Escape from quaranland

Small comforts on a Sunday

Good Sunday to all of you! The sun has come out here on Gabriola and it looks like increasingly warmer weather over the next week. I don’t know about you, but that is a little lift I can really use. Things feel a bit heavy right now, and to that end I offer you a simple cake recipe and a novel review that does not delve into the dystopian!

Sunday recipe: Pecan cake

I’m breaking away from the healthy snacks this month for cake!

Ingredients

Cake
1/4 cup of softened butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Topping
3 Tbsp melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp half and half
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup diced pecans

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 (F). Prepare 9-inch springform pan with baking spray and parchment.

  2. In stand-mixer, cream butter and sugar. Add egg and stir until smooth. Stir in buttermilk and vanilla.

  3. Spring flour, baking soda, and salt on top of liquid ingredients and stir until well-combined.

  4. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes

  5. While cake bakes, prepare topping by combining all ingredients in a saucepan and heating until melted together.

  6. At 30 minute mark, remove cake from oven, spread topping on top and return to oven for 10 minutes.


Book notes: The Other Bennet Sister

Light and transporting for these impatient and difficult days.

I was set to write about an entirely different book this month, when I realized that none of us need another dystopia right now. Instead, I am delving into the latest addition to Jane Austen retellings, The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow, published in 2020.

Readers of Pride and Prejudice might remember that the story principally revolves around the marriage prospects of the five Bennet sisters–Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia. (If you don’t want any spoilers on this 108-year-old novel, then read no further). P&P focuses mainly on Elizabeth (who eventually marries the aloof Mr. Darcy), though Jane and Lydia also carry their own strong story arcs (Jane marries Mr. Bingley while Lydia scandalously runs off with a soldier!) Kitty is overshadowed by the younger Lydia, often seen in tandem with her, but it is Mary who gets the fewest lines in the novel. She is described as the only sister with plain looks, and in one of the longest descriptions she receives in the novel, Austen describes her piano playing thus, "Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached." Not very flattering.

In The Other Bennet Sister, Hadfield picks up on these and other small moments in P&P and elaborates on them as an entry point into Mary’s story, the least liked, and one without companionship in the family. Jane and Elizabeth have each other, as do Kitty and Lydia - but Mary is seen as priggish by her older sisters and boring by her younger ones. She is stiff and bookish, does not dress stylishly, and has trouble with even the smallest niceties of social relations. The fact she requires glasses in order to see does her no favours, as her mother Mrs. Bennet is constantly reminding her. No man wants a woman marred by spectacles! Her father, Mr. Bennet is not much help in setting her at ease either. While he allows her to use his library for serious study, he does nothing to engage or encourage her intellectual curiosity, and jabs at her choice of reading material as being too moral and lacking in intellectual rigour.

Hadfield takes us through the main plot points of Pride and Prejudice in the first quarter of The Other Bennet Sister, and but quickly delivers Mary out of the bosom of her family so that she may have her own story. On the death of Mr. Bennet, Mary lives briefly with Jane and then Elizabeth, before travelling on to stay with the cousin who has taken over Longbourn, the family house, and married a friend of Elizabeth (Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas). It is there she begins to develop more of her own ideas about what constitutes a good life. Her cousin introduces her to Aristotle and teaches her Greek (he is very surprised to find a young woman so intellectually curious), and she has time to reflect further on marriage, companionship, and what constitutes a good and fulfilling life.

How, she mused, are we to understand happiness, and the ways in which it is brought about? Is it determined by inherited temperament? Or is it all a matter of chance, a quality arbitrarily bestowed on some but not on others? Do our circumstances matter? Are beauty and wealth more likely to produce happiness than goodness and self-sacrifice? And is there anything an individual can do to improve their own sense of contentment and satisfaction?

From there she travels to London where she moves in with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. In Mrs. Gardiner Mary encounters for the first time in her life, someone who truly has sympathy for her and takes an interest. With her aunt’s small attentions, Mary continues to grow as a person, and even attracts the notice of suitors. She breaks free of her rational self to allow the influence of Wordsworth and other poets of her day, and comes to terms with a life free from the dreary country destiny which seemed sure to be hers at the end of P&P. (Jane Austen, later in life told people that she envisioned Mary as having gone on to a rather lowly marriage, contented with a small life in Meryton).

Only when we know ourselves—when we have examined and understood our strengths and weaknesses, when we have been honest enough to admit what we really desire from life—only then do we have any chance at all of attaining it.

Pride and Prejudice may have more retellings or spin-offs than any other book. There are versions that emphasize the erotic, introduce zombies, follow Elizabeth to Pemberly, or tell the story from the servants point of view. There is a modern re-telling (Bridget Jones’s Diary), a Muslim recast, and a murder mystery by PD James. I have not read all of these versions (though I really can recommend Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) so I am not able to compare Hadfield to her forerunners in the Austen fan-fiction genre. What I can say is that she does an excellent job of re-creating the world of the Bennet Family, and her writing is an entirely believable sequel both in terms of content and literary style. She is not as satiric as Jane Austen, and there is an inconsistency that one might expect by someone writing looking back at the time period; sometimes her characters are overly formal, at others they seem to flout social conventions like the requirement for a chaperone during social visits. But even with these small criticisms, I found myself drawn right back into the upper middle-class intrigues and dramas that I treasure in the tales spun by Jane Austen.

If you like the Regency and Victorian-era novelists, this novel is a perfect piece of escapism for right now. It’s lengthy enough for several days of reading, it transports us to an entirely different time and place, and it expands on characters and dramas we know and love. It is entirely possible to enjoy this read without having read P&P, though I’m not sure why you wouldn’t start with Austen herself!


Vowing

When feeling impatient to be vaccinated
I vow with all beings
To simply wait
for my turn.


And finally

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