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Category Archive for 'England'

On May 5, 1840, Lord William Russell, a quiet, elderly member of the aristocracy, was found in the bedroom of his unpretentious London townhouse with his throat slit so severely that his head was almost detached. Other wounds to his chest were equally horrifying. The shock of the murder reverberated throughout the city, especially among the upper classes, who well knew his prominent family and that of his deceased wife. This was a period of social change, and London was “teeming with immigrants, the unemployed, and a burgeoning working class who were more literate and organized than ever before.” The winter of 1839 had been one of “mass rallies by Chartists demanding universal suffrage,” and in some places had turned into bloody riots. Over two hundred Chartists had been convicted of high treason for their actions and were transported out of the country. Several fiction writers of the period came under fire for “writing fictions that glamorized vice and made heroes of criminals.” Popular books now were seen by some as “pandering to the lowest…full of violent excitements and vulgarity that could all too easily lead susceptible readers astray,” and a whole genre of “Newgate books,” for the masses, evolved. Claire Harman’s careful research and her eye for telling details, even as she focuses on the broad theme of murder in 1840 and the controversy over whether that is an appropriate subject of fiction, make this an absorbing study. She draws in the reader with her selection of facts and her elucidation of the goals of literature as seen by famed authors of the day, making them almost as compelling as the gruesome realities of real murder.

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From the sensual and fully imagined opening paragraphs of this extraordinary work to the intensely personal characterizations of the people who share their stories here, Irish author Joseph O’Connor creates worlds so vibrant that many readers will feel as if they, too, have become part of this novel, its period, and its subjects. O’Connor does not hold back here, creating three artists of the literary and theatrical worlds of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose very lives reflect the Gothic intensity of the age with all its private hopes and failures. Henry Irving, world famous actor; Bram Stoker, theatre manager and frustrated writer; and Ellen Terry, highest paid and most beloved actress in England, all speak to the reader so intimately that their often difficult lives, with all the aches and longings one usually holds inside, begin to emerge in what feel like “private” confidences between the characters and the reader. Sharing the characters’ lives from their early adulthood until, in two cases, their deaths when they are in their sixties, the author allows the reader to share even their self-judgments and their judgments of each other when their public lives are at an end, which gives a broader perspective to their stories. Superb.

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Sonia Purnell’s biography of Virginia Hall honors an American woman whose war-time exploits from 1940 – 1945 were so well planned, so well executed, and so successful in saving lives that she was honored by three countries for her efforts. Born into an upper middle-class family in Baltimore, Virginia Hall graduated from private schools, a highly popular student there for her unconventional attitudes and her leadership capabilities. Always independent, she attended both Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges, then continued her education in Europe, where she also worked in several consulates. She was fluent in five languages. With the German takeover of France and the establishment of the Vichy government, she connected with the newly established British Special Operations Executive there, and in April 1941, she started preparing for her first secret mission in France in an attempt to overthrow the Vichy government and the Nazis. Insistent on maintaining absolute secrecy and taking no other agent for granted, she was able to slip through the traps that often nabbed other SOE agents less meticulous in their behavior. Highly successful, she performed heroically, eventually working for the American OSS. Almost unknown by the American public during her lifetime, she is celebrated here in a meticulously researched book by Sonia Purnell which is both momentous and inspiring to the reader – a true story of heroism for the ages.

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Although much-loved author Jane Austen is a dominating force throughout this biographical novel by Gill Hornby, most of the action here revolves around Jane’s older sister Cassandra. Closer to Jane than any other family member or friend, Cassandra is privy to every aspect of Jane’s life, living with her and sharing most of her life, including Jane’s final illness when Jane is forty-one. Having previously written The Story of Jane Austen, a biography for young readers, Hornby has obviously “lived with” Jane Austen so intimately, over the years, that readers of this novel may be surprised to learn that the revelatory letters here, purportedly written by Jane Austen or her family, were, in fact, written by author Gill Hornby herself. Through them, she provides insights into the lives of both Cassandra and Jane, and her vibrant details of everyday life bring the society of the era to life. More importantly, however, the author recreates some of the psychological issues with which these women have to contend whenever fate unexpectedly changes their social positions through death, loss of home, or loss of income. By highlighting these issues within fictional letters, Gill Hornby offers insights into social conflicts faced by women and makes them understandable to modern readers – no matter how much the reader might regret some of the actions these characters take to resolve their problems. A lively read, Miss Austen is a significant addition to the world of Jane and Cass Austen and all the mysteries still associated with them.

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Author Anne Enright, the Irish author of this novel about fictional actress Katherine O’Dell, recreates the “life” that Katherine led publicly as opposed the “real” life she is said to have kept hidden. Enright, a superbly controlled author, faced a daunting task in creating the lives of her characters here without resorting to the sensationalism her main character/author Norah scorns. Throughout her career, Enright has specialized in showing the values and attitudes at play within complex but intimate family dynamics, varying her points of view and time frames to allow the reader to draw conclusions about one character because of events which reflect the lives of other characters in other generations and times. She is often so subtle that readers become lulled into sharing the lives of her characters before they have a chance to evaluate who and what the characters are doing and saying and what this means about life and their attitudes toward it. In Actress, Anne Enright is especially concerned with the fictions people create for their own reasons, including fame. Three generations, reflecting different times and points of view, make this novel a complex study of how people often recreate their own memories to make them more palatable, while drawing conclusions, often false, about the realities of other people

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