Monday, 30 June 2014

First Impressions - a Non-Review

Disclaimer: this is not a review in the traditional sense. I am just trying to help readers decide if this is a book for them. I make comparisons between the featured book and my book, Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, because if you are visiting this blog, you probably at least know about that book, and may have read it. Also, I am shamelessly plugging my own work. Please forgive an indie author her flagrant self-promotion.

This is the only image I have digitally for the cover of this book, because it is not available yet. And the book rep who gave it to me told me the cover will probably change before it does come out, so this image is likely unhelpful to you, but here it is anyway. I do think the cover doesn't really represent the contents of the book. My cover design for this book would be a muted or grayscale photograph of a young woman in modern dress running through the streets of old Oxford, looking back over her shoulder, with a scarlet, cloth-bound book in her hand. I think that sort of image gives more of an idea of what this book feels like to read. The title already tells us it's somehow related to Jane Austen.

I knew nothing about this book when I was given it. I was at a book fair, pushing my own Austen-related novel when I saw this, and had a chat with the book rep from the publisher (Penguin) who then let me take it home with me. The rep didn't seem keen to classify this book as a Jane Austen spinoff novel. She presented it as a book for a wide audience and I would have to agree with her, even though she didn't realize "First Impressions" was the original working title of Pride and Prejudice. The book has "Jane Austen" on the cover. The first chapter bears the heading "Hampsire, 1796" and the opening lines give us Jane Austen herself, walking through the woods. So you can see how one might come to the conclusion that this book is for Jane Austen fans. Do not be deceived!

My first impression (sorry) was that it was essentially a hybrid of the Jane Austen Book Club the Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. And for the first several chapters, it essentially was. But about a third of the way in, I began to think that maybe this book was about to become a very different one from that which I had been anticipating. In fact, there was a third book to mix into the hybrid - namely, the da Vinci Code. In fact, it is much more like the da Vinci code than either the Jane Austen Book Club or the Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, but if you like any or all of those three books, you will like this one.

The book is essentially a mystery.  It is a novel set in two time periods, and the chapters alternate between each - the first, Hampshire 1796, and the second, London, present day. I must confess that I get a bit prickly whenever someone writes about Jane Austen in any kind of omniscient way, but I will get to that. The two sections are written in two different styles. The 1796 sections have a more historical tone, though they are not strictly written in the language of the Regency. They do use slightly more flowery language, and it felt more like it was the olden days in those chapters.   I thought they could have used different font as well, to really highlight the distinction.

The 1796 chapters give us the information that the modern characters are trying to uncover in the other chapters. They don't give us all the details though, so we are still partly in the dark right up until the end. As a reader, you know you have to get the information from these chapters, but you do rush through them to get back to the fast-paced, modern chapters.

The mystery itself is quite good. I really kept turning the pages and didn't know exactly what to think until the very end. The history itself seems accurate, except of course for the parts that are overtly made up, and the speculation as to the inner thoughts and feelings of Jane Austen is kept fairly benign. There is, of course, a bit of blasphemy, and I will add that real purists will find some flaws in some of the minor details in the 1796 sections of the book. But I only mention it for the benefit of hardcore nitpickers who read this review and the book itself and might think I didn't notice. It doesn't interfere with the experience of reading the book.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook

Reading in Bed - Review of Follies Past

Remember last year when I did Austen in August and decided that even though Austen is Awesome, she kind of wasn’t for me (with the exception of Persuasion because let’s face it, Captain Wentworth is for everybody?) It’s a credit to Ms. Kerr’s persuasiveness (sorry) that I decided to read Follies Past. I didn’t want to set myself up for a disappointing read, or deal with the awkwardness of a writing a bad review of a local, self-published book. But over the course of a few weeks’ email correspondence, she wore me down. I picked up the ebook and girded myself.
It wasn’t just Kerr’s salesmanship (thought it was impressive) that convinced me. She created a series of wonderfully overwrought book trailers that are far more entertaining than those of best selling authors. And she blogs. Her blog is neither in your face promotion nor dubious writing tips; rather, it’s an interesting and educational look at what goes into writing a historical novel and publishing it yourself. Kerr’s expertise in the Regency era comes through in her fiction, but her blog really drives it home. My favourite posts are those about about peculiarities of Regency language, but she also rants about misuse of “beg the question,” one of my pet peeves.
What about the book?Right! The best thing about Follies Past is that the writing style comes oh-so-close to Austen, it feels completely natural and not at all like that “put a Zombie on it” brand of adaptation. Kerr’s wit isn’t quite as razor sharp, but that’s like saying you are slightly worse at playing piano that Mozart. I don’t know about you, but I read Austen for the sick burns more than the romance, and there are plenty here. Speaking of romance, here’s our hero contemplating marriage with Caroline:
A wife would bring select society into their home, would ensure Georgiana was exposed to tother people… and would save him the trouble of making friends himself…As he was not in the habit of receiving young ladies to Pemberley, Caroline was the only eligible person that he had lately witnessed about the place. Therefore, when he imagined a lady of the house, he imagine her as Caroline. He only wished that she were not so objectionable.
Insert sarcastic *swoon* here. And am I imagining all the Clueless references I’m finding these days? A reference to an Austen adaptation in an Austen adaptation?
She always intended to arrive as the sun was setting, in order that her complexion might profit by the glow of evening light.
Though a P&P prequel, I liked that the story picks up some themes from Austen’s other works. The frequent references to “bad” novels, including a shout out to The Monk which is the baddest gothic novel ever, made me think of poor Catherine in Northanger Abbey and her obsession with Anne Radcliffe novels. And Clare’s misadventures as she travels to stop Wickham before he goes to far reminded me of Catherine’s frustration as she deals with gross James.
I also enjoyed how Kerr didn’t stick to the tried and true P&P cast, she created Clare, the bad novel-loving friend of young Georgiana. Clare was not my favourite though. I always wanted to get back to the dastardly Wickham and oblivious Caroline. Kerr did a bang up job with these characters, who were so one-note in the original, but have real depth here, even though they’re the object of the narrator’s disdain. I got a sense for how society set them up with expectations they could not realize and how many of their vanities and fixations come out of that.
I *may* also have been predisposed to sympathize with Wickham due to the actor who plays him in the trailer. I mean, come ON.
For a reader like me, who isn’t big on Austen, adaptations, or romance, this book was a surprise and a delight. I’m glad the author wore me down. Janeite or not, the writing is worth the trip back to Pemberley.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Did old Mr. Darcy kick his tenants off Pemberley in 1773?

You may not find this terrifically amusing, but I thought I would write about it because it was terribly significant and I had never heard about it before I started researching my book. I feel particularly driven to set the record straight after Clive Anderson appallingly misrepresented the facts on QI. I am going to use Mr. Darcy and Pemberley for the purposes of illustration. It is particularly convenient to do so since most of this happened in the North.

Pemberley was a vast estate with huge tracts of land. Mr. Darcy did not work the land himself. He was a gentleman. Instead, he had tenants to work it for him. In return, they got to live on the land in cottages owned by the Darcy family. They also got to use the common lands for their own sustenance. This is where I think it gets interesting.

A portion of Pemberley's lands would have been set aside as commons and would not have benefited the Darcy family at all, well, not directly at least. The tenants would have had a system for dividing up the land and allocating it amongst themselves from year to year to grow crops for their own families. In addition, some of the land would have been for grazing, and each tenant would be allowed to graze a certain number of cattle, sheep, chickens, etc. on that land for their own use. In fact, there are some places where this system is still followed. At least there is one. I saw a program about it on the BBC.

This system was in place from at least the middle ages. All estates had common lands and that's how the system worked and how people survived. We know this as feudalism. As early as the 1100s, however, people started chipping away at the system. Landowners started enclosing the common lands, and taking it for their own use. This was not very popular with the peasants, obviously, and even led to riots in Tudor times.

Clive Anderson said the lands were public and that the rich people just came along and took them for themselves. This is gross error, and as a former barrister, Mr. Anderson should know better than to make such misrepresentations to the public. The land always belonged to the rich people. It was just set aside for the use of the tenants of the owners. And they didn't just come along and take it; there were acts of parliament which authorized the taking. That said, it was still shocking and terrible.

In the 18th Century, methods of agriculture became more efficient, and the number of peasants required to work the land decreased. By the latter part of the century, there were wars in France and embargoes on grain. His Majesty had armies to feed, and not enough bread. It became very important to the common good that landowners produce grain on their land as much as possible. These forces were impetus for parliamentary Acts of Enclosure. Under the Common Law, you couldn't just take away people's rights to use the common lands. There had to be legislation removing those rights. And there were little local acts going back to the 12th Century. But in the late 1700s, there began to be national ones, with a consolidating act in 1801 to tidy them all up and make them into one.

Mr. Darcy was considered by Mrs. Reynolds to be the best landlord and the best master, so he probably didn't do any inclosing. His father might have, but then Mrs. Reynolds says Mr. Darcy is just like his father, so that seems unlikely. Perhaps Pemberley remained under the old system until the Victorian era, specifically the 1840s and 1850s when another spate of enclosures took place.

I actually read one of the inclosure acts. It allowed landowners to enclose the common land, but they must compensate the tenants with other land somewhere else. This, of course, was not generally followed. The peasants were just kicked off the land and the landowners kept a few people around to tend the fields in a more efficient manner on a large scale and got rich and fat.

All these peasants moved to the cities trying to find work, or squatted and poached in the countryside. It was probably displaced peasants who stole Mr. Woodhouse's turkeys. This migration to the cities, and general abundance of unemployed people is believed to have catalyzed the Industrial Revolution. There was a ready supply of thousands of people to fill up the factories and the coal mines, which there would not have been had everyone been happily tending their little strip of the commons and grazing their sheep in Pemberley's rugged meadow.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook

Review of Follies Past from "Aspire to Read"

My 5 Star Review

I received the book from the publisher for an honest review.

Step back into the world of Jane Austen and her brainchild Pride and Prejudice, and discover who the man, Mr. Darcy was and why he captured so many romantic hearts. 
Ms Kerr did a wonderful work as she brought back many of the original characters within Pride and Prejudice; clarifying some riddles we were left with in Ms. Austen's work. In my opinion this is an extension of that world renown book enjoyed by millions of readers all over the world.  A book I believe will have it's own place within the literature world.
She stayed remarkable well within the time period but yet stamped her own signature on this work without loosing it's originality. 
The characters remained pure to their creator but had a life of their own so that you had a clear picture of Mr. Darcy's past and the mystery surrounding him. 
A great tribute to Ms Austen's work, if I may say so. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

Review of Follies Past by The Page Walker

"As much as I could I stay away from classic spin-offs, because they either disappoint or blur the original book. Follies Past proved me wrong. The book was beautifully rendered in the tone and theme of P&P. It complements and expands the events prior to Mr. Darcy’s adventure in Hertfordshire, and his fated encounter with Ms. Elizabeth Bennet. Questions surrounding the scandal involving both Ms. Georgiana and Mr. Wickham were given light in this prequel.

The novel gave depth into some of the minor characters in P&P, including Anne de Bourgh, which was not only witty but very refreshing. Also, the novel includes a unique and charming love story that simply makes this a story of its own.
 "You have asked me to make you happy, and I have consented. Now you must be happy."

I do recommend this novel to Austen fans who might want to enjoy unforgettable characters and relive the memories of P&P’s exquisite world."

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The thorn in Ye Olde Pemberley is gone

I promised someone I would do another language post, and since the Great Vowel Shift garnered so much attention, I thought it not a bad idea. I will refrain, however, from going off on Grimm's law and the rise of the intervocalic fricative, however sorely I am tempted.

My subject today is one that has caused me to jump out of my seat, twice, and scream excitedly at Stephen Fry, on the set of QI, through the screen, because I knew the answer, and I was so wretched at not being on the show at the time... not that I have ever been on the show, but, you know, I have aspirations. And those of you who know me well understand how unbearable it is for me to be thwarted in demonstrating my awkward trivia knowledge.

The question related to the word "Ye" as in "Ye Olde Tea House," or other such "Ye Olde" things. The question was how to pronounce it and why. I started jumping up and down screaming, "it's a thorn! It's a thorn!" Then Stephen Fry, in an infuriatingly calm voice, explained how the "Y" was not a "Y" but a thorn.
The thorn is a lovely little old English letter which looks kind of like the Greek letter phi, in the lower-case. It is pronounced as an apico-dental fricative, like the "th" at the start of "the." It can also be voiceless, like in "Thursday." It was pretty much out of use by Jane Austen's time, but she would have known how to pronounce it I expect, as her family was very literary and educated.

This charming letter did not make it into the printing press, and was represented instead either by a "th" or by a "Y." But it was always pronounced the same. "Ye Olde" is and has always been pronounced "The Olde" and was never anything else. I give you license to correct anyone who says otherwise.

As an aside, you will notice that only grammatical words and no lexical words begin with the voiced apico-dental fricative. Feel free to display your own geeky knowledge by explaining in the comments section what I mean by that.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook

Monday, 9 June 2014

Jane Austen thought boys should wear pink

She was not making any challenge to gender stereotypes and she was not at all alone in her opinion. In the old days, pink was considered a boys' colour and blue was for girls. Pink is a shade of red, which was thought to be masculine and strong; whereas blue was considered delicate and soft and feminine. My sole authority for this is an episode of QI, so if I am wrong, I blame that program entirely.

Apparently, this was the case until the 20th century. Stephen Fry shared a story about a princess in Belgium, I think, in the 1930s who had painted her nursery blue in anticipation of having a baby girl. It was quite scandalous when she had a boy, and the press laughed at the idea of putting a baby boy in a blue room. She would definitely have to re-paint lest she offend her son's masculinity.

I suspect this was more the case in Europe. I asked my grandmother, who was around in the 1930s, and she had never heard of this reversal. I have been told by a friend that the French used pink for girls and blue for boys, and the Germans the reverse. French came to dominate in the area of fashion, so we now all think of blue as a boy colour and pink as a girl colour, or at least that they used to be so. Pink is, of course, for everyone, as is blue.

I am sure I have read many places that English children wore white. They certainly did as babies. They wore long white dresses. It was much easier to dress and to change them that way, and was much warmer. At what point they started wearing colours I am not sure.

In the same episode of QI, we were also told that all children used to be called girls. Boys were called knave girls and girls were called gay girls. I looked this up. At least according to Wikipedia, it is true. The word girl came to be used exclusively for females around the end of the 1500s.

While on the subject, the word man used to be used for all people. Wer, or werman meant man and wif or wifman meant woman. Eventually, the wer was dropped for men and wifman developed into woman. After the great vowel shift (see earlier post) wif became wife, and came to refer to a married woman, though it is still used to mean woman in the word midwife. Wer is mostly gone, with the exception of werwolf.

So, when someone refers to the race of men, or mankind, they are not being sexist; they are just being old-fashioned, and, in a sense, more accurate.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Download eBook      Order Paperback