10 Books that Changed My World

During the long winter months I keep my house closed up to ward off the cold; but once the days get longer and the temps get warmer, I open up the house and begin my annual spring cleaning ritual.

I also start a “donate” box, where I collect clothes and household items I no longer use or need.

And every year I stand in front of my bookshelves and try to decide whether I should, could or can bring myself to add one of the books in my collection to the “donate” box.

It’s a hard decision, but I always manage to cut a few books from the herd and add them to the box.

Of course, there are some books in my collection that have had such a profound impact on me, I would never consider giving them away.

Here, in no particular order, are the top ten fiction books that changed my life:

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

I was twelve years old when I first read Pride and Prejudice, and it (and the author) have held a special place in my heart ever since. I can’t explain why this book touched me so deeply, except that it has everything I want in a novel: humor, tragedy, mystery, adventure, travel, romance, suspense, villains, heroes, and a heroine who represents the ideal young woman I often wish I could be more like.

Besides that, it’s just a darn good love story.

My tattered, well-worn copy of P&P.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

When I was a kid, as far back as I could remember, there was always a copy of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in our bookcase at home. They were a set that belonged to my mother, which she purchased together when she was twenty years old.

I began reading Jane Eyre one summer afternoon when I was in middle school because I had nothing else to do, and ended up enthralled by a world of mystery and romance. At the center of the story was a plucky young woman with whom I strongly identified. Jane may not have had grand plans for her life, but knew who she was, and she was always true to herself—and that was the lesson I took from the novel.

Yes, this is the cover of my copy of Jane Eyre. This edition contains reproductions of the creepy but compelling original woodcut illustrations.

Regency Buck, by Georgette Heyer.

This was the first book I read in which the author built an entire world that was previously unknown to me. I was captivated by the language, the manners, the wit, and the active, multi-layered plots Heyer created.

Regency Buck was only the first of Heyer’s books I read; it didn’t take long for me to scoop up all her other titles, too. They’ve held a place of honor on my book shelves ever since, and I reread at least one of her novels every year.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

First, the story contained in the pages of this novel is wonderful. Second, Lee’s writing style is magnetic. But the lessons I learned in this book about life and courtesy and how to treat other people have stayed with me since I first read this classic in high school. It’s one of the few books I read regularly every couple of years.

How Green was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn

I was eleven years old when I discovered this beautifully written gem in my school’s library. I checked it out for one capricious reason: the borrowing card was clean—no one had checked the book out before, and I decided I wanted to be the first.

I took it home and read it. I was so touched by the story of the Morgan family, and their simple, honest ways that How Green was My Valley instantly became one of favorite books. In fact, I checked it out of the library so often, the librarian questioned me about it after the fifth or sixth time. But that’s how good this book is; I just couldn’t get enough of it then, and now that I have my own copy, it enjoys a permanent place on my keeper shelf.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.

A friend at church handed me this book and said, “You have to read this.” So I did. Then I read the rest of the series, and spent endless hours talking with my friends at church about the symbolism and metaphors and meanings in the book. Then we’d seize on passages in the novel and search our Bibles for scripture to reinforce the point we thought the author was trying to make. In a sense, this book taught me and my friends how to exchange ideas, make our arguments, and research on the fly.

Add to that the fact that the book is (on the surface) a wonderfully written story of adventure and good versus evil, and it easily earns a place on my top ten list of all-time classics that everyone should read at least once in their life.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dosteyevsky

When I first read Crime and Punishment, I had no idea it was written in 1866. To me, it could have been written in 1910, 1940, or even 1960; the story is that timeless.

This novel reads like a mystery, although there’s really no mystery here; we know from the outset that the main character commits murder. The author’s master stroke is the way in which he manipulates our emotions about the murderer. Should we hate him? Root for him? Feel compassion for him? That’s part of the mystery!

From this novel I learned a lot about human nature: that the face people present to you may not represent who they really are; that good people do bad things; that remorse doesn’t always lead to redemption or even forgiveness.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

This is not a children’s book. I read it in high school, again in my twenties, and a couple more times since then. The odd thing about this book is that no matter when I read it, it seems to present a commentary on the current state of affairs in the world at the time. On the surface, it’s an entertaining story. In reality, it’s a warning about what can happen when we ignore what first appears to be a  gentle, slight slope of moral decay.

If you haven’t read it yet, I don’t want to give the story away; but I think it’s a book that everyone should read today, right now, this minute.

Testimony of Two Men, by Taylor Caldwell

This is the book that made me think, “I’d like to write a novel like this someday.”

Taylor Caldwell doesn’t just write, she paints word pictures that bring her stories to life. From the settings, to the clothing and furniture, she draws me into her books and lets me see what her characters see and experience.

In Testimony of Two Men Caldwell’s skills are on full display. It has everything I love in a novel: family drama, an engaging hero, doomed romance, and tidbits about the time period that are skillfully woven into the story. My well-worn copy is on my keeper shelf.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

My mother read Little Women to my sisters and me when we were young. We were four sisters, so it was easy for us to identify with the March sisters. I remember that I wanted to be as pretty as Meg, as brave as Jo, as gentle as Beth, and as talented as Amy.

My mother read to us from the very same book she read when she was young; it was given to her by her Aunt Helen at Christmas in 1936. My mother had just turned twelve years old. As she read to us, it was clear how much she loved this novel and the characters’ stories.

My mother was a busy woman, who always worked full-time outside the home when we were growing up; and when she got home at night, there were meals to prepare, cleaning to do, an ill husband to nurse, and a million other cares and worries for her to tend to. When I think of all she was up against, I cherish my memories of the time she took to read Little Women aloud to us.

I have to admit, there are many more novels I considered for this list; but in the end, these are the books that really spoke to me. They changed my thinking and my outlook on life and how I wanted to live it. They taught me about strength of character, honesty, and standing up for what is right; about love and commitment, and enjoying life’s simple pleasures along the way.

What about you? Have you ever read a book that made a profound impact on you? Please share it!

Mr. Darcy: A Man with a Plan

Hello, and a happy weekend to you!

Today I’m posting on the Austen Authors blog, talking about Jane Austen movie adaptations. Do you know, some of my favorite scenes in 1995’s “Pride and Prejudice” never appeared in Jane Austen’s original novel!

Here’s a hint about one of those scenes:

I hope you’ll join me at Austen Authors and share your favorite movie scenes, too! Just click on the image below.

Musical Instruments in Regency England

When I first began reading Jane Austen’s and Georgette Heyer’s novels, the pianoforte seemed to be the musical instrument of choice for every Regency era heroine.

Portrait of Geneviève Aimée Victoire Bertin by Francois-Xavier Fabre

Jane Austen often equated a woman’s ability on the pianoforte to her overall value to society as an “accomplished woman.” In her novel Pride and Prejudice here’s how Caroline Bingley described Miss Georgiana Darcy:

The harp was another instrument mentioned in Austen’s novels, but with much less frequency; once again, Caroline Bingley mentioned the harp in regard to Georgiana Darcy:

“I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp.”

Author Georgette Heyer, who wrote her novels set during the Regency over one hundred years after Austen, also wrote about female characters who played the pianoforte. She also mentioned harps in her stories but usually for comic value, such as when a male character complained about a woman “twanging” away at a harp.

In recent years I’ve come to learn that there was another musical instrument that was just as popular—if not more so—than the pianoforte and the twanging harp: The guitar.

Lady with a Guitar, by Francois Xavier Fabre

I’ve found quite a few portraits of people—women and men—who lived during the Regency era and were memorialized with a guitar.

I find this so interesting, mainly because I always associated guitars with twentieth century America. Say the word guitar and I think of a cowboy strumming “Home on the Range” while sitting with his fellow cowpokes around a campfire. I never really thought of the guitar being prevalent in the early nineteenth century, and I certainly never thought of it being English.

Young Woman Playing Guitar, by Adele Romany.

Another instrument that’s often featured in portraits of the time is the lyre. Unlike the guitar, the lyre makes sense to me, given that a majority of the early Regency years were influenced by Greek symbols and stylings.

Portrait of Hortense Bonaparte, by Fleury-Francois Richard (1815)

In this post I’ve shared a few examples of portraits I found, but I’ve collected even more examples on one of my Pinterest boards, and I’d love to have you take a look!

Click here to visit my new Pinterest board, “Musical Instruments in the Regency.” I hope you enjoy it; and be sure to subscribe to the board so you’ll be notified when I add new images. I’m pretty certain I’m going to be posting some more images of guitars and lyres and pianofortes. And who knows? Maybe I’ll come across some other surprising musical instruments to share with you!

 

Embroidered or Beaded?

I’m always on the lookout for images to use for inspiration in my writing, especially when it comes to writing descriptions of Regency era clothing.

Not long ago I came found his image on The Met Museum’s website:

This, I thought, is a very nice linen gown, perfect for a warm summer day; and it has some lovely embroidery along the neckline and on the hems of the sleeves and skirt.

The shape of the gown appealed to me, too, because the extra fabric gathered in back reminded me of the “round gown” popular around the year 1800. And the scalloped edges on the hems of the sleeves and skirt were something I couldn’t recall seeing before.

Luckily, The Met had additional photos of the gown’s details, so I took a look at the close-up of the gown’s neckline:

And that’s when I realized I wasn’t looking at embroidery; I was looking at beading.

Lots and lots of beading! Every bit of color on this gown is comprised of tiny colored beads arranged in intricate designs. Here’s a close-up of the beading along the bottom of the skirt:

Each motif is executed perfectly. In fact, from a distance, you would think it was a machine printed fabric.

What’s astonishing to me is how well preserved the gown is; after two-hundred years, every tiny bead is still in its place.

I just love this gown because it’s so deceptively simple with its plain linen fabric, but after spending some time looking at the exquisite bead-work, I have to wonder if this wasn’t a very expensive gown to purchase.

Even more, I wonder about the talented woman (or women) responsible for creating such a lovely gown. Their skills are a lost art!

Stories from Quarry Bank

Not long ago I wrote a post for the Austen Authors blog about Charles Bingley, a character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (You can click on the Austen Authors logo to read the post.)

If you’ve read Austen’s classic novel, you know that Charles Bingley and his sisters are quite wealthy by the standards of their day. They certainly enjoyed the finer things in life and spent their money freely on travel, clothes, and large, expensive homes. Austen told us the Bingley siblings inherited their wealth from their father, and that the family fortune had been “acquired by trade.”

I’ve often believed “trade” meant ownership in a textile mill, a belief I explained in the Austen Authors post. Also in the post, I wondered what kind of mill owner the Bingley’s father would have been.

My opinion has always been that the elder Mr. Bingley would have been among the enlightened brand of mill owners. By that, I mean that he treated his employees with respect and probably established churches and schools for his workers. I based my theory on research I did about Quarry Bank, a real-life mill founded in 1784 in Manchester, England.

At the time I wrote that post, I didn’t know there was a book about Quarry Bank Mill that described the workers and the conditions at the mill. Nor was I aware English television had broadcast a dramatic series that told the stories of the children who worked at the real Quarry Bank Mill.

I haven’t seen the series, but last week I discovered the book on Amazon. You can click on the book cover to read more about it

I just ordered my copy, and it’s on it’s way (Thank you, Prime two-day-shipping!).

On a whim, I switched from the U.S. Amazon site to the U.K. Amazon site to see if I could find a DVD of the TV series. Lo, and behold, Amazon U.K. has quite a few books about Quarry Bank Mill! Oh, how I wish I had known about them before!

This book, for example, is only 128 pages long, but contains over 250 pictures of life at the mill:

And this one really piqued my interest:

It tells the story of the wife of Quarry Bank Mill’s owner, and her life-long efforts to improve the education, health and welfare of Quarry Bank’s workers.

Both of these books are must-haves for me! And if you’re a fan of North and South (another classic novel that centers around early English Textile mills), or ever wondered how those Bingleys got so rich, you may find these books of interest, too.

If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to know what you think of them!

Symbolic Armor

I’m an American fascinated with all things British, especially manor houses. In my Yankee mind, every English country house has a butler, a stable full of horses, and an ominous-looking suit of armor standing guard in the hall near the front door.

Suit of Armor inside Peles Castle, Romania (from Pinterest)

But then, a funny thing happened.

While browsing through The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections, I came across this eighteenth century helmet and shield, and all my previous fascinations with battle armor went out the window.

It’s gorgeous! No clunky, clanking armor here; just beautiful design, plenty of gilt, and a deep blue patina that makes every beautiful detail stand out.

This kind of armor was symbolic, rather than functional. Its design was based on Classical themes that remind me of Greek and Roman heroes.

It’s also the kind of armor that was created to impress all who saw it. Very probably it graced an important place in a grand castle or estate, in the same way we’d hang a Monet or Rembrandt so it could be viewed and admired.

Thanks to this display at The Met I now have an entirely new take on armor, and a new bit of inspiration to use when I want to imagine the luxurious interior of a great English country house.

If you’d like to know more about this helmet and shield (as well as other armor on display), follow this link to The Met’s website.

Jane Austen’s Novels Are . . .

. . . not romances nor are they historical fiction. So, how do we Janeites describe her novels to someone who has never read them before?

I’m tackling that question on the Austen Authors blog today. Please click on the link below and share your opinion!

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

For the past few weeks we’ve been in a deep-freeze in Colorado. Before going outside I have to bundle up in multiple layers of clothing, before I don my warmest coat, gloves, and hat.

I may not look very stylish; but under the circumstances, I’m much more interested in being warm than fashionable.

Not so for the gentlemen pictured in this post. They’re dressed to meet the winter elements while still maintaining a strong sense of Regency style.

Their coats appear to be made of different types of wools, while their coat collars are fashioned from velvets and furs.

In our modern times people don’t wear fur. We have the technology to create fabrics and garments that insulate us from cold, so we don’t need to rely on animal hides for warmth; that wasn’t the case for people who lived through in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

William Willoughby Cole (1807-1886), 3rd Earl of Enniskillen; by william Robinson

What I like about these images is that I can sense the weight of the garments these gentlemen are wearing. They look pretty substantial—like they might have some weight to them.

I also think the luxurious fabrics and furs serve as a visual reminder of each gentleman’s wealth and stature; not everyone could afford to wear fine furs.

John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield, 1819.

These images are part of my collection of men’s wear illustrations; I refer to them when I want to generally describe a gentleman dressed for a cold winter’s day in England . . . . which, I’m beginning to suspect, feel very similar to a cold day in Colorado!