Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Book Review: Colonel Brandon in His Own Words by Shannon Winslow

Colonel Brandon is the consummate gentleman: honorable, kind almost to a fault, ever loyal and chivalrous. He’s also silent and grave, though. So, what events in his troubled past left him downcast, and how does he finally find the path to a brighter future? In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen gives us glimpses, but not the complete picture. 

Now Colonel Brandon tells us his full story in His Own Words. He relates the truth about his early family life and his dear Eliza – his devotion to her and the devastating way she was lost to him forever. He shares with us a poignant tale from his military days in India – about a woman named Rashmi and how she likewise left a permanent mark on his soul. And of course Marianne. What did Brandon think and feel when he first saw her? How did his hopes for her subsequently rise, plummet, and then eventually climb upwards again. After Willoughby’s desertion, what finally caused Marianne to see Colonel Brandon in a different light? 

This is not a variation but a supplement to the original story, chronicled in Brandon’s point of view. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the things Jane Austen didn’t tell us about a true hero, the very best of men.

The title of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is derived from the personalities of the two main female characters of the novel. Elder Elinor Dashwood is the sister of steady sense, whereas younger Marianne’s romantic and emotional sensibilities make her the less restrained of the two women. However, there is another character who could also be considered a person of measured sense, Colonel Brandon, the mature veteran who becomes besotted with young Marianne. He is the model of restraint and decorum, and Austen did not give her readers copious amounts of background information about him. 

Full disclosure: I am ashamed to admit that I have not read Sense and Sensibility in its entirety. Like many modern Janeites, the bulk of my appreciation for this story comes from the visual adaptations of it, such as the 1995 movie and the 2008 TV miniseries. While these versions do divert from the source material somewhat, what remains consistent is that Colonel Brandon is somewhat of an enigmatic figure at times. He clearly has had trying experiences in his personal and professional past, and this influences how he comports himself in society. As author Shannon Winslow writes, he is a “staid, timeworn fellow.” Those who enjoy Sense and Sensibility (S&S) might wonder how this demeanor was developed. Certainly some of it was integral to his innate personality, but at the “advanced” age of thirty-five at the outset of the novel, surely his youthful experiences and time in the military had some measure of effect.

Shannon Winslow’s latest novel Colonel Brandon in His Own Words addresses this curiosity. She has indicated that she has not particularly altered the events of S&S, but has expanded upon them, giving readers insight into the inner workings of Brandon’s mind. His story is not told in strictly linear fashion. Winslow employs flashback stories, detailing the events of the Colonel’s past that led him to grow into the man who becomes enchanted by the lovely Marianne Dashwood. The events within S&S are fleshed out as well, as readers are given more material regarding the friendship between the unlikely pair that eventually become a romantic couple.

Because the pre-S&S episodes are mostly composed of completely new content from the mind of Shannon Winslow, she was free to expound upon Colonel Brandon’s past. I found those chapters to be particularly riveting. His efforts to be with his beloved Eliza at a young age, and his adventures during his days in India were captivating. Those two aspects of his history could have been an independent book on their own, with no mention of the Dashwoods at all. However, pairing these influential moments with Brandon’s present-day was an excellent way of showing the reader the manner in which he became the man he was. It was Marianne’s similarity to Eliza which drew him in initially. His “failure” to protect Eliza and others motivated him to come to the Dashwoods’ aid as well. All of these difficult life lessons are explained in Brandon’s first-person voice, with all his doubts and insecurities on display.

Winslow’s writing remains consistent with her previous works. Her tone is accessible, but she is adept with the 19th century vernacular and vocabulary. Her knowledge of cultural norms is evident, and while she is not heavy-hitting with her Christian faith, aspects of it are made clear at key points in the narrative. As such, the content is mature, but is also family-friendly. Tough issues are openly but carefully addressed, such as out-of-wedlock pregnancies, deadly religious rites in India and the habits of men who see women as commodities. There is no colorful language openly stated, and romantic scenes are satisfying but not steamy.

Colonel Brandon in His Own Words is an excellent examination of a man who has a complicated history. While circumspect on the outside, Brandon has been given a rich inner life by Shannon Winslow which is charmingly sentimental and spiritual. This character has always been known as a man of honor, but through Winslow’s vision of him we not only see why this is the case, but also how deeply that honor runs within. The sisters of Sense and Sensibility were originally given the spotlight by Austen, but in this new composition a worthy gentleman has been given his due, in a compelling manner to which I can offer my hearty endorsement.

About the Author

Shannon Winslow claims she was minding her own business when an ordinary trip to Costco a dozen years ago changed her life. That was the day a copy of the ’95 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice fairly leapt off the shelf and into her oversized shopping cart. She has been hopelessly hooked on all things Jane Austen ever since, her obsession ultimately inspiring her to begin writing her own stories a la Austen.

Winslow's 2011 debut novel, The Darcys of Pemberley, quickly become a best seller, praised for its authentic Austen style and faithfulness to the original characters. Eight more novels and a Jane Austen Devotional have since followed, with no end to her creative output in sight! 

Her two sons now grown, Shannon lives with her husband in the log home they built in the countryside south of Seattle, where she writes and paints in her studio facing Mr. Rainier. Visit Shannon at her website/blog:  Shannon Winslow’s “Jane Austen Says..." and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.



Audiobook to Come!

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Book Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen

A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of La Belle Époque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, who shattered the boundaries of fashion with her magnificently sensual and enchantingly unique designs.

Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?

When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option. 

Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. 

Seven years ago I read Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen. Despite my hopes, the book was not a good match for me. However, in that murder mystery I appreciated Arlen’s talents as an author. When reading the premise of her latest work, A Dress of Violet Taffeta, it seemed that I might have an opportunity to try again and have a reasonable hope to offer a positive review. Like many in my generation, I have been fascinated with the story of the doomed Titanic, and the 1997 film is one of my favorite movies. I also highly enjoyed the fashion-based elements of Mimi Matthews’ The Siren of Sussex, which I reviewed in January. While based on historical fact, Taffeta is a somewhat fictionalized period piece set in the world of fashion, culminating with one of the most dramatic disasters of the 20th century.

              Lady Lucy Duff Gordon
Although the most dramatic portion of the narrative comes near the end with the events of the Titanic, this tragedy does not dominate the majority of the book. In fact, I had assumed there would be more on this subject and was surprised that it came so late in the story. I was slightly disappointed with this, but the remainder of the content in the novel is still very captivating. Lucy begins her new life as a single mother with very little, and builds this into a virtual empire in the fashion industry. She endures corporate espionage, dire illness, near-eviction and other challenges, most of which were made more difficult because she was a divorced woman. Her determination to hold onto her passion for dressmaking while flourishing in business was quite admirable.  

A Dress of Violet Taffeta was a highly enjoyable novel, and was a much better match for this reader. Tessa Arlen has crafted the biographical facts of Lady Lucy Duff Gordon into an inspiring tale of persistence and passion. She was not only a survivor of the Titanic, but weathered challenges both personally and professionally for decades. Lucy was a strong, yet vulnerable character, and Arlen’s depiction of her draws the reader in so that we come to care about her fate. The descriptions of Gordon’s artistic creations of fashion brought much color to the story, showing us that the fashions of “Lucile” were more than just a livelihood for her: they were the fulfilment of her life's purpose. 

For my conservative readership, I can report that the novel is fairly family-friendly. Colorful language does pop up now and again, and there are mentions of the extramarital goings-on within “polite” society. One romantic couple (planning to soon marry) does sleep together, but there is no graphic bedroom scene. There are also a few mentions of one husband’s cruel behaviors towards his wife during times of intimacy. During the scenes of the sinking of the Titanic, the details regarding the fates of those who perished are heartbreaking.

My main negative quibble for Taffeta is Arlen’s use of dates at the beginning of and interspersed within the chapters of the novel. Although the work is not meant to be as reliable as a textbook, using particular dates such as April 14, 1912 does give an air of specificity to the scenes. There were times when the ages of characters and dates offered did not line up with history and/or Arlen’s timeline. This is an extremely minor issue, and it doesn’t really detract from the quality of the novel overall.

A Dress of Violet Taffeta is a highly enjoyable narrative of a woman determined to survive within multiple theaters of life. Lucy Duff Gordon was not only able to pursue her passion for fashion, but she reshaped the industry, created an empire and survived far more than a sinking of an ocean liner. A caring mother, wife, employer and designer, her story has much to recommend it. Tessa Arlen has done a fabulous job in bringing the story of Lucile to the world.  

About the Author

Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fictions; In Royal Service to the Queen and available July 5, 2022 A Dress of Violet Taffeta.

Tessa lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.


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