Thursday, March 25, 2010

Author Elizabeth Aston and Writing Jane Austen


I’m the daughter of two Jane Austen addicts, who, instead of naming me after one of my numerous great-aunts, decided to call me after a character from one of Jane Austen’s novels. My father’s favourite was Fanny Price, from Mansfield Park; my mother liked Emma best, but both of them adored Elizabeth Bennet. . . which is why I spell my short name Lizzy with a ‘y’ and never with a ‘ie’ at the end!

After such a beginning, it’s no wonder that I also became a passionate Jane Austen fan. I studied English at Oxford University, and what could be more enjoyable than drifting in a punt on the Cherwell, reading Jane Austen as the sun flickered on the river through green leaves, knowing that it counted as work?

Now I live in Malta, a Mediterranean island full of history, and I also spend part of every year in Italy. With copies of all the Jane Austen novels wherever I am, needless to say.

Book Description:

Georgina Jackson's first novel was a "searingly grim read"--critically acclaimed and award-winning, though it was hardly a bestseller. Struggling to get past the first chapter of her second book which is almost past its deadline, Georgina panics when she gets a vague but urgent-sounding email from her agent: "RING ME."
She's certain it's bad news.

So when Livia tells her about a potentially profitable commission, Georgina is shocked. Even more surprising, however, the commission isn't for her next book, but rather for the completion of a newly discovered unfinished manuscript of a major nineteenth century author! Skeptical at first about her ability to do the job, she is horrified to learn that the major author is in fact Jane Austen.

Torn between pushing through somehow and fleeing back to America, Georgina relies on the support of her financier-turned-scientist roommate, Henry, and his quirky teenage sister, Maud, a serious Janeite who has just escaped the rigidity and enforced structure of boarding school. When she suddenly finds herself in a financial crisis, the only way for Georgina to get by is to sign the contracts and finish the book. But how can she overcome her big secret--that she has actually never read Jane Austen!

Filled with the humor, misunderstandings, rich characterizations and romance of Aston's previous novels, Writing Jane Austen is destined to rocket Aston right into the 21st century!

Elizabeth Aston Q&A:

What gave you the idea for Mr Darcy’s Daughters?

I’m an insomniac, and I often listen to audio recordings in the early hours. Listening to Prunella Scales reading Emma (a great recording!), I fell to musing on the fact that Mr and Mrs Knightley’s children would grow up Victorians, and what a different world that would be. How and what would their children be like? Naturally, this led to reflections on the offspring of my favourite couple, Darcy and Elizabeth. Unlike the Bennets, their daughters would be rich, and high in the rigid pecking order of English society. What if Mr and Mrs Darcy had, like Lizzy’s parents, five daughters . . . ?

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1814. Twenty years on makes it 1834. So how come Mr Darcy’s daughters are young women in 1818?

That’s because my time frame is based on the original version of the book, First Impressions, which Jane Austen wrote in 1796/7. To me, Jane Austen is very much a product of the eighteenth century, her clear mind and satirical eye not that impressed by the turbulent emotionalism of the Romantic movement. Others have the same idea – the recent film of Pride and Prejudice was set in the late eighteenth century.

Elizabeth and Mr Darcy don’t appear as characters in your books – why is this?

Because I would never use the main characters from another novel in a book I wrote.

So which Jane Austen characters are in your books?

You can see the list in characters. I found it very interesting to speculate on how these minor characters from Pride and Prejudice might have changed and developed. Some readers take issue with my portrayal of Mr (Col.) Fitzwilliam twenty years on, but this was the time when men were becoming more interested in family life, and more controlling in the domestic arena, so I saw him turning into the kind of paterfamilias that became more and more common as the century went on.

Do you try to write in Jane Austen’s ‘voice’?

Even if I wanted to, it would be impossible! And I don’t want to. I’m not in any way setting out to mimic Jane Austen’s style or write a pastiche.

Why not?

For one thing, Jane Austen’s glorious, perfect narrative voice isn’t in keeping with the way we write books today. It’s a matter of fashion as much as anything else: modern editors would say that anything written in Jane Austen’s style was ‘tell, not show’ and full of ‘authorial intrusion’!

So why write sequels to Pride and Prejudice?

I don’t. My books are variations on a theme by Jane Austen – five sisters and the world of the Darcys. That’s one reason why I set them in London and abroad, and after the period of Jane Austen’s novels.

You put some scenes and incidents in your books of a kind which you’d never find in Jane Austen – you have a foot fetishist, and one character is called a sodomite, which people today find very offensive. And another character is into flagellation. Why?

Sodomite was the word used in 1818 for a homosexual, and, like it or not, homosexuality was a crime and could carry the death penalty. Would Jane Austen use the word? Of course not, because when she was writing, decorum decreed that there were whole areas of experience and behaviour which would never find their way into print in a novel published for a general readership.

It doesn’t mean she didn’t know the word – that’s her eighteenth century upbringing again! David Noakes’s brilliant biography (my favourite) shows what she would have read and known about subjects like this – I loved finding out from his book that Mary Bennet was the name of the local whore in Jane Austen’s village.

After all, Jane Austen famously never mentions the Napoleonic wars, yet with naval brothers, she knew all about it. And there is that sly reference to flagellation in Mansfield Park, where Maria Crawford declares, “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”

So why don’t you follow the same rules of decorum?

Because I’m writing as an historical novelist in the twenty-first century, and I can therefore choose a broader canvas.

Are you working on another Darcy novel?

No. I've taken a break from the nineteenth century, and my new book, Writing Jane Austen, set in the present day, is out next spring.

I've loved writing the six books about the Darcy family, set in the early nineteenth century, but for my next book, Writing Jane Austen, I felt it was time for a change, and I wanted to take a new look at Jane Austen, from a contemporary perspective.

It's been huge fun telling the story of my anglophile American heroine Georgina, who's lively and intelligent and determined, just like her predecessors in Jane Austen's novels, but who has more on her plate than finding a husband as she's landed in what is, to her, the bewildering world of 21st century Austen mania. The addicts and academics alarm her, the landscapes seduce her, the books enchant her, and, as in all the best stories, she wins through against the odds and, along the way, finds her heartsease with a charming English hero.

Can you sum up what you hope the reader gets from reading your books?

In the words of my favourite review from the Chicago Sun Times: “Great characters, great comic moments, great romance.”.


The author is being very generous and giving away three copies of her book. To win, please email her and tell her why you want to read this book and come back here and leave your email address so I can contact you. Contest ends April 30th. Thanks to Bobbie at Simon and Schuster for donating the books for this contest and to Elizabeth for joining us at Romance Author Buzz.

Elizabeth Aston's website

Author's Page at Simon & Schuster

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