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Regency England

REVIEW:  Longbourn by Jo Baker

REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Dear Ms. Baker,

Usually when I see a book that is in some way based on Jane Austen’s novels, I shy away from it. Though I’ve only read a fraction of the multitude ones that have been published, I find myself sick to death of variations on Austenlandia – the sequels, the prequels, the paranormal and, slightly less so, the contemporaries. It takes a lot to even get me past the blurb stage but “Longbourn” did it.

Longbourn by Jo BakerWhat caught my attention and made me pause, then read the book? It’s the downstairs edition for one thing. The other lure was the lone sentence from the book quoted on the back – “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.” That sounded so period but without trying to sound “Regency,” that I said, “Self, let’s give it a whirl.”

This is the Bennet household and daily affairs as seen by their servants and other working class characters. But it’s not just about the Bennets and the events that take place in “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s about the servants’ lives and a servant romance. Older maid Sarah, younger maid Polly, Mr and Mrs. Hill and footman James have their own worries and concerns and only experience the periphery of the lives of their “betters” as I would expect would have actually happened. It’s not that they don’t know most of what’s going on – they do as servants would. They just aren’t “worked into” that story in unrealistic ways.

When the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy appear and interact with the Bennets, it’s the extra workload for the assembly and ball at Netherfield that we see. When the Gardiners arrive to spend time at Longbourn before Jane returns to London with them, it’s the nasty nappies of the youngest child the servants have to deal with that is mentioned. Mr. Collins is someone Mrs. Hill caters to and attempts to prove her housewifely abilities to as he’ll someday be the master of the house and servants can be chucked out of lifetime positions if the new mistress wishes it. When Charlotte Lucas snares a proposal, Mrs. Hill is somewhat relieved because Charlotte has always appreciated the way Mrs. Hill has managed her duties as well as enjoying Mrs. Hill’s lemon tarts. A batch of them sent home with the Lucases after the announcement is the kind of thing she hopes will secure places for all of them in the future.

The hard work done by the household servants isn’t whitewashed. Wash day is a day long chore that begins at 04:30, chamber pots must be carried down and emptied every morning, call bells can interrupt any activity and the trays carried up for meals are heavy. It’s more obvious to me now why servants were given vales by visiting guests as the staggering workload increased exponentially by their presence. None of this is as glamorous as a London ball but the details worked so effortlessly into the narrative show how hard it was for these people and how much the upper classes depended on them.

Still despite all the gory details of life below stairs, I would have been bored if the only reason behind this book was to shine a spotlight on Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from a different angle. Yeah, I wanted a love story for Sarah and James and I got one. Better still, it’s one that makes sense and fits into the possibilities of the day.

Sarah isn’t one who’s dreamed of finding her someone. She has recollections of her parents, carried off by typhus, being in love and the Hills have a workable marriage built on respect but Sarah is practical and watching the Bennets doesn’t incline her to matrimony. She’s a servant with little time to moon over the farmhands, not that they interest her anyway, and a Tchaikovsky “Romeo and Juliet Overture” HEA just isn’t on her “to do” list.

James is a man with a history and secrets that he fears won’t allow him the opportunity to settle down, grow roots and woo anyone. Plus he knows that what he has is as good as he’s likely to get. A bed, regular meals, clothes and a small salary aren’t enough for him to think he’s got the right to propose to anyone. So when he realizes he loves Sarah, little about his plans actually change. A wife and possible family are expensive.

Yet love blooms anyway. The bud is slow to appear and even slower to open but I honestly felt these were two working class people of the day, discovering feelings they never expected, and daring to hope for a future in a world where they had so little but were willing to risk it for love. I enjoyed the way Sarah is initially prickly around James and how he likes her the more for it. The quiet way in which they help each other with onerous daily tasks and the simple happiness they take in doing so shows me more about how their feelings are advancing than any showy display.

Though most of the story revolves around how the servants maneuver their way through the lives of the upper class, there are major liberties taken with two of the original P&P characters. I didn’t have a problem with the story line as it could easily be seen as “period” but I’m not sure how this will go over with Austeninstas. Yet if they’re reading the book, they’re probably open to seeing some changes done.

I know I’m not alone in wanted more stories about the merchants and lower classes of the day. There are only so many Dukes I want to read about. Still the story must make historical sense to me – I just can’t believe in dairy maids marrying Viscounts – and not just rely on the relative novelty of the plot. This book does that yet it’s the execution of the story that lifts it up to recommended status for me. It never “broke character” or felt incorrect. It amused me and made me happy to see two people who truly fell in love get the ending they so richly deserve. B+



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REVIEW:  The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig

REVIEW: The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig

Dear Ms. Willig,

At this point in my reading of the “Pink Carnation” books, I don’t bother to put much effort into checking out the blurb because I already know I’m going to read the book. So beyond noticing the exotic sounding flower of this book’s title, I waded into it relatively blind. Recently we’ve been discussing older heroines who “still have it” so I was delighted that Miss Gwen – she of the fearsome parasol – is the heroine this time out.

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren WilligForty-five year old Gwendolyn Meadows has been the official chaperon of Miss Jane Wooliston during their two year stay in Paris as well as being a member of the League of the Pink Carnation. It’s been a perfect cover because, after all, why would anyone suspect innocent looking Jane or foreboding looking Miss Gwen of being spies for England? During one of her chick-in-pants nighttime excursions following spy master Tallyrand, Gwen overhears his instructions to one of his agents to find the legendary missing Jewels of Berar in order to lure the Ottoman sultan into an alliance with the French.

Upon returning to their home, she learns from Jane that Jane’s younger sister has gone missing from her boarding school. Hoping it’s just a girlish prank, Gwen reluctantly agrees with Jane that they can’t rule out the possibility that Agnes might have been kidnapped by someone who knows who and what Jane is. Hey ho for England.

There they learn that Agnes is still unaccounted for and together with her friend and roommate Lizzy Reid, has been gone for almost two weeks. They also meet William Reid, late of the East India Army, who is the father of a brood of legitimate and illegitimate offspring. Stunned by the fact that his youngest daughter is missing and his eldest daughter is not living the life he had thought she was, William joins in the hunt for the two girls, the missing jewels and the guarded heart of Miss Gwen Meadows.

Meanwhile, in present day England, Eloise and Colin continue their own search for the legendary jewels which are said to have been at Selwick Hall as well as working out how far their relationship has progressed in the face of Eloise’s upcoming return to the US.

I love that the first glimpse we get of Gwen is of her being dashing, daring and having a blast in her role of a spy. She delights in what she’s up to and she does it well. By day the young French fops are wary of her expertly wielded parasol in defense of her charge but by night she prowls the streets of Paris, climbing up onto balconies and eluding anyone who tries to stop her. The one thing Gwen fears is being buried alive again at her priggish brother’s country house, living the life of maiden aunt sufferance.

William is a former military man who now fondly imagines that his days of fighting are behind him and a future of retirement with his daughters lies ahead. His dismay and horror at learning the truth are both comic and heartbreaking. He realizes that his daughters are stronger, far stronger, than he ever imagined and that one of the reasons they are so resourceful is because of how he’s been content to relegate their care to others and enjoy the bonhomie of his military mess in India.

To his credit, once he discovers what his benign neglect has caused, he’s all over fixing it – and doesn’t excuse himself – but Gwen has some pointed questions with which she skewers him. She also demonstrates her remarkable abilities with a sword parasol. Another thing I like is that Gwen and William each admire the other physically yet any serious love making is delayed until an appropriate time. Gwen doesn’t tackle a half-dressed William while he’s recuperating and William doesn’t jump Gwen while they’re escaping from the orgy. Ahem.

But are these two right for each other beyond the fact that they’re both “of an age?” It’s William who sees beneath Gwen’s assumed hard exterior to the woman who fends off emotion. He’s also stunned – and more than a bit pissed – that none of the young Pink Carnation set seem to realize Miss Gwen is anything other than someone who is amusing and to be tolerated. “His Gwen,” and that thought leaves him all warm and tingly, is so much more than that. For this I’ll almost forgive his lamentable lack of “Father of the Year” actions. In William, Gwen finds a man of honor who isn’t hampered by what society thinks, who finds the woman he wants and who goes for her.

In modern England, Eloise’s final months of working on her dissertation before having to return to the US for a contracted teaching position are winding down but not without some fireworks. Colin’s aunt has determined that the bad blood between Eloise’s English boyfriend and his cousin/step-father needs to be dealt with and has sent them all back to Selwick Hall with a flea in their ears. They are to work together to try and find the Berar jewels or else!

It’s a bit of a relief to not have Colin and Jeremy continually at each other’s throats this go round and hopefully the ultimate outcome of the search signals improved relations among the relations. I’ll be eager to see what will come of Colin and Eloise and whether Eloise will be stuck with whinging undergrads or not.

The 1805 story ends with some upheavals to the League which promise an interesting next book. Will Jane do what I think she might? And with whom will she do it? I’ll be staying tuned. B+



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