Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter

Thank you for joining me on the Historical Novel Review Blog, Jane and Caitlen, I'm sure our readers are fascinated to hear about how you wrote this lovely Regency Novel.

1. Your website and media blurb say that Jane has been writing for a while but this is Caitlen’s first novel. What made both/either of you want to write in conjunction with someone else? What made you base your novel on Lady Susan specifically, as opposed to, say, an original storyline based on an Austen format?

Jane had written a contemporary series, based at the Jersey shore that, incidentally featured a Jane Austen-loving sleuth, Cat Austen, who has a nine-year-old daughter named Jane! After a few books in the series were published, she started thinking about writing a second series. She happened to be reading Lady Susan at the time, and thought that there were elements that could be adapted to a mystery – the beautiful, manipulative woman who has lost her husband in a circumstance that is never made clear; the young ingĂ©nue, the headstrong young man, a wary sister-in-law, the gossipy London friend. She decided that it wouldn’t really do justice to the work to convert it to the “Lady Susan Mysteries”, and started thinking about reconstructing it as a historical narrative, and asked Cait if she would like to co-write it - Caitlen was not only a serious fan of Jane Austen, but had taken an intensive Austen seminar in college. In fact, the book is dedicated to the professor of that course, Professor Mary Ann Macartney.

Lady Susan is also a complete work, though underdeveloped; we had the characters, the relationships and the lovely, ironic ending to work with, and, of course, translating an epistolary work to a narrative novel was precisely what Austen did with Elinor and Marianne, which was recast as Sense and Sensibility.

2. Which leads me to my next question – why each other? Most mothers and daughters cannot collaborate on a shopping list, let alone a novel.

The problems we had with collaboration had to do with our different circumstances – where we live, how much time we had to devote to the project – rather than issues of personality. When you collaborate with anyone, you have to have the same appreciation of the material, the same commitment to the project, the same understanding of who does what and the same professional attitude – it doesn’t matter if you’re related or not, because in the end, it’s not about you, it’s about the goal; we both approached this with the same goals in mind: we wanted to convert Lady Susan into a novel-length narrative, we wanted to try to reproduce the tone of an Austen novel and we wanted to get it published!

3. The omniscient narrator who tells us what is happening rather than living through the characters is considered no longer fashionable for contemporary novels. However, you remained faithful to Jane Austen’s writing style in the book. Was that a deliberate decision?

Yes. When you write a pastiche, you have to look to the original body of work – in this case, Austen’s major novels – for precedent: prose style, word choice, plot elements. In the case of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, if we couldn’t find a precedent in Austen’s novels, we didn’t do it.

4. In the early 1800s, women had no protection from the law if their husbands chose to leave them destitute on widowhood. Although Sir Frederick believed he had left his wife and daughter in the capable hands of his brother, there was nothing to prevent his subsequent actions, other than the approbation of his peers. Was this injustice you wanted to highlight with your handling of the book?

What we did highlight was done not because it was what we now perceive as injustice, but because we saw a precedent in Austen’s work. Just as Mr. Dashwood trusts to John Dashwood's family feeling when his son “promised to do everything in his power to make [Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters] comfortable”, Frederick Vernon projects his own notions of filial affection upon his brother and heir and trusts that Charles will provide everything he has promised to Lady Vernon and Frederica. In Austen, you see repeated examples of the “negligent father” ( or "husband"), men who have a disconnect in their emotional ties or financial obligation to their wives and daughters. Mr. Bennet is a case in point; he has no sons, an income of about two thousand pounds a year derived from his entailed property, yet a quarter century into the marriage he still has laid nothing aside for the provision of his wife and daughters. In Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, Lady Elinor Martin observes, "Only think of all the daughters and wives who are cast adrift when property goes from one hand to another?" When you see how the Bates women in Emma, or Mrs. Smith in Persuasion are plunged from comfort into poverty, you can comprehend (even if you cannot agree with) Mrs. Bennet’s desperation to have Elizabeth marry Mr. Collins; when Elizabeth refuses him, plain, twenty-seven-year-old Charlotte Lucas grabs him; her philosophy expresses the reality of the time, that marriage “was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune.” When John Dashwood meets his sisters in London, he remarks upon Marianne's wasted appearance by wondering “whether Marianne now, will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a-year, at the utmost…” While Austen's heroines ultimately marry for love, marriage and money are inseparable in her novels.

5. Unlike Jane Austen, whose characters may be sly, imperious and unjust, your antagonist, Charles Vernon, definitely struck me as sinister and with implications that he was capable of murder to achieve what he saw as his birthright. Was that a deliberate move away from Ms. Austen’s style for the modern reader, or do you feel her original characters were too mild?

In earlier drafts, there was a stronger implication that Charles Vernon had murdered his brother; we ultimately took it out because, again, we wanted to look to Austen’s work for precedent, and there were no murders in her novels. Vernon, like many other characters in Austen who act maliciously, is motivated by greed – greed for money, property, status. They are not necessarily mild, but have a veneer of civility that passes for mildness - Willoughby, Walter Elliot, Frederick Tilney, are genteel in their address, but cruel, even predatory. Charles Vernon persuades himself that he has been cheated, and it is a very short leap from feeling cheated to considering how you will retaliate or recover what you think is your due. The property and money are almost irrelevant – Charles is no more suited to be the administrator of the Vernon fortune and property than Henry Crawford is to be the husband of Fanny, or Wickham is to be a clergyman.

6: I couldn’t tell where Jane’s work ended and Caitlen’s began in the novel. Was this deliberate, or are you so attuned to each other you didn’t have to think about it?

That may be because we didn’t write alternate parts of the book; we both contributed to the work as a whole. Jane tends to write in sentences and paragraphs, focusing on phrasing and cadence which she think are important but often unaddressed aspects of writing a pastiche. Caitlen writes in scenes and chapters – in larger blocks – and is also the better editor when it comes to repositioning scenes within the manuscript. When a draft was done, we would take turns at revising the entire work, phoning and e-mailing back and forth, so it really was a united effort.

7: Did you base the character of Catherine Vernon on another Jane Austen character or was she entirely your own creation.

Catherine Vernon appears in Lady Susan. Early on in Austen’s work, we learn that she and Lady Susan Vernon have never met. It is rare in Austen to see in-laws who never meet – the only prominent example of it is in the long estrangement that exists between Mrs. Price and her sisters’ families. Since the Vernon sisters-in-law have never met, all of Catherine’s information about Lady Vernon has come to her second-hand, so how she regards Lady Vernon, her point of view until they meet, is based upon her prior prejudices, and even afterward, her prejudice may color her view of her sister-in-law’s behavior.

As to the “hook” in her character, the overriding quality, you see a self-satisfaction, and indolence that is reflective of a number of Austen’s characters – certainly Lady Bertram, but also Lady Middleton and Mrs. Elton, who use marriage as an excuse to discontinue accomplishment – music, in their cases. In a character like Charlotte Palmer, you see a willful determination to mischaracterize her husband’s inattention and indeed, throughout the novels you see married couples – the Bennets, the Middletons, the Bertrams, the Musgroves – settle into their separate, and not always compatible, spheres. She becomes almost a satiric opposite on Caroline Bingley’s assessment of the accomplished woman – music, singing, dancing, drawing, languages – preferring to "write her letters and then proceed to do nothing in peace and quiet".

8: With the release of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, do you have any other novels planned, either working alone or together as mother and daughter?

We are working on another Austen-related project, but we are still in the very early stages.

9: Now the more frivolous bit. What has been the biggest stumbling block in writing together and getting this work published?

One big obstacle in the writing was that Caitlen was occupied with her masters program, internships, moving to the city and taking her first job, which prolonged the writing time. Nonetheless, writing the book – that was the fun part. Getting published is another matter. There is a lot that determines whether a book gets published or not, and it isn't always encouraging to see how little of it has to do with the work itself. Fortunately, we had wonderful advocates, both in our agent, and in our editor at Crown.

Thank you so much for joining me today, and I would also like to recommend the excellent book trailer you released for the novel available on your website. Which I also note is another family collaboration! Anita Davison

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