Seven years, six diaries
Little did I think, when I started writing Darcy's Diary in 2003, that I would go on to write heroes' diaries for all six of Jane Austen's novels but somehow it was compulsive and I couldn't stop until I'd finished! I think the thing I have enjoyed most about writing them is that it has given me an opportunity to look at Austen's novels and characters in a new way, and given me a different way to enjoy them.
Here are some of the highlights of the last seven years for me.
Finding out that Robert Hale, my lovely hardback publishers, wanted to publish the first one. Until then, I was known for my Regencies and Darcy's Diary represented a departure for me.
Even better was seeing the reaction from readers and hearing how much they loved the book.
Then there was the moment I discovered that Sourcebooks had bought the US rights to Darcy's Diary and that they were releasing it in paperback under the title of Mr Darcy's Diary. It was the first time any of my books had been published in the US and it was a brilliant moment.
Learning that Penguin had bought the US paperback rights to the other diaries, or at least the ones I had written at the time, ie Mr Knightley's Diary, Captain Wentworth's Diary, Edmund Bertram's Diary and Colonel Brandon's Diary.
Meeting some lovely fans at the recent RNA conference at Greenwich, London and hearing how much they loved the books, particularly Mr Darcy's Diary. I guess that's most people's favourite! I have a soft spot for Colonel Brandon's Diary, which recounts the story of his tragic first love before moving on to the events of Sense and Sensibility.
And last but not least, finishing Henry Tilney's Diary. It's taken me longer than the others, partly because it was more complex in many ways, and partly because I wrote Mr Darcy, Vampyre in the middle of it. But the main reason it took so long was because, when I originally finished it, I wasn't happy with it. I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with it, but I knew that it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. So I did what every writer does in that situation, I put it away for a while and let my thoughts simmer.
When I returned to it, I knew what was wrong. I'd created several passages where Henry and his sister read aloud to each other, and the book they read from was The Mysteries of Udolpho. This seemed an obvious choice because it was Catherine's favourite book. But somehow Udolpho didn't really gel with the diary.
I knew I wanted to keep the idea of reading aloud from a genuine Gothic novel of the era, because I wanted to infuse the diary with the flavour of those books as their plots were central to Northanger Abbey, but Udolpho had to go.
Then began a re-read of many of the classic Gothics - until I came to A Sicilian Romance. Without giving away any spoilers, its theme of a dead wife, a cruel husband and mysterious goings on echoed the themes of Northanger Abbey and allowed me to comment on the main action whilst giving a flavour of the books that Catherine Morland loved to read - and confused with real life.
So Udolpho was out and A Sicilian Romance was in. Suitable passages had to be chosen and new scenes written around them, so that they not only gave a glimpse of Catherine's imaginary world but also pointed up the main themes of the novel.
At last it was finished. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and sent it off to Robert Hale - and waited. It was a tense time. Believe me, it's not easier waiting to see if a publisher likes your book when you're on your seventeenth novel than it is on your first. Luckily they loved it and it will be out in hardback next year.
I'll keep you posted on further developments. Until then, here is one of Henry and Catherine's early meetings, as recounted in Henry's diary:
Monday 25 February
What was my delight this evening to find that Miss Morland was at the Upper Rooms. I was amused to see that she smiled upon seeing me again, instead of pretending not to notice me or favouring me with a cool nod, both of which greetings are very much in vogue with the usual young ladies in Bath.
Remembering how much I had enjoyed dancing with her before I offered her my hand, but instead of accepting with alacrity she looked mortified. My pride was salvaged when she explained that she was engaged to Mr John Thorpe for the first dance and so she must decline. Mr Thorpe, however, was nowhere to be seen, leaving his fair partner to sit alone and embarrassed at the side of the room when she should have been enjoying herself. So much for the honour of Mr Thorpe! However, it gave me a pleasing insight into the character of the lady, for it is rare thing in Bath - or anywhere else for that matter - to find a young lady who will forego a pleasure merely because she has given her word elsewhere. Miss Morland, I felt, was worth knowing.
Thorpe at last arrived. Without a word of apology he said only, ‘There you are Miss Morland, I have kept you waiting!’ which even a young lady possessed of far less wit than Miss Morland must have already deduced.
I flattered myself that she would rather have had me as a partner, for her eyes kept drifting to me. I remarked as much to Eleanor, who quickly lanced my pomposity and said I was becoming conceited.
‘It it not remarkable that Miss Morland should prefer you to Mr Thorpe,’ she said. ‘Indeed, it would be remarkable if it were otherwise, for I can think of nothing worse than standing up with him. He cannot remember the steps of the dance and does not even try. He has bumped into three different people in the last three minutes, without a word of apology. I will say this for you, Henry, you know how to dance.’
‘High praise indeed!’
Eleanor’s hand was sought and although the floor was crowded, Miss Morland let her in. I had the satisfaction of seeing them dancing and talking together. I rather hoped Miss Morland would be free for the next dance but she was standing up again with Thorpe, and having been disappointed in my first choice I led Miss Smith on to the floor. Miss Smith, alas, was no substitute for Miss Morland, for if she was not laughing at a young lady who had torn her gown, she was regaling me with an account of her conquests.
‘Do you see that gentleman over there, the one with the blue coat? He has told me on three separate occasions how lovely I am and he has five thousand a year. Mama is certain he will offer for me any day. But I do not think I will accept him. I do not like his cravat.’
‘Then on no account consider it,’ I said. ‘It is possible to compromise in certain areas when choosing a partner for life, but never on a cravat.’
She looked at me in admiration.
‘That is exactly what I think,’ she said. ‘You are amazingly clever.’
‘It is very good of you to say so.’
‘Papa says I am the cleverest girl he has ever met. Captain Dunston remarked upon it as well. But I think he is a very stupid fellow.’
‘He must be,’ I said; a remark which she did not understand, but which made her smile, for she liked to think of me sharing her opinion of the Captain.
At last tea was over, and I found Eleanor and Mrs Hughes in order to take them home. Mrs Hughes exclaimed upon the chance of having met with her friend Mrs Thorpe again. She spoke of Isabella’s prettiness and John’s fine figure, which last was something of a slander on the word fine, for I never saw such an ill-looking fellow. From there she began talking of her own children, and we were glad to speak of them, for we were both conscious of the great kindness she is doing us by coming to Bath and acting as Eleanor’s chaperone.
Back in Milsom Street, Mrs Hughes declared herself tired and retired for the night but Eleanor and I sat up for some time, talking.
‘You seemed to be well entertained by Miss Smith,’ said Eleanor, as we sat by the fire in the drawing-room. ‘I saw you laughing twice and smiling often.’
I recounted our conversations and she said, ‘Oh dear!’
‘And you?’ I asked. ‘Did you make any new friends? Miss Thorpe, perhaps, or Miss Morland?’
‘Miss Thorpe is not to my taste, but I would like to know Miss Morland better,’ said Eleanor. ‘She has engaging manners.’
‘Did you have much chance to speak to her?’
‘No, very little, only to exchange commonplaces. We asked each other how well we liked Bath, and talked of how much we admired its buildings and surrounding country. I asked her whether she drew, or played, or sang, and whether she was fond of riding on horseback, and she asked the same of me.’
‘And what did you discover?’ I asked.
‘That she drew, played and sang as much as any other young lady who is not especially accomplished: that is, a little; and that she rides very little as she prefers to walk and there is not always a horse to be got.’
‘Well, that is honest enough! Would you like to see more of her, do you think?’
She considered the matter.
‘Yes, I think I would. Would you?’
‘I?’ I asked in surprise.
‘Yes, Henry, you.’
‘Now what makes you ask that?’
‘Because you have spoken of little else since we returned,’ she said.
‘Am I so transparent? It would seem so. Very well then, I will confess I like her, what little I know of her. She is interesting,’ I replied.
‘And, moreover, she likes you.’
I was flattered, and thought it was something to be added to Miss Morland’s store of virtues. But I did not allow Eleanor to see it.
‘She hardly knows me, and what little she does know of me she must think very odd,’ I said. ‘I talked nonsense to her when we first met, for what else can one talk in the Upper Rooms with someone one has never met before?’
‘But oddness is always forgiven in a man who is young and handsome.’
‘Be careful or such praise will go to my head.’
‘Why? I said that it is forgiven in a man who is young and handsome, I made no mention of you!’ she said with a laugh.
It was good to hear it. She has not laughed once these past two months. I am glad we came to Bath.