Go With What You Know?


ja-rice-portrait2“Write what you know!” You’ve probably heard the saying, intended as sound advice for anyone with literary aspirations.

Jane Austen subscribed to this idea. Me? Not so much.

Jane Austen absolutely wrote what she knew best – her own time period, her own geographical location, her own section of society, and from a woman’s point of view. Unlike so many modern “Regency” novels, Jane Austen’s aren’t overflowing with dukes and lords; they feature mostly members of the gentry class, some rich and some not – people much like those she would have met and mingled with all her life. She knew their worries and their ways, their faults and foibles.

Austen so strictly believed in writing only what she knew from personal experience that she is famous for never writing a scene between only men, reasoning that she, as a female, couldn’t possibly have an accurate idea about how men behaved when women weren’t present. It may also be part of the reason none of her novels follow her lovers into their married life. Here again, she could have no personal knowledge of how married people behave when they were alone, since she never married herself (unless you subscribe to my totally credible alternate version of her life as told in The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen).

So, if Jane Austen is my role model in all things, why haven’t I imitated her in the practice of “write what you know”? (After all, I’ve spent very little time in the UK and none at all in Regency England.) Three reasons:

  1. What I “know” best is my life and my own limited world. Well, as with most of us, the tale of my life wouldn’t really make a very entertaining book. Other than discovering a second career as a novelist, perhaps, nothing all that unusual or even especially interesting has happened to me. I don’t mean that to sound like a complaint; I’m actually grateful. I had a normal, mostly happy childhood, after which I married (again, happily) and raised two sons who turned out to be well-adjusted, productive members of society: all good, but not much drama, nothing to serve as backbone to a good piece of fiction. My “day job” isn’t a bountiful source of material either. Do you really want to read a book about how exciting the life of a dental hygienist is NOT?
  2. I subscribe more to the write-what-you-love school of thought. I don’t write what might be trendy or try to anticipate the marketplace. I write what most interests me – the sort of thing I love to read myself. It takes months to produce a quality novel, and there wouldn’t be any joy putting that much time and energy into something that doesn’t get my creative juices flowing. Passion shows and so does the lack of it. My readers may not consciously see that I have invested my heart as well as my head in all the stories I’ve written, but they would definitely notice a drop in the quality if that wasn’t true for my next book.
  3. Unlike Jane Austen, I don’t have to be limited to what I know from my own experience. Jane had little choice; she had to write about what she already knew or could find out, and her resources for finding things out were pretty limited compared to today. She couldn’t pop onto the internet to look something up, watch movies/TV shows/documentaries about life in a different social stratum, or catch a flight to visit another part of the world. The modern author can. So I am not confined to stories about people like me living in places like my home town. Not at all. The whole world is my oyster. Now if only I had a time machine too…

That being said, I have to make a few comments about the flip side, to give sort of a rebuttal to my own arguments. (Probably not good form on the debate team, but I never participated.)

Jane Austen close upI want to acknowledge Jane Austen’s creativity and innovation. She pushed the envelope of her limited world about as far as she could have – as a woman in a man’s profession, as one of the early pioneers of the novel as a literary form, and also for writing what she loved – stories centered around courtship and romance, even though she supposedly had little of these things in her own life (here again, unless you subscribe to my plausible alternate version).

As for me, I’ve broken my own pattern for my next book. Not Regency England this time. I’ve confined my story to things I know… mostly.

It’s true that there is a fantasy/time-travel element in Leap of Faith(to be released in January), but the story takes place entirely within my own lifespan and (with a couple of minor exceptions) in places I have actually seen with my own eyes. And I have to admit I enjoyed this kind of writing experience just as much or more. It was fun to send my characters to some of my favorite northwest locations (Mt. Rainier National Park, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the Ballard locks, Seattle Center) and to speak with a lifetime of authority about the infamous Seattle rain, the lay of the land, and the look of the scenery. These things I experienced again through new eyes as I wrote.

Here’s a peek at a portion of the cover and the hunky hero of the book, Ben.


Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. No, I’ve never actually been a man or a professional athlete either. Still, Leap of Faith is definitely my most write-what-you-know book to date. Does that mean it will be my best? Maybe. You’ll have to be the judge. If it turns out that it is my best, that will go towards proving the old adage we started with.

“You know your own concerns best.” (Mrs. Jennings, Sense and Sensibility, chapter 40)

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Meet Cora and Poindexter

new-life-chapter-oneHave you ever wondered how your life would have been altered if at point A you had turned left instead of right? Would you have been happier or not? If you had a chance for a world-class “do over,” would you choose to go back to improve on your own life or pick a different life altogether, perhaps in a totally different time and place? I have always been fascinated by such questions, which led me to start a new series that’s all about second chances (the first two books to be released together in January).

If you’ve been following my progress, you already know something about the novels themselves. Each novel has a unique hero/heroine and story: Ben Lewis is a minor league baseball player and Hope O’Neil is a Austen-obsessed college student, and their choices take them on radically different adventures. But today I wanted to tell you a little about what they have in common; I want to introduce you to Cora, Poindexter, and a mysterious, who-knows-where place called The Crossroads Center.

“It would be a charming introduction for you, who have lived so secluded a life; and I could immediately secure you some of the best society in the place. A line from me would bring you a little host of acquaintance…” (Emma, chapter 32)

Cora and Poindexter are the slightly off-beat directors of The Crossroads Center, where they are in the business of giving out second chances. It’s usually dire circumstances that bring new clients their way (certainly true of both Ben and Hope), and then it’s their job to second-chance-clock-globeassist these down-on-their-luck people to sort out what to do next. With their help, Ben decides to turn back the clock a few years to take another shot at his dream (read blurb here). Hope turns the clock back even further, to 1809, trading in what she had before for an Austen kind of life (read more here).

There are probably going to be about a dozen clients at Crossroads at any one time, all of them trying to decide what to do with their second chances and interacting with each other along the way. Ben and Hope meet there, since their time at Crossroads overlaps. In fact, I chose Hope as the heroine of the second novel because of her appearance during Ben’s story. Each successive book will star someone you met in the previous one. (Maybe I’ll even take votes for who gets the next story!)

colonel-sandersBut what about the enigmatic Cora and Poindexter? I said I was going to tell you about them, but that’s not easy because nobody seems to know exactly where they came from, what their relationship is, or even what they really look like. Just as with Jane Austen, no photographs exist and descriptions vary. Poindexter, who always wears white, puts Hope in mind of Colonel Sanders. Ben, who doesn’t get along as well with him, albino-ratsays Poindexter reminds him of a former pet albino rat named Roscoe. No consensus there! Cora is either a middle-aged brunette or a young, gorgeous blonde, depending on whom you ask. But one thing is for sure, she has a very quirky (even outrageous) fashion sense.

While heroes/heroines come and go, Cora and Pointexter are the constant, carry-over element in this series, so as the series continues there will be many chances to get to know them better – a little more with each new book. For now, I’ll leave you with this glimpse of them from the prologue of Ben’s story, Leap of Faith:


“So, what do you think of our newest specimen, Dex?” asked the forty-ish brunette lounging on a canary-yellow chaise. She gave a nod toward the monitor displaying a good looking, athletically built young man pacing his room like a caged lion. “Personally, I like the look of him.”

“I’m not surprised,” muttered her associate, a thin man of a more mature vintage. He stood at attention, tapping his pen against his jaw as he studied the screen. He barely heard the nasal twang in Cora’s voice anymore. After so many years of successful partnership – professional as well as personal – he had grown as accustomed to her idiosyncrasies as she had to his.

“It is far too soon to venture an educated opinion,” he continued in his clipped, aristocratic accent. “However, Mr. Lewis must have shown some promise or he would not have been referred to us.”

“His bio’s impressive – smart, talented, disciplined, loyal to the core, and a real team player. Plus, look what he did for the Ellerton boy. You have to admire someone who goes out of his way like that to help a kid. Ben’s good at heart, I believe, just down on his luck.”

“My interpretation of his character is rather less sympathetic. I shall endeavor to keep an open mind, but something tells me this one’s going to be a tough nut to crack.” Pursing his lips, he pondered a moment. “I’ll test the waters first, shall I? Then you can tidy up whatever mess I make and smooth things over with your charms, like always. I think you had better use your alter ego this time. The pre-arrival evaluation indicates the subject will respond best to a woman his own age. Besides, with the quantity of science fiction books and movies this young man has consumed, he will no doubt be expecting all the high-tech bells and whistles we can throw at him. Best foot forward, eh?”

“Of course.” Cora sat up and stretched her long, cat-like limbs. “I think I’ll be a blonde this time,” she declared. “I’m going to have to adjust the pitch on the voice modulator too. The higher setting I tried last time was a disaster. I could hardly stand to listen to myself. And the poor client… I swear he winced every time I opened my mouth.”

“Well, we all have our off days.” He extended a hand to his colleague and ran an admiring eye over her form as she rose. She stood nose to nose with him in height and, with her well-rounded figure, outweighed him by a few pounds. “It turned out right in the end, though,” he added. “I checked in on Mr. Carson only the other day, and he’s adjusting nicely to his new life. I believe we can count it as another resounding success.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Same approach this time?”

“Yes, I believe that will be best. I do hope this one won’t be too obstinate,” he said, finishing with an exaggerated sigh.

“Come on, Dex. Your complaints don’t fool me for a minute. You thrive on the more challenging cases. The others bore you to tears.”

“How well you understand me, my dear,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Of course, you’re perfectly right… as always.”


I’m always interested in what you have to say, so comment away!


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Austen’s Autumn

20160929_103814Yesterday, when I went out for my morning constitutional, I had multicolored maple leaves crunching underfoot and the occasional spider web hitting me in the face.  I also took a plastic bag along with me, into which I hoped to collect enough blackberries to make a small cobbler – probably the last of the season. (It was delicious, by the way.)

Even though my outing was on foot, not horseback, it made me think of an excerpt from my second Austen-inspired novel, For Myself Alone:

John and I embark upon our ride shortly after noon, I on Viola and he on an ancient gelding called Max. The plan is to make for the glade in order to gather some of the blackberries that grow in the brambles round its fringes. Viola is eager, as am I, to set a brisk pace; Max and John are not so well able to follow suit. So the refreshing gallop I had hoped for must come in fits and starts. I race off for a stretch and then wait for John to catch me up. Still and all, the cool air and the beauty of the wood, both tinged with the first hints of autumn, do not disappoint.

20160927_154317Then I began wondering what Jane Austen had written about the season – autumn, that is, not fall. She wouldn’t have substituted the word “fall,” since that is an Americanism, which I learned too late to save me from making that mistake in my first book, The Darcys of Pemberley.

As you know, Austen isn’t prone to using long, flowery descriptions. And, off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any specific references to “autumn” in her work. So I did a word search. Most of the examples I found simply used the word as a point in time, such as, “when I saw him last autumn.”  But I did find a couple lovely passages that do poetic justice to the season.

[Fanny] went, however, and they sauntered about together many an half-hour in Mrs. Grant’s shrubbery, the weather being unusually mild for the time of year, and venturing sometimes even to sit down on one of the benches now comparatively unsheltered, remaining there perhaps till, in the midst of some tender ejaculation of Fanny’s on the sweets of so protracted an autumn, they were forced, by the sudden swell of a cold gust shaking down the last few yellow leave s about them to jump up and walk for warmth. (Mansfield Park, chapter 22)

20160927_150200Jane doesn’t give us pages of extravagant description. Instead she paints a perfectly recognizable picture for us in just a few lines. My favorite passage, though, is from Persuasion, chapter 10. This scene takes place on the group walk to Winthrop:

Anne’s…pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations…

 And a bit further on:

 The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by, unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory.

persuasion-walkAnn has had to watch Captain Wentworth show his preference for the younger, blooming Louisa. She has heard him praise Louisa for her character of decision and firmness. Anne endures all this whilst knowing that the captain, whom she still loves, condemns her for being too easily persuaded, and that the beauty of her own spring has long since passed. It seems there is nothing but decline and decay ahead.

What a poignant picture – sweet and painfully sad, like the season itself. Consider what a different feeling this scene would have taken on if the walk had occurred on a cheerful spring day or in the heat of summer. No doubt Austen purposefully planned that it should take place in the waning months of the year instead, so that the season would set the mood for all Anne’s melancholy reflections.

20160919_130846I can appreciate the beauties of the season, and, as you can see, I’m always trying to capture some of the brilliant colors in pictures. But Autumn isn’t my favorite season, primarily because of what it means. Summer is over and so is my lighter schedule. Winter is coming, and although we don’t suffer the extremes in the Seattle area (no below zero temps or being buried in snow for weeks at a time), we must now expect six months of relative unpleasantness: cool, damp, and relentless gray.

At least for now, though, the sun is shining and there are still a few roses on the vine. It’s a bonus day. Time to get out and enjoy it!

20151016_124033How does fall effect you? Is the change in seasons a simple matter of fact to you, or does it take on some special significance? Austen refers to the way autumn is portrayed in poetry. Do you have a favorite verse on the subject?

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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)




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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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