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!

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!

 

Confessions of a Lookie-Loo

Be a Lookie-Loo with me and take a peek into Elizabeth Bennet’s bed chamber at the Inn at Lambton!

I’m on Austen Authors today discussing rooms and places in Jane Austen’s novels that haven’t been depicted in movie adaptations. Please click on the image to join me!

 

A Closer Look at Fitzwilliam Darcy

Hello, and happy Saturday to you!

Today I’m on the Austen Authors blog, talking about Fitzwilliam Darcy, the hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Was Darcy a meddling busybody, as Elizabeth Bennet supposed?

Or was he just a nice guy who tried to take care of the people he loved?

Click here or on the icon below to read the post and have your share in the conversation!

 

A Brand New Month and Kitty Bennet

It’s February. I know, I can’t believe it either.

But even though time seems to be flying by, I’m really looking forward to a new month, since everything I hoped to accomplish in January didn’t quite happen as planned.

On January 4th I came down with the flu, and it really took me out of commission for about two solid weeks. I needed a third week of home confinement just to ensure I looked presentable before going out in public again.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much writing done during the month.

But some good things happened, too . . .

First, I began plotting a new Jane Austen inspired story that centers on Kitty Bennet.

Lydia (Julia Sawalha) and Kitty Bennet (Polly Maberly) in BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.

In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Kitty is a minor character, who never really gets a chance to show readers who she is. In fact, Kitty is really little more than a follower; her personality is constantly overshadowed by that of her younger sister Lydia. I’ve always been intrigued by Kitty (just as I was by her sister Mary, who also got short-shrift in P&P). I’m hoping this new story will give Kitty a chance to shine and find a Happily Ever After of her own. I’ll keep you posted in my progress.

The other great thing that happened in January: I scored tickets to Hamilton! Here’s my happy dance:

I absolutely love going to the theater and seeing live performances; it’s even better when I can make an evening of it by having dinner at my favorite restaurant before the show.

But before I put on my best clothes and head downtown for a night out in Denver, I have some serious writing to catch up on. I have publishing goals to meet this year and I’m already behind on my daily word counts.

So today I’m going back to work with a vengeance and, if everything goes right, I’ll soon be able to report to you on my progress. In the meantime . . .

Happy February! I hope it proves to be a great month for you!

Scenes from Cheapside

I’m working on a new story; it’s a variation on Pride and Prejudice that centers on the mayhem caused by Lydia’s elopement with Wickham.

Some of the scenes will take place in the London home of the Gardiners in Cheapside.

Since my memory and imagination are sparked by visual cues, I’ve collected quite a few images of Cheapside for inspiration. Today I’ll share some of those images with you..

A map of the City of London in 1799, bounded in red, bordering the River Thames.

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For orientation, Cheapside is located in the City of London (not to be confused with London. Yes, London and the City of London are two different places.).

A close-up view of the 1799 map showing Cheapside and Gracechurch streets (in rectangles). St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London are highlighted in circles.

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Cheapside is located in the heart of The City. For hundreds of years it’s been the country’s main center of commerce and trade. In fact, it gained its name from the old Saxon word Chepe, meaning market or bargain.

A 1911 postcard showing bustling Cheapside; Mansion House is the structure with columns on the left

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Street names like Poultry, Milk, Pudding, Ironmonger, Bread, and Shoemaker serve as reminders of the area’s old market origins.

The gateway to Cheapside as it appeared in 1903. Mansion House is the building with columns on the left. The road that angles off to the right is Cheapside, with the church spire of St. Mary-le-Bow.

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Geographically, Cheapside covers less than a mile but more tradesmen were packed into the length of this street than any other avenue in the City of London.

A view of Mansion House, residence of the Lord Mayor of London, as it appeared in 1837.

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Mr. Gardiner was engaged in trade in Cheapside, while his home was located on Gracechurch Street. The Gardiners lived within blocks of London Bridge on the east end of The City. I like to imagine they may have had a very good view of the Tower of London from their windows.

Cheapside, looking east down the street. The Church of St Mary-le-Bow is on the right. circa 1760.

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The Gardiner home would have been within walking distance of the center of England’s economic power.

The Bank of England (building on the right with columns) and Royal Exchange (on the left) as they appeared in 1907.

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Nearby was Mansion House (the residence of the Lord Mayor of London), the Bank of England, the Treasury, Custom House, and Royal Exchange.

The Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, and Mansion House by Nicholas-Toussaint Charlet.

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Beside great houses of commerce, Cheapside was famous for its retail establishments. Some of the best shopping to be had in Jane Austen’s time was in Cheapside.

A booksellers shop at No. 73 Cheapside, about 1790.

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From hat-makers to perfumeries, stationers to pianofortes, time-pieces to cottons and silks—the finest merchandise could be found in the warehouses and shops at Cheapside.

The London to Brighton Coach making a stop at Cheapside about 1830, by William Turner.

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Even on Gracechurch Street, where the Gardiners lived, shops and businesses of all sorts mingled with family homes.

The interior yard of the Spread Eagle Inn on Gracechurch street, about 1850.

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It’s no wonder, then, that merchants in Cheapside were extremely successful, and Mr. Gardiner was no exception.

The old Royal Exchange with the dome of St. Paul’s in the background, depicted in 1795 by Thomas Girtin. The Royal Exchange pictured burned down in 1838 but was rebuilt on the same site. It’s located on Threadneedle Street at the east end of Cheapside.

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Mr. Gardiner supported his family very well, indeed. Jane Austen described the Gardiners as well-bred and elegant. His income allowed him to host parties at the theater, while Mrs. Gardiner was free to squire Elizabeth, Sir William Lucas, and Maria Lucas through a day of shopping in London.

A 1930 photograph of the oldest house in Cheapside. Legend has it this building on the corner of Cheapside and Friday Street survived the Great Fire of 1666.

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Mr. Gardiner’s business was sound enough to allow him to take time off on a fairly regular basis. He and his family made frequent trips to visit the Bennets for as long as a week at a time.

View of The Monument from the south end of Gracechurch Street. Beydon The Monument is Fish Street Hill and old London Bridge. The church spire belongs to St. Magnus Martyr. The Monument was erected to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666.

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And in March 1812 the Gardiners invited Elizabeth to join them on a lengthy “pleasure tour” of the Lakes. In the end, unexpected business concerns forced Mr. Gardiner to postpone their travels until July of that year, but they still intended to spend a month touring Derbyshire.

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC miniseries looks over the countryside of the Peak District in Derbyshire.

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I have to admit Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are two of my favorite Pride and Prejudice characters. Mr. Gardiner is an effective foil for his sister Mrs. Bennet, and Mrs. Gardiner is a loving and trusted confidante to the two eldest Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth.

Joanna David and Tim Wylton as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice

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I’m looking forward to writing about the Gardiners’ home in Cheapside and the many visitors they receive there. (Hint: one of their callers will be a very proud young man from Derbyshire.)

Stay tuned for more . . .

Jane Austen and the Weekly Reader Book Club

When I was a kid in grade school the best day ever was the day my teacher distributed the Weekly Reader Book Club catalog to the class.

A Weekly Reader catalog from 1964

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It was a four-page listing of paperback books children could purchase. For me (growing up in a family that didn’t believe in giving children an allowance) that meant I had to earn the money to buy books. I did extra chores for my parents and neighbors, like pulling weeds for a quarter and sweeping out the garage for fifty cents. I essentially volunteered to do any job that no one else wanted to do.

But come Weekly Reader day, I had money to spend, and that’s what mattered.

Arrow Book Club catalog from the late 1960s

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I have vivid memories of taking my Weekly Reader catalog home and studying it very carefully. My money was hard-earned, and there was only so much of it to go around. I was intent on making the best possible book choices.

Once I decided on my purchases, I filled out the order slip, counted my change into an envelope, which I sealed and wrote my name on, and handed everything—order form and envelope—to my teacher the next day.

The Wrong Box was the first book I read by Robert Louis Stevenson, bought through the Weekly Reader.

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Now that I think about it, ordering the books was easy. The difficult part was waiting for the books to arrive. It’s hard to describe how exciting it was for me two weeks later to see the box sitting on my teacher’s desk, knowing she was going to open it at the end of the day and deliver my books to me at my desk.

My books. Those two words were powerful to me. I loved the idea of owning books of my very own. Books I didn’t have to return to a library; books that didn’t come from a second–hand store. The books my teacher delivered to me were new and beautiful and had never been read by anyone else before. They were just for me.

That experience—repeated over and over again through my elementary and middle school years—firmly established my life-long love for books and reading. The books I bought as a child became my treasures. Now, as an adult, I still have many of the first books I purchased through the Weekly Reader Book Club.

Another purchase. I bought this novel because it was the basis for a Disney movie.

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One of those books was Pride and Prejudice, which I bought when I was 12 years old. Like all lovers of Jane Austen, I now have multiple copies of the novel, but my 1966 Weekly Reader edition is still my go-to copy.

On the inside front cover is my signature scrawled in a twelve-year-old’s hand; and if I set the book down on its spine, the pages now fall naturally open to my favorite parts of the book.

My first copy of Sense and Sensibility also found its way into my home library through the Weekly Reader program. It was Sense and Sensibility that sealed my love for Jane Austen. It, too, is well worn; the cover and most of the pages came loose from the spine decades ago, and I have to keep them in place by tying the book with a ribbon. Still, this version remains my favorite reading copy of S&S.

It’s interesting to me that my love for Jane Austen’s novels was sparked at the same time I first realized my love for books and reading in general. They were simultaneous occurrences, and both combined into a single desire to build my own library of books that I would treasure my entire life.

Another Weekly Reader buy. Not everything I read as a kid was high-brow.

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What about you? Did you buy your own books from a school program like the Weekly Reader?

Do you remember the first book you ever bought? Please share the name of the book in the comments section. Do you still have the book today?