Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Inspiring Miss Jane Austen - Jane Odiwe

Jane Austen
Someone asked me what had inspired my new book, Jane Austen Lives Again, the other day, and it took me a moment to think about just where the ideas came from and how I ended up writing about my favourite writer in 1925.
Firstly, I love Jane Austen, the person, or the idea of the personality she represents to me. She is wonderful to write as a character because there is an element of mystery about her. For all that we think we know about the woman who penned Pride and Prejudice, there is so much that is uncertain, and even when we are given tantalising clues to pieces of her past, they’re usually snuffed out, to disappear like curling smoke from an extinguished candle flame, whenever we try to get too close. I’ve been very lucky to meet several descendants of Jane’s brothers, and I’ve always hoped I might stumble on some precious nugget of information, a secret never told before. Whilst some have provided me with several intriguing ideas and the occasional unanswered mystery, sadly, the hard evidence for such tantalising tidbits is never really there - though I have often wondered if they’re not spilling all the beans! If I was a non-fiction writer, this might make the job of bringing Jane Austen to life a much harder job, but as a novelist, part of the fun is in being able to use your imagination to make her into a character, whilst trying to remain respectful to her memory, and drawing on the wonderful material we have in the form of her letters and books. Everyone thinks they know Jane Austen - every reader feels she is their special friend, which is partly what makes our greatest novelist a true genius. Her ability to connect with every reader so that they feel it’s a personal experience is part of the wonderful charm of her books. I’ve tried to convey how I feel about her in my own writing, and I hope that readers will like my idea of how I see ‘Jane’.
Lydia, Wickham and Kitty
It goes without saying that her novels are a great inspiration to many people, whether as readers or writers. Her books can be returned to time and again, and every time we read them we find something new to love. Another aspect of Jane’s genius is that we identify with her characters as much today as they did 200 years ago. Everyone knows a couple who seem impossibly matched, like ‘Mr and Mrs Bennet’, we’ve all met a silly ‘Lydia’, or been stung by the barbs of a ‘Caroline Bingley’. We all wish we could go back in time and meet the enigmatic Miss Austen, and have a conversation with her, and this desire of my own has taken me on a journey with my own books. I’ve written a couple of dual time novels, Searching for Captain Wentworth and Project Darcy, where contemporary heroines go back to the 1800s to interact with Jane Austen and other characters inspired by those Jane wrote about in Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice. This time, I thought it would be interesting to place Miss Austen in 1925, an era I thought she might enjoy (like me) and I wanted to explore how she would react to a different time, a new and exciting age where women were becoming more independent. Jane still had firm fans in 1925, and her novel, Sanditon was edited and published at the beginning of the year. Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster waxed lyrical on her talents, describing themselves as Janeites, penning articles and poems on their love for her work.
I am a Jane Austenite, and, therefore, slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and airs of personal immunity—how ill they set on the face, say, of a Stevensonian. But Jane Austen is so different. One's favorite author! One reads and rereads, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, one greets her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers. E. M Forster 1924
Rudyard Kipling wrote The Janeites around this time and Jane's Marriage, a poem which alludes to a mysterious gentleman who loved Jane Austen.

This brings me to another source of inspiration - the wonderful books written by women authors written between the 1920s and 1940s. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson are just three of my favourites - if you haven’t read them you are in for a treat, and if you haven’t time to read them there are very good films of them all to watch. All these authors admired Jane Austen - if they don’t actually mention her by name, it’s easy to see her influence in their writing. Family dynamics are at the heart of the first two books, and I liked the idea of creating a family that didn’t quite sit well together, in true Jane Austen style. There are five girls, all inspired by Jane Austen’s heroines - you might be able to guess which
ones from their names, though they’re not carbon copies. Alice, Mae, Beth, Emily and Cora all have problems to overcome, and whilst some are resistant to Jane’s help, she is determined to do all she can. I loved the idea of placing the Milton girls in a crumbling castle on the edge of the sea in Devon, as part of an eccentric and bohemian family. As Jane ‘teaches’ us a model for good behaviour throughout her books, I wanted my novel to show her doing this as she tries to reform and influence the different characters within the Milton family and beyond.
Every one of the books mentioned above has a fairy tale element in the descriptions of the worlds created or in their happy endings, and I very much wanted to mirror this idea and write a grown-up ‘Cinderella’ story of my own. I will just briefly mention the heroes in my novel - there are several, all inspired by Jane's heroes to some extent or other, and Jane has admirers of her own.
 Finally, I love doing the research for a new novel and Pinterest can be very inspiring for creating mood boards. I had a wonderful time putting this board together
Following on is an excerpt from Jane Austen Lives Again - I do hope you enjoy it. 
A descendant of her Winchester doctor, John Lyford finally perfects the latter’s work on transdifferentiation, though it takes until 1925 to do so, and in accordance with her last wishes and the help of her sister Cassandra, she’s given a new lease on life. She looks and feels about Elizabeth Bennet’s age, but has all the wisdom from her past life. The only problem is that with little money she has to get a job, and so the young doctor manages to place her in a household as a governess, which is not her idea of an exciting prospect. She soon finds out that the family don't really need a governess as such, but they very much need her help. As she adjusts to her new life, Jane’s memories often intrude, and there are flashbacks to the past. In this scene, at a party, modern life threatens to overwhelm her, and she can’t help harking back to her former life, and an old love.

Beyond were French doors leading out onto a terrace, with wonderful views over the valley and steps leading down to a sunken garden. Roses bloomed over an arbour fixed at points along the terrace,
and the scent on the evening air made Jane feel she’d been transported to some foreign clime she’d once read about. There was no one else in sight and leaning on the balustrade she watched the sun lowering in the sky sending blue shadows over the black and white tiles, setting the pots of white lilies aflame. A few Chinese lanterns bobbed in the warm breeze above her head, blushing pink as if lit by glow-worms. It was incredible to think she’d found such a peaceful haven, and though she knew she couldn’t stay there all night, at least it gave her a little respite from all the frenzied activity inside. The music floated out on the scented air, and she could imagine them all kicking up their heels, until there was a pause and tumultuous applause broke out, and a loud voice announced a foxtrot to slow down the pace so they could get their breath back. Jane couldn’t imagine what that dance could be, and couldn’t help picture a sly fox with a waving bushy tail trotting his way down a henhouse full of plump birds. She laughed out loud for it really was a ridiculous picture.
‘Is it a good joke?’ said a voice behind her.
Spinning round she came face to face with Will, the last person she expected to see.
‘I’ve never heard of a foxtrot and I’ve got a wild imagination.’
As soon as the words were out she thought how gauche she must sound.
‘Goodness, you’ve led a more sheltered existence than I thought,’ Will exclaimed. ‘I was just coming to ask you to dance.’
‘I’m not sure that would be possible or appropriate, Mr Milton,’ Jane answered, searching for the right words. ‘I cannot dance, nor do I have any wish to make an exhibition of myself.’
It was an attempt to put him off, and even though she knew the reverse was true, that she loved nothing better than to dance, she’d already decided that to start again by having to learn modern dances to the music that was starting to jangle noisily and persistently in her head, would be impossible. She liked to be the best at everything, to excel at all she endeavoured to try. Failure was not a word she liked or allowed in her vocabulary, and besides all that, the memories of the past were crowding in on her.
She saw a line of eager young bucks, all waiting to take her hand in the dance. As if seeing
Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy
from a distance, a familiar room glowed with candlelight and exquisite chandeliers, as Tom Lefroy took her arm, squeezed her hand, and led her through the intricate patterns, whirling her round in a country dance. The room throbbed with passions unspoken, of bodies meeting, fingers touching, hearts and minds open to tacit thoughts and caresses. And later, stolen kisses and a sweet promise beyond the confines of the house, now blazed across her memory and the gulf of time, as swift and searing as if it had happened yesterday.
‘I don’t believe you,’ Will was saying as Jane jerked back to reality when she heard his insistent voice. ‘You have the definite look of a dancer to me. Come on, let me teach you.’
He came to stand next to her leaning his weight with crossed arms on the balustrade as she did, and Jane hoped he wouldn’t see the tears that sprang to her eyes blurring her vision and thoughts. It was silly to be so stirred up and emotional at thoughts of the past, but she was overwhelmed by a sudden desire for all that she had ever known, and for all those she had loved. She longed to share a conversation with someone who spoke the same language in the cadences and timbre of her youth, and to feel a kinship and connection with every living creature in her own time, sharing an appreciation of what was expected, whilst operating within a familiar system. And although she’d often railed against such conventions, she almost craved such customary restrictions now. Knowing she couldn’t go back made her feel worse, and she had to focus her mind to bring herself back from sudden despair. Blinking back the tears she turned to see Will looking into the distance, and for the first time she thought she saw a look of vulnerability. There was an expression of sadness in his eyes as if he might be far away in his thoughts too.
‘I’ll be a poor pupil, I’m certain,’ she said, finally giving in to his pleading expression. ‘And I’m supposed to be chaperoning your sisters, not trotting about.’
She nearly added, ‘like a fox’, but the uncharitable thought crossed her mind that if anyone were like a fox it was Will with his chestnut brown hair, and she cast herself as a plump hen with ruffled feathers waiting to be snaffled up after one easy pounce.
‘Are you changing your mind?’ he said, turning to face her with a smile that spread to his velvet eyes, sloe black and glittering in the dying light. ‘Have I convinced you to dance with me?’
‘I hardly know,’ she muttered before he caught hold of her, pulling her arm gently towards him until she released her tight grip on the stone rail, and took her hands in his own.

If you could go back in time and meet Jane Austen, what question would you most want to ask her?


6 comments:

Joana Starnes said...

What a delightful post, Jane, thank you! So beautifully heartfelt, and I loved your exquisite watercolours!

If I ever was so lucky to be able to ask Jane Austen a question, it would definitely have to be "What happened in First Impressions in the scenes that were 'lopt and cropt'?"

Jane Odiwe said...

Thank you, Joana. Oh, that's such a brilliant question. I'd love to know- I often wonder whether there's a copy somewhere hidden under floorboards that we don't know about...

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Most enjoyable post, Jane. I'd like to ask Jane Austen how she envisaged her two unfinished novels: 'Sanditon' and 'The Watsons' ending. I've read completions of both books; 'Sanditon' by 'Another Lady' (Marghanita Laski) and 'The Watsons' by John Coates. I'd love to know how near they are to what Jane herself envisaged.

Jane Odiwe said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. Yes, I'd like to ask her what she thought of her family changing the name of her original text, 'The Brothers', to 'Sanditon', and I'd like to ask them why they did. I didn't realise Marghanita Laski had written a completion - I've always loved the book she wrote about Jane.

Deborah Ann said...

I enjoyed this post so very much. Thank you for sharing why you placed Jane Austen in 1925. I am enjoying this book so very much.

Jane Odiwe said...

Thank you, Deborah Ann- I'm absolutely thrilled to hear you're enjoying the book!