Wednesday 29 September 2010


I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours & my own. Jane Austen, letter to Anna Austen, Wednesday 28th September 1814

Helen Stanley is a gentle heroine. Not as passive as Fanny in Mansfield Park, more like a younger version of Anne in Persuasion. Orphaned as a child and educated beyond her fortune, she is bought up by her kindly but extravagant uncle. After his sudden death she is adopted by Lady Davenant the mother of her best friend, Cecilia.

Cecilia provides a lively contrast to Helen. Spirited, confident and an incurable liar, she charms the reader and exploits Helen's naivety. Helen believes Cecilia's blatant lie that the man she loves is engaged and when Cecilia suggests that, as best friends, they always dress alike she orders jewellery way beyond her income. Of course, Cecilia's lies lead to her downfall and the plot races along to a most satisfying end which I'm not going to spoil.

Maria Edgeworth is an astute writer, politically engaged and some of her waspish lines could be lifted straight from an Austen novel:

Helen was too pretty to be invited to stay at a house where there are marriageable daughters.

She is different to Austen, too. About half way through I realised that Helen is not a love story but an exploration of female relationships. I've ordered Edgeworth's Belinda and I'm tempted to re-read Persuasion that most autumnal of Austen's novels.

Saturday 18 September 2010

What Jane Read

At last, I've embarked upon a reading project I've been planning for a long time. I want to read the women writers who inspired Jane Austen and I'm starting off with Maria Edgeworth's Helen after it caught my eye in a bookshop recently.

I should say that Austen couldn't possibly have read Helen because it was published after her death, but she certainly read Edgeworth and Belinda is one of the novels Austen refers to in her famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey.

Helen is a 500 page novel and it has taken me a while to settle into the rhythm and pace of it but Edgeworth is a very fine writer with an acute observation of human nature and I just can't put it down.

Friday 10 September 2010

Women in Africa

I sat beside my mother, only a little less fortified in a pith helmet and a starched cotton dress.
Out of Africa has been haunting me since I read it and LizF's comment about The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley inspired me to seek it out. Happily this coincided with a visit to the lovely big Waterstones in Brighton which had a copy on the shelves.

Elspeth Huxley's account of a childhood in Kenya is lively and extremely well-written. I loved the dry wit of her father Robin and her fearless mother, Tilly. There was also the aristocratic Lettice, completely out of place in Africa with her two spoilt Pekingese dogs Chang and Zena who sit on silk cushions all day until poor Chang meets his demise when a hungry leopard snatches him from the veranda.

Published in 1959 The Flame Trees of Thika documents Elspeth's experiences as a British child growing up in Africa and the hardships her parents faced as settlers as well as their remarkable resilience and optimism.