Book Review for “Begin Again” by Ursula Orange.
Jane, Florence, Leslie, and Sylvia are four friends from their days at Oxford. Since going down, their lives have taken different paths. Jane and Florence live together in a tiny flat in London; Sylvia and Leslie are back at their family homes. None of them are poor, yet none of them are wealthy. This is a story of four essentially ordinary women. To this, Goodreads adds, “As the four friends balance their youthful ideals with the realities of work and romance in 1930s England, Orange offers hilarious and thoughtful perspectives on the quandaries of educated, ambitious women in a world not yet ready for them.”
This was actually Orange’s debut novel, but I didn’t know that when I got it. If this seems like a bit of a departure for me – being technically contemporary fiction, with a good deal of romance – I think you’ll forgive me. See, I was intrigued when I read a book review by my friend Simon over at Stuck in a Book for Ursula Orange’s novel “Company in the Evening” and decided to look up the author. That’s how I found her debut novel “Begin Again” (which came with the opening chapter of the book Simon reviewed). Well, I have to say thank you to Simon for turning me on to this author, because the short version of this review is, this book is simply delightful! (I’m also kicking myself that I had only started reading this when I did the last #6Degrees of Separation, because this would have been perfect to link to Austen’s “Sanditon”!)
As for the title of this review, I’m really quite serious about this comparison. We all know that Jane Austen was, to no small extent, writing stories that made fun of the type of people who populated her world – ones who might be considered what we might call middle class; people with somewhat precarious finances, yet with standing in society that kept them from being considered poor or lower class, but nowhere near well off. These were people whose place in society still allowed them to mingle with the wealthier and/or titled classes, yet probably not marry into them. Orange’s book seems to deal with a more modern version of the worries of this same societal stratum, and like Austen, focuses on the women, and how they deal with their lives.
Austen, of course, had quite a satirical bent to her novels, even when some characters look like their lives might have some real problems. Austen’s view seemed to be that the women in these circles had three choices: marry someone with a good income; marry someone who didn’t have a good income, or; end up a spinster, probably left to care for the elderly relatives and who knows what would happen to them after they were all gone and their work done. Where love came into the two first options, depended mostly on luck combined with a very good measure of cleverness. Orange, on the other hand seems to say that women of her era might have slightly more options. Gainful employment, for example, is one of those options, but her particular women weren’t looking for careers like the more working-class girls who never had the advantage of attending university, and instead trained for such things as being secretaries. However, it should be noted that Orange never looks down her nose at those girls, and in fact, seems to somewhat scorn women who take on such jobs only for the chance to live in the big city and find a husband. (This reminded me of the American, 1950s era novels where women go to college for the sole purpose of getting their MRS!) Jane and Florence fall distinctly in this category.
Sylvia and Leslie, who both live outside London in their modest, family homes, also have options open to them. Most predominantly is Leslie’s desperate wish to emulate Jane and Florence, and move to London so she can go to art school. Orange depicts Leslie as a girl who has no grasp of reality, particularly when it comes to the cost of living, especially in London. Sylvia is equally as ignorant, but she’s in no rush to strike out on her own, and seems almost directionless for her own future, with the exception of her relationship with Claud. Their adorable entanglement, filled witty banter, was probably my favorite of the novel. Jane too is involved with a man, Henry, whose company seems to annoy her, and her callous treatment of him (the phrase “stringing him along” comes to mind), puts her in a less than flattering light. Together with this is Florence’s jealousy of having any man’s attention, and Leslie’s envy of Jane and Florence’s life in London, seems to put Sylvia almost out of the loop.
Into all this, Orange infuses the story with such good humor that we can’t help but enjoy each twist and turn in the lives of these four women. However, some of the outright the silliness that Orange puts into these situations is tempered with some interesting insights into the realities of life between the two world wars, when things were changing across the country regarding class and status, even while many tried to hold onto the old traditions and norms. While there were a quite a few plot holes in this novel, that keep me from giving it a full five stars, I have to say that having a grin on my face while reading it made up for most of those so I think this deserves a solid four stars, and I’ll be looking into reading other works by Orange in the future (probably starting with her “Company in the Evening” mostly because my edition included the first chapter of that book, and now I’m intrigued. Thanks, Simon!).
Dean Street Press re-issued this novel on March 20, 2017, which was first published in 1936. Today, “Begin Again” by Ursula Orange is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you.