Hello folks! There is a strong Austen vibe to this month's round-up. I found I hadn't read quite so much in February as a couple of non-starters led to a period of indecision about what to attempt next. So I confess that I actually read the first two books in this round-up back in January, but back then I a) didn't want to overwhelm the first monthly round-up(!) and b) when I'd finally started on Kate Grenville's novel I realised the three had ended up complimenting eachother so perfectly that one could consider them a sort of literary tripdych!
Even if Austen herself isn't for you (though it pains me to write those words), I heartily recommend giving Grenville's work a try. She is a master storyteller; her novels are quiet in the style of Austen, but bold, assured and intelligent. She writes with a calmness that creates a wonderful stage for her characters, one of which is Australia itself.
Jane Austen at Home
by Lucy Worsley
First up is Jane Austen at Home by the magnificent Lucy Worsley. If you are any kind of Austenite then this book is basically a hug in literary form and Lucy’s writing style is such that you really feel like you’re sat having a good old natter over a pot of tea and a slice(/whole) cake.
It’s clear that Lucy knows her subject well and her enthusiasm flows off the page in waves. Told in relation to the different homes in which Austen lived, it’s a compassionate, witty and insightful exploration into Jane’s seemingly quiet and uneventful life (spoiler alert: it really wasn’t!) And explained within the context of the period and how both domestic and international events shaped the course of Jane’s life and the plots of her novels, Lucy asks us look past the well-worn, slightly passive, biographical tale and see Jane as a woman of flesh and blood, opinions, emotions and agency. Lucy’s historical insights have got me lining up Austen’s novels for a binge-worthy re-read session.
Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
I was gifted this book by a friend for Christmas and it has been the perfect companion for hunkering down with during this cold and gloomy winter. It’s warm and friendly, and, despite the great wealth of literature that has been written about Jane and her family, offers a new perspective. And a new heroine. For as famous as Jane is, her sister Cassandra is often viewed only as part of the furniture of her life; her dearest companion and perhaps greatest champion of her work, but her story overshadowed by those of the Bennet and Dashwood sisters, Anne and Emma.
This novel focuses on Cassandra when she is an old lady, looking back on her life. She has survived both her sister and her mother and now lives alone at Chawton, happily one might add. No miserable old spinster is she. Since her sister’s death she has worked tirelessly to promote her novels and ensure that Jane’s work be remembered and enjoyed by further generations. She (along with many of her siblings) has also been trying to control the public image of her dear sister as certain aspects of Jane’s character and state of mind are not deemed particularly palatable or in keeping with social norms (or understanding). It is known that to help maintain that Jane remained forevermore “sweet,” “loving,” and “remarkably calm and even”, Cassandra burned a great deal of Jane’s correspondence.
Gill Hornby’s novel begins with the death of a family member which sees Cassandra travel with great urgency to Berkshire to seek out a certain cache of letters which could, should they fall into the wrong hands, do much damage to her sister’s reputation. But in order to censor this potentially hazardous bundle, Cassandra must first read through years of intimate correspondence and relive the highs and lows of her and Jane’s intricately interwoven lives.
And this beautiful cover illustration is by the talented hand embroidery artist Chloe Giordano. The inside of the dust jacket even features the reverse side of the embroidered design! Check out her Instagram account for progress shots and videos.
A Room Made of Leaves
Full disclosure, I bought this book because of illustrator Charlotte Day's gorgeous cover. Oh and because I’ve loved everything else Kate Grenville has ever written so I figured it would be a slam dunk. And I was right. The idea behind this book was to shed some light on the shifty, shadowy character of real-life colonial settler, Elizabeth Mcarthur, who was seemingly married to the most difficult man in all of New South Wales.
Elizabeth was born into a sheep farming family in Devon in 1766, making her a close contemporary of Jane Austen. However, Elizabeth’s story is very far removed from the shades of Pemberley and life choices may have made even cynical Jane frown. At the age of 21 and living with a family that is not hers by blood, Elizabeth is acutely aware of both the precarious tightrope that is her future and her fast-approaching spinsterhood. Then one day she meets John Macarthur, a proud and reckless soldier who has extremely little to recommend him, a man who has neither looks nor wit, but is a man nonetheless and one who promises her the earth. She sees a way out of her predicament and she grabs it.
This is a mistake which, she soon realises, she has made on a grand scale. When he tells her he is to take up a new position as Lieutenant in a NSW penal colony she can do nothing but follow and so finds herself on the other side of the world in a brutal place that might have daunted even Anne Elliot. After a lifetime of keeping herself folded up small inside though, Elizabeth begins to realise that here is an opportunity to unfurl and truly inhabit herself. There are new people to be met, new lessons and languages to learn, and many a game of intellect to be played and won.
Grenville has taken the known facts about this courageous woman and woven a beautiful narrative, imagining her early years as the colony’s most sought after hostess and later Australia’s most successful and famous sheep farmer (though of course, it is her husband who has until now received all the credit, being celebrated as the Father of the Wool Industry, despite the fact that for years at a time he was back in London, having left Elizabeth to run the farm in his absence). I enjoyed Grenville’s writing, as always. A beautiful book, with a beautiful cover.
I hate to name names, but the two books that knocked me off my reading track were The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith and Stuart Nicholson's biography of Ella Fitzgerald which I was particularly looking forward to getting stuck into. Unfortunately I didn't find DOminic's style to my taste, nor did any of his characters pull me in, and though I don't doubt Nicholson's book is a great piece of work, in my opinion it lacked spark. It felt very much like reading a textbook - Nicholson had clearly done his research, but he had also used all of it. Having scoured the internet for Fitzgerald biographies though, I fear Nicholson's was THE publication. Fingers crossed someone out there decides it's time for a rewrite.
If you've read any of these, I'd love to know what you thought! Or if you have any similar books to recommend, please let me know in the comments below.