Follies Past by Melanie Kerr: Review and Author Q&A
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Taking its facts from Austen’s own words, Follies Past opens almost a year before the opening of Pride and Prejudice itself, at Pemberley, at Christmas. Fourteen-year-old Georgiana has just been taken from school and is preparing to transfer to London in the spring. It follows Georgiana to London, to Ramsgate and into the arms of the charming and infamous Mr. Wickham.
Remember last year when I did Austen in August and decided that even though Austen is Awesome, she kind of wasn’t for me (with the exception of Persuasion because let’s face it, Captain Wentworth is for everybody?) It’s a credit to Ms. Kerr’s persuasiveness (sorry) that I decided to read Follies Past. I didn’t want to set myself up for a disappointing read, or deal with the awkwardness of a writing a bad review of a local, self-published book. But over the course of a few weeks’ email correspondence, she wore me down. I picked up the ebook and girded myself.
It wasn’t just Kerr’s salesmanship (thought it was impressive) that convinced me. She created a series of wonderfully overwrought book trailers that are far more entertaining than those of best selling authors. And she blogs. Her blog is neither in your face promotion nor dubious writing tips; rather, it’s an interesting and educational look at what goes into writing a historical novel and publishing it yourself. Kerr’s expertise in the Regency era comes through in her fiction, but her blog really drives it home. My favourite posts are those about about peculiarities of Regency language, but she also rants about misuse of “beg the question,” one of my pet peeves.
What about the book?
Right! The best thing about Follies Past is that the writing style comes oh-so-close to Austen, it feels completely natural and not at all like that “put a Zombie on it” brand of adaptation. Kerr’s wit isn’t quite as razor sharp, but that’s like saying you are slightly worse at playing piano that Mozart. I don’t know about you, but I read Austen for the sick burns more than the romance, and there are plenty here. Speaking of romance, here’s our hero contemplating marriage with Caroline:
A wife would bring select society into their home, would ensure Georgiana was exposed to tother people… and would save him the trouble of making friends himself…As he was not in the habit of receiving young ladies to Pemberley, Caroline was the only eligible person that he had lately witnessed about the place. Therefore, when he imagined a lady of the house, he imagine her as Caroline. He only wished that she were not so objectionable.
Insert sarcastic *swoon* here. And am I imagining all the Clueless references I’m finding these days? A reference to an Austen adaptation in an Austen adaptation?
She always intended to arrive as the sun was setting, in order that her complexion might profit by the glow of evening light.
Though a P&P prequel, I liked that the story picks up some themes from Austen’s other works. The frequent references to “bad” novels, including a shout out to The Monk which is the baddest gothic novel ever, made me think of poor Catherine in Northanger Abbey and her obsession with Anne Radcliffe novels. And Clare’s misadventures as she travels to stop Wickham before he goes to far reminded me of Catherine’s frustration as she deals with gross James.
I also enjoyed how Kerr didn’t stick to the tried and true P&P cast, she created Clare, the bad novel-loving friend of young Georgiana. Clare was not my favourite though. I always wanted to get back to the dastardly Wickham and oblivious Caroline. Kerr did a bang up job with these characters, who were so one-note in the original, but have real depth here, even though they’re the object of the narrator’s disdain. I got a sense for how society set them up with expectations they could not realize and how many of their vanities and fixations come out of that.
I *may* also have been predisposed to sympathize with Wickham due to the actor who plays him in the trailer. I mean, come ON.
For a reader like me, who isn’t big on Austen, adaptations, or romance, this book was a surprise and a delight. I’m glad the author wore me down. Janeite or not, the writing is worth the trip back to Pemberley.
Ms. Kerr was kind enough to answer some of my questions over email. This exchange was followed by much Damian Lewis fangirling, which just speaks so well to her character.
Other than your own, do you have a favourite Austen adaptation? Or one that inspired you? (Loved your non-review of Longbourne, by the way.)
Thanks! It was a tough book to review because I admired it on many levels, but it also bothered me in many ways. Essentially, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice.
I don’t yet have a favourite Austen spinoff book, but I do have a favourite spinoff production, which is Lost in Austen. I wrote a review of it on my blog but basically, it is a mini-series about a modern-day Austen lover who finds a door in her bathroom that leads to Longbourn, where she finds herself trading places with Elizabeth Bennet. What I love about it is that they retain the humour that is so often lost in spinoffs and adaptations. Austen is incredibly funny, and a lot of attempts to imitate her miss that.
Are there any contemporary books you would recommend to Jane Austen fans?
I have actually read shockingly few books in my life. I usually just read what someone puts in my hand with their recommendation. My favourite author after Austen is probably John Galsworthy, who wrote the Forsyte Saga. I saw it as a mini-series first, back in 2002 and that production might actually trump the 2005 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, which is saying a lot. I have now also read the book, and again, the author has great wit and insight, and wonderful characters, all of them victims of their own personalities. I cannot say how many hours I have spent discussing the motivations and shortcomings of Soames Forsyte alone. It is really a wonderful piece of work.
Many of the reactions and reviews talk about how dreadful Caroline Bingley and Wickham are, but I thought they were presented in a pretty balanced light – we come to understand the financial and social pressures they were under and why they act the way they did. How much do you sympathise with them?
I don’t know if I actually like either of them, but I do feel like I understand them. Selfishness is a universal and eternal human flaw, and both of them have never had reason to discipline themselves or exercise any sort of objective introspection. I think everyone is a bit like that, ready to blame everyone else for what’s wrong in their life, to think they deserve more than they really do, to twist the facts to suit their preferred version of events. Wickham and Caroline are both just a bit more extreme than the rest of this in their own self-regard. Their interest in each other, I thought, was quite natural. They both have a propensity to look down on other people, to find themselves quite witty and charming in their criticisms, and the snob in me at least recognizes that feeling of intimacy that comes from discovering another snob of the same persuasion. And I was so intrigued and fascinated by the possibility that they could have found happiness with each other, if only they hadn’t been both so petty and deceptive. I thought they became kind of likeable as a pair in a way they never would be again as individuals.
One of my favourite characters in the novel is Anne. We know so little about her, and I was surprised by where you took her character. Maybe I’m fuzzy on my P&P memories, but did you take much direction from the text, or is she more your own creation?
Before I started writing Follies Past, I went through Pride and Prejudice and compiled extracts on all the characters – every reference to each of those who featured in my book. There is almost nothing about Anne. She barely makes an appearance, and she has no lines. She doesn’t speak at all in the whole book, at least not in quotations marks. She is just silent. She is also, apparently, sickly. Mrs. Jenkinson fusses over her, but nobody talks to her. So I felt like I was free to do whatever I wanted with her. I tried to take liberties only with characters that nobody cares about anyway, and keep the beloved characters exactly to the letter as readers would expect. I just thought it would be hilarious if it turned out that this taciturn, meek little creature turned out to be this brazen rebel in disguise, silently judging everyone who judged her in her silence. There is nothing in Pride and Prejudice to contradict this twist, and in the end it was useful to my plot, so I ran with it.
And finally, a few resources for Edmonton Area Janeites:
- Check out the local JASNA chapter on Facebook
- The author is organizing a Michaelmas Ball this September at Hotel MacDonald, featuring period music and entertainment. And an appearance by Mr. Darcy!
- Check out another Edmonton author’s take on P&P with Krista Ball’s First (Wrong) Impressions (my review.)