Review 1811: The Blue Sapphire

Julia Harburn is sitting on a bench in Kensington Gardens waiting for her fiancé when a young man sits down beside her and tells her he is on a business trip from South Africa and doesn’t know anyone in London. He is perfectly polite and friendly, but when the fiancé, Morland Beverley, arrives, Julia can tell Morland isn’t pleased.

Julia is taken aback, then, when she comes home one day to find the man, Stephen Brett, having tea with her stepmother. But this isn’t a tale of a stalker—it’s the story of how Julia finds herself.

Julia was close to her mother, who died when she was younger. She has never felt that her father paid attention to her. In fact, he’s always been quiet and depressed. Since he remarried, she has felt in the way, and her stepmother encourages her to move out and find a job. Julia finally finds a room with an eccentric but friendly landlady, who gets her a job in a hat shop. Morland isn’t very happy with her decision, but he has been delaying their wedding until he gets a partnership in his father’s firm, and anyway he is in Scotland golfing.

Julia’s parents are away in Greece when she gets a letter from Scotland from an uncle she didn’t know she had—her father’s brother. He says he is ill and wants to see her, so she goes, even though Morland is very much against her doing so. Thus begins an even greater adventure for her.

This novel is just what you expect from D. E. Stevenson: a heroine who didn’t know she had it in her, some light romance, some self-discovery, and some entertaining characters. Even though I could foresee the result of the romantic angle from the first pages, it didn’t make reading any less enjoyable.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1782: The Toll-Gate

I was rereading some Georgette Heyer novels last winter as I replaced some of my ratty old 70’s copies, and I remembered The Toll-Gate as one of my least favorite of her romances. I was confused, however, for the novel was amusing and had a fun adventure plot.

Back the second time from the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Jack Staple has been intending to settle down. His mother and sister have accordingly presented a string of attractive, eligible girls, but Jack hasn’t been interested. He says he doesn’t want to get married until he receives “a leveller.”

On going to visit a friend, he loses his way and comes to a toll-gate that is manned at night by a terrified young boy. The boy tells Jack that his father told him to mind the toll-gate for an hour, and he hasn’t been back. The boy is terrified of a man his father sometimes meets during the night. Jack decides to stay with the boy until his father returns. Then the next morning, he receives his leveller, in the person of Nell Stornaway.

This novel is just delightful, and I don’t understand how I misremembered it so badly.

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Review 1744: Regency Buck

On her way to London with her brother Peregrine, Judith Taverner mistakenly stops in a town hosting a prize fight and has an unfortunate encounter with a man in a curricle. When the siblings reach town and call on their guardian, Lord Worth, they find that he is the man in the curricle. Their father mistakenly designated their guardian as the fifth Earl instead of his friend, the fourth, who has died.

Judith is headstrong and determined to make a splash in London society. Although Lord Worth gives them assistance with suggestions and introductions, he and Judith continue to clash. Judith’s cousin Bernard Taverner warns her that Lord Worth may have designs on her fortune, which is large enough in itself but even larger if something happens to her brother Perry. Then Perry is first challenged to a duel and later his carriage is attacked. Judith and Worth are getting along better, but does someone have designs against Perry?

Most of Heyer’s Regency romances tend to either be funny or have an element of mystery (although they all have amusing dialogue). Regency Buck is one of the latter, with an engaging heroine, a mysterious plot, and as usual, perfect period detail.

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Review 1719: The Nonesuch

Often when I am in the middle of some hefty nonfiction book, I take a break by reading some sort of light fiction. I was reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson when I thought I hadn’t read any Georgette Heyer lately, so I picked The Nonesuch out of my library.

The inhabitants of the village of Oversett are all interested when they hear that Sir Waldo Hawkridge, known as the Nonesuch, has inherited Broom Hall from the miserly Joseph Calver and will be arriving to look it over. The young men are excited to see this notable whip. Up at Staples, kindly Mrs. Underhill is dismayed to learn that Sir Waldo has arrived with a lord, his young cousin Lord Lindeth, for her unprincipled but beautiful ward, Tiffany Wield, has announced that she means to marry into the nobility. Tiffany’s governess/companion, Ancilla Trent, remarks with her customary humor and calmness that they will just have to convince Tiffany she is wasted on anyone under a Marquess.

Lord Lindeth meets Tiffany after she carefully arranges an encounter while he is out fishing. When Waldo sees her and her affect on Lindeth, he is dismayed. However, he is much struck by Ancilla. It is Ancilla who does not have a high opinion of Corinthians, the set to which Waldo belongs.

As usual with Heyer, this novel is full of likeable characters, humor, and an engaging hero and heroine. I tend to like Heyer’s sillier plots best, because they are so funny. This is not one of them, but I enjoyed it very much just the same. A perfect Covid-era lightener. (I re-read it last January.)

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Review 1651: Three Weeks

I realized earlier this month that the deadline I set myself for finishing my Classics Club list is coming up this summer, with about a dozen books left. I’ve been reading lots of classic novels, just not necessarily the ones on my list. I have also read many of the ones on my list but just haven’t posted my reviews yet. So, I decided I was going to have to accelerate my schedule of reviewing and reading them in hopes of getting all my reviews posted on time. Here is one of them.

Elinor Glyn was a romance novelist at the turn of the 20th century whose works were considered scandalous at the time. Three Weeks is the story of a young English man who has an affair with an older Russian queen.

Naïve young Paul Verdayne fancies he is in love with the parson’s daughter, so his mother ships him off for a tour of the continent. He is young and sulky and hates Paris but, being a sportsman, enjoys Switzerland. While in Geneva, he becomes fascinated with a striking woman who is traveling only with her servants.

This mysterious woman, about ten years older than Paul, takes him in hand and begins opening his mind to art and ideas. Soon, they begin a torrid affair. But this affair must remain secret, because there is danger.

First, I found it difficult to buy that this sophisticated, cultured woman would fall madly in love with a gauche, uncultured young man whose only interest is his dog and horses and whose only attraction is his good looks.

Next, Glyn’s writing is florid and overwrought. It is often cloying and downright silly. The style resembles that of writers from the Romantic movement, which was well over by the time Glyn was writing. I have an idea that Glyn may be the type of writer Forster was mocking in A Room with a View.

Finally, the idea that Paul could become informed and educated just by spending three weeks with his mistress is ridiculous. The novel doesn’t say that he is interested in being more informed but that he comes back from his experience poised and culturally literate, enough so as to impress people with his elegance. Right.

In short, this is a really silly book.

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Review 1512: Classics Club Spin! Challenge

I’ve been hearing about Vita Sackville-West for years, so when I made up my latest Classics Club list, I chose this book from a list of Virago titles. It was then chosen for me in the lastest Spin.

Challenge is the fictionalized story of Sackville-West’s affair with Violet Trefusis, which she disguised in the book by turning it into a heterosexual love affair. She wrote the novel as a romantic adventure, and apparently Trefusis sat with her to make sure it was accurate (which doesn’t surprise me, having read the book).

This history is interesting, but I have to say, this is one silly book. First of all, the adventure plot is just plain ridiculous. During a time when the island of Crete is an independent state, it rules an archipelago of islands whose inhabitants want to be independent of it. They are of Italian descent and have been mistreated by the Greek government in Herakleion. (I’m spelling it the way Sackville-West does.) Julian Devanant, whose wealthy family owns property on the islands, returns from England at 19 to have the islanders turn to him for help. Yeah, right. He promises his help but does exactly nothing except go back to England on his father’s command. Two years later, he returns and gets actively involved in rebellion.

That’s the adventure part. An introduction to my version of the novel states that modern readers will probably be more interested in the romance, but I found it unconvincing. Julian has a long-standing friendship with his cousin Eve, but when he returns from England the second time, he notices she has become very seductive and toys with the affections of men. She is hidng the secret that she is madly in love with Julian by pretending indifference.

That may make sense, but I felt that everything about Eve, as well about other parts of the novel, was murky. By this, I mean that many assertions are made about how special Eve is, how intelligent, and so on, but the novel doesn’t actually show any of these qualities, or contain, for example, any conversations showing her intelligence. An awful lot of this novel takes place out of sight. For example, the first scene where Julian goes in to see Eve, he just goes in. Their reunion is left out. When you finally meet Eve, she seems selfish and uncaring as well as possibly bipolar, she changes so quickly from one extreme to another. (Of course, she’s also described as selfish and uncaring, so what’s to love?) She is described as mature and then acts immaturely. Then, as Julian’s lover, she is insanely unreasonable and sees his involvement in the rebellion as just something that takes his attention away from her. There is really nothing except her looks to make anyone love her.

Similarly, Julian gets involved with the islanders without even seeming to understand their difficulties, and the difficulties are never really explained. He is tutored about the situation by a priest named Paul and by Kato, a famous singer. But we never hear any of these conversations, we just hear that he is tutored. In addition, most of the action at the end of the novel takes place off stage. I personally have a problem in fiction that makes statements about things without showing or explaining them. The author comes off as someone who either hasn’t fully imagined these things or cannot.

Sackville-West is a good writer, and her descriptions are very good, but there is too much in this novel that is just stated, leaving me feeling that Sackville-West herself didn’t feel up to either fully examining the political situation or really conveying what her lover was like.

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Review 1420: The Talisman Ring

Having greatly enjoyed a play based on The Talisman Ring, I thought it was about time I reread the original. So, I pulled out my old, tattered paperback copy (copyrighted 1964) and read it again.

Sylvester Lavenham is dying and wishes to assure that his granddaughter is taken care of. So, he proposes a marriage to his nephew, Sir Tristram Shield. The granddaughter, Eustacie de Vauban, is young, French, and volatile. She agrees to marry Sir Tristram, but having romantic tendencies, she is taken aback by his matter-of-face nature. Changing her mind, she decides to steal away at dead of night to London with the aim of becoming a governess.

Unfortunately, she is taken by smugglers who are trying to escape some excisemen. To her delight, she finds that the leader is her cousin Ludovic Lavenham, famously wanted for murdering a man who refused to return his talisman ring, which he pledged while gaming. During their escape, Ludovic is shot, and Eustacie takes him to a local inn for help.

Here’s the poster from the play.

Of course, Ludovic is not guilty of murder and several characters join forces to prove his innocence. But if you think Ludovic and Eustacie are the romantic lead characters of this novel, you don’t know Heyer. For at the inn, they encounter Sarah Thane, an older young woman with a quick sense of humor.

The Talisman Ring is a typical Heyer romantic comedy, with a complicated, ridiculous plot, one brave but foolhardy hero, a vivacious heroine, and a likable older couple to anchor the romance. It’s lots of fun, as Heyer’s novels usually are.

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Review 1341: The 1965 Club! Frederica

Cover for FredericaThe Marquis of Alverstoke is known for his elegance, athletic skill, and selfishness. He never does anything that causes the least inconvenience for himself. So, when his sister, Lady Buxted, tries to persuade him to give a coming out ball for her daughter Jane, he does not hesitate to refuse. Mrs. Dauntry, his heir’s mother, hears a rumor about the ball and asks Alverstoke to include her daughter Chloë.

Then Miss Merriville comes to call. Frederica Merriville is a distant connection of Alverstoke’s who has come to London hoping to introduce her beautiful sister, Charis, to society with the object of making her a comfortable marriage. Since she has no acquaintance in London, she hopes Alverstoke can help her.

Alverstoke has little interest in helping Frederica until he sees Charis. Then he decides to throw a ball for Jane and Chloë out of maliciousness toward his sister, making it a condition that Lady Buxted sponsor Frederica and Charis. He knows that she will be furious when she meets the beautiful Charis.

Soon, Alverstoke finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the active Merriville family, which includes two younger boys—Jessamy, a serious sixteen-year-old, and Freddy, a scamp at twelve. After a few weeks and several scrapes, Alverstoke realizes he hasn’t been bored in ages.

Frederica is one of the delightful novels by Georgette Heyer, a writer full of wit and a recognized expert in the period. As is frequently the case with Heyer, I found it funny and touching with a cast of amusing and likable characters.

This was a book I read for the 1965 Club. Here are some previous reviews that also qualify for the club:

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Review 1338: Eligible

Cover for EligibleSo far, the Austen Project, for which current writers rework Jane Austen’s novels within a modern framework, hasn’t worked for me. I have a theory that the readers who like them are reading mostly for plot, whereas I read Austen for her quick but subtle wit and her precision. Let’s face it, although humor is always in style, these days subtlety is not. Still, I thought I’d give Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s reworking of Pride and Prejudice, a try.

Obviously, some of the dilemmas in the original novel are just not workable in today’s society, a problem that foundered Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility. Sittenfeld is wise enough to realize this and has made significant changes to the characters and plot.

Liz Bennett is a magazine writer who lives in New York. She and her sister, Jane, a yoga instructor, have returned to their home town, Cincinnati, to help out after Mr. Bennett’s heart attack. Their help is needed even though their three younger sisters, suffering from failure to launch, are still living at home, because they are doing nothing. Mrs. Bennett, a social climber, is too involved in running a charitable event to take her husband to his doctor’s appointments.

Jane is pushing forty, so she started in vitro fertilization before returning home. Then she meets Chip Bingley at a charity event. Jane and Chip immediately become involved, but Liz has formed a negative impression of Chip’s friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, because of remarks she overhears at a party.

Liz has been involved for years with Jasper, a man she fell in love with in her early 20’s. Jasper claims he has an open marriage, and he has been seeing Liz on the side. When Jasper hears Liz has met Darcy, he hints at some misbehavior of Darcy’s when the two attended Stanford together.

Of the Austen Project novels I’ve read, this is the most successful rewrite, but the bar is fairly low. Although the dialogue is humorous, it’s not the sparkling dialogue of the original. Kitty and Lydia, for example, are almost unbelievably vulgar and poorly behaved. It’s also hard for me to believe that these days a mother would be pushing marriage after Jane and Chip have only had a few dates.

I was fairly well entertained, though, until the emphasis went to the Eligible reality show. Although I’m sure Sittenfeld had fun with her parody, that’s where I felt the novel lost steam.

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Review 1324: All Done by Kindness

Cover for All Done by KindnessMy friend Deb recommended that I read All Done by Kindness based on a post she read by Furrowed Middlebrow. Such is the power of the web, though, that by the time I looked for it, the few copies available were expensive. I had to borrow hers.

Caper books and movies were popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, and All Done by Kindness fits the description, telling the story of a crime committed with worthy motives, a light-hearted caper with a dash of romance. It begins with a visit by Dr. Sandilands to an elderly patient, Mrs. Hovenden. Mrs. Hovenden’s family has been wealthy, but since the war, Mrs. Hovenden has fallen into hard times. She tells the doctor she is badly in debt for the first time in her life.

Dr. Sandilands offers to lend her the money, even though he can hardly afford it, but Mrs. Hovenden is too proud to take it. Instead, she offers to sell him some boxes of clothes and linen from her attic, including a box of pictures. When the Sandilands family opens the boxes, the results provide Beatrix Sandilands, the doctor’s sharp-tongued daughter, with a great deal to say, for everything is either worthless to begin with or is mouldering away. About the pictures, however, daughter Linda suggests that they consult her knowledgeable fellow librarian, Stephanie du Plessis.

Stephanie thinks that the paintings might be quite valuable, even Old Masters. She does some research that indicates they may have been removed from an Italian villa. Beatrix thinks they are worthless and wants them out of her house. Finally, the family agrees to consult Sir Harry Maximer, an art expert who has the reputation for integrity.

Here, the plot thickens, for Sir Harry recognizes the paintings as Old Masters, but he tells Dr. Sandilands they are only good copies. Why? Because he intends to have them in his own collection.

This is a charming little novel, a delightful book for when you want to read something light.

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