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Jessica Bull – Miss Austen Investigates

Book Cover of Jessica Bull's Miss Austen Investigates

Please note that this review uses ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘Austen’ to refer to the real writer, and ‘Jane’ to refer to Bull’s fictionalisation of the same.

Catherine Morland would be proud.

When Jane comes back to the ball from the glasshouse where she’d been talking to Tom Lefroy, no one is speaking. A woman has been murdered; no one knows who she is or, indeed, who’s done it. The magistrate starts to get on with it but Jane has her misgivings about him and as the days continue and he hasn’t reached a conclusion nor, as far as Jane is concerned, made a proper effort to find out whodunnit, she decides to conduct her own investigation. Her family aren’t keen – it’s a bit of a silly idea, and Jane manages to cause great offence in her efforts to find out the truth, but it becomes all too important to her to solve when her brother is arrested. But there’s also Tom’s likely impending proposal to prepare for and cousin Eliza’s coming to Steventon. Will Jane work it out before it’s too late and will Tom ever get down on one knee?

Jessica Bull’s Miss Austen Investigates (or The Hapless Miliner across the pond), is an utterly delightful fictional take on Jane Austen’s years in Steventon, largely influenced by Northanger Abbey. In essence it is a bit of a parody of an actual parody, one absolutely brimming with excellent research, immersive use of location, careful and comedic and sensitive handling of real families from the past, and interesting fairly evidence-based interpretations. And yes, all those adjectives were necessary to include – this book is one of the most well-produced literary works I’ve read in a long time.

It is obvious very early on that everything Bull does in this book, all the choices she makes, has or have been fully thought out. Let’s start with the general concept – the influence of Northanger Abbey on the text. Bull’s fictionalisation of Jane Austen is partly informed by what we know of Austen herself, and partly informed by Austen’s character, Catherine Morland. (This latter person is most in evidence when our titular character of the book this review is about becomes incredibly illogical and won’t be drawn by reason, much like our dear Catherine.) Bull’s balancing of the different personalities into one character – I say ‘different’ even though I myself believe it’s likely Austen herself was remarkably fun – won’t be for everyone, in fact it’s likely some readers may find her silliness too much, but I’d wager most people will ‘get’ it at the very least.

Of course it’s also in the element of the mystery here that Catherine Morland can be found; Bull’s novel is very much a mystery novel and well set in its time and society – Jane never goes around with the historical equivalent of a policeman and no one is shooting anyone, instead Jane’s investigations largely take the form of musings and a couple of brief questions here and there over a cup of tea and slice of cake at various houses.

(This in itself is something to remark upon – Bull’s setting Jane as the sleuth enables a look at how women were treated more as decorations and possessions rather than people. There’s a particularly sad scene wherein the funeral of the murder victim – a woman – is attended by just a few men and Jane hides herself outside because as a woman she cannot be at the funeral. See also the way Jane is asked to stop investigating – whilst this is in line with Catherine Morland’s experiences it also aligns with the historical treatment of women in her position.)

Looking at location and society – friends and family, mostly – this is arguably where most of the heart in the book can be found. Bull has recreated the village of Steventon and the now-lost Steventon Rectory where Austen grew up (it was torn down within a few years of the Austen family moving away) and looked at Ashe House and Deane House in the nearby villages of the same names (which still exist and are privately owned). The sense of place and time is fantastic and it’s easy to get lost in the world and carry on turning the pages. Bull also shows Jane’s time with her family and there is a lot of fun to be had in the dynamics between members, particularly baby Anna (made younger in this book than she would have been in real life) and Jane’s mother, Mrs Cassandra Austen.

What’s really lovely though, is that Bull has put so much work into the whole family that you’ll feel you know them more than you ever could have before. About half of Austen’s siblings are included in these fictionised forms, with James, Henry, and George paramount. (Sadly Cassandra isn’t here, but that is in keeping with her story and it allows for Bull to add an element of the epistolary novel to the book.)

George Austen is where it’s at. George is largely forgotten in our collective history, almost certainly because of what we would now call epilepsy, and the relative menial role he therefore played in society. (Case in point – there’s a Wikipedia link for every sibling, except him.) He plays a big role in the book, with Jane always thinking about him in context with what’s going on. Another character, Jane’s cousin, Eliza, who’s son has epilepsy also, is there to help her with her investigations and there is a lovely burgeoning romance with Henry Austen that’s based on the real history, too.

The writing is super, with most of the narrative in third person and Jane’s letters to Cassandra giving a first person perspective. Bull has used the format the late Deirdre Le Faye gave Austen’s letters in Jane Austen’s Letters which provides a lovely nod to study and research. Bull has also slipped her letters in the gaps between the letters that were burned by the real life Cassandra, and added her own nod to this unfortunate piece of history in the letters themselves.

I can’t end this review without mentioning Tom Lefroy; Bull has come to an evidence-based conclusion as to the nature of Austen’s relationship with him and explored it in her book. It is very well done and there are further choices made that increase her character’s agency.

There is a lot more that could be said about this book – it’s a treasure trove of parodies and references – but a review can only be so long. Miss Austen Investigates is one you certainly want to read if you are at all a Janeite, or/and if you like mysteries. It may even suit your general historical fiction fan, as well. It is an absolute delight, and joy or joys, book two is already on the horizon.

I received this book from the publisher in order to interview the author, which is something I set in motion.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 435
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-64208-5
First Published: 25th January 2024
Date Reviewed: 30th April 2024

 
Kristy Woodson Harvey – The Wedding Veil

Book Cover of Kristy Woodson Harvey's The Wedding Veil

Kristy Woodson Harvey wanted to write about a wedding veil. Her agent suggested a historical wedding veil, and when Woodson Harvey started thinking about the Vanderbilts (because she loved visiting Biltmore House, the family’s home in Asheville, North Carolina), on a whim she Googled one of the women of the family to see if there might be a veil included somewhere. There was.

In the present day, Julia is about to marry Hayes, her long-term on-again-off-again boyfriend. During her bridemaid’s lunch at Biltmore House the day before, there’s a sudden load of pings; all the women’s phones go off with notifications. Someone has filmed Hayes cheating and sent it to everyone at the lunch. Julia is devastated but she’s been with Hayes so long and they always make up and get back together, so she says she’ll still marry him. The next day she puts on the family wedding veil; it brings good luck. And she will marry Hayes… well, she means to but then to heck with it, she does a runner and by the end of it all she finds herself on her honeymoon by herself thinking about all the things she gave up and being drawn to a man she meets early into the holiday. At the same time, narrative-wise, in the 1800s, Edith Dresser is about to marry into the Vanderbilt family; she wears her family’s wedding veil (yes, there is no sense in hiding it – there is a connection) and finds herself in a happy marriage that later produces Cornelia, the next in line to inherit the family’s wealth.

The Wedding Veil is Woodson Harvey’s wonderful stand-alone novel of the lasting power of female friendship and familial love, romantic love and being who you should be… and the mystery behind where Julia’s family’s wedding veil came from. Told via four narratives (Julia’s grandmother Babs and Cornelia Vanderbilt round us off) the book offers a wholesome, winsome, story that is pretty much guaranteed to delight.

Woodson Harvey is great at character development and her way of writing is absolutely lovely; from the first page you’re very much invited to join the story. The author has a particular talent for writing characters which means that even if there’s one you don’t like (you’re not going to like Hayes, for example, and for a few pages you may not even like Julia) you’re totally invested in the tale. And in the case of Woodson Harvey, writing definitely needs to be placed in the same paragraph in a review as her character development because they are part and parcel of each other; in the author’s Southern States setting and general ambiance, you get a complete sense of calm, of escape, of knowing you’re about to be whisked away into a well-told story.

That is, I think, the exact defining element of this author’s work – her ability to give you that promise, through her writing, of having chosen the right book and take you on a great journey; maybe you know where it’ll end up, maybe you won’t (Woodson Harvey definitely knows how to get the balance right between mystery and predictability), but you are guaranteed a satisfying story no matter what.

So you’ve got four fab narratives here – 1800s’ Edith Vanderbilt, whose husband George built the Biltmore House in Asheville, Cornelia (their daughter) born in 1900, and then Julia and Babs from the present day. Edith’s narrative allows you to see the Vanderbilt family in their prime, and then Cornelia’s shows the slow decline, her narrative straddling the fence of before the Great Depression and the aftermath. There is also, of course, the look at both women in their own rights as well as their relationship with each other and the way they both ‘deal’ with romance. Julia’s narrative offers a sad but busy beginning and a happier forward journey, showing how one can get swamped and lose themselves in a bad relationship and the change that can come from a better one, whereas Babs shows two good relationships – one in absentia, so to speak (Reid is dead) – and, perhaps most importantly, that love can happen at any age. Writing older women, giving them a voice and putting them front and centre of the narrative is another thing that Woodson Harvey does well.

Of the Vanderbilts’ lives, then, you see the opulence and the glamour but also – perhaps in part due to Woodson Harvey’s knowledge of Biltmore – the real life, down-to-earth stuff, too. You get the Gilded Age and the way the family looked after all the employees and tenants of the estate, and the perspective, narration-wise, that Woodson Harvey uses, allows for a particular readerly intimacy with it all.

But Julia and Babs would say they are just as important. They might not have the same glamour but they do have their modern day relatability and two lovely romances. Both also have their character progression and their relationship with each other which, I think this can be said without spoiling the book, is what we end the story on.

There’s a lot to love about this book – Julia spends a while (page-wise) in the Virgin Islands, sun, sea, sand, Babs’ retirement village is very well described and fun, and the Vanderbilts bring some fascinating history into the mix. The romantic leads are winsome, whilst being very much secondary characters and rightly so.

In short, if you haven’t already figured it out by what I assume is my very obvious attempt and failure to explain exactly what I like about this book, it’s the atmosphere and the sum of the writing and the specific vibes that make this book what it is – things that are difficult to describe.

The Wedding Veil just… rocks. It’s poignant, it will occasionally make you want to tell a character to stop thinking what they’re thinking (okay, not ‘a’ character, mostly Julia when she’s thinking that maybe her cheating fiancé isn’t so bad), and it simply provides a glorious reading experience. The ambiance ensures that while, over time, you might forget the little things, you certainly won’t forget the feeling of reading this book and you will certainly miss it once it’s over.

Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 395
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-18071-3
First Published: 29th March 2022
Date Reviewed: 4th December 2023

 
Elizabeth Fremantle – Disobedient

Book Cover of Elizabeth Fremantle's Disobedient

Elizabeth Fremantle had wanted to write about Artemisia Gentileschi for a while but had kept the idea on her back burner – she was a writer of historical fiction set in Britain. But Gentileschi’s work is starting to have a renaissance of interest and so it was time for Fremantle to put pen to paper in the artist’s favour.

Artemisia is growing up to be quite the talent. Working on sections of her father’s work, she has honed her craft and is starting to excel past his own skill. It’s not gone unnoticed; though Orazio tries to hide the images she creates based on Biblical scenes from which she’s focused on the perspective of women, Artemisia is starting to wow art aficionados. But the family is poor; they have to move to a cheaper home and Orazio really needs a good commission. Unmarried, Artemisia must stay at home and do as her father says, and some male artists are not as nice as they seem. But Artemisia is a survivor.

Disobedient is Fremantle’s latest well-told story, this one about a formative year in Artemisia Gentileschi’s life. Writing again under her full name, as opposed to E C Fremantle, the author has returned to her more ‘straight forward’ historical fiction after a couple of historical thrillers, but the progress in writing skill carries over.

I’m starting a new paragraph here because this skill – essentially what sets Fremantle apart from other writers, her unique selling point, if you will – is the way she hones in on a, or some, specific element(s) to the successful eradication of all else. But what makes this so successful is that nothing is lost in this process – whilst the content hones in on one element, in this case a particular part of this one year of Artemisia’s life, the world building is not forgotten, the development of other characters is not forgotten, and so on. It’s really quite something. The world building, for example, could be said to exist between the lines and in particular words and phrases – it’s just there, in the atmosphere, providing a backdrop without any real focus on description.

In terms of Fremantle’s work in general, suffice to say I think this is the biggest takeaway, what makes the author special, and in terms of Disobedient it’s one of the defining aspects that informs everything else.

To Artemisia then, our main character, from whom we hear via Fremantle’s close-by third person perspective. The artist is brought fully to life, the moments that are factual honoured with a lot of love and care, the fiction created with an eye to relative accuracy and further understanding. There are parallels to be found in the Biblical tale of Judith, a figure Artemisia paints early on in the novel; she painted Judith a couple of times over all.

In Judith, and also, later, Susanna, as well as other women from the Bible, Fremantle has highlighted stories of sexual assault in a way that both includes them in the narrative and isolates them as tales in their own right. Involving her own fictional writings about these women, the author creates extra information from an effective other source before or whilst she weaves them into Artemisia’s story. And on this note, we see how Artemisia was regarded as an artist at that time – with respect; she travelled, her paintings more famous, perhaps then, than they currently are (as said, that is changing).

Disobedient is a stunning story of one woman’s fight to be known in her own right and the way she worked to be a survivor. The story ends before she is an adult but Fremantle shows us the way the story would continue – you’ll want to read more about Artemisia once you’ve finished the book if you didn’t know about her life previously. And her paintings are as wonderful as Fremantle describes.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 349
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-58304-3
First Published: 6th July 2023
Date Reviewed: 27th November 2023

 
Jennifer Saint – Atalanta

Book Cover of Jennifer Saint's Atalanta

Jennifer Saint wondered why she had never written about Atalanta before. Here was this mythological character that so few people have heard of – everyone knows about the Argonauts, but not about the one woman who joined them. Jennifer set about changing that. (She also liked the idea of an adventure story – her previous novel, Elektra, was full of tragedy.)

Left on a mountaintop as a baby because her father wanted a son, Atalanta was first raised by a mother bear and then taken in by the goddess Artemis, who introduced Atalanta to her forest and the devoted nymphs who resided there under her protection. There was just one rule – no men. Atalanta becomes an incredible warrior and the fastest runner there ever was; when Jason and his Argonauts set about their journey, Artemis tells Atalanta to join them as her champion. The group of heroes don’t want a woman in their midst and Atalanta isn’t sure about it all, either, but she agrees to go.

Atalanta is a retelling of a classic tale. Arguably the author’s best book yet, it’s a compelling story that will have you flipping pages quickly no matter how much you already know of the character.

This book is a little mix-and-match by its very origins – there are a few different storylines of Atalanta’s life (there’s even an entirely different story about an Atalanta who may or may not have been the same person) and then Saint has added elements that are purely hers, such as the ending which has been studied in a way that reflects the author’s and our present day interpretations and thoughts.

Given that Saint has focused on a woman, a woman forgotten at that, there is a lot in this book that has been fleshed out and detailed in ways not seen before. As in Elektra (and no doubt Ariadne – it’s just that this reviewer hasn’t read the latter) Saint never shies away from the dark matter of the stories, in fact, all the more so in Atalanta she uses them to examine things left unsaid. As an example, when the nymph Callisto, who had sworn herself to celibacy to stay in Artemis’s forest, is raped and made pregnant by Zeus, Artemis casts her out, laying a hand on her and transforming her into a bear. It is in how Saint then goes on to explore what these various mythological plot points mean that the story excels – in this example, why cast out Callisto, why when Artemis is the goddess who looks after women in labour (though we know that’s a big part of why she wants her followers to be chaste), and then why make Callisto a bear (in terms of the wider themes of the story)?

Leaving spoilers there – that one will be it for this review – it’s fair to say that Saint’s theme work drives this book. Plot is important, character is important, but it’s the themes and the question of ‘why?’ that make this novel what it is. The ‘because’ also plays a role and Saint looks at both the historical context of this fantasy story, and how we view mythology in our present day, how we add our own, newer, contexts into the stories to continue adding to the history of them – how mythology is important still, and why it is is something that is paramount to Saint’s work in general.

One particular theme is motherhood – what makes a good mother? What is a mother? There are so many bad mothers in Greek mythology and here Saint has a chance to really examine that from many angles – yes, the bears in this book are one of them. Freedom is another theme – Saint explores this through Atalanta’s home, her devotion to Artemis, her relationship with men as a gender, and her family.

I’m going to make a special, out of left field mention of Jason – Saint shows us Jason in a different light than his name being in ‘and the Argonauts’ suggests. He’s not much of a hero… or a sailor… or a leader.

The book ends on a triumph, with Saint using the original and then doing some level of interpretation that will not be defined here – you’ll have to read it for yourself – but closes the novel on a wonderful note.

Atalanta is a brilliant retelling and expansion of an ancient story. You don’t need to know about the original stories but you may want to have some level of grounding in them in order to fully appreciate what the author has done (Wikipedia will do if you’ve little time). It has set the bar ever higher for Saint’s next book – she’ll undoubtedly pass it – and is more than fine company for your reading time.

Publisher: Wildfire (Hachette)
Pages: 354
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-29215-5
First Published: 11th April 2023
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2023

 
Lucy Barker – The Other Side Of Mrs Wood

Book Cover of Lucy Barker's The Other Side Of Mrs Wood

Into studying the Victorian period, Lucy Barker set her book in a time she knew a lot about. It’s paid off in spades.

Mrs Wood is a successful medium. Originally from a poor background, she has risen (no pun intended) to be solidly middle class and able to furnish her home and person to a degree acceptable to the wealthy patrons she has collected. Having patrons is critical to financial independence – being a medium gives her means that many women do not have – and critical to her career is staying above any rumours of trickery; while many mediums has been found to be frauds, Mrs Wood is still okay. One day she sees a young woman outside her house, clearing watching the goings on of her Circle; Mrs Wood follows her, catches her, and the event ends with Miss Finch becoming a pupil, because, despite maid Eliza’s disgust at a member of her own class being placed above her, Mrs Wood needs something new and sparkly to keep her patrons eyes on her as she ages, and a trainee is just the thing. But might Eliza’s disgust have a real point?

The Other Side Of Mrs Wood is a very witty and incredibly immersive story of a period of history that a lot of people will be aware of but not to the extent that Barker goes into it. Educational as well as it is excellent, this is a tale that’s been well plotted and characterised and is very easy to become lost in and thus very quick to finish.

This immersion is down to Barker’s focus on world-building in all its guises. The author sticks to a few specific areas of London – in particular Notting Hill – and goes to town on fleshing out the details so that you get a vivid picture of what the places are like; yet there is no info-dumping or too-long detailing in this book – everything comes from very brief descriptions, and from the characterisation and dialogue. You get so much information from Barker without realising it for quite a while and it’s a glorious thing.

Then once you get inside the séance rooms and into the events themselves, more immersion happens. There’s no second person narrative or anything like that – Barker doesn’t literally welcome you to the circular table – but it very often feels like she has. You’re fully amongst all the goings on and it’s rather awesome as you get to experience both the spooky, haunting, effect, as well as the reality of the mechanics that Mrs Wood and her companion Miss Newman use to make the guests think there are really spirits amongst them. (Some may have figured it out – this is never said, but that in itself reflects the ambiance of the time.)

I mentioned Miss Newman there, which I hadn’t done before: let’s get into the characters. No surprise here – Barker’s attention to characterisation is brilliant. There is ample ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, the characters come fully alive (except the spirits, but they aren’t real), and while there might be a plethora of secondary characters it’s also quite difficult to say they are secondary characters because they are drawn so fully. Yes, there are stereotypes, adding to the humour, but everyone is involved often. Mrs Wood and Miss Finch get most of the billing – Miss Finch is generally considered through Mrs Wood’s point of view (Barker uses the third person but places it strongly on Mrs Wood) but we see other possibilities through the looks and gestures of Eliza and a few times the words of Miss Newman. Barker does well with Miss Newman – the character is always going out to her suffrage society (this is the very early stages of the movement) but she never feels too far away as Mrs Wood considers her often and you, the reader, inevitably end up wondering what Miss Newman would say to what Mrs Wood is thinking of doing.

Mrs Wood is brilliant – funny without often being actively funny in herself (Barker very obviously loves her characters), and a good person to read about, to centre the story around. She may miss a lot but you never feel a different character would have made a better focus. And Miss Finch is as blurred and obscured as you’d expect of someone who could be good, neutral, or bad.

On the note of secondary characters, a special mention must be made for columnist Magnus Clore of The Spiritual Times, whose short reviews and general thoughts of the world of mediums provide a different perspective, an inventive way to add twists and interest to the plot, and an important bit of white space (by way of the reviews being short) during which to get your breath back before you plunge back into the proceedings; it’s easy to lose track of time when reading this book. You also have letters from various secondary characters – and the odd primary character – to Mrs Wood, which lends a different use of voice to the novel.

Suffice to say, given all of the above, that the book is big on women’s independence – being a medium was a very good way for women of the era to make their own money and way in society. Mrs Wood’s childhood in poverty and the choices she makes, during the time the novel takes place, to keep her standing – to keep her patrons and remain a successful medium, keeping rumours of fraud well away – form the backbone of the story, with Miss Finch’s own background adding to that.

The ending is very well done and incorporates a few different elements of the plot that have been woven in since the beginning. It may or may not surprise you – there are at least a couple of possibilities of where the book might go that begin to be laid early on – but whether or not it’s as you expected, you’ll likely agree that it is a fantastic ending regardless.

The Other Side Of Mrs Wood makes for a brilliant reading choice. Well plotted, well characterised, and an excellent balance of humour and seriousness, this book is one of the best books of this year and it’ll be interesting to see what Lucy Barker comes up with next. Just don’t expect a further exploration of fully-fledged spirit manifestations – as Mrs Wood would tell you, they probably don’t exist.

Publisher: 4th Estate (HarperCollins)
Pages: 389
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-59720-7
First Published: 13th June 2023
Date Reviewed: 17th November 2023

 

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