Earlier this month, I read Syrie James's latest novel, Jane Austen's First Love, and thought it was so fun and interesting that I jumped at the opportunity to interview James about her story for the Jane Austen's First Love Holiday Blog Tour. The tour runs through December 14, so make sure you visit other blogs on the tour, comment, and get entered to win one of five Austen-inspired prize packages.
On to the interview...
In the afterword to the novel, James discusses the research behind the story and that it was inspired by real people and real events. That naturally led me to wonder where fact ended and fantasy began. Writing about real people, especially a beloved author such as Jane Austen, means that you don’t have the same free rein to create a character that you would without the historical record and what she left behind in her letters and fiction. So here are a few things that I wondered about while reading Jane Austen’s First Love and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to ask the author what was in her mind while she was writing the book.
|Author Syrie James|
Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.
1. You portray Austen as a 15-year old as quite a tomboy and daredevil, unable to resist proving that she is as capable as a boy. Is that a key characteristic in your view of who Austen was or is this something she outgrew or suppressed over time?
Jane Austen grew up in a home filled with noisy, active boys—not only her many brothers but also a succession of young men who boarded at Steventon Rectory and were educated by Jane’s father. Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated right alongside them, and were included in the sports and games the boys played. Austen’s biographies paint her as something of a tomboy in her youth, and she described Catherine Moreland (Northanger Abbey) as a girl who “was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket…to dolls” and “loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” I think Jane was calling on her own experience as a youth here. Did she grow out of it? Apparently—but as she matured, her letters still reveal a lively, vivacious woman who loved exercise and the out of doors—and she was not averse to taking a risk. Austen devoted years of her life to writing novels that she knew might never be published. That was a huge risk, but it didn't stop her.
2. I love the idea of Austen playing Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Are there any references to this play in any of Austen's letters—in other words, did you pick this play because it was perfect for your plot or was there another Austen connection to it?
Jane Austen and her family were devoted fans of Shakespeare’s work. I didn’t find a specific reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in her letters, but I chose that play because it not only fit perfectly with my plot and theme (and is a truly delightful confection), it was ideal timing for the story. As Jane’s brother Edward Austen says in the novel, “To perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer’s Eve itself! What an inspired notion.”
3. There were a few scenes when I felt that you were inspired by an actual visit to Goodnestone--such as when Edward and Jane walk the high wall--is that true? Did you visit the estate before, after, or while writing the story?
I wrote the entire first draft of the novel before I had a chance to visit Goodnestone Park. All I had to go on at the time were a few photos, one of which showed a garden enclosed by a high brick wall. I was determined to see the estate in person before the book was finalized, to make sure my representation of it was accurate. So I went to England, and although the house is not usually open to public view, I was privileged to be given a private tour of the Goodnestone Park house and grounds by the current owner of the estate, a descendant of the Bridges family who Jane Austen knew. After imagining Goodnestone in my mind for such a long time, it was a thrill to be there in person. I drank in everything I saw and took lots of notes. The interior floor plan and the size of some rooms were different than I’d imagined, the gardens were laid out in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and the brick walls enclosing looked about eleven feet high! To my relief I discovered a brick wall that, although still very high, was climbable and fit with the scene I’d written in my novel. I then went home and revised my description of the house and grounds to fit with reality.
4. Edward Taylor has a definite radical streak—does this characterize his later life? Apart from Elizabeth Bennet’s assertion that she and Mr. Darcy are equals in that he is a gentleman and she is a gentleman’s daughter, I’ve never seen Austen or her family as in the radical camp. Do you see Austen as more radical than her reputation as a Tory would have us believe? And, do we know whether she ever did powder her hair? :)
Edward Taylor’s brother Herbert, in his memoirs (published as The Taylor Papers), mentions an interest in reading military history and his early determination to enter the army. Herbert was very close to his brothers, and recounts the high jinks they engaged in while growing up, jumping over high hedges and getting into all kinds of scrapes. I drew a bit on that to create Edward Taylor’s character, sensing that Edward would have been very much like his brother Herbert. We know that Edward Taylor left Oxford and served in the army for several years, a very unusual choice for the eldest son and heir to a grand estate.
I don’t think Jane Austen was a radical per se—but she certainly had a mind of her own, and (in letters to her sisters) said what she thought about people, with a wink in her eye and without pulling any punches! I don’t know for certain if Austen ever powdered her hair, but she was very fashion-conscious and liked to follow the current trends (as much as her budget would allow), so it’s very likely that she did. Some characters in her juvenilia, which she wrote in the time period in which Jane Austen’s First Love occurs, powder their hair.
5. I found bits and pieces of Austen's novels strewn all over Jane Austen’s First Love, which made the reading extra fun, smiling when I found the Easter Eggs. Did you consciously set out to include something from each, or was that a happy outcome?
I’m so glad you enjoyed finding those! The subtle references to Austen’s later works were great fun to include. The only one that was planned ahead of time was the matchmaking aspect from Emma. All the rest came up naturally as I thought of them, with no intention to try to encompass all of her work. Did I really include something from each? I had no idea.
6. Austen famously never married and yet wrote some of literature’s most enduring and poignant love stories. Do you think that Austen could've written about love in the convincing way she did if she never actually experienced love herself?
Jane Austen was a brilliant craftsman and an astute observer of human nature, so anything is possible. But I feel certain that Jane Austen fell in love, and more than once—and that the experience had a great influence on her work.
7. Along the same lines, the movie Becoming Jane, based on the Jon Spence book, suggested that Austen's relationship with Tom Lefroy enabled her to become the writer of the great, timeless fiction so many of us love. Is your premise the same--i.e., that Austen's relationship with Edward Taylor when she was fifteen was the catalyst her genius required?
One of the catalysts—yes.
8. Apart from Emma, the meddling matchmaker, which Austen heroines do you see in your Jane Austen, age fifteen?
The clever, witty, vivacious Elizabeth Bennet; the enthusiastic but naïve Catherine Moreland; the sensitive, romantic Marianne Dashwood; and the sprightly young heroine of Austen’s unfinished work Catherine, or the Bower.
9. I confess that I saw more of the "rogues" in Edward Taylor--specifically Henry Crawford and Frank Churchill-- than her heroes. I kept on waiting for Edward to play false with Jane. Did you see your Edward Taylor as a model or inspiration for any one of Austen's heroes in her novels?
I didn’t draw on any of Austen’s characters when bringing Edward Taylor to life; rather, I saw him as his own unique person, and drew on what I knew of his real life. But I do think it possible that Austen had Edward Taylor in mind while writing some of her juvenilia and her famous novels. He was wealthy, heir to a grand estate, honest, highly intelligent, extremely well-read, and a deep thinker. Some of his other qualities (such as his hunger for for excitement adventure) do evoke Austen’s lovable rogues, but Edward is true to Jane and I think very worthy of her affection.
10. How do you prep before sitting down to write as Jane Austen--i.e., this is a first-person narrative of a real person. Is the process different from when you write a first-person narrative of an entirely fictional character?
With a fictional character, I create their back story, conduct interviews with people in their profession, research the location of the story, and write a detailed outline. To write from the point of view of a real historical character, especially one as famous as Jane Austen, whose writing style is well-known to all the world, is far more complicated and time-consuming. I spent years researching Jane’s life. I visited all the places Austen lived in England as well as the house where Jane Austen’s First Love is set. I read everything Austen wrote many times over. Nearly every single character in this novel is real, so I had to research every one of them. Only then was I ready to lay out the story. While writing this novel, I had to constantly steep myself in Austen’s work (especially her letters) to keep her voice in my head. And I loved every minute.
11. Was it difficult to create a story around this youthful relationship knowing that there never could be a traditional happy ending to it? How did it change the writing process, knowing the ending before you began to develop the plot?
I viewed this book, as I did my novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, as a love story rather than a traditional romance. Although by definition a romance novel requires a Happily Ever After, a love story is more open ended—the emphasis is on the emotional journey the lovers experience, and what they learn from each other is more important than whether or not they end up together. We all know that Jane Austen never married, but it’s thrilling to imagine her falling in love. Knowing that she and Edward wouldn’t be together forever did influence the way I plotted the novel. I didn’t put up many obstacles to their romance in the beginning. I wanted their attraction to be immediate and profound, so they could spend a lot of time together, and we could have the pleasure of seeing their feelings blossom as they fall in love.
I really enjoyed the story, especially the play and how it worked within the plot, and I thought your representation of a young Jane Austen to be convincing and memorable, sweet and energetic. I really enjoyed her relationship with her brothers—both of whom seemed to bring out the best in her. Well done!
Thank you so much, Jane! I loved your thoughtful and though-provoking questions, and am delighted that you hosted me on your blog today. Readers: do you have any comments or questions for me? If so, please fire away!
Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie's unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on this page on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!