The Sweetest Thing by Fiona Shaw

Sixteen-year-old Harriet wants to leave her fishing village behind and start a new life in York. Mary, a girl from her village, wants to accompany her and so the girls leave, in the hope that they will have a better future in the city. There, Harriet and Mary are looking for jobs and when opportunities arise, the girls are happy to have found a way to earn money. Mary works as a laundress and she also gets paid for photographs, and Harriet works at a cocoa factory. There, Harriet falls in love with Thomas and her life seems perfect, but when certain events lead to a tragic end, Harriet’s world falls apart.

Intertwined with Harriet’s story is Samuel’s tale, a kind gentleman who helps Harriet with her job search. He is a Quaker and a collector of photographs showing working-class girls in their working clothes. Samuel cares deeply for working-class women and he wants to improve their situation. He takes a special interest in Harriet because he has fallen in love with her. However, he knows that he doesn’t have a chance, since she is already in love with someone else. Still, Samuel and Harriet become friends and when tragedy strikes, Samuel does everything in order to help Harriet.

The Sweetest Thing is a wonderful and engaging novel that gives the reader an account of late-Victorian life, drawing an intimate portrait of ordinary people while revealing their feelings, situations and hopes. The book concentrates on working-class women and their conditions and we learn a lot about their lives, especially through Harriet. For example we find out that young girls like Harriet who fell in love and wanted to get married had to hide their marriages in order to be able to continue working. Once a girl got married, she had to leave her position at the cocoa factory and become a house wife. However, many of these girls got married in secret and continued working as if nothing happened. That way, the girls could still earn money, although it must have been hard for them to pretend to be single.

In The Sweetest Thing, we also learn a lot about the cocoa factory and its shadowy policies and we learn how the owners put their employers in great danger in order to become successful and wealthy.

The novel also touches on topics such as religion, morality and ‘madness’ (Samuel’s sister Grace has been confined to an asylum because her mother couldn’t accept Grace’s friendship with another woman and her wish to never get married). Together, these subjects make The Sweetest Thing an enjoyable and captivating read. Moreover, each individual story will move you as the book concentrates on the protagonists and their tales, and I can assure you that Harriet and Samuel will linger in your mind for a long time.

I really liked this book because of its themes, the dated language and the individual stories that fascinated me. If you like historical fiction and if you are a fan of Sarah Waters and Tracy Chevalier, then I truly recommend this novel to you!

Note: I would like to thank Virago Press for sending me a copy of this book!

Andreea

 

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Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael

With so many books out there about the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen (and their heroines), the reader might feel overwhelmed and find it hard to choose which book to read, as not every book revolving around the lives of these talented female writers is necessarily a good one. As a huge fan of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, I tend to check out nearly every book that deals with their lives and some of them catch my attention. Thus, I have read numerous books about these great authors. Some of them were fantastic, but some of them were a mere disappointment.

So when I heard about Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael, it immediately aroused my interest and I was looking forward to reading it. Luckily, I won a copy of the book on Library Thing and I was eager to find out if the book would live up to my expectations. And I must say that it nearly did. I have to say nearly, because it wasn’t perfect, but nonetheless, it was an enjoyable and pleasant read. The author has done a great job portraying the Bronte sisters in an authentic way and those who are familiar with the biography of Charlotte Bronte and with her works will notice that the author has attempted to stay true to the author’s voice. Nevertheless, I have some negative things to say about this novel. Since the book is called Romancing Miss Bronte and since I have read a synopsis of the book, I thought that the author would go more into this theme of romance. Instead, I was a little disappointed to find out that the romance was not the romance I expected. But here’s more on why I felt this way:

In real life, Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, nine months before her death. She has known him for many years, and he has been in love with her the whole time, but Charlotte wasn’t really interested in him until she was left all alone with her father, after her siblings’ deaths.

(Note: I won’t elaborate on Charlotte Bronte’s biography, since I have already told you about her life in my review of Becoming Jane Eyre).

Part fiction, part biography, Romancing Miss Bronte imagines how love unexpectedly found Charlotte and shows the relationship between her and Arthur. However, as I said earlier, I expected more romance. I thought that the author would put more imagination into this subject. Instead, we only get brief glimpses here and there and witness various encounters between Charlotte and Arthur where they exchange a few words. Charlotte thinks of Arthur as a peculiar curate and gives him the cold shoulder most of the time. Although Arthur is present throughout the whole novel, it is not until the end of the book that romance comes into play.

The book concentrates more on the Bronte siblings and their relationship with each other. It captures the passions and hopes of these gifted siblings and it shows how they struggle to publish their works and make their dreams come true. The novel also focuses on Charlotte’s growing fame and her meetings with London’s high society (which by the way fail to feel the emptiness in her heart, left by the deaths of her beloved siblings). But I already knew all these things (having read so many books on the Bronte sisters), and thus I read on and on and waited for the romance to get into the game. At least, at the end of the book, I was rewarded and I quite enjoyed Arthur’s wooing and his soft side that finally won over Charlotte’s heart.

For those who haven’t read anything about the Brontes’ lives or aren’t familiar with their biographies, I would recommend this book, as it gives a detailed account of the main events that happened in Charlotte’s life. I would have probably enjoyed the book more, if I hadn’t already known about the Bronte sisters’ lives (and if there would have been more romance involved, because the title suggested it). But I’m afraid that I made this book sound bad now, which I assure you is not the case. It really wasn’t what I expected, but it was still a great novel, well written and very true to Charlotte Bronte. I just wish I had read this book before I knew anything about the Brontes; then I would have probably loved it. I hope my review was not all too confusing for you! If I were to rate Romancing Miss Bronte, I would give it three and a half stars out of five.

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

In 1853, twelve-year-old orphan Mary Quinn is struggling to survive on the unsafe streets of shady London by committing crimes. But one day, she is unwary and is caught housebreaking and therefore, Mary is sentenced to hang. Luckily, she is rescued by a mysterious woman, who is dressed as a prison warden. The woman turns out to be Anne Treleaven, the head teacher at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls and she offers Mary an exceptional education at her school. There, she is able to acquire fine manners and other special skills. After finishing her education, Anne reveals to seventeen-year-old Mary that the academy is in fact a cover for The Agency – a top secret female investigative unit. Acknowledging Mary’s intelligence, bravery and good skills of observations, Anne encourages Mary to join The Agency and thus, put her hard training to the test.

Mary is intrigued by this new opportunity and therefore, takes up this thrilling challenge with great expectations. Her first assignment as a female investigator is to infiltrate the Thorold household in order to collect information on Mr. Thorold’s missing cargo ships. In the guise of a lady’s companion, Mary must work fast and find out the truth about Mr. Thorold’s business. But in the Thorold household, nothing is quite as it seems and Mary must be careful in deciding whom she can trust. Everyone seems to have dark little secrets: Mrs. Thorold acts rather suspiciously, her daughter Angelica is spoiled and seems to hide something and Mr. Thorold’s secretary Michael Gray flirts with Mary. And then there’s also James Easton, an arrogant, yet very attractive young man. His brother George is one of Angelica’s suitors and they have met several times. But why is James always behaving so strangely and why does he follow her everywhere? Can she really trust him or will she put herself in great danger by cooperating with him? And why is Mary trying to avoid talking about her past and parents?

The Agency: A Spy in the House is a delightful novel set in the heart of Victorian London, where shady and dangerous things are taking place. Y.S. Lee has written a compelling tale packed with suspense, action, mystery, intrigues and romance. Readers will enjoy accompanying Mary on her dangerous journey through the dusky streets of Victorian London and witnessing how this young and clever detective discovers secrets and fights the demons of her troubled childhood. I really loved this captivating tale and I wanted to read more about Mary and her fascinating adventures! The Agency: A Spy in the House is Y.S. Lee’s first novel and it’s part of a trilogy. Therefore, there will be a second novel in the Agency series, called The Body at the Tower and it will be published in August in the States. I can’t wait to read the promising sequel!

For more information on the Agency series, please visit the author’s website here. There, you can also enter a contest to win a copy of The Agency: A Spy in the House and other prizes.

Note: I would like to thank the author and her publicist Tracy Miracle from Candlewick Press for sending me a copy of this engaging book!

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books and Charlotte Bronte is one of my favorite authors – so how could I not want to read Becoming Jane Eyre, where such a talented and influential female author comes to life?  

Part biography and part fiction, Becoming Jane Eyre concentrates on the short life of a brilliant author who has produced famous works such as Jane Eyre, Villette and The Professor. Sheila Kohler’s novel gives the reader an insight into Charlotte’s life as a writer, but also as a daughter and sister. The reader can witness how Charlotte managed to create such remarkable novels, despite the fact that she had a difficult life, plagued by loss, grief and poverty.  

Born in 1816 in Yorkshire, Charlotte Bronte is the daughter of a poor clergyman and the third of six children. She has to deal with tragedy at an early age as she witnesses the deaths of her mother and her two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. In addition to that, her relationship with her father isn’t always happy and easy. The parson doesn’t know how to handle his daughters; his son Branwell has always been his favorite child. But it is Branwell who disappoints him the most – the young man drowns his sorrows in drugs and alcohol and falls into debt. Facing poverty, the sisters have to take up positions as teachers and governesses. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily travel to Brussels to enroll in a boarding school. There, Charlotte teaches English and grows closer to Constantin Heger, a married professor. For the first time in her life, she feels appreciated and understood. Her professor recognizes Charlotte’s writing talent and they spend a lot of time together, having fiery conversations about literature, religion and writing. Charlotte has fallen in love with this intelligent man, but she knows that there is no future for them. She soon feels lonely in Brussels because Constantin Heger has become distant. Disappointed, she returns home and uses her experience at the boarding school as an inspiration for her novel The Professor (and later for Villette). But when The Professor is rejected by many publishing houses, Charlotte cannot hide her disappointment. What she doesn’t know yet, is the fact that she will soon write her famous novel Jane Eyre. While she takes care of her sick father, Charlotte has a vision of a young girl, orphaned and alone. The young girl, named Jane, has to deal with ill-treatment, poverty and tragedy. Many ideas come to Charlotte’s mind, as she recalls her own journey – a journey full of suffering, disappointment and foolish dreams. While she thinks about her protagonist Jane, Charlotte relives everything once again – the pain she felt when her sisters died, her teaching experience in Brussels and her feelings for the professor. But Charlotte wants Jane to have a better chance in life. That’s why she decides to give her heroine a strong voice; she gives Jane the courage to speak up for herself and she wants her to be happy, with her Mr. Rochester. Thus accrues an impressive tale of independence, love, forgiveness and morality. When Jane Eyre is finally published, it receives many positive reviews and high praise. Anne and Emily also publish their novels Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, but they don’t experience the same success. Charlotte is nevertheless very content with her achievement, but her happiness is short-lived, since she can’t share her success with her siblings. After Branwell’s death, she also loses her beloved sisters Anne and Emily, who die of pulmonary tuberculosis. In 1854, Charlotte marries Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate. She soon becomes pregnant, but tragedy strikes again when only after nine happy months of marriage, Charlotte dies, along with her unborn child, at the young age of 38.  

  

Becoming Jane Eyre is a must read for Bronte fans as Shelia Kohler gives us a glimpse into the life of a gifted author, illustrating how passionate, intelligent and kindhearted Charlotte Bronte was. Sheila Kohler allows Charlotte to speak from the bottom of her heart, making her vulnerable, but at the same time showing us a strong and determined young woman. Becoming Jane Eyre depicts Charlotte Bronte as a devoted woman, who was very passionate about her family and her writing. If you get the chance to read this book, you will delight in finding out about the Bronte sisters; you will be able to cast an eye at Charlotte’s relationship with her father and to witness her intimate thoughts on love and writing.  

I truly loved this novel and I couldn’t put it down. I felt sad when I finished this book and I longed for more information on Charlotte Bronte. That’s why I want to read The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell in the future!  

I would like to thank Gabrielle Gantz from Penguin Group  for giving me the opportunity to review this great novel! Gabrielle also sent me two other Penguin books which I will read and review soon. Thank you for everything, Gabrielle! 

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte’s novel tells the story of penniless Lucy Snowe who leaves a sorrowful past behind and starts a new life at a boarding school in the fictional city of Villette. There, she finds work as a teacher; she soon becomes successful and is admired by her pupils and colleagues. Furthermore, she attracts the attention of M. Paul Emanuel, the hot tempered and autocratic schoolmaster. The two eventually fall in love, but other protagonists want to keep them apart and finally manage to do so by sending M. Paul away. Nevertheless, he declares his love for Lucy before his departure and arranges for her to live an independent life as the headmistress of her own school. After three years of waiting, the couple is to be reunited.

However, the ending of the novel is ambiguous, as Charlotte Bronte gives us two endings to choose from: We can see M. Paul and Lucy happily reunited or we can believe that M. Paul’s ship has been destroyed by a storm on his return to Villette and thus accept that he has drowned.

Many critics believe however, that the choice is in fact a delusion, since Lucy clearly states that those three years while she was waiting for her beloved and was leading an independent life at her own school were the happiest of her life. This statement suggests that M. Paul has died and that Lucy does not find romantic happiness like other Bronte heroines. However, what she does find is a fulfilled calling and independence. Lucy does not submit to a traditional female destiny (marriage and children), but has the opportunity to fulfil her own dream and thus finds happiness in her work. For that reason, Villette shocked many critics at the time it was published. Lucy is not like other Bronte or Austen heroines since she is neither rich nor beautiful and she does not marry her beloved; other characters in the novel see her as “inoffensive as a shadow” and pity her, but she is in fact a powerful character, a fighter and a rebel. Lucy may not be wealthy or beautiful, but she is clever and undergoes a major transformation; as the novel progresses, Lucy’s respect for herself grows and she manages to find the independence that allows her to be her true self. She also succeeds in winning M. Paul’s love with her intelligence and accomplishments and not with submissiveness or her looks. Throughout the novel, Lucy has to face many trials and has to struggle against the life she is expected to lead as a poor woman, but in the end, she finds autonomy and thus happiness. This is why the novel agitated so many readers and critics when it was published in 1853 and this also may be the reason why Virginia Woolf called Villette “Bronte’s finest novel”. Villette was seen as a scandalous novel in 1853, since it tells the story of a woman who loses love but finds independence.

Villette is Charlotte Bronte’s last novel and even though it may not be as popular as Jane Eyre, it is nevertheless regarded as her best work. The novel is not so much commemorated for its plot, but for Lucy’s character development and psychology. Charlotte Bronte is one of my favorite authors and Villette is a great novel! I recommend it to everyone who is interested in Victorian Literature and who likes to read about gender roles. However, you might find it difficult to read this book if you aren’t familiar with French, so make sure your edition has translations of the French phrases!