This is as true for writers and readers as it is for anyone else. Yet, in the world of literature it also feels more than the popular “don’t speak ill of the dead” rule we all follow at funerals. In literature, we seem to recreate authors as saints. For example, we think of Charles Dickens as the celebrator of Christmas and fighter against children labor and poverty… before we think of how awfully he treated his children and first wife.
You need all sides of a person, the good and the bad, to get any clear picture of the individual, and for hundreds of years now we have looked at Jane Austen through a hazy lens. There are many reasons for this and part of it is, frankly, we have no choice.
We all know the story of how her sister (Cassandra) destroyed letters and manuscripts upon her death (and what a loss that action was to all future biographers and fans), but the Austen clan was a family on the rise, concerned with its image. That is very obvious when you read the only biography from someone who actually knew Miss Jane Austen, her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh—a very carefully constructed memoir where image was at the forefront of James’ mind. In many ways, the book is more an insight into the Austen clan than into Jane and her amazing legacy and life experience. Don’t speak ill of the dead? Indeed, and don’t let her make us look bad either while we are at it, it seems.
In entertainment, whenever Jane has made an appearance, she always appears as something like a literary Virgin Mary coming in to bless the young maidens and give advice, or something akin to a blessed aunt with almost a Mary Poppins quality to her. She is a saint like Dickens, stepping into a scene with warmth and grace, blessing the others there under the glow of her warm smirk and soft humor. (Personally, I can’t wait for the inevitable Doctor Who appearance.)
Yet, just like in her nephew’s book, this is probably unfair to the real Jane as well. The Jane that created all of the Bennet sisters, the questionable Mr. Wickham, the cold Mr. Darcy. The Jane who filled her novels with wit and sarcasm, sometimes biting not only characters but institutions (i.e., the church and members of it). The Jane, who clearly knew what it is to love and what it means to be, honestly, human.
A Jane Austen Daydream (my new novel published by Madison Street Publishing) was inspired by the idea that Jane never had the romance and adventure she gave to her characters. It’s a sad thought to consider that the artist who taught us about what is best to look for in love in Pride and Prejudice probably never had it herself, dying at only 41, a spinster living in a cottage with her sister and elderly mother.
One of the first decisions I made in creating the book was that it would be more a piece of fiction than anything in fact. So while I read a few biographies (filled with assumptions on what probably happened in her life, but no real certainties), I looked to her novels to find my plot, taking elements of each (as well as characters) to fill in the holes. This is not a book for those wanting to learn about her, per se, even though I feel like she is very much in the pages.
Let me explain what I mean…
When a writer decides to place an icon like Jane in a novel the work can become quite overwhelming. To put it mildly, Jane has a passionate following around the world, and when I began breaking down the book I could get distracted for days wondering what people would think of what I was planning (including a big and very new twist in the narrative that I am uncertain anyone else has attempted before in any kind of book). I had to become strict with myself, focusing on one chapter, one point at a time, not allowing myself to really consider the big picture until I was near the end of the first draft.
To find the voice of Jane I went right to the source. Over the course of writing Daydream, I used up a few paperback copies of her books. I had three different levels of highlighters and paperclips and sticky notes to mark things I wanted to remember. One of the highlighter colors was only for Jane.
These specifically-highlighted passages became the basis for Jane as a character and once I had my chapters broken down (each with their own word document to work in), I dropped in those passages or little quotes I would like my Jane to say then, straight from her own books and collected letters to her voice.
That is not to say that every quote I used is an exact reproduction! Not at all. In many instances, I was just using Jane as a starting point, just enough to make the Janeites (or Austenites) smile, adapting them slightly to fit the rest of the new story unfolding around them.
I’ve had a few reviewers and readers state that this is a new look at Jane. That kind of throws me a little, even though it is never said in a negative light, since so much of what makes up my character began with her very own words.
Also, I can’t imagine someone who wrote such wonderful books not being passionate about her work; nor can I imagine someone who cares so much about romance not making mistakes of the heart (almost to the point of being a Lydia Bennet); and, finally, I can’t imagine someone who was that witty saving it only for the written page. My Jane would get in trouble for her tongue, on more occasions than she would care to mention.
The most colorless heroine Jane created, Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, does win the man in the end, but we modern readers can’t help but wonder if that is a good thing. Yes, she does everything right in that time period’s eyes, moving up in society and succeeding, the moral center of the story. When I read that character, I always wonder if Jane feels a little bitter and is saying something to us between the lines. Yes, you can do it, but is it worth it? For many of the readers of Mansfield Park it was worth it (and it is rightfully a classic). But I’m not certain Jane really thought so. Not like the uniting of Darcy and Elizabeth, equals in mind and heart.
I like to think Jane wanted more for herself, for her life. And if she couldn’t find it in reality, she would find it via a pen and a piece of paper. I tried to do the same for her as well with the same tools.
I hope you enjoy A Jane Austen Daydream.
If you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!