Q&A with Collins Hemingway, author of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen trilogy

Vol 2 Final 07-08-16Today my humble little blog and I have the honor of hosting another author on blog tour. It’s Collins Hemingway with his new book, the second volume of an ambitious trilogy: The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen. With a title like that, you have to know I would be interested, right? In fact, it struck me that the title (if I had come up with it first) could have fit my own novel The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen pretty well. So I was delighted to have the chance (through the magic of the internet) to sit down with Collins and talk about his writer’s journey and this trilogy. Here’s a short blurb about the books, followed by our Q&A.


Jane Austen lived a solitary life of a writer … Or did she?

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen tells a spirited, affecting love story during an exciting, turbulent time. Set in the “lost years” of her twenties – a period of which historians know virtually nothing – the trilogy reveals the story of a talented, passionate woman fully engaging with a man who is very much her equal. (Read more here)

collins-hemingwaySW:  Welcome, Collins, and thanks for joining me today. I was wondering, how did you get your start writing non-fiction and why did you make the transition into fiction? Did you find making the switch difficult?

CH:  My career began as a reporter and editor, so I began with short nonfiction. When I moved to the software industry, I wrote computer manuals and later business whitepapers and business plans. My software and writing background gave me the opportunity to write “Business @ the Speed of Thought,” a book about the use of technology in modern business, with Bill Gates at Microsoft. The success of that book led to opportunities to delve into difficult and interesting topics such as business ethics, the retail trade, and the workings of the brain.

austen-marriage-book-coverI actually wrote my first novel in 1984, long before I did my first book-length nonfiction, and through the years wrote two more novels. All of my early novels were set in contemporary times. None of these first three deserved to see the light of day, but they taught me the fiction craft. The nonfiction books have paid the rent while I pursued my love of fiction. I wrote Volume I of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen around one nonfiction book on mobile technology and another on how the brain functions under stress.

I wrote Volume II of the Austen trilogy without any digressions, and I plan to do the same to finish Volume III, which I plan to publish in late 2017.

Writing any difficult topic at book length, fiction or nonfiction, is good discipline. It’s like running a marathon over different courses. It’s never easy, but you gain strength and confidence with each one. Nonfiction is easier in that you have a topic with multiple points. You have to do the research, explore the implications, develop a conclusion–a point of view on what you learned. Fiction is much more open-ended. Characters have to act according to cause and effect—what they do to each other and how they treat each other–rather than what the author may prescribe. In an historical novel, you have to work in events in a believable way. You can’t just have history marching by as the characters watch. They have to have a reason to participate. You also have to fully develop the setting and background and flesh out the characters to make them real, not just stick figures moving the plot along.

SW:  Not many men are drawn to Jane Austen. How did you discover her and why do you love her novels?

CH:  I was hooked on Austen by an outstanding college professor who loved Austen, particularly “Emma.” My view at the age of 21 was that she was a brilliant but superficial writer. Her books, I believed, ended where they should have begun: with marriage, when the fun and flirtation must adapt to the realities of living day to day with a partner you don’t really know. I didn’t understand that social conventions prevented women authors of the time from directly tackling the substance of life. Even the Bronte sisters, writing a generation later, were able to tackle more “passionate” stories only by publishing under the names of men.

My professor told me that, as I grew older, I would see how Austen subtly wove real life and important issues into the fabric of her stories. He was right, of course. The more I saw what she was able to do with a very limited form, the more I was impressed.

I’m also an advocate of the underdog, and women have always been society’s underdogs. Especially in the early 1800s, when everything from the law to social norms to biology were against them. My attitude, I’m sure, comes from being the child of a single mother, who raised three boys by herself, when the social norms of the mid-20th Century limited her career choices to being a secretary.

As a writer, I admire how Austen rewrote ceaselessly to hone her scenes, characters, and dialogue. We don’t officially know how much revision she did, but no writer can read her work without understanding how many times it would take to evolve a decent phrase into a brilliant one. You don’t reach that level of perfection without painstaking thought and repeated recasting over many years. That’s my view, anyway.


Collins and his wife at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath

SW:  What are your favorite Austen works and why?

CH:  “Pride and Prejudice,” because Liz is the only female lead to unflinchingly go toe to toe with every antagonist–not just Darcy but Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine. “Emma” because of the plot ingenuity, the beauty of the writing, and the way Emma recognizes her true feelings for Mr. Knightley in a series of epiphanies. “Mansfield Park” because its cast of characters is more on the order of Trollope than anything Austen had done before. I also don’t consider Fanny to be the mousey goodie-two-shoes that many people do. “Persuasion” because passion finally bursts out of her characters despite all they can do to hold it back. Virginia Woolf said the novel proved that Austen had loved deeply and no longer cared who knew.

I believe “Sanditon” was going to be something radically different, too, though we have just the bare beginning. My one wish would have been for Austen to return to “Lady Susan” as a mature writer and flesh her out as the Whit Stillman’s movie does.

SW:  You and I have both been inspired to write an alternate story line for Jane Austen – for me, in “The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen,” an for you, in this trilogy. Where did the idea for your trilogy originate?

CH:  Through the years, as I developed a love of this period–its history, literature, social issues, and technological developments–I kept my original thought in mind: What if Austen had written about life after courtship? What if she had been able to tell the story of “ordinary life” after marriage? As it really was, with all of its joys and challenges. That’s what motivated me, for as long as I can recall. When, years ago, I learned of the “missing” seven years of her life, of which very little is known, I knew I had an entrée not just to use an Austen-like protagonist of intelligence and character, but Austen herself. This period, 1802-1809, was when she was in her late 20s and early 30s, the “danger years” for a woman facing spinsterhood. This means I could tell the story of an adult woman, not a teenage girl. At the same time, a book called “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes, gave me the insight into how to tell a story totally different from the village romance.

You, Shannon, wanted to give Austen the same happy ending that her major characters had, and took an intriguing approach. I was not so kind. I wanted to use her as an archetype for the life of the everywoman of 1800. I wanted to see how she would respond if she had had the opportunity to grapple with the most important personal and public issues of the day. I wanted to test her to see what she was made of. I also wanted the intellectual challenge of mapping the story to what is known of Austen in this period and to the major events of the day.


Collins speaking at book launch in Bath

SW:  You’ve made some bold choices in debuting and promoting your books. Why did you decide to do your official book launch in Bath, England?

CH:  I wanted to honor both Austen and her many readers who have understood her hidden depths as well as her subtlety and charm. The first section of Volume I is set in Bath. The book opens with a ball to introduce the characters, but this is something of a misdirection play. The book really opens with Chapter 3 and the demonstration of a fairly new technological innovation, a hot air balloon, that occurred historically in September 1802. This incident enabled me to set the protagonist on an entirely new path.

Finally, this actual writing project began ten years ago in my first visit to Bath, when I decided I wanted to tell a serious story of the life of Jane Austen as it might have been. Her life–if one or two critical decisions had gone another way. The launch brings me full circle.

SW:  Thank you, Collins, for sharing your story with us! I always find it fascinating to talk to another author, especially one in my own genre, about his/her personal journey.

Collins is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Phi Beta Kappa, with a major in English Literature and a minor in science. He has a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Oregon. He has several published works, both fiction and non-fiction.

I hope you enjoyed this interview. Do you have questions or comments for Collins? Please leave them below.

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Credit Where Credit is Due

Darcys-of-Pemberley_KINDLEThis month marks the 5-year anniversary of the publications of The Darcys of Pemberley! My baby (my very first novel) is five years old now, and I’m so proud of how well it has done out there in the big, wide world. It thrills and slightly astounds me to think how many thousands of people, most of them total strangers, have now read it. TDoP is still my flagship, with the other novels following in its wake, and that shows no sign of changing.

So, I wanted to commemorate the occasion. And according to my custom, I went looking for an appropriate Jane Austen quote to include in this post. I found this one in a letter she wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1799:

I wish you joy of your birthday twenty times over. I shall be able to send this to the post to-day, which exalts me to the utmost pinnacle of human felicity, and makes me bask in the sunshine of prosperity, or gives me any other sensation of pleasure in studied language which you may prefer.

Wentworth's letter_SodabugAbsolutely perfect! Not only does this quote speak of celebrating over a birthday, as I’m doing with The Darcys of Pemberley, it also seemed like a classic example of what inspired me to start writing Austenesque in the first place: a first-rate demonstration of Jane’s sharp mind, her humor, and her stellar use of language.

(I actually discovered this quote four years ago and used it in a first anniversary post for The Darcys of Pemberley. Loved it then; love it now!)

Reading through the rest of the letter, I found these other gems – some funny, some sarcastic, all a reflection of Jane’s character and personality.

I am tolerably glad to hear that Edward’s income is so good a one – as glad as I can be at anybody’s being rich except you and me…

You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs. Hulbert’s servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not…

Mrs. Knight giving up the Godmersham estate to Edward was no such prodigious act of generosity after all, it seems, for she has reserved herself an income out of it still; this ought to be know, that her conduct may not be overrated. I rather think Edward shows the most magnanimity of the two, in accepting her resignation with such incumbrances.

I do not like the Miss Blackstones; indeed, I was always determined not to like them, so there is the less merit in it.

There were more dancers than the room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good ball at any time. I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it… There was one gentleman… who I was told wanted very much to be introduced to me, but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about… One of my gayest actions was sitting down two dances in preference to having Lord Bolton’s eldest son for my partner, who danced too ill to be endured.

Jane Austen close upIs it any wonder we love her prose as much as we love her stories? And these examples are from just one letter! I occasionally write something rather witty or funny (at least to me), but I can’t ever hope to measure up. Here’s a line, though, from The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen that I think sounds particularly like her. Speaking of her illness Jane says…

From the way Mary looked at me… I immediately perceived that she considered my chances very grim indeed. This did not trouble me overly. I intended to live or die quite independent of her opinion in the case.

Ironically, Jane starts her letter by telling Cassandra that she should read her own letters over five times before sending them so as not to miss how entertaining they were. “I laughed at several parts of the one which I am now answering,” Jane wrote. I wonder if any of Cassandra’s letters have been preserved. Jane considered her the funny one.

Anyway, instead of bragging about “my baby” or boasting in my small accomplishments, I’m giving credit where credit is due. It’s God who gave me the ability to write. It’s Jane Austen’s work and wit that inspire me. And it’s my readers who keep me going. I am so grateful to everyone who has read, reviewed, and recommend one of my books to a friend, to everyone who has given me a word of encouragement along the way. I feel truly blessed!

As they celebrated the second anniversary of their marriage at Pemberley that November, Darcy and Elizabeth could easily have been forgiven for thinking themselves blessed above all other creatures in England. (The Darcys of Pemberley, final line)




Posted in Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, my books, Shannon Winslow, Shannon Winslow's writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Lady Susan: the Most Unlikely Heroine

Love and FriendshipI promised you something about the newest Jane Austen adaptation: Love and Friendship, based on one of her lesser works known as Lady Susan.

But first I have to brag a little about the progress I’ve been making on my latest book (see Work in Progress). Other commitments had kept me away from getting any serious writing done for a long time, so it feels wonderful to be back at my desk nearly every day again! I still have a long way to go, but I hope to have this one (and a second related novel as a bonus (see Crossroads Collection) out before the end of the year.

Now, we return you to our originally scheduled program:

Naturally, I was thrilled when I heard there was a new film coming based on a Jane Austen work, and one that had never been done before, too: Lady Susan.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Lady Susan is a novella (short novel) that Jane Austen began when she was only seventeen and completed several years later. It’s written in epistolary form, which means it tells the story through a series of letters exchanged between connected characters. This was a popular style at the time while the new literary form, the “novel,” was still evolving into what we know it as today. Did you know that Jane Austen wrote her first drafts of what would become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in epistolary form also? I’m glad she didn’t leave them that way, though.

Lady Susan features a very unlikely heroine. Unlikely because she’s so unlikable. (By comparison, Emma, who is often considered JA’s least likable leading lady, is a total saint!) I hesitate to even call Lady Susan Vernon a heroine, because there’s absolutely nothing heroic about her. She is a conniving woman, still intoxicatingly beautiful in her late 30s, who indiscriminately uses her power over men to get what she needs/wants, often at the expense of her own daughter. She could be rightly described as a sociopath, since she is selfish, vain, and operates outside the normal constraints of love and conscience.

How do you like her so far?

Lady Susan is know by her peers as “the most accomplished coquette in England” – in other words, a flirt of the highest order. She’s a brilliant virtuoso, a master at her craft. She has a silver, but forked, tongue able to skillfully twist the truth others tell about herself to sound like a slanderous lie and her own version of events the most reasonable thing in the world. In fact, if she were here right now, she would convince you in ten minutes that what I’ve just said about her is only an unfortunate misunderstanding. If you’re a man with a pulse, she’d have you in five!

With only this description, I wouldn’t have bothered reading the novella, and I’d probably have skipped the film too… except for one thing; it was written by Jane Austen. It is her genius that makes the story worthwhile. She takes this despicable character and makes her not simply mean but intensely interesting.

You might not be aware of it, but Jane Austen’s wit had a caustic side (I could do a whole post on that, and maybe I will.), and Lady Susan is the perfect vehicle to exercise it. Here’s what Kate Beckinsale, who plays the title role in the movie had to say in an interview:Kate Beckinsale discusses Love and Friendship

 I’m fairly familiar with Jane Austen and I think she’s so incredibly insightful and funny, but I didn’t realize she had such a naughty streak. I hadn’t seen such a broad kind of feminist-y heroine who is terrible and diabolical and cruel. Yet she’s also functioning within the constraints that existed at that time for women. Her big concern is her future security.

In that respect, Lady Susan Vernon (a widow with a grown daughter but no money) isn’t so very different from all Austen’s other leading ladies. She is a survivor, not a fainting victim. As explained in a related blog article in Ms. Magazine

The appeal of Austen’s heroines is that, whether through patience, wit, endurance, or in Lady Susan’s case, duplicity and scheming, they achieve happily-ever-afters on their own terms. Their happy endings are not without caveats, but the women negotiate the best lives for themselves in a world where choice is minimal.

A few of Austen’s heroines make brilliant marriages, it’s true (Lizzy Bennet, most notably), but most come to terms with and find contentment in what could be considered compromises. Elinor gets the man she loves but must live in comparative poverty because he’s been disinherited. Catherine Morland and Fanny Price wed men who will never be rich either. Maryanne marries the steady, devoted older man instead of the dashing young hero she originally felt she had to have. Anne gets her happy ending, but only after seven long lost years of pain and disappointment.

Love and Friendship 2In the end, Lady Susan must make some compromises, too. But she finds a way to survive. And, according to the film at least, she manages to have her cake and eat it too. We don’t have to like her, but we may begrudgingly admire her just a little.

I hope you’re intrigued enough to not only read Lady Susan but also see Love and Friendship.

Lady Susan made an ideal subject for film adaptation for a couple of reasons. First, it’s short (only about 50 pages-worth of material) so, unlike with full-length novels, nothing had to be cut to fit into a standard movie format. Second, since it’s written in letters, it’s all made-to-order dialogue already. Yes, it has to be rearranged into live action, but everything’s there with nothing lost in narration passages.

Whit Stillman did a good job of adapting the work too, keeping to the story and using much of Jane Austen’s original language. It’s sharp, intelligent, and witty from beginning to end. I enjoyed the film very much, despite (or perhaps because of?) its unlikable heroine.

You may not be able to find it in theaters (it garnered only a limited release), but it’s due out on video soon. That might even be the preferred way to watch it. It moves along so quickly that it’s hard to catch everything the first time through. I felt like by the time I had understood and appreciated one delightful line of dialogue, I had probably missed something else equally good. So watch it twice or pause along the way to laugh aloud. If you like your humor on the satirical side, you will enjoy Love and Friendship.

At present, nothing goes smoothly. The females of the family are united against me… I remember saying to myself as I drove to the house, “I like this man; pray Heaven no harm come of it!” But I was determined to be discreet, to bear in mind my being only four months a widow, and to be as quiet as possible. And I have been so; my dear creature, I have admitted no one’s attentions but Manwaring’s, I have avoided all general flirtation whatever, I have distinguished no creature besides of all the numbers resorting hither, except Sir James Martin, on whom I bestowed a little notice in order to detach him from Miss Manwaring. But if the world could know my motive there, they would honour me. – Lady Susan


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Bad Acting

Mansfield Park2No, this is not another movie review (although I will be writing something about Love and Friendship next time). Think more Mansfield Park.

This past Saturday, June 25th, I presented a program on Jane Austen at my local library: “Twenty-first Century Jane” – how movies, sequels, and modern variations are helping to carry her popularity into the new millennium. As part of my preparations for the program, I watched (or rewatched) several of the film adaptations, including two of Mansfield Park. And because the book I’m currently working on (see Work-in-Progress page) will have a MP angle to it, I paid close attention.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about Fanny Price and, more specifically, that unfortunate episode of amateur theatrics. You may remember that while Sir Thomas was gone to Antigua, Tom Bertram and his friend Mr. Yates cooked up the idea of putting on a play at home, just to amuse themselves, and they recruited the Miss Bertrams, the Crawfords, and Mr. Rushworth to join in. They were soon assigning parts and making all kinds of plans, including sets and costumes.

Mansfield ParkSounds like harmless fun, right? I think it’s difficult, especially for today’s readers, to understand why Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price were so strongly opposed to the idea. And Jane Austen disapproved too, from how she writes. That may be the most surprising part, since the Austen family is known to have done the same – entertained themselves by creating and acting out amateur theatricals at home.

So what’s the difference here? I decided to look a little deeper into the business.

Edmund objected at once, saying he was certain Sir Thomas wouldn’t approve of his children acting. In a house where the head of the family’s word was law, that should have been enough. Tom chose to disregard what he knew to be true, though.

Then, to compound their error, the company of players made another bad choice. They decided to do Lovers’ Vows. (Presumably, the Austen family never chose to perform this kind of material.)

  The first use [Fanny] made of her solitude was to take up the volume [of “Lovers’ Vows”] which had been left on the table, and begin to acquaint herself with the play of which she had heard so much. Her curiosity was all awake, and she ran through it with an eagerness which was suspended only by intervals of astonishment, that it could be chosen in the present instance—that it could be proposed and accepted in a private Theatre! Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in; and longed to have them roused as soon as possible by the remonstrance which Edmund would certainly make. (Mansfield Park, chapter 14)

Lover's VowsIn the book and film adaptations, we get little snippets of dialogue as the rehearsals progress, and we see the trouble it creates. But I was still wondering what was so astonishing and improper (according to Fanny in the excerpt above) about the play itself. I found it online and read it. It is a real play, btw, which undoubtedly Jane Austen had read herself. (Read it here if you’re interested)

It didn’t seem so astonishing to me at first (not compared to what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in movies and on TV every day): a woman, who had been seduced by a nobleman under promise of marriage, was instead abandoned by him to raise their son alone in poverty. Twenty years later, just when she is near starving to death, her son chances to meet the baron, whom he discovers to be his father, etc., etc.

It takes a lot more than that to shock us these days. But consider that the story of Mansfield Park was taking place in a very different age and culture.

Although these sorts of things happened, even then, they were not talked of in polite society. Children of gentility – the girls at least – were carefully sheltered and guarded. And a career on the stage was absolutely out of the question for anyone from a good family. So to have the daughters of Sir Thomas Bertram participating in a play, especially when it meant that one of them would be posing as and speaking the part of the unwed mother of an illegitimate child, was shockingly bad indeed. Not to mention that the actress (Maria, in this case) would be embracing an actor who was definitely NOT her son or even the man she was engaged to, but bad boy Henry Crawford instead…

The only thing that could have made the situation worse was to have outsiders present to witness the impropriety, which is what Edmund finally consented to taking a role in the play to prevent.

Sir Thomas BertramSo, Edmund and Fanny were right all along; the acting scheme was a bad idea, at least within the given context. Tom and Maria, who were in denial before, knew it by their guilty consciences as soon as their father returned home unexpectedly. But in the end it wasn’t the words of the play that caused the real trouble; it was the permission the activity granted for bad behavior – all that close contact and sneaking off to “rehearse” in private. There’s little doubt it contributed to what ultimately happened: Maria being ruined by deciding to leave her husband to run off with Henry Crawford.

So, what I want to know is where was Mrs. Norris???

Mrs. NorrisThroughout the entire book she has been poking her nose into the Bertram family business, telling everybody what to do and not do, claiming to be upholding propriety and guarding against wasteful spending. Now, when we really need her to intervene, she fails us. Well, not us, but she does fail the Bertrams, especially Maria who is her favorite.

Doesn’t it seem inconsistent that she not only allowed the acting scheme to go forward but assisted in it? Or was she blinded, like so many people are, by the bright lights and the chance to see her darling Maria shine on stage? All I can say is, “Badly done, Mrs. Norris. Badly done indeed!”





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Them are Stumbling Words

dictionariesEnglish is not a static language. It’s constantly changing, whether we like it or not.

Twenty years ago, “mouse” meant a rodent we hoped never to find in our houses. Now, it’s a friendly little gizmo we’ve grown quite attached to and use every day. In old black-and-white musicals, a guy might have sung about “making love” to a girl and simply meant he wanted to hold her hand and maybe steal a kiss. Today, it would mean he wants a whole lot more than that.

These are fairly recent examples of change. So it shouldn’t surprise us when some of the language in Jane Austen’s novels, written two hundred years ago, doesn’t sound quite right to our modern ears.

saloonActually, her language is one of the aspects of her books I enjoy the most. But emulating it as faithfully as possible has gotten me into some trouble. For instance, one reviewer on Amazon severely berated me for more than once using the word “saloon” in The Darcys of Pemberley, assuming it was a typo and that I surely meant “salon” instead. According to the definitions given in my 2004 Webster’s Encarta Dictionary (and every American western movie ever made), she would be right.

Saloon: commercial establishment serving alcoholic drinks to the general public. Salon: grand sitting room in a large house where guest are received and entertained.

formal sitting roomHowever, my higher authority was Pride and Prejudice (which possibly the outspoken reviewer had never actually read???). In this excerpt from chapter 45, Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner have just arrived at Pemberley at the invitation of Miss Darcy:

On reaching the house, they were shown through the hall into the saloon, whose northern aspect rendered it delightful for summer. Its windows opening to the ground, admitted a most refreshing view of the high woody hills behind the house, and of the beautiful oaks and Spanish chestnuts which were scattered over the intermediate lawn.

Austen repeated “saloon” a second time shortly thereafter, confirming it was no mistake. So when in The Darcys of Pemberley (and later in Miss Georgiana Darcy of Pemberley) I called the same room the same thing, I was technically correct. Nevertheless, I had stumbled my reader and that’s not a good thing. She (and perhaps others) had come to that unexpected word and tripped over it, pulling her out of the story and giving her a negative impression of my work.

Elizabeth and WickhamAt least in this example my use of a troublesome word, whose meaning had changed over time, was only regarded as a typographical error. I got into more serious trouble with “intimate.” Austen used it 100+ times in her writings, and as far as I can tell, not once did she mean anything sexual by it. Yet, when in TDOP I have Darcy telling Elizabeth that it’s unfortunate she once had a rather “intimate” association with Wickham, noisy protests arose from more than one quarter. “Elizabeth would never!” “Darcy wouldn’t believed her capable of such a thing!” Obviously, some readers thought the word inferred a sexual relationship not intended by the author or by Mr. Darcy either. Yikes!

The word “intercourse,” used dozens of times by Austen to mean any type of exchange between people, usually conversation, must also be handled with care for the same reason. Even an innocent word like “nice” can be misunderstood. As often as not, Austen meant subtle/careful/fastidious/fussy rather than pleasant/kind. And “wonderful” was intended to describe something exciting particular admiration, surprise, or amazement (full-of-wonder), not simply good or great.

…and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books – or at least books of information – for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 1)

Hopefully, the modern reader reading Jane Austen isn’t led too far astray by the differences in her language and our everyday meanings. As for me, I’ve learned to steer clear of using potential stumbling words in my writing whenever I can, or at least to clarify what I mean through context. But it’s not always possible.

scrubbing floorsA case in point. The lady in charge of a manor house in those days was the estate’s “housekeeper.”  That’s what she was called; there’s no other word I can use for her. As the highest ranking position to which any female employee could aspire, the title carried with it a great deal of respect among the staff and also from the family they served. But unless the reader understands that, they will likely think of someone down on her knees scrubbing floors instead of what she really was: an important member of the household’s management team. I guess there’s nothing I can do about that.

It’s a continual balancing act: trying to use period-correct language while at the same time writing for the modern reader. I can get into trouble if I stray too far on one side or the other – using right words that now convey wrong meanings, or making the language sound too contemporary. Either error can detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the story.

Has this happened to you? In your reading, have you sometimes stumbled over a clunky word that didn’t seem to belong? Did you misunderstand Austen-style language when you first began reading Regency fiction? Any other related pet peeves?

Posted in English Regency culture, Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, Shannon Winslow, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A Gentleman’s Profession

Edward FerrarsEvery Jane Austen novel reminds us of the severe limitations society placed on females of genteel birth in her era. About their only honorable option was to become some gentleman’s wife. Although the men had a far better lot in general, their choices were also very restricted.

“It has been, and is, and probably will always be a heavy misfortune to me that I have had no necessary business to engage me, no profession to give me employment or afford me any thing like independence … I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough; many young men who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs.” (Sense and Sensibility)

As Edward Ferras outlines for us above, if a young gentleman needed an occupation, he could go into the church, the army, or the law. Those were the three standard choices. You could add banking to the short list if your daddy happened to own one.

“But,” you say, “I thought the mark of a gentleman was having no profession.”

Well, not exactly. Younger sons absolutely needed a profession; unless they were lucky enough to marry a fortune, they had to earn their living. The eldest son would, of course, inherit the family estate when his father died, giving him income and occupation thereafter. But what was he to do in the meantime? Too much free time got more than one heir apparent into trouble. Edward, in hindsight, recognized that his foolish involvement with Lucy Steele sprang from his idleness. And Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park) gambled his father’s money away while waiting to come into his property.

Wickham2Better give that boy something to do! Joining the clergy was acceptable, but not stylish. A military life held more prestige, but also more danger (Napoleon and all). So, perhaps the law? Fine, but then he must be a swanky London barrister, and not (heaven forbid!) a humble country attorney like Lizzy’s uncle Phillips in Pride and Prejudice, who was considered one of her “low connections.”

To become a lawyer didn’t involve the years of intense study and rigorous exams you might imagine. One had to first acquire a standard degree (from Oxford, Cambridge, or Trinity), which hardly required breaking a sweat, before moving on to “study” at one of London’s Inns of Court (Temple, as mentioned by Edward, for example). There his progress was measured according to how often he dined on the premises (I’m not kidding) rather than by successfully completing courses. What a student actually learned during his “terms” was largely left up to him. If he paid attention in court and read the recommended books, he might come away with some level of competency to go along with his certificate. If not… well?

tom lefroy law studentAlthough I’m no expert, from what I’ve read, the haphazard education of lawyers seems only a symptom of a much larger malaise afflicting the legal system that existed at the time. Jo Walker (heroine of my book For Myself Alone) has this to say about it:

“The quality of Mr. Gerber’s advice notwithstanding, I come away from my first encounter with the legal system scarcely less ignorant than when I began. The little which I could understand, however, appears to contradict the very few notions I had entertained on the matter before. As it turns out, the law has only a nodding acquaintance with justice and an even more tenuous association with common sense.”

(Extra credit if you can identify and place the JA quote within this SW quote.)

So what will it be, gentlemen – the law, the church, or a military life? Aren’t we glad we all, women as well as men, have more freedom of choice now!

Posted in English Regency culture, History, Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Title Search

ShakespheareWhat’s in a name? No, wait, that’s Shakespeare. Wrong author! I’m supposed to be channeling Jane Austen! Let me try again.

“…But there is nobleness in the name of Edmund.  It is a name of heroism and renown – of kings, princes, and knights; and seems to breathe the spirit of chivalry and warm affections.”  (Mansfield Park, chapter 22)

Fanny Price imbues her beloved Edmund’s name with more latent significance than most of us would, but we at least consider the meanings in the Baby Name Book before deciding what moniker our children will be saddled with for life.

Authors give nearly as much thought to what to title their latest ‘darling child’ before sending it out into the world. It should be something catchy and memorable. It also should give the reader some clue as to what to expect inside the cover.

I actually have a lot of fun with titles, especially chapter titles or names for blog posts, where less is at stake. It tickles me when I can use a fancy word: Elucidation (used as a chapter title in not one but two of my books). I’m a fan of alliteration too, like Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), as evidenced by these chapter titles among others: Sisterly Society, Richard Returns, Wardrobe Woes, Demands of Duty, Company Coming.  I’m not above borrowing a famous phrase now and then: The Play is the Thing, Miles to Go, Teacher Know Thyself, A Tale of Two Movies. And if I can incorporate an inside joke or some double meaning, so much the better: chapter titles Taken For a Ride and Bump in the Road apply literally as well as figuratively. “Persuasion” in my title The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen refers both to her novel and the fact that she herself was persuaded to give up the man she wanted. Even the title of this blog post has more than one meaning.

I may be outdoing myself on this new book, though (see work-in-progress ). I’m only eight chapters in and I’ve already got some delightful chapter titles, imho. Here they are: Light Dawns, Making Jambalaya, A Day at Disneyland, Possibilities and Perplexities, The Dearly Departing, A Two-Horse Race, Tie Breaker, Going for Broke.

The bigger challenge, however, is coming up with a title for the book itself.

Since it will be part of a series (see Crossroads Collection), I’d love to do something clever with all the titles, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, etc.). I thought of copying the idea, only using First, Second, Third, etc. in each of the successive titles instead of One, Two, Three. Using the word “Leap” in each title would be another way to go. Appropriate, too, since the first one is already tentatively titled Leap of Faith and all will involve time travel. Or I could abandon using a theme word and title each one individually, in which case this new book may end up being called Pemberley or Bust!

Northanger Abbey coverI guess I’m not the only one who has struggled with indecisiveness in this area. Jane Austen changed the titles to at least three of her books before publication. First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice. Elinor and Maryanne became Sense and SensibilityNorthanger Abbey underwent the most transformations. Austen originally called it Susan, after the heroine. Then she changed not only the title of the novel but the heroine’s name to Catherine to avoid confusion with another book that had come out. It was ultimately published as Northanger Abbey after her death.

As for the titles of my upcoming novels (I hope to publish the first two in the series together later this year), I still have time to make up my mind. But I’d love to hear your opinions and brilliant suggestions on the subject! Themed or independent titles? Leap of Faith and Pemberley or Bust? Or propose something of your own.


3/28/16 Update:  After more thought and some reader feedback, I think I’m going to go with the idea of using the word “leap” in all the titles in this series. “Leap of Faith” for the first one, as planned, and maybe “Leap of Hope” for the second, allowing the subtitle and the cover design to supply more information as to what each of the books is about. I might even change the name of the heroine of the second from Katie to Hope to match the title. What do you think?

Posted in Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, Shannon Winslow's writing, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments