Saturday 23 January 2021

Review: Delphine, Germaine de Staël (1802)

The last nineteenth-century French novel I reviewed, Rachilde’s The Marquise de Sade (1887), introduced us to a heroine who plumbed the depths of sexual depravity. By contrast, Germaine de Staël’s Delphine, another French novel by a woman writer, from the opposite end of the century, takes great pains to depict the purity of its titular character. 

Delphine d'Albémar, a widow, is young, beautiful, compassionate and unrelentingly “good” for ~500 pages, as de Staël uses her story to depict the inequalities women faced in the years of the French Revolution. 

The man she loves, Léonce de Mondoville, is weaker and more volatile, unwilling to be satisfied by merely platonic affection, when fate (in the form of the scheming Sophie de Vernon) divides him from Delphine. Still, it is the woman in this unfortunate would-be coupling who bears the brunt of social shame and suffering throughout the story, which unfolds through a series of letters. 

De Staël’s use of the epistolary form is a wonderful window into the social life of the French upper classes, even if certain letters, especially Delphine’s confessional/diary-like messages to her sister-in-law, strain our credulity. We’re introduced to a social scene in which reputation is more important than innocence. Women are ostracised for sexual misconduct, and men for cowardice. Modern readers may find themselves yelling “just move somewhere else and live together!” but our characters’ cages are in their own minds. 

Sophie de Vernon is the most fascinating character. She’s manipulative without being cartoonish-ly evil, and adept at playing by this society’s rules to get ahead. But after her early exit (spoiler alert: she dies), the ill-starred lovers seem to be each other’s worst enemies. Meanwhile, Madame de Vernon’s daughter (and Léonce’s wife!), Mathilde, never really comes into her own to become the crucial missing piece of our love triangle. 

Recently, I’ve been reviewing twenty-first-century novels set during the French Revolution (roundups here and here), so I was particularly keen to see how Germaine de Staël incorporated this historical backdrop. However, despite the novel being set between 1789 and 1792, the political context isn’t foregrounded. There are moments when historical events intersect with the plot (e.g. a character fleeing arrest, or the novel’s denouement, which plays out against a battlefield), but, anxious to avoid Napoleon’s displeasure, de Staël kept much of her commentary subtle.

The book is most political in that it shows how a woman could do everything “right” and still have her life become a tragedy. But, unfortunately, Delphine’s “goodness”—crucial for landing this message at the time the book was written—makes this a slightly eye roll-inducing read today.

What nineteenth-century novel (French or otherwise) would you like to see me review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

My own novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now. For updates on my writing and reading, please sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. 

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Sunday 17 January 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Other Bennet Sister, Janice Hadlow (2020)

A few years ago, as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I reviewed Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B (2018). Today, I’m writing about another twenty-first century novel centred on Mary, the plainest of Elizabeth’s sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)—Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister (2020). 

Hadlow’s Mary is true to Austen’s original characterisation. She’s spectacle wearing, bookish and, oh so very, serious, rejected by her mother for her plainness and uninteresting to her father due to her lack of humour. Caught between two pairs of sisters—Jane and Elizabeth, and Kitty and Lydia—Mary seems totally alone, even at bustling Longbourn. The housekeeper Mrs Hill is one of the few people to show compassion towards her, while Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas tries to give her practical advice about how a woman without beauty can get by in a patriarchal world. The first section of Hadlow’s novel begins with Mary’s childhood, including her gradual realisation of her perceived inferiority to her older sisters. Then the book covers well-worn ground, rehashing the early events of Pride and Prejudice, up until Mr Collins’s engagement to Charlotte.

At this point, I was intrigued, if not delighted. It was interesting to see familiar scenes from Mary’s viewpoint, especially her disastrous piano playing. And there were great historical details, for instance regarding Mary’s reading material and early-nineteenth-century optometry. 

However, the novel really came into its own when we jumped forward in time to a few years after the conclusion of Austen’s book. When we rejoin Mary, she is the only unmarried Bennet sister. Of no fixed abode, she moves between the houses of her sisters and friends, trying to find her place in the world. Her father is dead. Her mother has despaired of her. The domineering Lady Catherine would like to see her packed off as an unfortunate governess. 

I have an especial interest in this plight of single upper-middle-class women in the period, who found themselves dependent on the charity of their friends and relatives. In my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I depict what this might have been like for a widow, but unmarried girls like Mary had even fewer options. However, as she matures, Hadlow’s Mary turns these unfortunate circumstances to her advantage, using her methodical mind to assess the different households she visits—Jane’s, Elizabeth’s, Charlotte’s and her aunt Gardiner’s.

Other, non-canonical characters begin to take centre stage, including Tom Haywood, a London lawyer with a love of Wordsworth, who helps Mary discover her more poetic and feeling side. But I also enjoyed Hadlow’s on-going nods to her source material. Mary’s final confrontation with Miss Bingley recalls her sister Elizabeth’s argument with Lady Catherine. A well-described trip to the Lakes with the Gardiners brings back Lizzie’s truncated vacation. 

Overall, while I do agree with some reviewers that The Other Bennet Sister could have been slightly shorter, I’d highly recommend the book to fans who prefer their Austen-inspired fiction to be less radical and revisionist, and more thoughtful and additive. I was worried that spending another book with Mary might be tiresome, but she won me over by the end!

What twenty-first-century written, nineteenth-century set novels would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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Friday 8 January 2021

December Articles about Bronte’s Mistress

It’s 2021, which means it’s no longer my debut year, but I still have one final monthly roundup of articles about my novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Check out the February/March, April/May, June/July, August, September, October and November editions for a trip down memory lane, but today I’m covering coverage from December 2020. 

In celebration of the season, I was the speaker at the Oxford and Cambridge Society of New England’s (virtual) Christmas Party. It was so much fun sharing how I researched and wrote my book with fellow Oxford alumni, and, yes, so Cambridge people too (catch a recording here).

My final podcast appearance of the year, with New Books in Historical Fiction, also aired. I was in conversation with fellow novelist C.P. Lesley, who wrote a great article, “The Corset of Culture” on Lydia Robinson’s dilemma in Bronte’s Mistress.

My book was named one of the best of the year by bloggers The Literate Quilter and Writer Gurl NY, while the Captivated Reader blog listed my Austen vs. the Brontes discussion with The Jane Austen Society author Natalie Jenner one of the best virtual author events of the year (listen to our debate here).

And Bookreporter included Bronte’s Mistress in their annual roundup of Bets On picks. Carol Fitzgerald’s roundup of 40+ of the best books of the year is well worth watching, so make a cup of tea, settle back and enjoy!

Looking back at the year, here are some quick (not very scientifically counted) stats of what went down (mostly since my novel’s release in August):

I wrote 16+ personal essays about the book, many of which are linked in these August and September summaries. 

I appeared on 10+ radio shows and podcasts, all of which are listed on my website

I spoke at 30+ virtual events (check out the blog posts tagged "Video" for some that were recorded).

I kept track of 100+ articles about the book and/or interviews with me, but am sure I missed some!

I am so grateful to the journalists, bloggers, Bookstagrammers, YouTubers, reviewers, authors, bookstores and librarians who have supported me on this most unusual of debut years. From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU! 

The Bronte’s Mistress paperback comes out in June, and I’ve already started receiving some 2021 coverage, but I’ll be pivoting to bimonthly press summaries again to blog a little more about nineteenth-century literature and culture, and a little less about my book. 

Don’t forget that you can always contact me—on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. I also send a monthly email newsletter (sign up below) and Bronte’s Mistress is available in hardcover, audiobook and e-book now. 

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