Thursday 29 July 2021

Review: A Hazard of New Fortunes, William Dean Howells (1889)

William Dean Howells’s 1889 A Hazard of New Fortunes is the sort of nineteenth-century novel that remembers it has a plot halfway through. 

The early chapters read like a time capsule of 1880s New York City, as Bostonian Basil March and his wife Isabel search for an apartment and explore what the metropolis has to offer, following his appointment as editor of a new periodical. Howells’s satire feels humorous, rather than biting, and there’s much that a twenty-first-century inhabitant of the city will find familiar. 

By later chapters, however, the novel seems transformed into something entirely different. The cast of characters, who felt like caricatures at the book’s opening, seem drawn towards a terribly realistic tragedy, which pulls off the writerly feat of being “surprising but inevitable.” Satire evolves into social commentary that doesn’t let readers off the hook. Where would our loyalties lie in the clash of outlooks personified by the uncultured capitalist Dryfoos and the idealistic socialist Lindau? And can the “reasonable” March (and by extension the reader) find a tenable position in the middle?

Class is not the only social question to come under scrutiny. Howells gives us beautiful, young female characters who defy their conventional roles in nineteenth-century society, and the novels that depict it. Alma Leighton begins the book as a young woman playing games with a man to wound him for neglecting her, but by the end of the novel her dedication to her art over matrimony is no ruse. Margaret Vance’s love is centered on her charitable works—something her family struggles to understand. 

Howells’s commentary on race also has a modern tinge. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the casual racism of the Northern characters, who, for instance, fetishize having Black doormen, even as they try to distance themselves from the Southern characters, including one who, more than twenty years on from abolition, is still advocating for reform, not destruction, of the “institution.”

The novel A Hazard of New Fortunes most reminded me of was E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), though the former’s structural flaws mean it’s remembered more for its multiple chapters on New York real estate woes than for its insight into the human condition. If you’re a fan of nineteenth-century realism with a love for New York, you’ll enjoy Hazard as much as I did. But, if only one of these things holds true, don’t forget—this is a novel of two halves.

What nineteenth-century novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to read and review next? Let me know. You can always contact me on Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My own (nineteenth-century set) novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, paperback, e-book or audiobook, right now. And for monthly updates on my writing and my blog, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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Monday 19 July 2021

Review: John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews (2021) – Part of the John Eyre Virtual Book Tour

I’m something of a Bronte fanatic. After all, my own debut novel (Bronte’s Mistress) was inspired by a real-life scandal that rocked literature’s most famous family. So I was delighted to be asked to participate in the virtual book tour for John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews’s new Bronte-inspired Gothic romance. As part of the tour, 35 online influencers specializing in historical fiction, Gothic romance, and paranormal fiction are celebrating the release with interviews, spotlights, exclusive excerpts, and reviews. 

John Eyre is (as you might have guessed from its title!) a gender-swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). John is a tutor working under the employ of a fascinating Mrs. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. The housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax has morphed into a butler, Mr. Fairfax. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the maniac in the attic is a hidden husband, not a secret wife. 

What might be less obvious at first glance though is that this isn’t just a take on one nineteenth-century novel, but two. Bronte’s Jane Eyre meets Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula in this fast-paced read. This is not as outlandish an idea as it might seem at first glance. Author Mimi Matthews details in her Author’s Note several passages in Bronte’s novel that borrow from vampiric imagery (e.g. [Rochester:] “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart.”). And the Gothic Yorkshire setting lends itself to violent, as well as psychological, horror. 

The structure of Matthews’s novel is more indebted to Dracula than Jane Eyre, as Mrs. Rochester’s letters and journal make up a significant portion of the narrative. While John is definitely our main character, this decision means that Mrs. Rochester is available to us in a way Bronte’s Mr. Rochester never is. Matthews’s Mrs. Rochester is still attractive and magnetic—to John and to readers—but our access to her makes her more human and less dangerous than her masculine namesake. It’s also tricky to entirely reverse the original power dynamic in a nineteenth-century setting. John is Mrs. Rochester’s subordinate by position, wealth, and class. But he is still a man, with all the privileges this entails, and he takes the lead romantically and physically at moments when I would have liked Mrs. Rochester to seize the reins. 

Matthews excels at building atmosphere and in delivering clarity at a line level even while her characters move in a fog of confusion. I delighted in the Gothic creepiness of the Milcote mists, the mute children John tutors (a distorted mirror of Jane Eyre’s talkative Adele), the casement bed (hello, Wuthering Heights!), and the role of laudanum in the plot. Obviously, this isn’t the book for those who prefer their historicals firmly rooted in reality, but if you enjoy paranormal details there are plenty to soak in here. 

One way in which John differs from Jane is in the loss of his religious faith, something which preoccupies Jane for much of the original book. This plays to the interests of modern readers, while also removing the driving force behind Jane’s flight from Thornfield, following her disastrous would-be wedding day—her desire to save her soul and her beloved’s. As a result of this change, the dénouement of the novel is action-packed, and the chapter inspired by Bronte’s most famous scene is soon followed by the climax.

John Eyre doesn’t pretend to be a serious examination of gender dynamics, as Jane Eyre often is, and questions of race are also less prominent than in other Bronte-inspired fiction (this Mr. Rochester still benefitted economically from slave labor, but there is no suggestion that Bertha’s heritage may be non-white).

I’d highly recommend John Eyre to other Bronte fans who are happy to read works that play with the sisters’ worlds. This is a book that is beyond anything else fun—fun to uninitiated readers, but even more fun if you’re familiar with its source material. 

Have you read John Eyre? What did you think of it? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. For updates on my blog, my book, and me, make sure you sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

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Thursday 8 July 2021

Finola & Friends: All the Episodes in my Instagram Live “Tour” for the Bronte’s Mistress Paperback Release

Last month marked the release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in paperback. In celebration of the occasion, I chatted live to 27 author friends over on Instagram, about all things writing-related! The full episodes are now available at any time over on my IGTV, so check them out at your leisure.

Episode 1: Lindsey Rogers Cook My conversation with Lindsey covered the differences and similarities between journalistic and creative writing.

Episode 2: Molly Greeley Molly and I chatted about Jane Austen, the Brontes, and reading lesbian historicals during Pride Month.

Episode 3: Julie Carrick Dalton Julie taught me about climate crisis fiction.

Episode 4: Molly Gartland My second Molly G spoke to me about writing a novel inspired by a painting and later meeting her muse!

Episode 5: Barbara Conrey Barbara let me know that there’s a town named Intercourse in Pennsylvania…

Episode 6: Greer Macallister Biographical or totally fictional? Greer and I spoke about the latest #histfic trends.

Episode 7: A.H. Kim A.H. Kim and I talked about our (shared) literary agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, and Asian American fiction.

Episode 8: Carrie Callaghan Carrie and I debated just why writers love cats so much. (We’re both fully on board.)

Episode 9: Cate Simon/Catherine Siemann Cate/Catherine and I spoke about the most popular historical sub-genres—historical romance and historical mystery.

Episode 10: Lyn Liao Butler Lyn and I chatted about everything from astrology to #PitchWars.

Episode 11: Sarah Archer Sarah’s background is in screenwriting, so we spoke about writing novels vs. writing for TV.

Episode 12: Rowan Coleman/Bella Ellis Rowan/Bella and I just won’t shut up about the Bronte sisters, of course!

Episode 13: Martha Waters Martha and I talked about romance, librarians, and romances featuring librarians…

Episode 14: Alison Hammer Alison and I both have day jobs in advertising—we drew parallels between our writing and non-writing careers.

Episode 15: Natalie Jenner Jane Austen was up for discussion again, as Natalie and I talked about being inspired by the greats.

Episode 16: Michael Stewart Michael and I share a love of the Brontes AND flagrant trespassing in the name of writing research, something he decided to show, not tell, in the midst of our interview…

Episode 17: Susanne Dunlap My episode with Susanne focused on audio, from music to podcasting.

Episode 18: Ellen Birkett Morris Ellen and I geeked out on writing craft. It was great.

Episode 19: Sarah McCraw Crow Sarah and I spoke about sexism and rejection, but still managed to have a lot of fun!

Episode 20: Lainey Cameron What is women’s fiction anyway? Lainey and I debated this industry term.

Episode 21: Linda Rosen Linda and I talked about querying and large vs. small press publishing.

Episode 22: Elizabeth Blackwell Like A.H. Kim, Elizabeth is another “agency sister.” We spoke about how we signed with our agent, as well as MBTI, and the time she interviewed George R.R. Martin (??).

Episode 23: Janie Chang Janie’s family history is MUCH more interesting than mine, so we talked about finding inspiration in genealogy, as well as cats (again)…

Episode 24: Steph Mullin and Nicole Mabry How do you write with another person?! I have no idea but writing duo Steph and Nicole do. They taught me about the joys and perils of co-writing.

Episode 25: Kris Waldherr What is Gothic fiction?! Kris and I have thoughts.

Episode 26: Amanda Brainerd Amanda and I talked about fax machines, but it was fascinating stuff, I swear.

Episode 27: Eddy Boudel Tan My final guest Eddy talked with me about Book 2, queer protagonists, and travel inspiration.

I’m so grateful to all these writers for taking the time to support my release and share their wisdom. They are an interesting bunch, so watch and listen if you can! If you haven’t read Bronte’s Mistress, consider ordering the paperback, or any other format, from the retailer of your choice. And remember to stay in touch—via Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or by signing up for my monthly email newsletter below.

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