Review: The Aviary Gate

Written by Katie Hickman
Published by Bloomsbury, 2008, 341 pages

We come here as slaves, all of us: slaves of the Sultan. We give up everything, even our names. It is a strange fact – don’t you think? – that not one of us was born Ottoman, or even a Muslim. Not one of us. There is nothing to unite us except the fact that we have the honour to be the Sultan’s women. And do not forget this, . . . : there is no higher honour.” [p. 55]


I so very much did not want to like this book. Yes, I did request an advance reading copy from Bloomsbury. But I was guilty of doing something I hardly ever do – asking for a book I knew absolutely nothing about. I almost always do quite a lot of research on an author or any given book before I buy it or request a reading copy. Not this time, though. And from the reclining odalisque with the come-hither stare on the cover, to the jacket flap description of “a rare glimpse into the forbidden confines of the Sultan’s harem,” the whole package just screamed “bodice-ripper” and “not my kind of story.”

But guess what. You know that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? Well, it’s been proven true once again. Even though, the whole time I was reading The Aviary Gate, I kept telling myself I should not enjoy it – I did.

Can a Barbara Cartland marathon be far behind?

No, seriously, although it certainly has elements of the romance novel, The Aviary Gate is nothing like a Harlequin. It’s a thoroughly engrossing historical tale of murder and intrigue in the Sultan’s harem in 16th Century Constantinople, juxtaposed with the story of a present-day academic whose research brings the episode to light.

Based partly on fact, Hickman’s novel shifts back and forth between the story of Celia Lamprey, a sea captain’s daughter lost in a late-16th Century shipwreck and sold into slavery at the Sultan’s court, and that of Elizabeth Staveley, the Oxford researcher who becomes obsessed with finding out what actually happened to the young woman. Did she escape the Sultan’s harem and return to England? Was she rescued by diplomat Paul Pindar, the man she was engaged to at the time of the shipwreck? Did she live out her life as a Sultan’s concubine? Or was she somehow involved in the poisoning of the Sultan’s chief black eunuch and possibly imprisoned or even executed?

Well, I’m not going to give away the ending – I’ll just say it wasn’t really what I expected. But then the entire book was a pleasant surprise. And some of it was just, well, surprising. Like the descriptions of a 16th Century version of a bikini-wax session, and the mechanics of producing eunuchs to guard the Sultan’s harem (actually, I could have done without that last episode altogether).

The book does have its flaws. Some of the dialogue sounds a little too modern to be thoroughly believable Elizabethan speech: One of the characters agrees with another by remarking “I’ll say!” and another expresses his doubt about the success of a plan by arguing that “we’ll be dead meat.” And the current-day story frequently seems rather lackluster in comparison with the thrills and escapades of the Sultan’s palace. Perhaps the fact that Hickman’s earlier work was mostly nonfiction might have something to do with that.

One of the interesting things the novel points out is just how much power women could attain in the ancient harem system. There were, of course, the “powers behind the throne” – the Sultan’s mother, and chief wives and concubines. But for the other most-favored slaves, there was also the possibility of a marriage outside the court, to a rich and powerful nobleman or merchant. These women were highly sought after because of their ties to the royal circle.

The Aviary Gate is a fascinating combination of academic mystery, historical adventure, and thrilling love story. I can heartily recommend it as a romance novel for people who hate romance novels.


Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Published by The Dial Press, 2008, 274 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the novel

When I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program, I had a few misgivings about starting it. For one thing, it has such a cutesy title. And it’s an epistolary novel which made me dubious right away. Novels written in the form of letters are some of the hardest to pull off successfully – I know because I’ve tried it myself, with absolutely ghastly results.

But I needn’t have worried. This is a wonderful little book. Some other reviewers have called it “perfect.” I’m not sure I’d go that far – but if it’s not perfect, it’s a very near miss.

With just a few exceptions, the letters that tell the story are written by or to Miss Juliet Ashton, a young writer living in London, right after World War II. It’s 1946 and England is struggling with the dreadful aftermath of the war – rationing is still in effect and the horror of the war is still fresh in everyone’s memories.

Juliet is floundering a bit, looking for a subject for her next book and not having much luck. And then one day she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a farmer living on the Channel Island of Guernsey. He has acquired a book that once belonged to Juliet – her name and address were written inside the front cover. The book is the Selected Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb, and Mr. Adams has fallen in love with the book and its author. He asks Juliet if she could send him the name and address of a bookstore in London where he can order more of Lamb’s books by mail. He also makes brief mention of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which he says came into being because of a roast pig the Islanders were trying to keep secret from the German soldiers who occupied the island during the war.

Her curiosity piqued, Juliet writes back to Dawsey Adams and their correspondence begins. Gradually, other members of the Island literary group join in and Juliet gets to know them all through their tales of the books and authors they’ve discovered. She learns about their daily lives in Guernsey, and also hears about the hardships and trauma they experienced during the war which brought the German army to their island. Juliet and the Islanders become more and more caught up in each other’s lives, until they eventually invite her to visit them, and she quickly accepts the invitation. And her visit has a powerful, life-changing effect on both Juliet and her new friends.

This is one of those rare books that will have you laughing and crying at the same time. It’s witty and warm and moving, with a few surprise twists thrown in along the way – a love story, and a celebration of literature and books and the people who read and write them. And it even has a description of the Potato Peel Pie of the title!

Oh, and Oscar Wilde makes an appearance, as well.

Review: My Fantoms

Written by Théophile Gautier
Translated by Richard Holmes
Published by New York Review Books, 2008, 194 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the book

In these seven examples of the short Gothic work by 19th Century French writer Théophile Gautier, tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life, and young men are seduced and ruined by other-worldly visitors – labeled “fantoms” by translator Richard Holmes.

In “The Adolescent,” a young man has nightly encounters with a beautiful goddess woven into a tapestry in his uncle’s summer-house. In “The Priest,” an aging cleric looks back on his youthful infatuation with a lovely but just slightly undead courtesan who used his blood to keep herself young and beautiful. “The Painter” is the tale of an artist who may have been possessed by a demon, or possibly just “driven mad by cause or causes unknown.” The narrator of “The Opium Smoker” describes his erotic hallucination involving a dead opera singer. The young performer in “The Actor” learns that no one can portray the Devil like the Devil himself. And in “The Tourist,” a visitor to the ruins in Pompeii becomes obsessed with a “lump of molten lava” which has solidified around one of the victims of Vesuvius, and left a perfect impression of her body.

The last piece in the book, “The Poet,” is actually a character sketch of Gautier’s friend, Gérard de Nerval, who committed suicide in 1855 by hanging himself from a window grating. It was through Nerval that Gautier met Victor Hugo. And it was Hugo who inspired the young Gautier to abandon his aspirations to be a painter, and take up writing instead.

The stories, especially “The Adolescent,” have a very Edgar Allan Poe feel about them, but are much more overtly erotic than Poe’s work. As Holmes says in his Introduction, Gautier’s fantomsare all seductresses, ravishing mischief-makers, soft-hearted vampires, generous courtesans, fatal temptresses, or simply ardent thousand year-old muses. What they have in common is that all of them come back from the dead, seeking human lovers.”

Gautier’s work also has a witty and, at times, almost whimsical quality that you would not expect to find in Poe’s tales. This doesn’t mean the stories aren’t creepy – they most definitely are that. Holmes says that “catching the exact pitch and tone of Gautier’s stories, with their high decorative finish, and their various deflections of wit and lubricity, was not easy.” But he seems to have done a laudable job.

Holmes also provides quite a lot of background information on Gautier and his times, and the history of his own involvement with Gautier’s works. I would definitely recommend reading all of this (especially his Postscript) before undertaking the stories themselves.

Review: Mrs. Malory and Death By Water

Written by Hazel Holt
Published by Signet Books, 2003, 248 pp.

Not long ago I found myself in need of an outfit to wear to a funeral. And, determined not to have to shop for anything new, I ended up burrowing deep into my closet, pulling out a couple of garment bags full of “wedding/funeral stuff,” and spending an entire afternoon sorting and trying on. Well, about two hours into my quest, I suddenly realized what a very “Barbara Pym” scene it was. But then I thought no, not Barbara – more like Sheila Malory.

Sheila Malory is the fiftyish (or I suppose, by now sixtyish) amateur sleuth at the center of Hazel Holt’s “Mrs. Malory” series of mysteries. Sheila is a widow who lives in the fictional English seaside village of Taviscombe. She’s sensible and witty and erudite and self-deprecating, and she makes her own marmalade and scones. She has a grown son (who goes from university to law practice during the course of the series), a dog named Tris, and a cat named Foss. She is “deeply involved in local activities,” always helping plan the annual Christmas Fayre, or rounding up jumble for a sale to benefit Help the Aged. She’s also a writer of “the occasional volume of literary criticism – mostly about the more obscure Victorian novelists.” And in her spare time (!) she solves local murder mysteries.

The Mrs. Malory books are “cozy” mysteries, so there’s very little violence or overt nastiness. The deaths take place “offstage,” and most don’t even seem like murders at first – the victims are usually (but not always) elderly or ill, so that their deaths don’t strike anyone as too surprising or suspicious. But once Mrs. Malory starts nosing around and putting two and two together, murder always outs (how’s that for a nice chain of mixed metaphors or references or something?).

In Mrs. Malory and Death By Water (issued as Leonora in the UK), Sheila’s dear friend Leonora Staveley, a legendary journalist and foreign correspondent now in her eighties, is found dead from drinking contaminated water. And although the cause of death seems surprising, Sheila at first accepts it as not unlikely – Leonora lived alone in an out-of-the-way country cottage, with a large assortment of domestic and farm animals roaming around the place. So a contaminated water supply doesn’t seem out of the question.

But in her will, Leonora has left her voluminous library to Sheila. And once Sheila starts sorting through all the books and papers, she begins to see the death as suspicious – especially after a few questions arise about some of Leonora’s other bequests. And then there’s the fact that Leonora’s brother Vernon was anxious to acquire her cottage so he could use the land for a real estate scheme he’d been working on. Sheila also finds out about a quarrel Leonora had with her neighbors, over the placement of a boundary wall between their properties. And then strangers begin to emerge from Leonora’s past (well, don’t they always?), leading Sheila to realize that her old friend may have had an even more adventurous life than anyone had imagined. After that, Sheila of course suspects foul play, and she’s off and running. Well, not running – she’s too dignified for that.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I should think of Barbara Pym and Hazel Holt together – they were friends and co-workers for many years at London’s International African Institute, and Holt later became Pym’s literary executor and biographer. These days there are a lot of “Pymish” mysteries around, but in my opinion the Mrs. Malory series is far and away the best of the lot.

Oh, I did manage to put together an outfit for the funeral, and I didn’t have to buy a thing. And after all the trying on, I had a nice cup of tea. I like to think Sheila and Barbara would have approved.

Review: Chatterton

Written by Peter Ackroyd
Published by Grove Press, 1988, 234 pp.
First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1987

In Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, Charles Wychwood, a young 20th century poet, becomes obsessed with discovering the true history of another poet, Thomas Chatterton who supposedly committed suicide in 1770 at the age of 18. In an antique shop, Wychwood discovers a painting he believes to be a depiction of Chatterton in later life – much older than the age at which he is supposed to have died. Charles’s interest in the painting leads him to a further discovery – a stash of Chatterton’s manuscripts and papers still in existence in Bristol.

The tale of Charles and how his fascination with Chatterton affects both his professional and private lives is the main story in the novel. But there are also flashbacks to Chatterton himself, and the story of his rise to fame as a teenaged poet who faked a whole body of poetry supposedly written by a medieval monk. Then there’s the story of the Victorian artist Henry Wallis who created a well-known painting showing Chatterton lying dead in an attic room. Wallis uses his friend, the poet George Meredith, as his model and is attracted to Meredith’s wife Mary. And there’s the elderly novelist Harriet Scrope, who employs Charles to help her write the memoirs she hopes will prevent her well-kept secrets from being revealed and ruining her reputation.

And all of these plots intertwine around the central core of Chatterton’s suicide, and weave back and forth between past and present, and fantasy and reality, using both fictional and real-life characters and incidents.

Admittedly, that’s an extremely abbreviated synopsis of a very intricate novel. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “inventive” and “larky,” and those are good descriptions. At first meeting, most of the characters appear eccentric to the point of lunacy. But gradually they come to seem almost too disturbingly real and familiar. I was particularly taken with the novelist Harriet Scrope and her friend, “the famous art critic” Sarah Tilt. It’s worth reading the whole book just to get glimpses of their exchanges and brief escapades.

Chatterton was a bestseller in England when it first appeared in 1987, and was short-listed for that year’s Man-Booker Prize. Even so, I had a little trouble finding a copy of it. Apparently it hasn’t achieved the lasting popularity of the author’s Hawksmoor. At least, not in the U.S. But it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Review: The Grey King

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1986, 165 pages

“You see,” Will said, “it’s the first quest, without help, for me – and the last, because this now is the raising of the last defence the Light can build, to be ready. There is a great battle ahead . . . not yet, but not far off. For the Dark is rising, to make its great attempt to take the world for itself until the end of time. When that happens, we must fight and we must win. But we can only win if we have the right weapons. That is what we have been doing, and are still, in such quests as this – gathering the weapons forged for us long, long ago. Six enchanted Signs of the Light, a golden grail, a wonderful harp, a crystal sword . . . They are all achieved now but the harp and the sword, and I do not know what will be the manner of the sword’s finding. But the quest for the harp is mine. . . .”

The Grey King, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novel for young people, is the fourth and next to last book in her five-novel Dark Is Rising sequence (also the title of the sequence’s second book). It continues the story of Will Stanton and his struggle against the forces of evil – the Dark.

We first met Will (in The Dark Is Rising), as an eleven year old country boy – the youngest member of a large, happy family. In the course of that novel, Will learns he isn’t just any ordinary eleven year old – he’s also the last of the “Old Ones,” immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the ravages of the Dark. In The Grey King, Will is continuing his quest for the “six enchanted Signs of the Light.” His search for the “wonderful harp” is set in Wales, and Welsh folklore plays an important role in the book.

At the novel’s opening, Will is recovering from hepatitis – he’s been very ill, and that illness has caused him to forget much of the ancient knowledge he possessed as an Old One. To recuperate, he’s sent to stay with his Auntie Jen and Uncle David Evans on their farm in Wales. There he meets the “raven boy,” Bran Davies – a boy about his own age, with the white hair and pale skin of an albino, and strange golden eyes. Surprisingly, Bran seems to know all about Will and is ready to help him in his quest to find a golden harp that will produce music to “wake the Six Sleepers” and prepare for the final battle between good and evil:

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

The two boys become friends, and as they set out on their adventure, Will gradually begins to recover his memory and the prophecy he once memorized:

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
. . . .
By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie . . .
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.

And as Will learns a bit of the Welsh language from Bran, and starts to compare the local place names and geographic features around his uncle’s farm with the memorized lines of prophecy, the final battle comes closer and closer.

The Grey King was first published in 1975 and was the winner of the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1976. And though it’s classified as a children’s book, in many ways it’s the most “adult” of the first four books in the sequence. (I haven’t yet read the final novel in the sequence, Silver on the Tree.) There are more adult situations in this one, and more explicit violence. Also, the frequent use of the Welsh language does slow the action down at times – possibly a problem for some younger readers. Unless, of course, they speak Welsh.

The Dark Is Rising sequence is proving to be just as powerful and addictive as I always imagined it would be. My favorite book in the series is always the one I happen to be reading at the moment! But The Grey King is definitely one of the best. Although I missed the presence of Merriman Lyon a bit (he figures in this book, but only briefly), I enjoyed the Welsh setting and the introduction of a fascinating new character in Bran Davies. His story and the mystery of his birth and birthright seem to be at the heart of the entire saga.

Review: Greenwitch

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1997, 147 pages

. . . As Jane looked at the huge image that they had made, out of leaves and branches . . . . she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside Time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back. [p. 34]

Greenwitch is the third book in Susan Cooper’s mythic five-novel Dark Is Rising sequence. In it, the reader once again meets up with the Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, who were introduced in the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone.

The tale begins with the Drews, along with their Great Uncle Merriman, returning to the Cornish seaside village of Trewissick, the setting of their earlier adventure. The ancient grail once discovered by the children has been stolen from its museum home by the forces of evil (the Dark), and a new search has to be mounted to find and recover it.

They’re joined in their quest by a mysterious stranger – a young boy who is the nephew of a friend of Merriman’s. The Drews are puzzled by the fact that while this newcomer is about the same age as young Barney, at times he acts much more like an adult. And their great uncle seems to treat him as an equal. The boy turns out to be Will Stanton, introduced in the sequence’s second book, The Dark Is Rising. Of course, Great Uncle Merriman knows what the children don’t: that Will is, in fact, the last of the Old Ones – immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the evil domination of The Dark.

The search for the missing grail once again involves the children in a series of exciting, and sometimes dangerous events. It also introduces them to the Greenwitch – a framework of leaves and branches made into the shape of a woman – that for centuries has been constructed by the women of the village and then thrown into the sea to bring good luck to the fishermen.

I really enjoyed Greenwitch. While it sometimes feels a bit like it was written solely as transition, it’s also interesting and entertaining on its own. It ties strands of the various books together quite nicely, and brings all the major characters together for the first time. And it’s also the shortest of the five books in the sequence – which helps make it a good, fast-paced read.

I also found it very appealing that the book gives Jane Drew a chance to take center stage away from all those males for a while. Only Jane is permitted to be present at the ceremony where the village women construct the Greenwitch, and she forms a kind of mystic bond with the creature – a bond that will become very important in the struggle to overcome the forces of darkness.

Review: The Dark Is Rising

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Simon & Schuster, Aladdin Paperbacks; 244 pages


“The Walker is abroad,” he said again. “And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.”

Much like Lucy walking through the wardrobe’s magic doorway into Narnia, or Alice plunging down the rabbit hole – Will Stanton, in The Dark Is Rising, enters his magnificent adventure quite suddenly on a seemingly ordinary day.

Will went downstairs to pull on his boots, and the old sheepskin jacket that had belonged, before him, to two or three of his brothers in turn. Then he went out of the back door, closing it quietly behind him, and stood looking out through the quick white vapour of his breath.

The strange white world lay stroked by silence. No birds sang. The garden was no longer there, in this forested land. Nor were the outbuildings nor the old crumbling walls. . . . Will set out down the white tunnel of the path, slowly, stepping high to keep the snow out of his boots. As soon as he moved away from the house, he felt very much alone, and he made himself go on without looking back over his shoulder, because he knew that when he looked, he would find that the house was gone.

But it isn’t really an ordinary day – it’s Midwinter Day, and Will’s eleventh birthday. And it’s also the day on which Will learns that he isn’t just the youngest child in the large Stanton brood. He’s the last of the Old Ones, immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the forces of evil – the Dark. And, as the book’s title tells us, the Dark is rising.

After Will steps out into this strange new world, he’s introduced to another Old One, Merriman Lyon, the Merlin-like figure who will be his guide and teacher on the journey of discovery that will introduce Will to his new powers and responsibilities. And they will be allies in the battle against the Black Rider.

Steeped in Celtic mythology and revolving around the legends of King Arthur, The Dark Is Rising, which was a Newbery Honor Book for 1974, is the second work in Susan Cooper’s five-book sequence of the same name. It follows 1965’s Over Sea, Under Stone [see my review of that book], and is very different from that book although there are a few obvious tie-ins. Merriman Lyon appears in both books, although his identity as an Old One was more shadowy in the first. In general, magic and folklore play a much more open and prominent role in The Dark Is Rising than they did in the first book.

Both books involve a quest for ancient artifacts that are vital in the struggle to keep the forces of darkness from overwhelming the world. In The Dark Is Rising, Will learns that he is the Sign-Seeker whose quest is “to find and to guard the six great Signs of the Light, made over the centuries by the Old Ones.” The Circle of Signs that Will seeks is one of the four Things of Power to be used in the final battle against the Dark, and is a set of six circular ornaments, each made of a different material – wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone. When the signs are brought together, the Dark is powerless against them.

Unlike the Drew children in Over Sea, Under Stone, Will and the other Old Ones are aided by their ability to communicate with each other using the “Old Speech,” and by their power to move easily back and forth in time. As Merriman tells him:

“You will see, Will. . . we of the Circle are planted only loosely within Time. The doors are a way through it, in any direction we may choose. For all times co-exist, and the future can sometimes affect the past. . . .”

This series has been an exciting discovery for me. I’ve enjoyed all three of the books I’ve read so far (I’ll be posting a review of the third book soon, I hope). Susan Cooper’s ability to draw the reader into a world of myth and magic with a seemingly effortless blending of the real and the fantastic is very appealing. She has a wonderful way of showing us her story unfolding, rather than simply telling us about it. We get to know her characters through their interactions within the narrative, and I think that makes them feel more real. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the story of Will Stanton and his quest, in the last two books of the sequence.

Review: Over Sea, Under Stone

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000; 196 pp.
Originally published by Jonathan Cape (London), 1965

Ever since he had learned to read, Barney’s greatest heroes had been King Arthur and his knights. In his dreams he fought imaginary battles as a member of the Round Table, rescuing fair ladies and slaying false knights. He had been longing to come to the West Country; it gave him a strange feeling that he would in some way be coming home. [p. 4]

In Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novel for young readers, the Drew children – Simon, Jane, and Barney (short for Barnabas) – along with their father and mother, have come to Cornwall to spend their vacation in the seaside village of Trewissick. They’re staying with their Great-Uncle Merry in his mysterious Grey House. Soon after arrival, while the grownups are off tending to their grownup business, the three kids are left to explore their new surroundings. After uncovering a hidden entrance to the attic, they find an old manuscript that looks like a treasure map. And that’s when the adventure begins.

The manuscript turns out to be the key to the hiding place of an ancient artifact from King Arthur’s court. And soon the three youngsters, along with their enigmatic great uncle, are caught up in the ages-old legend of Arthur’s battle for Good against Evil. There are enemies in the village who are also searching for the object, and will go to any lengths to get it. Not wanting to give too much of the plot away, I’ll just say that the three Drew kids end up vanquishing the forces of darkness, at least for the time being (well, you knew they would), and almost uncover the secret of their Great-Uncle Merry’s true identity.

This is the first book in Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence of five novels (named for the second novel in the series), and I understand that it’s very different from the other four. It actually reads more like a mystery novel than fantasy. For one thing, at first glance anyway, it doesn’t have a lot of the trappings of traditional fantasies – no fairies, demons, dragons, magic, witches or wizards – although some of those things are hinted at. And it’s set in modern-day England (well, fairly modern), but it has a timeless quality that I found very appealing – thankfully, there are no cell phones, instant messaging, or computer games to distract the Drews from their quest.

I’ve been intending to read this book for years , and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can see why it’s been a favorite of kids and adults alike, ever since it appeared 30-odd years ago. The story is exciting, with lots of twists and turns and near-disasters. The characters are well-developed, and the action is mostly plausible, given the fact that we’re dealing with a cosmic fight between the forces of light and darkness. I can’t wait to get started on the next title in the series.

Review: Emma

Written by Jane Austen
Published by Penguin Books, 1996, 474 pp.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses . . . .

The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her. [p.7]

We all hate to admit when we’re wrong about something, so I’m not happy to have to say I guess television isn’t the complete waste of time I was beginning to think it is. Just when I’m ready to slap the “vast wasteland” sticker across the screen, PBS comes up with something like the Complete Jane Austen series they showed last spring. All my ranting and raving down the drain. Because without the PBS shows, I might never have had the pleasure of rediscovering Jane Austen’s books.

Before I started reading Emma, I had read only one other Austen novel. In high school, I read Pride and Prejudice for senior English class, and had a terrible time with it. I’m not sure why. I had read other 19th century English novelists and enjoyed them. In fact, I was already a real Brontë enthusiast. So it seems like Austen would have been an instant hit with my teenaged self. But that was not the case. I found the doings of the Bennett girls and their families, friends, and foes indescribably silly and mind-numbingly tedious. By the end of the book, I was ready to throttle the entire lot of them, along with the teacher who was putting me through the horrendous ordeal.

Well, confession is good for the soul, right? In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny: What a maroon! But now I’ve come to my senses, and fallen in love with Miss Austen and her books, as any normal Anglophiliac bookworm should do.

Jane Austen published Emma late in 1815 (it’s dated 1816), when she was 40 years old. It followed the earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. None of them were published under her own name. After she died in July 1817, her brother Henry oversaw the publication of two more books, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, which were brought out together in December 1817. Henry included a “Biographical Notice,” for the first time identifying Jane as the author of all the books. Since then, Jane Austen’s novels have never been out of print.

Emma tells the story of Miss Emma Woodhouse, a young gentlewoman who lives with her widowed father at Hartfield, in the small English town of Highbury. As the book begins, Emma’s governess and friend, Miss Taylor, has married a neighbor, Mr. Weston, and gone off to live on his estate, leaving Emma to her own devices. And since she fancies herself an expert matchmaker (she predicted the match between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, after all), Emma soon gets herself into hot water.

In spite of the warnings of her friend Mr. Knightley, Emma befriends Miss Harriet Smith, a poor but genteel young woman of unknown parentage. Harriet looks up to Emma and is ready to agree to anything she suggests. And very soon, this worship on Harriet’s part coupled with Emma’s love of matchmaking and meddling in the affairs of others lead to near-disastrous consequences. Emma’s attempts to influence Harriet’s love life nearly ruin the poor girl’s one real chance at happiness, and set up a few romantic mishaps in Emma’s own life.

Emma is said to be one of Austen’s most openly satirical works, and humor certainly plays a major role. So although circumstances may seem precarious at times, in the end everything is very neatly and satisfactorily worked out. And along the way, we’re introduced to many other entertaining characters. There’s Mr. Elton, the town’s attractive and eligible Vicar; Frank Churchill, the even more attractive and eligible son of Mr. Weston – Frank has been adopted by a wealthy aunt and has taken her name; Miss Bates, a sweet and well-loved but constantly chattering woman who Emma finds most annoying; and Jane Fairfax, the beautiful but penniless orphaned niece of Miss Bates. To name a few. In fact, this is one novel in which the plot really does seem less important than the characters themselves.

Jane Austen’s novels are not for everyone, of course. Not a lot of action, and the language takes a bit of work if you’re not familiar with 19th century styles. But if you want a witty, beautifully written comedy of manners, Emma is a book you’ll treasure.