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10 November 2010

Writing Jane Austen

Over the past few years, I've written six books set in the early nineteenth century. I've co-opted the Nizam of Hyderabad, borrowed the madness of George III, lampooned Bonaparte, and pressed all sorts of historical characters both major and minor into service with absolutely no fear or regret. But there was one character I wouldn't touch, not for all the dowagers in Bath: Jane Austen.

I've read any number of Austen-based novels, both good and bad, and the one thing that struck me was what a dangerous endeavor it was, not just to write about the life of a real individual, but an individual about whom so many people feel so strongly-- and about whom we know so relatively little. Napoleon? No problem. Austen? Terrifying. I had nightmares about being pursued by maddened Janeites wielding particularly heavy editions of her collected works.

But.... (You knew there was going to be a "but", right?). Last summer, I sat down to work on a Christmas-set novel about a lovable bungler named Turnip Fitzhugh. I knew that I wanted Turnip's story to be set in Bath. There was something about Bath that just went with Turnip like "pink" and "carnation". Bath, however, is inextricably linked in my imagination, and, I'm guessing, in the imagination of many others, with none other than Miss Jane Austen. Just for my own edification, I decided to take a quick look and see where Austen was in winter of 1803. No particular reason. Just curiosity.

Austen was in Bath.

Not only was she in Bath, but, in winter of 1803, she had just begun work on the unfinished novel that marks the only work of a long, dry spell, "The Watson". One of Austen's darkest works, "The Watsons" involves a young lady, farmed out in youth to a wealthy aunt, cast back upon the bosom of her impoverished family when the aunt marries a dashing young army officer half her age. There are all sorts of theories as to why Austen never finished "The Watsons", but, since no letters survive from that period of her life, we'll probably never know for sure.

What novelist can resist a set-up like that? I was hooked. I shamelessly borrowed the plot of "The Watsons" for my heroine, Arabella Dempsey-- with a few twists-- and coopted Austen herself as an old friend of the Dempsey family. In a circular, meta-way, Austen is inspired by my heroine's story to write "The Watsons"-- but finds herself incapable of finishing it when events take a decidedly odd turn....

I was, I will admit, still nervous about writing about Austen, even in such an attenuated context. So I decided to include a little "scholarly" introduction. This introduction didn't make it into the final version, but here, for your amusement, is the original, lost introduction to The Mischief of the Mistletoe.

From the Introduction to the Oxford Addendum to the Cambridge Companion of the Collected Letters of Jane Austen:

“… the Dempsey Collection, as it is called, was for some time denied a place in the Austenian epistolary canon. Due to the destruction of the bulk of Austen’s correspondence after her death, for some time there were believed to be only one hundred and sixty letters extent. The discovery of a cache of correspondence, preserved in an old trunk in an attic in Norfolk, underneath a series of shockingly gaudy waistcoats embroidered in a carnation print, tucked inside an early nineteenth century recipe book concerned entirely with Christmas puddings, was thought for some time by the Fellows of the Royal College of Austen Studies to be nothing more than a malicious act of sabotage on the part of unscrupulous members of the rival Dickens Society, who had turned to thuggery as the inevitable result of immoderate consumption of late Victorian serial fiction. Although the Dickens Society denied the charge, relations between the two groups remained frosty, culminating in the great Tea Incident of 1983, which scandalized Oxbridge and caused a rift of which the reverberations are felt to this day. As footnote clashed against footnote, and members of warring factions refused to pass the port at High Table, the Dempsey Collection was relegated for some time to the academic abyss, discarded as nothing more than Austenian apocrypha.

“After two decades of painstaking scrutiny, including chemical testing, textual analysis, and the consultation of several Magic 8 balls, the scholarly community has tentatively accepted the Dempsey collection as genuine, with some significant reservations. Although the dates of the letters and the identity of the author have, indeed, been authenticated, there are serious doubts as to the veracity of the contents. While Jane Austen writes in her own name, addressing the letters to a supposedly “real” young lady of her acquaintance, the events narrated within them are of such a sensational and fantastical nature as to defy all belief.

“The more serious members of the academic establishment adhere to the theory that Austen was, in fact, engaged in an epistolary novel, a style she employed for both the unfinished Lady Susan and the original draft of Elinor and Marianne, the novel that was to become Sense and Sensibility. There is some argument that the letters comprise a failed early draft of her incomplete novel, The Watsons. As in that work, the Dempsey collection features a heroine returned to the unaffectionate bosom of her family after being disappointed in her hopes of an inheritance from a wealthy aunt, who casts her from the household upon the elderly aunt’s imprudent second marriage to a handsome young captain in the army. Many of the names Austen uses in the Watsons appear in the Dempsey collection, although somewhat altered.

“There, however, all resemblance ends….

“That the letters and their contents were, in fact, the product of a contemporary correspondence conducted with an actual acquaintance in reaction to authentic events is a possibility entertained only by the most radical fringe of Austen scholars. This view is generally discredited…

“What Englishman, one may ask, would answer to the name of Turnip?”

Excerpt reproduced courtesy of the author, Perpetua Fotherington-Smythe, M. Phil., D. Phil, R. Phil, F.R.C.A.S.*, S.o.S.A.S.S.I..**, GAE (MEOAE).***

* Fellow of the Royal College of Austen Studies
** Symposium of the Society of Austen and Similarly Superior Interlocutors
*** Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the Austenian Epistle

4 Comments:

Blogger Jessica said...

Awesome, just -- awesome.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Too funny Lauren. I wish they had included it in the novel. Thanks for sharing.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Lauren, hysterical -- as always. My copy is in the mail; so says Amazon!

12:10 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lauren! I had more real people as major characters in "Vienna Waltz" than I had in the past, and though I'm pretty happy with how they turned out, it is nerve-wracking put words and thoughts into the heads of real people. Austen would truly intimidate me. I've only read the first couple of chapter of "Mistletoe" so far, but I'm incredibly impressed with how well you captured Austen's voice!

I think the tricky thing about writing about a real writer, is that one has to believe that character could have written those books/plays. I thought the Shakespeare in "Shakespeare in Love" could have written Shakespeare's plays and also the Shakespeare character in the play "Equivocation." So far I definitely feel the same about your Jane.

3:11 PM  

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