Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Few Jane Austen Questions

I'm writing an historical fiction novel in the style of Jane Austen, in the period of Austen, 1802, BUT set in Ireland.

During this writing challenge, I've been reading all of Austen's works, letters, unfinished works, unpublished works, etc. It's been fascinating to watch her grow as a writer, but also fascinating to realize how bloody good she was in her youth. 

If you've never heard of, or read Lady Susan, one of Austen's earliest unpublished novels, I highly recommend it. It's an epistolary novel, meaning it's composed entirely of letters, and the lead character is quite a scandalous lady of her time. Hand-written correspondence has all but disappeared in the modern lexicon of life, so the delight of reading letters is ten fold increased today. Hence, my hypothesis as to why Lady Susan is making a comeback on bookshelves. Reading someone else's letter is a voyeuristic occupation. It allows the outside reader in on a secret. And this book, with a beautiful, charming lady seducing men many years her junior and carrying on an affair with a married man, is full of salacious secrets. The letters from the jealous wives of the seduced men are equally as intriguing. 

This brings me to an observation about all of Jane's writings - the fact that women had little or no power over their fate. Lady Susan is her only character, in any of her books that even attempts to live life for her own happiness, and not to please others. She can not be happy if oppressed by the rules of society, so she defies every rule.
But she is always the Belle of the ball, despite her reputation. Why? Because women, the jealous wives, have no power. In the land of Austen, good morals always win the day; but if an opposite horse ever had it chance at the blue ribbon, it was Lady Susan.

Women in the regency era, 1790's - 1820's, were always at the mercy of either a good marriage or an inheritance. If neither were in a woman's future, she may be forced into service as a governess. The stakes for a low-income, young, unmarried lady are great, it's either marriage or servitude. This situation is exactly why Austen's books are so enjoyable; a lady's merits overrule her income. A rich husband is always found for the lady of high moral character. The books offer hope to all the penniless gentlemans' daughters of the past and the present. The reader is instantly rooting for the underdog.  

Now the question - as it pertains to my own Irish set Austen novel. If my young sisters each have £20,000, like Miss Crawford in Mansfield Park, are they allowed to marry beneath their rank? Knowing that women at this time have little choice in their fate, is it believable that a wealthy Anglo-Irish lady may choose to marry a working doctor? Is it believable at this time, in 1802, that a young lady may wish to find a greater purpose in her life than to simply sip tea with her morning callers, which is any well-bred ladys' fate as she fends off one fortune hunting suitor after another? 

What's your opinion?


  1. This question actually leads me to a bigger question around your novel, which might be naive, but what the hell - I'm a thriller writer :) So here goes: When I think of the England of Jane Austen's day, I think of the prim and proper society with their rules and their petticoats and their class rankings and all of those things that make Jane Austen Jane Austen, and that make England England. But when I think of Ireland, I think of drunken fisherman. And I say that as someone who is both English and Irish. So here's my question: is it, in fact, true that the Ireland of the time would "look" the same as England in terms of social structure, mannerisms, customs? Will your characters be proper little Englishwomen, or will they be drunken Irish fishermen's wives? I can't wait to find out.

    1. Hi Kris, thanks for the comment.
      You make a good point that people don't think of Ireland in 1800 as a place filled with manners and tea time. But the truth is that it was similar to England because of all the transplanted English families, the Protestant Anglo-Irish. Basically, any Gentleman who was willing to take over an Irish estate and rule it with loyalty to England, was invited to Ireland to claim a castle. Needless to say, this created a bit of tension, which led to many rebellions and eventually, The Act of Union in 1802 (where my story begins), which was England's final effort to rule over Ireland by inviting the Anglo-Irish lords into English parliament. There's much more to the history, but in short, yes, all the English manners would have existed in the wealthy society of Ireland. Ireland, like England, also had a rising middle class, but unlike England, that middle class often owned pubs and those publicans were buying Georgian town homes next to their wealthy betters. Yes, Guinness does enter the story.

    2. Ooh! That makes it even more interesting. Manners and tea time forcibly juxtaposed amongst the native Guinness-swigging fishermen! OK, I'm hooked!

  2. Not wishing to be coarse, but frankly honest, I would remind the youngsters among you that it is only within my lifetime that wealth and TV advertising have created an America in which it is fairly rare to notice another person's body odor. Urban Americans hardly ever smell like real people. I can imagine the following conversation between two young people in Regency era Ireland.

    "How nice of you to come calling, Patrick. It's so bitterly cold. I've hardly stirred from my seat by the hearth today."

    "Yes. I sometimes think that the Christmas holiday has been made to coincide with the most awful time of year. It generates a last burst of good feeling, to carry one on to the Spring season. I also find that a hot dram of Whiskey before venturing out helps to fortify one."

    "Oh! Is it the approach of the holidays that prompts your visit? I'm afraid I'm unprepared. I have nothing more celebratory to offer you than this Tea."

    "No. I didn't mean to imply that this was a socially obligated visit. I... I frankly simply wished the pleasure of your company. Even in this unventilated time of year, I find your proximity very pleasant."

    Thank you. In the Summer, when the garden is abloom, I strip the tiny flowers from the Lavender and Lilac, and mix them in a large jar. Then, in cold weather, when bathing is too dangerous, and I sense myself becoming indelicate, I sprinkle some of the Lilac and Lavender into my shorts. It works wonders."

    "A lady with a scientific turn of mind. How refreshing!"

    1. Hi Poppy - I think you're a natural for the genre of Historical Fiction Satire. :)
      Very funny.