Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Lions and Liquorice by Kate Fenton (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: September)

on September 30, 2013

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200It is a truth universally acknowledged – at least according to certain shiny magazines – that a single actress in possession of fortune, fame and more work than she can handle, must be in want of something.  Otherwise life wouldn’t be fair, would it?  And when that actress has reached the age of twenty-nine, it seems reasonable to assume that she might be in want of a husband.  Babies, even.  In fact, it would be nice to think she’s secretly yearning for some plain, routine domesticity of the kind experienced by us ordinary mortals who read such magazines.

This is the modern twist on the opening of Pride and Prejudice, which forms the not-quite-opening (there’s a prologue and a quotation first!) of Lions and Liquorice, Kate Fenton’s modern twist on the novel itself.

Despite the light, rom-com feel of this book, I found it extremely clever.  I knew from the start that it was a version of P&P in which all the genders were reversed, but picking it up to read at a time when I was exhausted and under the weather, I decided I didn’t have the energy to be on the look out for parallels all the way through – I’d just read it, and see what I thought.  Well, I didn’t have to be on the look out, because they were all there – not in a blindingly obvious, in-your-face-can-you-see-what-I’ve-done-here sort of way, but popping up and surprising me in every chapter.  Well, often after I’d finished the chapter and gone onto the next one, and then suddenly thought “oh yes! ha!” (I did say I was tired!)

Now, at this point I’m going to have to deviate from my stated aims regarding spoilers (you can read about them in this post), because I absolutely can’t continue to review this book without discussing the structure, and that means I have to talk about the content.  You’ll see what I mean if you read on – I’m not going to tell you everything that happens, but if you’d like to read this book and come to it fresh then I’ll bid you farewell now and welcome you back for my next post in October!  If you do read it, please pop back and see if you agree with my comments!

So, the book begins with the prologue – a phone conversation between author Nick Llewellyn Bevan and his ex-wife Caro.  She’s needling him about his recent lack of success and his current writer’s block.  He mentions that he’s about to appear on an arts programme alongside a bestselling romantic novelist who’s now publishing a book of tips for those interested in following in her footsteps.  Anyone could write that kind of trash, though, he remarks, to which his ex responds that if that’s true, she’s amazed more people don’t, given the money it makes…

Episode One begins by looking at by introducing various characters – Candia Bingham (the actress described in the opening paragraph), Bernard and Sarah Nuttall, proprietors of the Red Lion pub, their son Christopher, Nick (known, in the Yorkshire village where they all live, as Llew) and his friend John, a widower, who lives in a converted outbuilding of Llew’s house.  Mary Dance, Roderick Chatterton and Patrick Mather.  Candia, Roddy and Patrick are starring in a new production of Pride and Prejudice which is being filmed in the local area and directed by Mary.   The arrival of the cast and crew in the village gives Llew the idea of writing a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, and the events which follow provide him with plenty of fodder for his story.  The characters all meet up at a cricket club disco in the village and, to everyone’s amazement, John is singled out to dance by the lovely Candia while Llew, who sees Mary as a potential contact who might help him get one of his novels filmed or televised, finds himself snubbed and described as “halfway presentable”.  Time passes, John and Candia become inseparable and Llew and Mary begin to form a friendship.  However, Mary, keen to impress upon Candia the need to stop relying on her looks and work harder at furthering her career, is horrified to hear that her young friend plans to move John down to London when they leave Maltstone.

A sub-plot begins to develop surrounding the freehold to the Red Lion, which until recently was held by Bernard’s elderly uncle.  It was always expected that it would pass to the Nuttalls on his death, until he unexpectedly remarried, aged 72, and then died, leaving the pub to his recent bride Irene (pronounce Irenee).  As Nick is sitting writing one day, the doorbell rings and there stands Irene herself.  She’s looking for John but has come to the other house by mistake.

At this point, for few minutes, I became totally confused.  The narrative stops half way through a word, there’s a gap in the page and then the text begins again with another ring of the doorbell.  This time it’s Caro, who becomes confused when he tells her it was supposed to be the Reverend Collins at the door.  Caro discovers and reads the half-written manuscript of his modern-day Pride and Prejudice and it becomes clear that the previous 100 pages of the book were, in fact, that manuscript.  I’m not sure if the reader is intended to understand that in advance (looking back for the purposes of this review, I realise that there is half a page in which he’s described as Nick, not Llew, and contemplating the next scene, so it’s possible I was just being a bit dim) but it certainly took me by surprise!

Episode Two covers “real life”, which means all the surnames are changed – it’s a bit confusing for the reader at times, but no more so than for poor old Nick who even struggles on occasion to remember that they are real people and not characters he’s invented!  Most of the events in his story really have happened, as he explains to Caro, although Bernard and Sarah own their own freehold and their son Chris actually belongs to Nick and Caro!  The film party leaves Maltstone and a devastated John is abandoned by Candia, who heads off to New York.  The story progresses loosely along the lines of Pride and Prejudice, with Nick visiting his friend Charlie (the real husband of Irene, who is every inch the female Collins!) whilst in Llandudno for an arts festival.  He meets Mary again and their relationship progresses, despite negative stories he’s heard of her from her former employee Sasha, but when he hears that Mary was responsible for the end of John’s relationship with Candia he’s furious and walks out on her.

In Episode Three, Nick receives a letter of explanation from Mary.  His agent, George, mistakes his misery since returning from Wales as upset over Caro’s imminent remarriage, and arranges for him to accompany George and his wife on a trip to America, ostensibly for networking purposes.  Nick searches for Candia in New York and eventually tracks her down at a party held by Mary’s father.  Life begins to imitate art ever more seriously as Candia immediately asks after John (despite Roddy’s attempts to steer her away) and Nick and Mary are reconciled over the phone, only to discover before they can be reunited that Christopher has gone missing and Nick has to return to the UK to search for him.  This parallel to Lydia’s crisis in Austen’s original novel was very well-conceived, I thought, and accurately portrayed the sense of panic experienced by parents when a child disappears.

If you know P&P, you’ll be able to guess how things turn out, although the finer details are slightly different.  I really enjoyed this novel – there’s plenty of comedy and enough twists to keep the reader’s interest, even one as familiar with P&P as I am!  I thought that the story within a story element worked very well (despite my initial confusion) and demonstrated that sometimes real life is more exciting even than anything we can imagine.  There’s a lot of knowing references to Nick’s writing and its relationship with the events taking place, which I found entertaining, and the structure overall worked really well.  Altogether, I think this book was better than I expected – I felt I would enjoy it, but I had anticipated a “re-write” of a Jane Austen novel to be more predictable and have less of its own plot.

There’s an interesting story behind the writing of this novel which you can read on Kate Fenton’s website here.  The only thing the website didn’t tell me was why the title was changed for the US market to Vanity and Vexation.  Lions and Liquorice has a somewhat tenuous connection to the plot (in case you’re wondering – Mary found the location for the Pride and Prejudice shoot when she was researching for a film about liquorice making which is a local industry; Llew is Welsh for lion – there you go!), but I don’t think the ideas of vanity and vexation are any more representative.

For October I intend to review the audio book of Longbourn by Jo Baker, which I’ve heard a lot about and am looking forward to.

UPDATE: In fact I shall be reviewing Longbourn for November, as for October I watched a short Austen-inspired “season” on the BBC daytime soap Doctors.

Thankful for…


A smooth(ish) start to the school term

A lovely coffee morning on Friday, which raised £25 for Macmillan Cancer Support and was a good time catching up with friends

The reappearance of a missing schoolbook which has caused much stress

Progress in looking for a secondary school for the Bookworm (to start September 2014)

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