Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mr. Darcy's Dream

Jane Austen's novels aren't the fluffy rom-com forerunners they appear to be.  Austen was a witty writer who satirized social climbers, pricked the egos of the self-important, and saw courtship among the gentry as a cutthroat competition for the best merger of financial resources.  Elizabeth Ashton isn't Jane Austen and her Darcy novels are unashamedly frivolous.

Mr. Darcy's Dream is the sixth book in the series, and the heroine this time is Georgiana Darcy's daughter Phoebe Hawkins.  Phoebe is about to start her second London season when she receives an offer of marriage from Arthur Stanhope, scion of a prominent Whig family.  Her father, Sir Giles, refuses to permit the marriage, so to prevent a scandal Georgiana plants rumors of Phoebe's ill health and sends her to Pemberly.  Louisa Bingley, still single after three seasons, decides to join her and the two young women spend a pleasant few months at Pemberly planning a ball, dealing with a Catherine de Bourgh-like relative, and making social calls.  No one should be surprised that Mr. Stanhope decides to visit his sister near Pemberly, nor that Louisa Bingley falls in love with Mr. Drummond, the attorney hired to oversee renovations to  Pemberly, or that there's a happy ending featuring two engagements.  A subplot involving a French governess and the series' usual villain doesn't quite work but it doesn't distract from the main purpose of the book, which is to keep the hero and heroine apart until the final chapter.  Mr. Darcy's Dream is an ideal book to read on a tropic beach (which is where I read The True Darcy Spirit), but it also makes a fair distraction from a snow-hindered SEPTA commute.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Great Mortality

I don't think I'm particularly morbid, but I enjoy reading good books about disease and death.  John Kelly's The Great Mortality focuses on a fascinating subject, but ultimately the book's disjointed narrative leaves it below the bar set by John Barry's The Great Influenza.

Kelly starts with a history of both the plague and of the trading routes along which it spread and I enjoyed the first few chapters.  When he began to follow the plague from country to country, though, the book became less interesting.  At points, Kelly bogged down in the minutia of probating wills where the inheritors had all died, and then he abruptly moves to another part of the country or to a new country altogether.  While it must be difficult to reconstruct an epidemic among a largely illiterate population seven centuries after the fact, I think one more pass by a good editor would have improved the flow of the book.  

I was also a bit put off by Kelly's attitude in a few places.  Kelly used a somewhat clinical tone to describe the history of the plague bacillus and its spread from Asia into Europe and through Germany and France.  His description of the Italian and English reactions to the disease, however, made me think of E.M. Forster's civilized, rational English and primitive, emotional Italians and it felt rather condescending.  Still, I'd read more of Kelly's work, especially if he were to expand on his final chapter on plague deniers, modern-day scholars who claim that the Black Death was not actually plague but some other illness.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles

Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin was rich, headstrong, and less memorable than Emma Woodhouse.  Susan Nagel's biography of the Countess, Mistress of the Elgin Marbles tries to compare her to an Austen heroine, but Mary never seems to come alive.  One of the greatest heiresses in Regency Scotland, she married the sickly Lord Elgin (who lost his nose to treatment for what may or may not have been syphilis), followed him on his diplomatic journeys, and earned a reputation as a captivating hostess and author of charming letters.  On their return journey, Lord Elgin was imprisoned by the Revolutionary French government and while Mary negotiated his release, she fell in love with his best friend and was eventually sued for divorce.

While reading Nagel's book, I thought of Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the life of Mary Worley Montagu.  Perhaps Nagel is not as talented a writer as Foreman, but I think the problem lies with the subject.  Mary Nisbet just doesn't seem to have been a particularly interesting person.  Yes, she was witty and involved in a scandal, but she was not actively involved in politics like Georgiana Spencer and her letters were not published and read after her death like Mary Worley Montague.  Even her role as the Mistress of the Elgin Marbles seems inflated.  Nagel briefly discusses the Elgin Marbles and it appears that Mary's only contribution was financial.  Ultimately, the book is as forgettable as its subject.