Book Review: Peril’s Gate by Janny Wurts

Peril's Gate (Wars of Light & Shadow #6; Arc 3 - Alliance of Light, #3)Peril’s Gate by Janny Wurts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m speechless and breathless (and have been for several weeks) after finishing this penultimate tipping-point volume in Janny Wurts’ Wars of Light and Shadow series. Even taking a break and reading a half dozen other books hasn’t allowed me to express the emotions that wracked me or the wonders assuaging them. Not since reading Janny’s To Ride Hell’s Chasm has a book’s pacing been so unrelenting and rewarding. And to think she wrote that novel after Peril’s Gate to step back from writing this series!

I highly recommend this book, but also strongly suggest you not start with this novel. Begin at the beginning, with Curse of the Mistwraith and immerse yourself in all things Atheran.

Please see Stefan’s outstanding review of Peril’s Gate for a concise synopsis and insightful comments.

View all my reviews

Mixed Media Meltdown

I’ve been following a debate which crops up quite frequently in reading circles:  Why can’t I resell my ebook?  Both readers and authors have joined in the discussion threads at these GoodReads SciFi & Fantasy Book Club topics:  e-Book Piracy and   Do you care if you own a work?

One of the best links posted happened to refer to Scalzi’s Whatever blog post a year ago entitled Why in Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon: A Deeply Slanted Play in Three Acts.  Well worth the time and will definitely have you smiling, if not laughing out loud before you reach the stunning conclusion.

All of this got me thinking about the media used over the centuries to store our content.

Pictograms, Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Pictograms, Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Cuneiform script by an expert scribe, 26th century BC

Cuneiform script by an expert scribe 26th century BC


Printing press from 1811
Printing press from 1811

Edison Home Phonograph, Suitcase-Modell

Edison Home Phonograph, Suitcase-Model

19th century studio camera, with bellows for focusing

19th century studio camera, with bellows for focusing
"Super 8" 8 mm films
"Super 8" 8 mm films
A typical LP, showing its center label
A typical LP, showing its center label
Philips Cassetten-Recorder EL 3302 (1968)
Philips Cassetten-Recorder EL 3302 (1968)
Size comparison between a Betamax cassette (top) and a VHS cassette (bottom).
Beta v. VHS
Floppy Drives
Floppy Drives
The readable surface of a Compact Disc includes a spiral track wound tightly enough to cause light to diffract into a full visible spectrum
Readable surface of a Compact Disc
Six hard disk drives with cases opened showing platters and heads; 8, 5.25, 3.5, 2.5, 1.8 and 1 inch disk diameters are represented.
Six hard disk drives with cases opened showing platters and heads; 8, 5.25, 3.5, 2.5, 1.8 and 1 inch disk diameters are represented.
Cloud Computing
Cloud Computing

Out of all of the media types (and obviously many that I’ve left out like the ever popular 8-track tape), which ones can you read without the benefit of proprietary equipment or electricity?

Imagine yourself a visitor to Earth in the far future, to an Earth either abandoned (because we migrated to other planets or galaxies by discovering FTL) or lifeless (because we didn’t see the writing on the wall and continued our parasitic existence to extinction).   What format has the best chance of being understood and surviving to be reviewed?  In our mad dash to digitize everything, for convenience and experience, what do we leave for posterity?

I have boxes of albums from the 70s and 80s in my basement I can no longer listen to because I don’t own a turntable.  I even have a few 8-tracks and Beta tapes holding content hostage.  I have crates of recorded VHS tapes of movies, television shows and family gatherings, which I could possibly view, if my ancient VCR still functions and the magnetic tape hasn’t degraded or been demagnetized.   I have a project back-burnered for the moment to review several thousand slides taken by my father, his brother, his father and my aunt in the hopes of converting them to a digital photograph format.

I fear there will be no Rosetta Stone to help our alien visitors nor a still functioning DVD reader or Internet to Google the translation.  Our binary epitaph of bits and bytes may languish forever locked in silence and darkness while the humble book shines forth as a beacon of historical hope.

Singing, Snowing, Zinging, Knowing

My least favorite forecast includes ‘wintry mix’ concatenated with ‘winter storm warning’ culminating in excruciating commute times.  My vanpool dodged that bullet (barely) on the return trip home last night, for which I am very grateful.  It allowed me to watch and listen to my daughter’s first concert of the year, as a member of the Chamber Choir at the UNT College of Music.   While she is also a member of the Collegium Singers, she enjoys the challenge of increasing her repertoire in those two choirs and in her vocal performance studies individually as well.  Musicology is her primary focus as an undergraduate for the next year or so.   Living eight or ten hours north (by automobile) from her concerts would be torture if it weren’t for the appeasement offered by the College’s live streaming of most of the concerts.

Even though the concert only lasted thirty minutes, Terry and I enjoyed hearing Rachelle’s voice across the aether of cyberspace.

Immediately prior to the concert, while I shook off the last dregs of the work day, Terry tried a new recipe for stuffed tomatoes, which we barely got in the oven before the singing started.  Twenty minutes later we sampled his latest savory culinary comeuppance.  Delicious!

We opened the front door to near white out conditions.  We couldn’t see across our court to the houses on the opposite side.  Thick snow blanketed the steps and driveway, even though just ninety minutes prior there had been less than a half inch of icy, slushy, sleety mess.  We promptly closed the door and return to our regularly scheduled DVR programming.

Snow Accumulation in just 90 minutes Thursday evening
Snow Accumulation in just 90 minutes Thursday evening

Due to some systems maintenance performed overnight, I overslept by thirty minutes, awaking at 5:30 a.m.  Barely stopping to slap on some socks, I jammed on my boots, grabbed my coat and gloves and opened the garage door to an even thicker blanket of snow.  And while it looked fluffy and airy, it proved to be heavy and wet.  I began to doubt my ability to shovel just half the driveway to the street in the thirty minutes before I needed to dress for work.  My white knight came to my rescue and helped vanquish the snow dragon.   He even volunteered to do the steps while I finished my morning ablutions.

Terry drove me the two miles north to the Hallmark plant in Leavenworth so I could catch my ride to work.  As we were passing by the IHOP in Lansing, I commented that we should have had breakfast when I was awake between two and four o’clock earlier this morning.  Being such a considerate husband, he drove in a circle around the van chanting ‘na na’ at me because he planned to stop at said restaurant for breakfast on the return trip home.  True to his taunting, we saw him parked front and center at the IHOP as we headed south on K-7/US-73 (aka as Main Street in Lansing).

Our commute to Kansas City’s Midtown and Plaza regions remained uneventful, if a bit slow.  We observed several cars languishing in the medians and ditches, but we deigned to join them.  And for once, I made it to work when some of my team members decided to turn around a go home due to the icy road conditions in their part of the metro area.

Finally, and in closing, in perusing the blogs I follow as part of my morning tea sipping ritual, Modesitt posted a rebuttal to his previous blog (from earlier this week).  The earlier post, entitled ‘The Problem of Truth/Proof” generated several comments (a couple of which were mine), which then spurred Mr. Modesitt’s posting this morning, entitled “True” Knowledge is Not an Enemy of Faith.  I will monitor this blog throughout the day to follow the next wave of comments, but will probably refrain from commenting myself.

May you all have a restful and peaceful weekend!

Midweek Mull

Perhaps I’m in a funk because at least one of the four books I’m currently reading is a dystopian classic by Sinclair Lewis entitled It Can’t Happen Here (1936), part of my journey into various warped zones.   Perhaps it’s just hormonal, pre-menopausal doldrums.  Not enough fruit, vegetables and exercise?

I did purchase a new battery for my pedometer, hoping the predicted snow for later this week leaves only a dusting so I and my Rotts can get back in shape.  We could all benefit from a brisk walk and fresh air to invigorate our outlook on life.

My outlook dimmed after reading L.E. Modesitt’s recent blog post about the problem of proving truth.  I attempted to comment, probably not very eloquently, nor diplomatically, but again, my fug lens needs cleansing.

I do have my daughter’s first concert of the spring semester to look forward to tomorrow evening.  One of the choirs she’s a member of (Chamber Choir) performs a short concert at 6:30 pm, streamed live over the Internet.  She’s listed in the program under the Altos as Rachelle Moss, mostly because the color of her voice lands her in that section nine times out of ten.  I do miss hearing her rehearsing at home.

I’ll get little rest, peace or quite tonight (so I might as well walk the dogs) since it’s practice night for my husband’s rock band.  I just wish it wasn’t dark so early, because I could take my camera with me while walking and probably snap a few interesting photos.  I don’t want to start yet another book (on audio via my phone) nor do I want to re-hash all the old MP3s I’ve let languish there.  Guess I’ll just talk to Roxy or Apollo until they howl me silent.

I did finish my third crochet project of the year, but haven’t had a chance to photograph Terry modeling his new scarf.  He did wear it yesterday when he was out and about, but said it was so warm he had to remove it.  At least he won’t be cold the next time we have a frigid blizzard in February.

Today I wish my mom a very Happy Birthday.  Here’s a photo of her from 1965 helping me celebrate my first birthday:

My Mom, me and my cousins in 1965
My Mom, me and my cousins in 1965

Not by Bread Alone

Decadent describes my husband’s first pecan pie.  See for yourself.  You’ll have to take my word on the richness of the flavor though:

Chocolate Pecan Pie
Chocolate Pecan Pie

Terry didn’t provide me with a link to the recipe.  When/if he does, I’ll update this post.

I thought to try a new Italian bread recipe, just for the chance to bake with my Italian bread pan.

I made a mistake, however, in reading the ingredients and used two tablespoons of sugar instead of just two teaspoons.  I may have to try again today. My other modifications to the recipe are listed below in bold:


  • 4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (Kroger’s Organic All-Purpose Flour)
  • 2 tablespoons potato flour, or 1/4 cup dried potato flakes
  • 1/4 cup Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar (my mistake … I used 2 Tablespoons)
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 1/3 cups lukewarm water (1 cup only; I also used 1/2 cup sourdough starter)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil


  • 1 egg white beaten with 1 tablespoon water; or substitute Quick Shine
  • sesame seeds


  1. In a large bowl, stir together all of the dough ingredients till cohesive. Knead the dough for 5 to 8 minutes, until it’s smooth and supple, adding more water or flour as needed.  I used my Kitchenaid mixer with a dough hook.  I let the water, sugar and yeast proof for 5-10 minutes in the bowl while I measured out the other ingredients.
  2. Cover the dough and allow it to rise for 1 hour, or until it’s doubled in bulk.  I let it rise for about 90 minutes (mostly because I was preoccupied watching a movie).
  3. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface and divide it into two pieces. Shape each piece into a smooth 16″ log. Place the logs into the two wells of a lightly greased Italian bread pan, cover, and let the loaves rise until very puffy, about 1 hour.  I love my Italian bread pan (see photo above).
  4. Brush the loaves with the egg wash (or spray them with Quick Shine), then sprinkle heavily with sesame seeds. Bake in a preheated 400°F oven for about 25 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown. For the crispiest crust, turn off the oven, prop the door open, and allow the bread to cool in the oven.  I brushed with an egg-white wash and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds.  I also scored each loaf three times with my razor-sharp lame.  Again, I misread the directions and baked at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.  I spritzed the oven every five minutes with water from a spray bottle to encourage a crispy crust.  I also let the loaves cool in the oven.

We enjoyed some home-made baked Italian sandwiches courtesy Terry’s early life experiences working for his father at the Grinder Man in Wichita, Kansas.  Terry’s dad conceived, owned and operated several Grinder Man sandwich shops in Wichita during the 70s and 80s.  Sadly, only one remains open now.

Sun Set, Moon Rise

I look forward to my Friday evening commutes home.  Especially with the phenomenal weather this week … highs in the 60s and 70s, calm winds, clear or nearly clear skies.  Even though we experienced a blizzard a few days ago, now this!  I began to wish I’d brought my camera with me to work on Friday as we drove westward.  My cell phone can not do justice to the beauty my eye beheld:

I-435 and K-5 looking southwest at 5:00 pm Friday
I-435 and K-5 looking southwest at 5:00 pm Friday

In fact, after taking the photograph above (and sending it via SMS to Facebook and Twitpic), I called my hubby and told him I needed my SLR camera as soon as I got home.  I believed a great sunset was in the making.  True to my word, I rushed in the door, grabbed my SD card from Terry’s computer, snatched up the tripod, transferred the tipod adaptor from my videocamera to my SLR, inserted fresh batteries and raced to the Bonneville with only about ten minutes to spare before the sun touched the western horizon.

My first thought was to find a location, free of tall trees, tall houses and preferably on a hill.  I wound my way through the neighborhood behind my house finally reaching Lost 80 Park on East Mary Street in Lansing, only to discover the gates tightly chained and locked.  I continued east on Mary and took a left at K-5, winding my way past the prison, the Lansing water works and finally reaching Mount Muncie Cemetery with just moments to spare.  The entrance to the cemetery included a circle drive up and to the right of the main entrance, overlooking the small industrial park located behind the old Rusy Eck Ford dealership.  Nothing between me and the western horizon but a couple of small powerlines (in the foreground) and clear air.

I quickly setup the tripod, attached the camera, leaving the zoom lens attached, made some adjustments to it’s setup (AWB set to cloudy, two second shutter delay, shutter priority and manual focus) and began taking a series of shots, experimenting with different shutter speeds (beginning at 1/90th of a second and working my way down over the course of twenty minutes to as low as 1/8th of a second).  This album contains the entire series of forty-six shots.   But the shots below are a couple of my favorites from that series:

Sunset from Mount Muncie Cemetery, Leavenworth, Kansas on Friday, 18 Feb 2011
Sunset from Mount Muncie Cemetery, Leavenworth, Kansas on Friday, 18 Feb 2011
Sunset (northwest) from Mount Munce Cemetary, Leavenworth, Kansas on Friday, 18 Feb 2011
Sunset (northwest) from Mount Munce Cemetary, Leavenworth, Kansas on Friday, 18 Feb 2011

I returned home, even though I would have liked to wait for moon rise, which I knew would occur within an hour or so, since yesterday was a full moon.  But, most cemeteries prefer people to go home after dark, except for the residents of course.

Just as Terry and I began eating some pizza (and while his Chocolate Pecan Pie baked), my father arrived unexpectedly to return a DVD and a couple of portraits I had asked him to digitize for me.  He commented as he came through the front door that the moon and clouds looked spectacular.  As you can imagine, I grabbed the tripod and camera to snap a few more photos, with limited success.  I’ve got more research to do with respect to photographing the full moon.  This was a passable attempt:

Almost Full Moon with Clouds Friday Evening, 18 Feb 2011
Almost Full Moon with Clouds Friday Evening, 18 Feb 2011

I had hoped to awaken early, load up the equipment and journey eastward to Wynandotte County Lake Park to catch a reflective sunrise, but I stayed up to late watching Star Trek VI and overslept.  In way I’m glad I overslept, as I awoke to complete cloud cover and the threat of rain. So, rather than being a shutterbug today, I will crochet, clear off my DVR and maybe read a book or two.

Enjoy your weekend!

My Journey into the Warped Zones

Altered States Adult Winter Reading Program
Altered States Adult Winter Reading Program

Back in mid to late January, I reviewed the suggested reading list for the Altered States reading program promoted by the Kansas City Public Library.  Many familiar titles popped out at me like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and PKD’s The Man in the High Castle.  The more modern (recently published) offerings I’d seen making the rounds of the GoodReads book clubs over the past couple of years, titles like McCarthy’s The Road, Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (currently in a run-off poll at the SciFi & Fantasy Book Club for our March 2011 selection), Priest’s Boneshaker and Moore’s The Watchmen.

With limited reading time, and way too many book clubs to keep up with, I quickly eliminated the two books I’d already read:  Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and Clarke’s Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell (see my GoodReads reviews below).  I visited my local used bookstore twice and found a copy of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  I found a public domain ebook version of London’s The Iron Heel.  I placed a hold on Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and PKD’s The Man in the High Castle.  I’ve read two of those five, and started a third one, with the other two waiting patiently on my shelf at home.

Of the remaining suggested titles, I plan to read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (because I should have a long time ago) and Roberts’ Pavane (because it sounds interesting and more remote from my own times).

I read The Iron Heel and Connecticut Yankee simultaneously, an experience I’m not soon to forget.  I may someday re-read Twain’s novel, but I find myself wishing I’d passed over London’s weak attempt at novelizing a political tract (see my review below and click through to see the comments of other GoodReads readers and reviewers).  The KC Library’s blurb on it just doesn’t do it justice (tongue firmly in cheek):

Considered the first modern dystopian novel, The Iron Heel is presented as the fictional autobiography of American revolutionary Avis Everhard and her struggles against the Oligarchy, a group of robber barons that co-opted the U.S. Army and forced the middle class into serfdom. The narrative is complemented by sometimes extensive footnotes written from the perspective of a future scholar and descendent of the revolution inspired by Everhard. The Iron Heel proved a strong influence on George Orwell as he wrote 1984.

Another comparatively similar novel, but better written, Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here shows a chilling and plausible turn of events in 1930s America.  I’m only a few chapters into it, but I can’t wait to continue reading it.  You can follow along with me via my status updates here and eventually read my review once I finish (all on the same page for easy navigating).

I hope to finish all these novels prior to the end of the Altered States reading program.  Either way, I’ll post an occasional travelogue here as a I journey through the Warped Zone of dystopian, apocalyptic and alternate reality/history fiction.

♦ Π ♦

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1)The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.4 stars

A wonderful thing happened on the way to The Eyre Affair; I read Jane Eyre. For that alone I will be eternally grateful.

Otherwise, it was an enjoyable but forgettable mystery set in a chaotic vortex of genres spanning paranormal, science fiction, alternate history, and time travel. At one point, it even reminded me of Butcher’s Dresden series.

The puns, literary references and alternate history gaffs intrigued me and sparked quick forays of research to confirm or deny my suspicions.

I have the sequel Lost in a Good Book waiting in the wings to see what happens Next.

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel was rich on many levels. It was fantasy, for it had magic and fairies, but it was also historical fiction, possibly even an alternate history of Britain during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. It’s pacing matched that of the times, sedate and thoughtful, rich in detail and characters.

Gilbert Norrell is a miserly magician of Yorkshire who hoards any and all books of magic he can get his hands on. His first act of magic in the novel actually results in the dissolution of a society of theoretical magicians in York for the sole purpose of making himself the only magician in Britain.

Jonathan Strange is an idle gentleman who stumbles upon his talent for magic and like a moth to the flame, flies to Mr. Norrell, the only source of magical information, and becomes his pupil. Their association lasts for several months until Strange surpasses Norrell in inventiveness and intuition and Norrell sends him to assist the army in Spain.

In Spain, Strange eventually becomes indispensable to Lord Wellington, initially by providing magic roads for the British Army to use which disappear back to a morass of mud just in time for the French Army to get bogged down in. Finally, Strange’s magic turns the tide of the Battle of Waterloo and thus ends the reign of Emperor Bounaparte.

Three background characters are pivotal to the story. The first is Emma Wintertowne, who eventually becomes Lady Pole after marrying Sir Walter Pole. But only after she is resurrected by Mr. Norrell with his second and most famous act of magic. But Norrell bargains away half of Emma’s life to the fairy he summoned to ressurect her, a fairy gentleman we know only as “the gentleman with the thistle down hair.” This resurrection reults in the enchantment and imprisonment of Lady Pole in the fairy hall of Lost-hope, doomed to dance and endless balls or participate in pointless processions.

The second supporting character also enchanted by the fairy gentleman is Sir Walter’s butler, a black man named Stephen Black. The fairy took a queer liking and attachment to Stephen and forced him to attend the same balls and processions that Lady Pole suffered. Both Lady Pole and Stephen were returned to the real world each morning, but they both suffered exhaustion and distraction from living a double life, which both were prevented from relating to others of their predicament.

The third enchanted and most tragic figure was Strange’s wife, Arabella. Because Arabella struck up a friendship with the ailing Lady Pole, she came into the sphere of the gentleman with the thistle down hair. He immediately sought to enchant her permanently to the halls of Lost-hope. With Stephen’s reluctant assistance, he was able to pull Arabella into fairy, seemingly causing her to perish to her family and friends.

Strange was nearly mad with grief but was eventually persuaded to take a long holiday on the continent, where he met another English family, the Greysteels. It seemed he was on the path of a second marriage to Flora Greysteel, when he discovered a pathway to fairy, stumbling upon the hall of Lost-hope and learning of the fates of Lady Pole, Stephen and his wife, Arabella. The rest of the novel is Strange’s struggle to free the women. As we learn later, Stephen breaks his own and Arabella’s enchantments when the opportunity presents itself.

Two of the most interesting supporting characters were Mr. Childermass, Mr. Norrell’s strangely independent servant, and Vinculus, a seedy street sorcerer of London, run out of town by Mr. Norrell thanks to the efficient efforts of Mr. Childermass. Both of these characters provide some of the most colorful scenes and plots to the novel.

And in the background, every present in the sky, on the wind or sleeping in the stones, is the Raven King, a mythic being from Britain’s past, a king who reigned in Northern England, in fairy and in Hell. He is vital and instrumental in the return of English magic.

The ending was sad and somewhat tragic, but not unexpected.

If you enjoy historical fiction, especially of the early 19th century, you will enjoy this novel and savor it for many hours, especially curled up by the fire with a warm cup of tea.

The Iron HeelThe Iron Heel by Jack London
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dystopian, or very dated alternate history, which drowned me in Marxism and the evils of capitalism as viewed through the lens of the very early 20th century. My perspective, a century later, shows many of these ills have been legislatively remedied. Not much of a story or plot, no real character growth; mostly essay or lecture on socialism, topped off with stomping feet, neo-terrorism and the beginnings of a non-nuclear Cold War.

View all my reviews

The Jane Eyre Challenge (GoodReads)

Jane Eyre Challenge - read the book & watch the movie Yesterday’s post on the life and times of Fanny Price segued to next month’s group read for ‘A Taste of Victorian Literature‘ – Jane Eyre.  Imagine my surprise when I returned to the GoodReads web site last night to peruse my friends’ reviews and discussion postings to find a new challenge and contest starting with a chance to win a Kindle and and a copy of the novel signed by Director Cary Fukunaga of the new movie version of the classic tale. Click on the icon at the left to enter the challenge and review the official rules.  Good luck!

Step 1:
RSVP to see Jane Eyre the movie playing in select theaters March 11th.
Step 2:
Add Jane Eyre to your shelf
Step 3:
Take the Jane Eyre Quiz
Step 4:
Choose your favorite Jane Eyre quote
Step 5:
Complete the challenge

What Do Blackbear, Hunger, Snow and Wind Have in Common?

According to today’s post at Earthsky, the second full moon of the year, which usually falls in February, can be referred to as the Snow Moon, the Wind Moon, the Blackbear Moon or the Hunger Moon.

I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather today (74 degrees), I setup the telescope and attached the Pentax K100D to it for a couple of full moon snapshots:

Snow Moon Feb 2011
Snow Moon Feb 2011

I also took a quick look at the brightest star in the sky … Sirius (no photos yet, still need to have the tracking gears repaired on the Meade).

Toasting (or Roasting) Fanny Price

A Taste of Victorian Literature
A Taste of Victorian Literature

Last year, the Kansas City Public Library, through the Waldo Branch, embarked on a journey through 19th century literature with an adult reading program entitled ‘A Taste of Victorian Literature.’  I could only attend one of the group sessions last fall, the first one, on D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow.  To my relief, the Library provided an encore this spring, hosted by the Plaza Branch (conveniently located on the first floor of the building my employer resides in) and I happily attended last night’s lecture and discussion led by Andrea Broomfield, Associate Professor of English at Johnson County Community College.

I received my reading guide for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen via electronic mail on Monday, Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2011.  The guide included a few brief paragraphs about the book and Ms. Austen (about half a page for each).  Never having read an Austen novel, and being at least half finished with it by the time I received the guide, imagine my chagrin when I learned Mansfield Park is sometimes referred to as Austen’s ‘problem novel.’

However, I had no qualms while reading the novel, expecting a slower pacing when compared to 20th or 21st century literature.  I appreciated the circumstances surrounding of Fanny’s life, family and friends, as presented by the author.  Austen’s third novel falls under a broader definition of Victorian Literature; to me it’s a precursor to that era, a transition from the Regency era, and more pleasantly readable prose than later Victorian didactic sledgehammer-esque efforts.   The guide also included a brief biography of Jane Austen (1775- 1817), stating she wrote as she lived, with nuance and realism.

I arrived fifteen minutes early to the Plaza Branch, seeking directions to the appropriate gathering place, in the ‘large’ meeting room between the non-fiction section and the children’s area.  By 6:30 p.m., I was one of a packed room of thirty people, all of them female with the exception of one besieged stalwart male who participated graciously and gallantly.  I should have spoken up in his support; first, because, while female myself, I suffer under the auspices of a gender-confusing name (yes, it’s pronounced just like “John” not some strangely misspelled “Joan”) and, second, because I rarely ever read anything of a romantic nature, unless it happens to slip in as a subplot to an epic fantasy, space opera or science fiction novel.

Andrea Broomfield, Associate Professor of English, JCCC
Andrea Broomfield, Associate Professor of English, JCCC

Andrea Broomfield began her lecture (complete with dimmed lights and a PowerPoint), of which I will briefly recap from my illegibly scribbled notes.  First question up for discussion involved why Mansfield Park would be considered a Victorian novel.  Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in June of 1837, twenty years after the death of Jane Austen.   Yet transformations to society began prior to the 1830s, burgeoning in the late 18th century, during the life of Jane Austen and as expressed in Mansfield Park‘s internal chronology (roughly thirty years spanning 1783 to 1813).  Professor Broomfield related that Punch magazine actually coined the phrase “Victorian” sometime in the 1840s.

Queen Victoria of England, by Alexander Melville, 1845
Queen Victoria of England, by Alexander Melville, 1845

The time span encompassing the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to her death in 1901, provides a frame of reference to discuss the impact of industrialization on society.  Industrialization transformed the existing land and power structures and encouraged the rise of the middle class as society transitioned from an agrarian based (i.e. cottage industries) economy to an industrialized one.  The Evangelical movement within the Church of England helped to abolish slavery and became the foundation for promoting what we now refer to as Middle Class Values (more on that later).

But who are the Middle Class?  They are well educated (engineers, accountants, lawyers, professors, bankers, merchants, etc.) and well paid, but non-aristocratic in origin.  This fostered unrest, as only the aristocracy (those who owned land) were allowed to vote, and essentially a small group of people (approximately 5,000 families) controlled the government and the church.  With such examples as the American and French Revolutions to fuel the fire, the established gentry felt threatened by the burgeoning wealthy middle class, who, in turn, began to demand a voice in their destinies.

Queen Victoria not only accepted middle class values, she championed them, including piety, sobriety, morality, monogamy, hard work.  At this point, I should have spoken up, because I saw a parallel hear between middle class values and Wesley‘s Methodist Means of Grace.  Mary Crawford scathingly referenced Methodism when she showed her true colors to Edmund’s unveiled eyes late in the novel.  Austen, a village parson’s daughter, should have been aware of her contemporary, John Wesley (1703 – 1791), even though he died while she was but a teen.

Professor Broomfield continued with a bit of history around the time Mansfield Park was written and published (1813-4), often referred to as the Regency era, or the period when King George III went mad and his young son ruled as Prince Regent.   A dominance of aristocratic values are portrayed in Austen’s characters of Mr. Yates (idleness), Mr. Rushworth (waste of money/resources), Maria Bertram (laziness) and Henry Crawford (flirtation).  The only obligation the aristocracy had was to maintain the status quo, which meant siring a male heir to secure the land for the next generation.  Thus, they did as they pleased and set their own standards of conduct.   The rest of society, the working class and rising middle class, viewed the aristocracy with contempt, as corrupted and completely depraved.

Engraving of Steventon rectory, home of the Austen family during much of Jane Austen's lifetime.
Engraving of Steventon rectory, home of the Austen family during much of Jane Austen's lifetime.

One of the slides from Professor Broomfield’s presentation displayed Austen’s home at the Steventon rectory, exemplifying the typical middle class modest home with divided rooms (in contrast, the working class often lived, dined and slept in a single or at most two room homes). The Reform Act of 1832 let off the steam of the bubbling boiling uneasy middle class, averting bloody revolution by changing the electoral system of England and Wales.

The crucible of Austen’s life and times included the rise of evangelicism, the abolition of slavery (see William Wilberforce for more information), the ascendancy of the British Navy and the accentuating of class differences.  Professor Bloomfield gave an apt illustration of those differences using poetry as her example.  Poetry (and poets) comprised an ‘elite’ art form, reserved for the aristocracy.  Yet an educated middle class yearned for entertainment of a more accessible flavor, creating a void for literature that authors like Austen eagerly filled.   Victorians are idealistic, always in earnest, convinced they can solve all the world’s problems and most assuredly not cynical.

With less than thirty minutes left for our five discussion questions, Professor Broomfield opened up the floor with the following:

  1. If you have read other Austen novels, then you likely see some differences between Mansfield Park and Austen’s other works.  What are those differences?  Why might critics consider this novel to be the most ‘Victorian’ of Austen’s novels, even though the novel was published before Victoria became Queen of England?
  2. Mansfield Park is considered a ‘Condition of England’ novel.  In these types of novels, the author uses fiction as a means to critique the culture around her/him.  What aspects of English culture come under Austen’s scrutiny?  How does Austen use her main characters — the Crawfords, the Bertrams, Fanny and William, Mr. Rushworth and Mrs. Norris — to comment on what people should and should not value?
  3. Do you find Fanny to be a likable heroine? Do you find Edmund to be a likable hero?  Why or why not?
  4. What is the purpose of the attempted play at Mansfield Park, both before and after it is aborted?
  5. Consider any dramatized versions you have seen of Mansfield Park and how they differ from the actual Austen novel.  Are the plot, narrative voice, and characters of Mansfield Park simply too old-fashioned or outmoded for a contemporary audience’s sensibilities?

We only managed to tackle three of these questions.  In response to the first question, comments included a feeling that Austen was just coming into her voice, a more mature voice as compared to her other more popular titles.  Fanny’s reticence and control upheld and exemplified.

With respect to the second ‘Condition of England’ novel question, the disparity between rich and poor as seen through Austen’s characters in Mansfield Park began with Mr. Rushworth, described as a ‘rich boob’ or a ‘buffoon,’ a terrifying thought since his like were ruling England, the figure of a man with little or no substance.  Many readers enjoyed Mary Crawford, despite her faults: wanting to marry for money, position, privilege, power; self-absorption.

This led to a discussion of the philosophical debate contemporaneous to Austen’s times on why people marry.  Fanny (as well as Austen) believed marriage should be made for love while Mary Crawford stood for opportunistic marrying for position.  Edmund wants to blame her upbringing as a rational explanation for Mary’s lack of a moral compass.  Mary epitomized the ‘Old England’ while Fanny portrayed the ‘New England’ as it ‘should be.’

Mansfield Park published by Penguin Classics
Mansfield Park published by Penguin Classics

Austen uses her characters to force her readers to think and her novels always have an economic component to them; jockeying for position, especially among the women.  Professor Broomfield took a few minutes to read Edmund’s dialogue on pp. 424-6 of the Penguin Classics edition, where Austen attempts to teach us why we should like Mary.  Mary is telling Edmund that if Fanny had married Henry, none of the scandal would have happened.  Edmund realizes he fell in love with an imaginary Mary.  Mary’s sarcasm and cynicism clashes with Victorian ideals, and appears to us (in the 21st century) as a very modern attitude.  Edmund, blinded to Mary’s un-virtues for much of the novel, is now disgusted by her, yet he is always sincere.  Fanny, poor neglected and ignored Fanny, might as well have been an orphan, curtailed by her ambiguous class position throughout most of the novel.  In contrast to the pale, wispy Fanny, Marilyn Flugum-James, seated next to Julienne Gehrer (a representative of the local Jane Austen Society), likened Mrs. Norris and Mary Crawford to ‘bright colors on the canvas of this novel.’

With only five minutes left, Professor Broomfield quickly skipped to the final question about any dramatizations we may have seen of Mansfield Park.  I vaguely remember watching the much maligned 1999 film version, but only remember it as a period murder mystery (so perhaps I need to re-visit that film now).  Many readers touted the 1980s era Masterpiece Theatre mini-series.  The A&E version was also mentioned, but not as highly regarded.

And thus ended my second evening foray into the 19th century literature I managed to avoid both in high school and college (engineering and mathematics not lending studying time to the finer arts).  I had a very enjoyable evening and look forward to next month’s discussion of Jane Eyre, published in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë under a masculine pen name.  Professor Broomfield posed these questions in closing to ponder as we read (or re-read) Jane Eyre:

  • What makes this novel radical (when published, it created a huge scandal)?
  • What makes it Victorian?

I read Jane Eyre last year, not for this group, but rather as a prerequisite to reading Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair.  Ironically, Mr. Fforde headlines the signature event for the other winter adult reading program sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library on Thursday, March 17th. Look for a future blog post on my progress through some of the Altered States suggested readings.

Altered States: Adult Winter Reading Program
Altered States: Adult Winter Reading Program