Which Jane Austen?

Which Jane AustenNicola here.  Last week I was in Oxford at the Bodleain Library to see the Jane Austen exhibition. I love “The Bod” as it’s known; when you join you have to swear an oath that dates back to when the library was first open to scholars in 1602. Amongst other things you have to promise not to set fire to the place which suggests that those 17th century students were a bit unruly, not unlike some of their modern Oxford counterparts!

The exhibition was quite small, just one room, and I did wonder when I went in whether there Juvenilia was anything new that could be said about Jane Austen or any new slant that could be taken on her life and work. It was titled “Which Jane Austen” and had the theme of “the writer in the world.” So it focussed on objects and writing associated with specific times and places in her life. There was a section on the juvenilia she wrote with other members of her family (in the photo), with her original diaries and notebooks on show.  There were features on her time in Bath and her connections to London, with many letters on show. There was a book of recipes Jane’s family used at Chawton House. A particularly interesting section focussed on Jane as a woman writing in a time of war which pointed out that she was one of the first writers from the “home front” giving a domestic view of life for those living through the Napoleonic Wars. It’s always mind-blowing to see original possessions and belongings on display and one of the things that moved me most was a pair of Jane’s spectacles resting on her writing desk! I imagine a lot of us could relate to that!

Pride and Prejudice 1995 (1)In a studio next door they were playing extracts from all the different films and TV adaptations of Jane Austen’s books. The idea was that you could sit and draw your own comparisons between the different versions of the story and see how they could be depicted in so many ways. Or, if you were like me, you could admire the houses, the fashions and the different Mr Darcys!

It’s fascinating to fill out the background life and influences of a writer like Jane Austen. She attended the balls and parties we read and write about. She met the people and danced the steps of the country dances. I love the fact that like many writers, she used aspects of the people she knew to inspire the characters in her books. One of the most exciting things that I discovered when researching the history of Ashdown House was a completely unexpected connection between the Craven family and the Austen family. Sir Charles Craven, who was Governor of Carolina between 1711 and 1716 was married to a very beautiful younger woman called Love and Friendship Elizabeth Staples. This woman was the grandmother of three of Jane Austen’s closest friends, Martha, Mary and Eliza Lloyd. They regaled Jane with tales of Elizabeth’s private cruelty and vice, and the outrageously scandalous life she led after she was widowed. It’s said that she was the model for Lady Susan Vernon in the book Lady Susan and recent film Love and Friendship. Similarly, John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility was supposedly based on the Earl of Craven of whose morals in keeping his mistress at Ashdown House Jane Austen so clearly disapproved!  Willoughby is charming, extravagant and amoral. William Craven was, arguably… well, you guessed it!

The relationship between William Craven and the famous Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, which was said that been reflected in Writer in the world Sense and Sensibility, was also the inspiration for the story thread involving the courtesan Lavinia Flyte in my own book, House of Shadows. Jane Austen, in writing about the fate of  Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility was completely aware of the restrictions on the lives of women in Regency England, the balance of power and the way that the wider world worked. She was indeed a “writer in the world.”

Do you think Jane Austen was a writer who reflects the wider world? Do you have a favourite adaptation or a favourite re-imagining of her work? To celebrate the US publication of House of Shadows next week I'm giving away a copy of the book to one commenter between now and midnight Saturday!

Nicola Cornick on History, Heroines and Her New Book!

ShadowsCara/Andrea here. Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing my good friend and fellow Word Wench Nicola Cornick on her new book, House of Shadows, which releases in the UK and Australia on November 5th! (U.S. readers can purchase it through Book Depository.) It marks an exciting new direction for her, as she branches out from her award-winning Regency romances into a new genre—historical mystery/suspense! It weaves together the story of three women, linked through the centuries by two jeweled artifacts that . . . Oh, but rather than give away any spoilers, let's have Nicola tell us about the story! 

Nicola 2House of Shadows is a big change for you, shifting from Regency romance to historical romantic mystery/suspense. Tell us a little about the challenges.

To begin with I didn’t imagine it would be a big change because I clung to the idea that there was a Regency storyline in the book and thought that would at least give me some familiarity. However despite that I soon realized I was in unchartered waters. There were so many challenges! I’m not a plotter by nature – when I write I’m a total pantser who finds it difficult even to come up with synopsis for a whole book so planning the three different timelines was very difficult for me. The other thing I found very hard was writing a contemporary storyline. Years back I had tried to write contemporary romance and my editor at the time said, very kindly, that I should perhaps stick with historical! So I didn’t approach it with much confidence. I was lucky that one of my writing friends helped me work on the dialogue in particular.

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Seductive Villains

Nicola here! First of all, apologies for the fact that there are no photos on this blog post. All my power and communications have been knocked out by Storm St Jude so I am posting this up using my iPhone, with thanks to the patron saint of computer geeks!

Yesterday saw the publication of ONE NIGHT WITH THE LAIRD, book 2 in my Scottish Brides trilogy. ONE NIGHT WITH THE LAIRD is Mairi and Jack’s story. They have already met in the first book in the series and I think it is fair to say that they disliked one another thoroughly. Jack thought Mairi was rich, beautiful and spoiled. Mairi thought that Jack was a handsome charmer who was all talk and no
substance. Both were right in some ways but they had a lot to learn about themselves and about each other.

 ONE NIGHT WITH THE LAIRD is also a book that bristles with villains. There were three at the last count. It’s no secret that I enjoy writing a good villain and that evil in a story fascinates me almost as much as the development of the relationship between the hero and the heroine.

 I was thinking about villains particularly this week because with the “re-imagining” of Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope as part of the Austen Project there has been a lot of discussion about the character of John Willoughby. Willoughby, like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park is a man whose moral compass has gone awry. He is a cad (which I know is slightly too modern a word for Jane Austen but it does sum him up rather well). And yet there is about him that tantalising hint that he is not all bad; under other circumstances there is the chance that he could have been a villain redeemed. It’s like that moment in Star Wars when Luke give Darth Vader the chance to turn his back on the dark side and Vader hesitates before giving himself up completely to evil.

This particularly interests me as I did a talk at a literary festival last week on the real life inspiration for John Willoughby, William, 7th Baron Craven. There is a strong suggestion that Jane Austen, who was linked to the Craven family through ties of marriage and friendship, modelled Willoughby on the extravagant and rakish Lord Craven. This is not the only time that Jane Austen used a member of the Craven family as the inspiration for a wicked character; there is also the suggestion that she based Lady Susan Vernon on another Craven relative. However, Jane herself did say that all her characters were composites: “I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they are only Mr A or Colonel B.” I think that most writers take elements of people they have met and pick and choose which qualities to use.

All this led me to wonder, though – Is a villain a necessary part of a story? Probably not but I love the complexity that a villain can bring to a book. Honorary Word Wench Elizabeth Hawksley, a big fan of villains, commented:

“A strong villain needs to have his own aims and objectives. I find a villain really useful. He can be a catalyst for change: exposing the heroine’s weakest point, for example, thus giving her the opportunity to learn things or move on. He can also challenge the hero who can stand up to him and
come good. Villains bring danger. But beware: villains can seduce the author and infiltrate any emotional vacuum. They can be dangerously attractive.”

In ONE NIGHT WITH THE LAIRD all the villains in their different ways bring danger to the heroine and a challenge to the hero because Jack, the hero, simply does not see himself as a protector. Jack is pretty bad himself, rakish and ruthlessly unsentimental. He does not want to be cast in a protector’s role and seeing him struggle with it and change as he accepts it, was part of the fun of writing him.

As for seductive villains, well, I think they need that element of uncertainty about them, the chance that they might come good. Pure evil isn’t that fascinating. It’s too one-dimensional. But villains who are nuanced, who have depth and motivation for their behaviour, who can even be a little bit sympathetic or poignant, can be very compelling. Tom Bradshaw, who featured in a number of books in my Scandalous Ladies of the Ton Series, was the most nuanced villain I ever wrote. Tom was usually doing something illegal, immoral or just plain bad. Blackmail, attempted murder, nothing was too low for Tom to stoop to it. He was eventually redeemed not so much by the love of a good woman but by the need to make himself more worthy of that love and in Lady Emma’s Disgrace he finally got his own HEA.

Do you have a favourite seductive villain from a film or a book? Or a favourite scene where there is a face-off between the villain and the hero? I’m offering a copy of One Night with the Laird to a commenter between now and midnight Thursday.