Reviews and Media Items

Who Needs Mr Darcy? - the adventures and exploits of the bad Miss Bennet

by Jean Burnett

It's not often any decent reviewer has recourse to expressions like 'rip-roaring tales', but it's probably justified in this case.

'Who Needs Mr Darcy?' is a hugely engaging tale by Jean Burnett, following the life and loves of Lydia from P&P after the death (through misadventure rather than conspicuous gallantry) of her husband Lt Wickham on the field of Waterloo - and it illustrates, probably fairly, the absolute requirement for a young lady expecting advancement, or even survival in the Regency period, to find favour with menfolk of appropriate station and wealth.

Through the journal of Lydia, we are introduced to a panoply of splendid characters; from grand ladies whose 'abilities seemed to be restricted to being able to smoulder and walk in a straight line at the same time' to the 'small white mountain' of the overweight Prince Regent (in his bed); from the denizen of the (still surviving, and beautiful) Widcombe House in 'damp and deceitful Bath' who feeds brandy to her dogs, to the devastatingly handsome highwayman Jerry Sartain who keeps returning from banishment or apparent death to set Lydia's rather inconstant heart fluttering; and to the banker Getheridge who combines lecherousness and vanity with corruption and incompetence - as if we could ever believe that of a banker!

The author has a splendid way with the language, which can take us from some finely crafted passages describing the idyllic but stultifying gardens of Pemberley; the alleyways and canals of Venice than which 'no other city in Europe speaks so eloquently of decay'; or Paris where 'duelling is the principal mode of exercise'; to some sharp remarks about real life in the period:
"words cannot describe the agony of coach travel from one end of England to another. It should never be undertaken unless one is in a deceased condition"
- though of course, this might still apply 200 years later; and in Paris she is introduced to 'restaurants':
"These institutions were unknown in England and scarcely existed outside Paris. Members of the public paid to eat a meal together in one room which was prepared and served by strangers"
- which when you put it like that, does sound a little eccentric.

Lydia's exploits in search of financial security and excitement are well summed up in her occasionally wondering, 'when and where my rescuers would appear, and whether I really wanted to be rescued'.

Is the Austen 'hook' really necessary though? We do see most of the Bennet family in its pages, though most of them seem like crashing bores, at least in comparison to Lydia - and the 'sal volatile' is employed to advantage every so often, to cope with the exigencies of scandalised relatives and friends who can scarcely keep up with the goings on - but they are largely incidental to the real plot.

This reader was left with a strong feeling that the character and her exploits could have been set a dozen years either side of 1816, and without direct reference to the families and characters of Jane Austen, and been just as engaging and entertaining - because Jean Burnett is clearly a fine writer who doesn't really need that hook.

In any event, it would be good to hear more from her: I wonder if the reference within the text to another putative novel, 'Parlous at Pemberley', is a hint?

Sphere Books (Sep 2012)
ISBN: 978-0-7515-4704-7

review by Nick Daisley 06/10/12

The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England

by Margaret Sullivan

Quirk books are re-publishing this very successful and entertaining American publication (previously under the subtitle 'A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World' from 2007), and we wish them well on the project.

The book presents itself as a complete guide to the life of a woman of a certain class in Jane's time - and its focus and perspectives are, it must be said, very much on women rather than men.

In a light-footed but logical manner, the author takes us through the private and social lives of that well-mannered and quite privileged class of beings that inhabit Austen's novels, in the form of a series of lessons or coaching sessions - little reminders of what to wear in what circumstances, how to be appropriately entertaining at a dance without being misapprehended, or how to treat your elders and betters.

The book's market seems to have been those who already know something of the novels and films, and the text is replete with references whose best impact is felt if you recognise where they are coming from! That said, it's a text that might also be very useful for someone coming to the original books, or even the films for the first time, because it explains what might otherwise seem arcane and eccentric manners, priorities and perspectives.

Indeed it also includes brief synopses of all the novels, and a very brief biography of the novelist - all in all making a very good introduction to the works as well as to the age.

The book is very well executed, with careful page design, easy to read text, and wonderful illustrations throughout - it feels like a quality production in every way. Margaret Sullivan is well established as an enthusiast and scholar of all things Austen, being the creator of the website, while the illustrator Kathryn Rathke is a fine book illustrator who provides this volume with its many strong, characterful and often amusing images.

There are some modern turns of phrase and some Americanisms that might suit some younger readers very well, but confuse older ones! But one undisguisable element of the book is that the author approaches Jane Austen and her works with real affection, and that is what makes this book a delightful handbook to her world and her works.

Quirk Books (7 Mar 2011)
ISBN-10: 1594745056
ISBN-13: 978-1594745058

review by Nick Daisley/ Frank Underwood

The Innocent Diversion: Music in the Life and Writings of Jane Austen

by Patrick Piggott

Originally published in 1979 in hardback by Douglas Cleverdon, this is a reprint, the first paperback edition to appear in the UK: long recognized as an important resource for research, the original edition was becoming hard to find, and Moonrise has been enterprising in reprinting it.

Patrick Piggott, who was an important composer, pianist and musicologist of the earlier 20th century, gives a lively and well researched account of the role of music, not only in Jane Austen's own life, but in the lives of the characters in her novels: music as metaphor, and music as essential accomplishment in the life of the heroines - for the only two male characters in the novels who have musical skills, Captain Wentworth in 'Persuasion' and Frank Churchill in 'Emma', do not themselves perform.

Piggott gives details of the instruments and the music played not only in the books but also by Jane herself. It is an interesting fact, and perhaps rather frustrating too that only one composer is named in the novels, Johann Baptist Cramer in 'Emma', and only one specific piece, 'Robin Adair', also in 'Emma'. The piano firm of Broadwoods is also mentioned.

This is perhaps the only substantial study on the subject of Jane Austen's music, apart from a catalogue of music from the Chawton Collection by Ian Gammie and Derek McCulloch in 1976. Therefore there is a real need to update our understanding of the subject, as it were, and bring to light more of this material, a project which our own Oxford group is working on.

On visits to Chawton House Library we have seen these manuscripts, and more of the Jane Austen family music books have recently surfaced owing to the bequest of Oxford academic Richard Jenkyns, himself an Austen descendent.

Overall the 'Innocent Diversion' is a highly readable and informative work, a landmark publication on which future students of this material can found their own researches as further findings emerge. It is very good to see it made available in a quality edition again.

Moonrise Press Ltd (1 Dec 2010)
ISBN-10: 0953956164
ISBN-13: 978-0953956166

review by Frank Underwood

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