

And, did everyone understand that Brandon was saying he challenged Willoughby to a duel, but they were both unharmed, so it didn't make the news? That's what that little exchange is about, and which contemporary readers would have instantly understood. It was technically illegal, though it happened all the time. Some of you may recall the duels and threats of duels in Cecilia. Bloody men, can't settle anything without guns! Lucy and Elinor did just as well with some papers and a filligree basket.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Keep sharing videos and opinions.

Secrets and Mysteries: Sense & Sensibility Read-Along, Chapters 10-25 

All right! Now we get into the meat of the story, and all Jane Austen’s moralizing begins. The first nine chapters were really just setting the stage.

Here are the chapters, if you want to listen to them first.

So, Marianne and Willoughby are boldly and blatantly enraptured with each other, and only Elinor seems to see anything untoward in this. She has to talk Marianne out of accepting the gift of a HORSE (of all things) from Willoughby, and scolds her for going with Willoughby all over Allenham Court, with nobody home but old Mrs. Smith. Oddly enough, the affront here seems to be more to Mrs. Smith for entering her house without an invitation than for going to such a private place with Willoughby. Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon really starts to fall for Marianne, now that he sees her with someone way more attractive than himself. He grows in mystery, as he hints at a tragic past involving a young lady… Elinor refers to him as amiable, so we know he must be a good ‘un. And THEN, of a sudden, just as they are all going out on a picnic, he gets a note that has him depart on the spot. He will not be persuaded to delay even a day.

BUT that is not the big news! Enter Lucy Steele for some real drama and antics. She is neither well-bred nor warm-hearted nor amiable nor ill-disposed. I believe she is what we call a minx, or something like it. (Aside: note how suspicious Austen is of her interest in the children. The heroines take no notice of them, but the villainous Lucy is all over them!) And now Elinor has to take on her wretched secret while struck with the blow of discovering that Edward is lost to her forever! Lucky thing she was so discreet about her feelings. At least we now know why he wouldn’t confess his love to Elinor, and we can account for the oppression of spirits which always confused her. (Also note this same phrase “oppression of spirits” is used to describe Colonel Brandon, and it is suggested that neither character is naturally dull, but seems to have something weighing on them to make them so.)

Marianne, on the other hand, gets to weep her heart out when Willoughby mysteriously takes off, just as it seemed he was going to propose. I mean, he took a lock of her hair! (That’s pretty extreme in Regency times, not to mention the HORSE!)

And in their reactions to bad news, Austen uses the sisters to illustrate the two approaches to sentiment that she wishes to contrast, though it is clear which side she is on.

This book really is about Sense and Sensibility. And I believe that Austen got the title from Mary Wollestonecraft, whom she undoubtedly would have read. Here is a little quote from Wollestonecraft about women: “Their senses are inflamed, and their understandings neglected; consequently they become the prey of their senses, delicately termed sensibility, and are blown about by every momentary gust of feeling. They are, therefore, in a much worse condition than they would be in, were they in a state nearer to nature. Ever restless and anxious, their over exercised sensibility not only renders them uncomfortable themselves, but troublesome, to use a soft phrase, to others. All their thoughts turn on things calculated to excite emotion; and, feeling, when they should reason, their conduct is unstable, and their opinions are wavering, not the wavering produced by deliberation or progressive views, but by contradictory emotions. By fits and starts they are warm in many pursuits; yet this warmth, never concentrated into perseverance, soon exhausts itself; exhaled by its own heat, or meeting with some other fleeting passion, to which reason has never given any specific gravity, neutrality ensues.”
Am I justified in this belief? Do share.
So, one mystery solved (i.e. what was up with Edward and his hot-cold routine with Elinor), and several new ones begun (i.e. what’s up with Willoughby vamooshing like that? Are they or are not they engaged? What took Brandon off so suddenly? What is his history?)
Oh, and let us not forget the joy of the Palmers! I think Emma Thompson must have been divinely inspired to think of Hugh Laurie for that role, for though Ang Lee directed the film, I’m sure she had a lot to do with the casting. I know Alan Rickman always wanted to play a romatic hero, but could never get away from playing bad guys all the time. And she and Hugh Laurie are old buddies from Cambridge… that crew all are.  

In her desire to see everyone married, Mrs. Jennings insists on taking Marianne and Elinor to London under the ruse that her house will be too empty since her second daughter is now married. And so away they go. 

Note Lucy’s bad grammar (never a good sign in an Austen novel). And who else loves the character of Anne Steele? You can almost see Lucy rolling her eyes every time she opens her mouth. 

I have read this book and seen this film so many times that I can’t remember what I surmised the first time I read it. Any newbies here care to offer a prediction? 

I would like to offer my theory about the fact that Jane Austen published this novel without her name attached to it. It was authored by “A Lady.” Theories abound as to why this was, whether she wanted to remain anonymous for reasons of pride, of privacy, of class, whether it was proper for her to be writing novels, etc. My own suspicion is that her reasons were ones of politeness. In Regency times, and up until even the 20th Century, a woman’s first name was quite a private and personal thing. It was not simply bandied about. There were very specific rules about who could call a lady by her Christian name and in what circumstances. Jane Austen would have been generally referred to as Miss Jane Austen, her elder sister, Cassandra, being called Miss Austen. However, when Cassandra was not there, or not in contemplation, Jane could have been called Miss Austen. Her family and close friends would have called her Jane (or possibly Jenny, as suggested in a letter from her mother announcing her birth). Married women took their husband’s names in public, like Mrs. John Dashwood, who is only called Fanny by family members. So, for an unmarried woman, the question of how to style themselves in relation to a publication was probably quite complicated. For men, it was not such a big deal. Their whole names were used much more frequently as their lives were sort of more public. A lady publishing a book was in something of a novel position (forgive the pun). Nobody would simply call her Jane Austen, especially not strangers. That would be very rude and inappropriate. To call her Miss Jane Austen on a book cover would be awkward and strange, because nobody reading her book would even know she had a sister. But Miss Austen would be inaccurate because of that sister nobody knew about. Much easier just to say “A Lady” and I think the public was fine with this. They got it. “I am a lady, and I am not putting my name on this book to be passed among the public and spoken casually by strangers.” It was a dignity thing, in my opinion. 

But, onwards and upwards! What is to happen in London? Find out here, or on YouTube, or anywhere else you are choosing to follow along. Happy trails as you go!

Amiable or Ill-Disposed? Sense & Sensibility Read-along - Chapters 1 to 9 

Three years ago, I started a read-along of Jane Austen's first published novel. I made it to Chapter 40 when I developed a bad cough, and could not continue. I never returned to it, as other projects took priority and I didn't have the time. Well, now that we are all stuck home in isolation, it seems the perfect opportunity to take it up again.

I have broken the book into 5 sections, and have written some commentary at the end of each section. I live-streamed my reading aloud of the book, done a couple of chapters at a time, and then posted them to YouTube. I will post each section of the book here, with the videos of the readings, and my commentary at the end. The commentary is more my personal musings than any kind of academic analysis.

Please also note that I did my readings in various locations around Edmonton, highlighting some of my favourite local spots and businesses, so there is some background noise. If you just want to listen to the readings all in a row, you can use this YouTube playlist, where I will post all subsequent chapters as I read them:

Welcome to the first commentary of our #SenseandSensibility read-along! Perhaps you have been listening to my readings of the book, or just reading it on your own, or just relying on your memory of having read it, or having watched the film, or possibly the mini series. Or you are just joining us now, with no background at all. Whatever the case, let us begin! (I did try to find some cute gifs and memes to illustrate this post, but I couldn’t find any that fit, and I’m too thick to figure out how to make them myself. Please therefore post yours in the comments.)

You might have noticed that the opening of this book hardly drops us into the heart of a high-speed car chase. We have about two pages of describing the lines of inheritance and the reasons for it. The 19th Century reader had time for this, and it was not unusual. Personally, I kind of like it, but then I am more of a 19th Century reader. And I love that Jane Austen always has all these details worked out, whether or not she shares them. And I like the legal detail as well. And her efficiency is incredible. This first chapter could be a whole mini series. In fact, I'd love to make that mini series. Watch this space... seriously, it’s not impossible... But since she has told it so efficiently, I won’t summarize the history, as I might as well just set out the text of the book.

But just so we all know where we are, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters get screwed over by their step-son/half-brother (respectively) John Dashwood and have to move out of their posh house into a cottage far away, but not before the eldest, Elinor, forms a shaky attachment with John’s brother-in-law Edward, much to Edward’s own sister’s chagrin. At their new home, they are welcomed by Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John, and his family. A short while into their residence, the middle Dashwood girl, Marianne, falls down a hill in the rain and gets carried home by a galant stranger of the name of Willoughby.

I have noticed a general trend (with the prompting of the ever-insightful Laura Frey, of that all the characters are described as either amiable or ill-disposed. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are all amiable. I think only Marianne gets called so overtly, but they all are. Edward Ferrars is also described as amiable, by Marianne, and it takes one to know one.

John Dashwood COULD have been amiable, if he had married a more amiable woman, but Mrs. John Dashwood (AKA Fanny) is PROPERLY ill-disposed, and thus so is he as a consequence.

And there is another dichotomy at play among the characters. They tend either to be well-bred or warm-hearted. Sir John Middleton is warm-hearted and a bit vulgar, as is his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings, but his wife is well-bred and insipid. I can see why she was left out of the movie. She doesn’t do anything and serves no purpose except to allow spinster Jane Austen to display, once again, her hatred of children and her distrust of anyone who does not likewise hate them. (Note her explanation of the reasons old Uncle Dashwood left all his property to little Henry’s benefit. No doting auntie there!)

Colonel Brandon does not fit neatly into either category. He is too reserved to be amiable, and too good and kind to be ill-disposed. He is both well-bred and warm-hearted, though the latter becomes apparent only over time.

We may keep this running theme throughout this read-along, and please contribute in the comments your questions for our Buzzfeed quiz: Am I Amiable or Ill-Disposed?

So, on to my thoughts and questions. I’m not going to give thorough analysis. You can find that online anywhere. But I do have some unanswered issues, mainly of a legal nature. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you find the law tedious. I assure you, no judgment here. It is tedious. I don't get how Henry Dashwood (AKA Tom Wilkinson) is “the legal inheritor of the estate and the person to whom [his uncle] meant to bequeath it.” Either you are the legal inheritor OR someone bequeaths it to you, not both. There is no mention of an entail, and if Henry Dashwood inherited the property outright, his wife would have had a life interest in it as a dower interest. It seems Uncle Dashwood gave Henry a life interest in Norland. Based on my knowledge of wills and estates, that's what it looks like to me. So he can use it and profit from it, but he can't touch it or deplete it. So how was he both the inheritor and the person to whom his uncle intended to bequeath it? Could Henry Dashwood have been the inheritor of a gift-over? So, a previous owner had some direction in their will about Hendry Dashwood getting a life-interest when the uncle died, but then after that it was up to the uncle. So, Henry was the legal inheritor by way of the gift-over, and his uncle INTENDED to bequeath the remainder of the interest to him. Then, along comes the little boy, and all is thrown over. This is the only explanation that makes sense of the line in the novel, but it does seem rather convoluted, legally speaking.

Mrs Dashwood has seven thousand pounds, which I suspect came from the sale of Stanhill, which Henry Dashwood must have owned outright, in freehold, for it not to have gone to his son. And Uncle Dashwood left each of the girls three thousand pounds. For the uninitiated, people lived on the interest of their money invested in fixed-rate bonds, of sorts. They are generally referred to as “the four percents” but the math here implies they are somehow getting five percent. Again, if anyone knows more about this than I do, please explain this higher rate of return.

Does anyone differ from me in opinion that the best scene possibly in literary history is of Fanny convincing John not to give his sisters any money, even though he promised his father on his death-bed that he would take care of them? What I love about this scene is how real it is. It's like an exposition of all cognitive dissonance played out on the page with perfect insight. Fanny is a “strong caricature” of John, and I think of her as the devil on his shoulder, part of himself, but completely out of balance. We all have this voice in our heads but generally we fight it. Here, there is no one to resist, and it's almost like a morality play in two pages. Such a revelation of the descent into evil! In my opinion, this is where Austen’s genius really shines, when she can display so aptly what we all experience, and bring it out into the light to be examined in all its ugly glory.

And I noticed that Austen gives quite a detailed description of the cottage and its situation. This is not like her. She wasn’t all that into descriptions, which can make it difficult to glean from her work much information about the period unless you are already familiar with it. But in this case, it is a bit foreshadowing. You think, why is she explaining so much about the geography of the valley? It hasn’t become clear yet, but it will.

And I cannot resist the chance to discuss how very well the film actually captures all of this. As I read, I am somewhat in awe of how Emma Thompson brought out the spirit of the book, even though it is not a verbatim translation. Contrast that with the mini-series, which utterly misses the point, in my opinion. And it was written by Andrew Davies! He of all people ought to know better! At the appropriate moments, I will explain my dislike of that production, which was a monstrous disappointment because I had been SO looking forward to it for so long before it came out, particulary because it was written by Andrew Davies, whom I trusted. And if you can’t trust Andrew Davies to adapt a work of classic literature, whom can you trust?

One last thing I always like to note are the physical descriptions of the characters, because I like to contrast them with the casting choices. Marianne is supposed to be taller than Elinor. Both are pretty, but Marianne is more striking and has very dark eyes. Elinor is more regular in her form (whatever that means). And Elinor is 19 when the book opens and Marianne 16. When the move to Barton Cottage, she has turned 17. Colonel Brandon is “the wrong side of five and thirty.” John Middleton is forty, and Lady Middleton is 27. Mrs. Dashwood is also 40. Margaret is 13. They have three servants, which may seem like a lot, but when everything had to be done by hand, it really isn’t.

Is anyone reading this for the first time? Anybody surprised by differences between the book and the movie/mini-series? Please comment! And please keep sharing the readings. Until next time, let us not say good-bye, but as the French have it, au revior!

Emma - a Non-Review 

I was fortunate enough to go see the new Emma film in the theatre just before the COVID-19 lockdown, and if you were not so lucky, you may be just waiting for it to hit the streaming service of your choice. These are my thoughts on the film, which you are welcome to argue with me about once you have seen it yourself, or to take into consideration when deciding which of the MILLION programs to choose when you sit down in front of your screen.

Personally, I never watch previews, but in case you find them enticing, here is one to draw you in:

This is a charming, clever, stylish, romantic, delightful film with endearing performances and remarkable use of fabric. Honestly, this film is worth watching just for the fabric. I don't know if I have ever said that before. And I don't just mean the costume fabrics. I mean all the fabrics, and there are a lot of them in this movie.

You will not find in this film a thorough adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. If that is what you are after, I recommend either the Kate Bekinsale film or the Romola Garai mini series. The latter is more engaging and believable, but the former has more accurate hair colouring. I really don't know why they always insist on Emma's being blond and Harriet brunette, when the book clearly specifies the reverse. I know it's a small point, but so easy to correct.

In the 2020 film that is my subject here, the hair colours are all wrong. But if you put the book out of your head, and stop watching for the particular scenes you had in your mind, this film is just wonderful. The filmmakers take the audience on the journey of these characters, and I and all my party were thoroughly diverted. I really didn't think it was going to work at the beginning. I thought I could never see Mr. Knightly with tousled, blond hair, and Emma was not at all amiable. But it totally worked! I was won over on every front, and left the theatre positively sighing.

The tone and texture of the film is a bit of a departure from previous Austen adaptations. The soundtrack included a lot of traditional folk music, which put me in mind of the Blue Mountains of Tennessee or some such. But that is no surprise really, since those old American folk songs all have their roots in old British songs. I do wonder whether Johnny Flynn had anything to do with those choices, or perhaps the director was a fan of folk music, leading to both the casting of Johnny Flynn and the inclusion of all these lovely old songs. Whatever the case, I do highly recommend looking up Johnny Flynn's music. It is everything lovely, and you will thank me for it.

The direction was very stylized, making the film often feel almost like a ballet. There was minimal actual dancing, but the movement on screen had a lot of artistry and care in the timing, so it really felt like an alternate, more beautiful, possibly magical world. Personally, I love this. I love feeling like a film is a candy shop for my particular, fantastical inner child. And I defy anyone to walk away from this film NOT in love with Johnny Flynn. Seriously, those cuffs? Be still, my beating heart.

For the sake of my reputation, I probably should mention once more that I am well aware there was a lot missing from this film that was in the book. I appreciated this film as a stand-alone work of art that draws on the novel, rather than as the book in movie form. This is how I view adaptations, and how I believe they are intended. As long as the film delivers as a film, I won't criticize it on the basis of deviation from the original work.

I would go so far as to say that this is my favourite screen version of this story so far. I'd love to hear your opinions. I feel certain that there are many reviews and comments about how disappointing this film was because it took some liberties with the content. Do you feel that way? I never read reviews until I have clearly formed my own opinion, so now that I have posted this summary, please hit me with your worst. I do enjoy a bit of controversy.

Non-Review of League of the Star by NR Cruse 

This review could have been very awkward. Since publishing my book with Stonehouse, which also published this book, I have come to know the author quite well, and that is a dangerous game if one intends to write a review. I did not promise one, however, and that gave me an out, which, as evidenced by this post, I have not been obliged to rely upon. Thank goodness.

If you can imagine The Count of Monte Cristo, thrown into bed with Frances Burney, the result might be the adventure novel/comedy of manners that is the debut novel of NR Cruse: The League of the Star. I don't quite know what I expected to read when I picked up this book. I think I anticipated some slogging work about the catastrophe of revolution, something in the vein of War and Peace perhaps. Imagine my delight when instead, I was drawn into a plot (or I should say, plots) at once gripping, dramatic and intriguing, keeping me up at night far beyond what my interests or my judgment ought to have allowed. Replicating the erstwhile popular literary form of the epistolary novel, the book also employs language reminiscent of the time and plot lines that really do remind one of contemporaneous tales. It has love. It has war. It has some very silly people and some rather noble ones. I have a feeling it might appeal to fans of the Master and Commander series, but I've never read those books, so that is a very ignorant recommendation. 

It is not like a Jane Austen novel, though. There is much more violence, and the principle character is a man, which is something Austen would never have done. But it isn't pretending to be an Austen novel, so that is not to be minded. I only mentioned the fact because I usually only review Austenesque novels. I felt this one was close enough, as Austen was very much affected by the revolution, with her own brother marrying the widow of a French peer who was guillotined. These themes and this backdrop would have been familiar to her. 

The story itself was a weaving together of three distinct and compelling plot lines. I really did have to know what happened next. The characters were varied and distinct, and there were moments when I laughed at their folly and when I felt their pain. There were many twists and turns, of which I guessed at some, and others utterly stunned me. At one point, I had to go back and re-read the same passage several times just to confirm that I had not misread it, and that it was really the shocking revelation that I had not at all seen coming! 

It was a solid first book. I am so relieved. 

And, let me make this plea, that if you read this book, or any other book, especially by a new author, or published by a small, new or local publishing house like Stonehouse Books, please do leave a review of it on Goodreads, or Amazon, or, or (yes, they do reviews), or your blog if you have one. It need not be long or involved. "I liked this book" would be a very helpful and adequate review. It's free to leave a review, and there is almost no better way to support authors.

Here is the publisher's information about the book:


 N.R. Cruse
Order online
HardCover $32.99 CAD
ISBN:  978-0-9866494-6-2

It is the dawn of the French revolution when masses of hungry peasants burn the chateaux of aristocrats throughout France.  After the death of his estranged family, an 18 year-old nobleman, the Marquis Marcel de la Croix, is forced to raise the royalist banner, despite his own revolutionary leanings.  The wreck of his family fortress becomes a bastion for newly disenfranchised aristocrats, and Marcel and his fiery associate, Pierre Lafont, lead a rebel group called the League of the Star.
After a bitter falling out with Lafont, Marcel escapes to England incognito, hoping to put the past behind him.  In England he encounters several French emigres: the large, brutish former soldier, M. Tolouse, the haughty Mlle. de Courteline, and the sheltered Mlle. Vallon.  As these traveling exiles are forced together, a young boy in their company begins to intrigue them with a mysterious tale of love.  Can a simple love story, begun merely to entertain the weary travellers, hold the key to Marcel’s fate?

Love and Friendship Review 

I never read reviews before I watch movies or read books, because it colours my opinions. So I don't know what other people are saying about this movie, but what I have to say is that, in a nutshell, it DELIVERS. This is my idea of the highest compliment. So often, I have an idea of what something is or will be, and then it just doesn't deliver on its promise. I don't expect everything to be to my taste, and I don't expect everyone to like the same things I do, but I do want things to be what they purport to be. And this show does exactly that. I saw it in the theatre, twice.
I went back and read the novella, just to  be sure my recollection was correct. (By the way, the novella is called Lady Susan, in case you are confused. Love and Friendship is a different story. They just switched the name.)
Essentially, the show is a hilarious serious of nonsense and witty lines, in beautiful costumes and ancient houses, with ridiculous characters and a whole lot of scheming. It is much more Georgian than Austen's other works, and much more youthful. There is nothing profound about it, but it is deeply enjoyable. And I thought it was very true to Austen, though not all the lines seemed to come from the story itself, they were perfectly on point. I especially loved all the biblical stuff that they put in, as Austen's father was a clergyman and I think she would have appreciated the way it was used. Terrific screenwriting all round, I'd say!
The second time we went to see it, a couple of ladies approached us and were surprised at our enthusiasm for it, as they said they absolutely hated it, so to each their own I suppose, but they didn't seem all that familiar with the period, so probably thought it was going to be some sort of Brontean tragedy or something. They said they wanted it to go more slowly...???? It is not slow. It is quippy and sharp and delightful.
The casting was perfect. I found Kate Beckensale's performance very refreshing. I half expected a sort of Lady Bracknell in drag type of approach, an over-enunciated langour that tends to accompany this sort of drama, but she was very off-hand in her delivery, almost casual, and I thought it made it all the funnier.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention how I could stare at Mr. Reginald De Courcy ALL DAY! ***Sigh****
My only complaint comes from the only thing I knew about the film in advance, which had to do with Chloe Savigny. I read that she was cast, and had prepared a flawless English accent, and then at the last minute was told to drop the accent and they tweaked the script to make her American. BOO! This was a bad choice. The director said her accent was unexceptionable, but that he thought audiences would be distracted by their scrutiny of it. WRONG! We were distracted  by her American accent in the midst of a classic English setting. It threw off the whole cadence of every scene she was in and made her lines sound amateur and out of place it did not work. Furthermore, the director HIGHLY overestimates our knowledge of who the hell this actor even is. I wouldn't have known she was American. I only knew because there was an article in a doctor's office telling me as much. Apparently, she was some sort of darling of the 90s, which was when I was paying attention to what was cool, and I still don't know who she is. And when half the people going to this movie haven't paid attention to what was cool since probably the 70s and, like me, mostly watch British programs anyway, I doubt it would have been anything of an issue.
So, that is my rant. Clearly, it did not detract too much from my enjoyment of the film. I am even considering buying it when it becomes available for that sort of thing.
I've posted the trailer here for those who like to watch trailers. Let me know your thoughts on the film, whether they are sympathetic to mine or no. I do enjoy a healthy debate.

Book Club Guide for Mary Green 

The read-along for Mary Green starts today, so here is a little book club guide, for those who are interested in a little extra background reading.

1. Why did you write this book?
Mary Green is the kind of book I would want to read. I wrote it because I love the novels of Jane Austen, drawing room dramas with a light-hearted tone and sentences I can sink my teeth into—a romantic story that is not a romance novel, that is thoroughly researched in terms of the historical setting and yet fun to read.

2. What would you like people to take from your work? I just want them to enjoy it. I believe that whenever we invest in a story, whenever we are moved by someone else's experience, true or fictional, it cultivates our empathy and makes us a more compassionate person. Mary Green is a story that readers can just relax and sink into, an engaging and enjoyable diversion. It doesn't try to teach anyone anything directly, but the characters are very real, at least to me, and that is what I want to give people, just the experience of reading it.

3. Give us a little insight into the background of the story? This story is set in the early 1800s, in a time known as the Regency Period. It is before the Industrial Revolution, so almost everything is done by hand. The Napoleonic Wars are off and on again during this time, so the proportion of men to women is quite small. The American Revolution and the French Revolution are a few decades past and colonialism, especially in India, is in full swing. There is a fascination with all things eastern and classical. Ladies' fashions involve muslins and silks from India worn in a style reminiscent of ancient Greek togas, for example. Feudalism is mostly gone, thanks to the Agricultural Revolution, and there are a lot of migrant workers leaving the countryside for the cities. There is very little in the way of a middle class at this time. People tend either to be gentry or paupers, and women had very few options to support themselves. They were about a century away from getting the right to vote, for example, and relied mostly on marriage as the primary means of security.

4. What kind of experience could I provide my book club that would give them some insight into the characters and their experiences?
To set the mood for Mary Green, anything that brings to mind Jane Austen and her contemporaries would be appropriate. The only music people had ready access to was what people could make themselves, particularly on the piano, which was a fairly new invention at the time. Scotch and Irish airs were easily as popular, if not more so, than the classical music we now associate with the period. So those would be appropriate, as would anything by Haydn, or The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel.
I recommend serving tea in china cups, or even hot chocolate, which was the only way chocolate was consumed at the time and was quite an expensive and indulgent drink. It should be prepared with actual chocolate, melted and mixed with hot milk. To make it more authentic, you can add spices and other flavours like nutmeg, cinnamon, chilli, lavender, orange water, etc.
This would be quite fitting, as drinking chocolate features repeatedly in the second half of the book. Although we think of scones with cream and jam as typical of anything old and English (and so delicious, they would really not be amiss anywhere), they actually only became popular in the Victorian era, well after the Regency era when this book is set. Little sweet-meats would have been served, like tiny biscuits that could fit on one's saucer. Any squares cut small would be perfect, or Persian or Indian sweets, which are quite similar to what was eaten in England 200 years ago.
For more involved dishes, the Jane Austen Centre website has some great recipes, which can be found here:
One simple yet classic refreshment is syllabub. Simply whip two cups of whipping cream and as it starts to thicken, add 1/2 cup of white sugar and a couple of tablespoons of either white wine or lemon juice and a couple more of lemon zest. Chill and serve with grated nutmeg, sprigs of mint, slices of lemon, or anything your heart desires.

Downton Abbey and the History of Clean Hair 

I confess that we watched the final season of Downton Abbey when it played in Britain last year. We streamed it using a proxy server, which is WAY beyond my technical prowess, and if my husband were not also a fan of Maggie Smith, I doubt I would ever be able to watch it, because we don't even have cable.

Without giving anything away, I feel it is safe to say that in the Christmas special finale, many things of significance were done and said, wrapping up a long, soapy story. But the one I picked up on, the one that made me want to write a blog post, was a little, forgettable, off-hand remark made by Molesly of all people.

He said to Baxter, as they were walking in the village, that shampoo was actually Indian, that the Indians had it for centuries before the English. This is just the sort of tidbit that Julian Fellowes likes to drop for us nerds to catch, and it reminded me of a few tidbits I have come across in my own research, and which lead me to hypothesize about how India changed the face of English fashions.

Mr. Molesley was, in part, absolutely right. The word shampoo comes from the Hindi word meaning massage. So if, in your Regency reading, you encounter people talking about going for a shampoo, they were likely going to an early massage parlour, or Turkish bath, where such things were purveyed. The idea was first brought to England by one Sake Dean Mohamed, who was appointed the "shampooing surgeon" of George IV as well as William IV.

The hair-washing type of shampoo was at one time made from soap nuts, or so I have read. My first encounter with soap nuts occurred as a result of cloth-diapering my first-born. Soap nuts are recommended as a natural washing agent that will not leave residue and make the diapers smell. They are the fruit of a tropical tree and, when agitated in water, release their waxy coating in a sudsy froth that dissolves oils and cleans things. They have been used in India since well before Regency times, both for laundry and for personal cleanliness, including washing hair.

This is what raw soap nuts look like. You really can just throw a couple in the wash with your clothes. They do work.
Body soap in the Regency was made with lye and would have been quite harsh on hair, I imagine, though I have never tried it. I have also never tried modern soap on my hair. Generally, it all seems like a bad idea. Also recommended during the Regency for hair washing, was to apply beaten egg whites to the roots of the hair, leaving them to dry and then rinsing them out. While this may have been effective, it smells terrible! And not amount of rinsing can get rid of that acrid odour. Soap nuts, unlike soap, are very gentle, but like eggs, smell awful.

So, Regency ladies would have their hair washed with a solution either made from the liquid in which soap nuts had been  boiled, or into which soap had been shaved and dissolved. To this liquid were added essential oils and herbs and probably vinegar. (My grandmother has always sworn by the efficacy of a vinegar rinse for making hair soft and shiny and manageable.) The herbs and oils may also have benefited the hair, but more likely covered up the wretched smell of the soap nuts, which really do smell HORRIBLE when you boil them. And they would not have used it in the way we use shampoo, just rubbing it into their hair. It wouldn't have worked. They would have agitated it and then taken the foam and worked it through the hair. It would have been quite an undertaking.

The point I am attempting to make is that shampoo as we know it did not really exist in the Regency, or even in India. So, sorry Julian Fellowes, but even the word "shampoo" was not used to describe liquid, hair-washing preparation until the Edwardian era, which really saw the flourishing of commercial products of all kinds. So it would not have been any sort of surprise to Baxter, hearing the fact in the 1920s, that shampoo had not always been part of English life.

Early Edwardian shampoos
Non-soap-based shampoos, made instead with chemical surfactants, were not produced until the 1930s, and that is what we all use now. And let me say that for all my love of history, I am very glad not to be living in it. Shampoo as we know it is so much more effective and user-friendly than any soap nuts liquid. Believe me. I have tried both.