Book Club Q & A, Two

Here’s a question from Sue and her book club in Chicago.

Sue: Which, in your opinion, is Jane Austen’s best novel?

Thanks for this, Sue. It’s an extremely difficult question to answer for the reason that the answer is usually the last one I’ve read. Because the wit is woven deeply into the fabric of Austen’s prose, I tend to forget how much pleasure each novel gives me until I come around to reading the novel afresh.

But looking back on each as though remembering a landscape, I think Pride and Prejudice stands out for its sheer entertainment value, wit and wonderful characters, and for the symmetry of its plot, while Emma has all the attributes necessary for a modern — and, by some definitions, realist — novel. Emma of all Austen’s novels gives us the most lifelike conflict between the emotional desires of the protagonist on the one hand and the demands of her environment on the other.


Emma causes most of her own problems, as people tend to do in real life, and her life’s goals are attained when, in modern parlance, she ‘gets over herself’. This is a similar pattern to most of Nick Hornby’s novels (written in the last couple of decades) and it works so well for many of the same reasons: a particular kind of honesty on the part of the writer, a painful process of change and growth on the part of the protagonist. There is also that delicious sense that the reader guesses things in advance that Emma, with all her blind spots, misses.

Having said that, each time I’ve come back to Northanger Abbey, I feel as though my memory has seriously under-rated it. Ditto with Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion is such a likeable novel too.

The only novel I have trouble swallowing is Mansfield Park. Although I admire all the writing craft as much as her other novels, I’m one of those readers who finds something unsatisfactory in the way protagonist Fanny Price is put on a moral pedestal. Members of her slave-owning adoptive family are often spiteful and shallow yet she clearly prefers their company to that of her own humble family, e.g. her “slatternly” mother of whom she is ashamed although her only crime appears to be poverty. I come away from Mansfield Park feeling exasperated.

If there is a perfect symmetry to Pride and Prejudice, I think the reverse is the case with Mansfield Park. The novel asserts Fanny’s moral superiority but falls a long way short of proving it.


Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price in an 1983 BBC adaptation

But there is evidence than Austen might have been aware of this. While Austen had been merely satirizing the critics by calling Pride and Prejudice “too light and bright and sparkling,” Mansfield Park’s more moralizing tone suggests she just might have been overcompensating against any future charge of frivolity. In any case, she didn’t make the mistake of creating another heroine like Fanny Price.

Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is good, yes, but Austen wisely doesn’t try to portray her as a saint. She suffers for her own mistake (rejecting Captain Wentworth when young). Through Austen’s handling of this demure but believable heroine, Persuasion has that sense of maturity and balance that makes it a fitting finale to the Austen canon.

So that’s my answer. All of them are my favourite at different times, except one.

Feel free to respond with your own view of Austen’s best novel!



Book Club Q & A: The Widow’s Fire

Over the next few months, I will be publishing (with permission of the book club in question) the odd question and answer regarding The Widow’s Fire. Here is a great question from Vicki Broach of the Riverside Book Club, California.  To set the context it’s important to know that The Widow’s Fire starts where the action in Austen’s Persuasion leaves off and that Captain Wentworth finds himself being blackmailed over a prior relationship with a midshipman named Oliver Mason.

Vicki: I have a question having just finished The Widow’s Fire. I’ll begin by saying that although I resisted it at first I came to appreciate your elaboration on Persuasion and enjoyed it very much by the end. My question involves your choice to have Mrs. Smith blackmail Captain Wentworth over his relationship with Oliver. Was there any evidence you found of circumstantial same-sex relationships in the British navy? I’m not saying it was not plausible. I’m just curious if there is historical precedent.I might mention my husband is in the merchant marine and might object to the idea that he would seek other romance while at sea.


Dangers at sea give way to peril on land for Captain Wentworth in The Widow’s Fire

Answer: Thanks so much for the question which is a very good one with a somewhat complicated answer. The act (of “sodomy”) was a capital offense in this era and even after was much more harshly looked upon officially in the Navy than in civilian life. But this of course does not mean it was less common, and there is a great deal of anecdotal writings that suggest it was rather more common in the navy than out of it — it’s almost something of a cliché in the UK.

The punishment was so severe, there is a suggestion that the navy informally adopted the practice of turning a blind eye or punishing the crime euphemistically, calling it  by some other, less damning, name. On the title below find the link to a widely read and influential piece by Arthur N. Gilbert called Buggery and the British Navy 1700-1861 from The Journal of Social History.

While the degree to which same sex relationships was institutionalized is the matter of some debate, the important point from a novelist’s perspective is to capture the sense of trepidation, that this was indeed a capital crime yet at the same time to give the (plausible) suggestion that no one would have ‘outed’ Captain Wentworth at the time, as a certain amount of discretion was the norm.


Most writings do seem to suggest this, and I think it comes down to common sense and an understanding of human psychology regarding people of the same sex with all their desires in tact who are in the company only with their own for months and even years on end. Boarding schools and prisons in Britain and elsewhere had the same calm acceptance of same sex couplings.


Austen and the Grace of Intelligence

Stepping into the public marketplace with a novel is always a little frightening. Usually the publisher has arranged a set of readings and signings, and there is some travel. But it’s hard to visualize the audience in advance.

In some respects The Widow’s Fire was no different. My publisher, Inanna Publications, was wonderfully engaged and before I caught sight of the printed book at a joint launch in Toronto, there were already dates from Canada’s East Coast to West Coast, many Canadian dates in between, a US trip to present at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM, and plans for the UK.


The Widow’s Fire among Austen books and gifts in Waterstones, UK.

But one thing was different from previous publications. This time I could visualize the audience in the sense that at least a core of them would be Jane Austen fans, readers, and scholars.

It would be a coming home of sorts. I’ve been a fan of Austen from my teens. She was the first author to make me favour literature from the 1800s, to enjoy the patterns words and sentences created as they wove around their intended meaning or revealed the bite of irony in the final twist. Nobody brandished this convoluted prose with as much skill as Austen.

But I was also aware I was trespassing.  There is a tangible sense of stewardship among those who adore Jane Austen, and I would soon walk among them. My novel interferes with Jane’s final ending. In The Widow’s Fire, the symmetrical finale of Persuasion goes off the rails letting in the darker themes explored by Gothics such as the Brontes, and, later by postcolonial fiction.

The whole project in fact related back to a crisis in faith I’d once had as a young reader and English major thirty something years ago. I really liked Austen’s novels — a lot. But I could not articulate my partiality beyond a somewhat stuttering and infuriated, it’s just …just …really good!

Austen wasn’t particularly cool in 1980s literary circles in Britain, at least not the ones surrounding me. Up against the grittiness of Dostoevsky or Orwell or even Dickens, she was seen as very socially conservative. Her plots reinforced the class system. Honest and good-hearted heroines are rewarded by marrying men like Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy who were not only rich but also close to the pinnacle of the rigid social structure of Regency England. By the time this coupling took place, these romantic heroes would have also proved themselves as noble and decent as their heroine counterparts. People slightly lower in the social order — George Wickham, Mr. Elton — might appear charming at first but before too long some serious cracks  appear. Virtue, therefore, correlated at least in some important respects to wealth and social standing.

Trespassing Upon Austen

You can’t really argue with this other than to point out that Austen was dealing with genre expectations, albeit ones she had helped to create, and that her artistic brief was never to challenge existing societal structures. Perhaps there was a backhanded social criticism anyway. She does depict, albeit in a comic, detached way, the moral indignity of the social climber. People trying to better their stations — Mr. Elton and Mr. Collins for instance — are among Austen’s most merciless creations. Perhaps it was up to other writers to explore more closely, and with more compassionate understanding, the cause and effect of extreme social inequality. But the lengths to which acquisition drives people is vividly magnified in Austen.

What was obvious to me then, and remains so now, is the clear sighted and perceptive ways Austen illuminates every shade of human behaviour. For the reader there is a kind of safety in this aspect of the novels, a kind of relief. We know how the world goes and here is someone interpreting it for us with rare wit and a precision. Why should she need to offer solutions?

In this one sense Austen speaks to the idealist in us. How can you possess such intelligence, such wit and insight without also possessing fairness and compassion? If the two don’t go together on the pages of the novel, they will in the mind of the reader.

Austen recoils from sermonizing. We have to ask ourselves what kind of writer would create, as Austen did with Emma Woodhouse, a protagonist “no one but myself will much like”. The famous quote is a key of sorts. Austen was right. Few readers can read Emma without becoming enraged at Emma — regularly. They should. Austen respected her reader enough to create Emma, to let her presumptuous, interfering and snobbish behaviour (towards poor Robert Martin and Miss Bates) burn its way through the entire story. This happens with little undue authorial interference until she is (partially) humbled. Then youth and over-indulgence at an impressionable age present themselves as final mitigations.

This is life as it is. It makes us squirm because we recognize it. Austen offers us wit, wisdom, and intelligence. And under the right circumstances these are in themselves graces — moral ones with the power to challenge social structures if we are sufficiently engaged.

Next event: Shelf Life Books, Calgary, reading & presentation March 10, 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm.



Lauri Sayles, Chair of the Calgary branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), will also talk about the organization.

There will refreshments and plenty of time to talk all things Austen!

Attention Book Clubs with an Interest in Jane Austen

Announcing a new service for Austen fans, book and reading clubs around the world. I will answer any three questions on my book The Widow’s Fire via email or Skype. Just contact me to arrange or email the questions.

In the coming month I’ll be posting my reflections on one year of Persuasion taking in experiences meeting Austen fans, scholars, and creative artists in Canada, the US, and the UK.

Screen shot 2016-08-08 at 11.44.08 AM

Next Event: Calgarians can catch a presentation of The Widow’s Fire on March 10, 2-4 pm at Shelf Life Books, 1302 4th Street SW, Calgary.  Click this link for full details.

Sitting with Jane: Images of Austen

A visit to the website of Ipswich, UK, artist Lois Cordelia is like diving into a whirlpool of the senses and imagination. From beautiful paper cuts, to creative cartography in which each section of the British Isles is represented by iconographic images, to mixed media sculptures, there is always a sense of vibrancy and movement.
No wonder she was chosen as one of the artists entrusted with creating one of the Sitting With Jane Austen-inspired BookBenches to commemorate the 200 years since the author’s death.  Her design entitled Look Upon Verdure (a quote fragment from Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price) incorporates, among other joys, Cordelia’s own recreation of Austen’s handwriting and signature copied from her will.

Lois Cordelia’s “Look Up Verdure” BookBench

I was delighted to meet Lois at a recent reading of The Widow’s Fire in the UK and arranged this Q & A about her work and the Austen project in particular.
Q.1: First of all, could you tell me a little about the process through which you ended up designing one of the Sitting With Jane BookBenches? How did it come about?

Lois Cordelia: Firstly, Paul, many thanks for your kind words of introduction and invitation to share my responses to your thoughtful and interesting questions. Being a visual artist rather than a writer, I shall strive to do them justice. It was a great pleasure to meet you, too.

For those who are wondering what a “BookBench” is, it is a real bench seat, shaped like a chunky book with its spine facing downwards and half of the pages curled over to make the seat – an art trail of decorative BookBenches therefore seems a perfect way to commemorate a much loved literary figure while engaging with every age-group in a public setting. Unlike the majority of art trails, members of the public are actually encouraged to sit on the BookBenches as well as take photographs with them, hence they are not only beautiful but also functional pieces of street furniture, with the added implication of encouraging people to sit and read a book. Sitting With Jane was a trail of 24 Jane Austen inspired BookBenches located in and around Basingstoke in Hampshire, UK, over the Summer of 2017, presented by Wild in Art and Destination Basingstoke.

When I first heard about the Sitting With Jane trail, I tried to imagine Jane Austen sitting on a BookBench. Perhaps she would have sat there jotting notes, or reading, or dreaming her next novel into being. As a visual artist, I know how important it is to sit and dream, and, sadly, how hectic modern lifestyles can prevent us from ever doing something as simple as pausing to take in a beautiful view. Austen spent her formative years growing up in the beautiful countryside of Hampshire, specifically in the village of Steventon, which to this day retains much of the timeless rural charm that Jane would have absorbed. Convinced that Austen must have made reference to such an activity as sitting and taking in the view, I set about scouring her novels for any imagery that might relate to this idea, and was not disappointed. Through the voice of the shy Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, Jane writes: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment”. These words seemed to me the most perfect adornment for a Jane Austen inspired BookBench.


Jane Austen’s handwriting: “elegant and effortlessly creative”

To accompany this quotation with visual imagery, I loosely based my BookBench design on a painting I had done several years previously of a pair of garden chairs beneath an arch of trailing wisteria. I adapted the original to feature a Georgian Period park bench, more in keeping with Jane Austen’s time, and emphasised the wisteria, which would have first crept into English gardens around the same time.

I was delighted when my design was accepted for inclusion in the Sitting With Jane trail, thanks to the generous sponsorship of De La Rue, manufacturer of bank notes, founded in Jane Austen’s time and whose headquarters are still located near Basingstoke. September 2017 also saw the UK launch of a new ten pound sterling banknote, issued by De La Rue, featuring a portrait of Jane Austen, who is therefore the only woman (apart from the Queen) to be represented on a current English banknote (following the earlier withdrawal from circulation of the old five pound notes, depicting Elizabeth Fry).

Q. 2: I am always fascinated with the relationship between visual art and literature. Writers visualize events and people and then encode that drama into words so that the reader can then reinterpret the words back into images. The Sitting With Jane project is in some ways a reverse of this process, i.e. taking a writer and turning her into a physical work of art. What was your vision of Austen and her work and how did it relate to the image?

Lois: There is a Greek term for the creative process in which one art-form can relate and respond to another: ekphrasis. Visual art can be a response to poetry, or literature, or music, or dance, or vice versa, in any combination. Often, a tiny fragment of one artistic medium is enough to inspire a whole new creation in another.

I’ve already described how my initial vision of Jane Austen sitting thinking and writing in a quiet rural location in Hampshire inspired my BookBench design. But I wanted to get to know Jane more personally in order to evoke something of her spirit through my artwork.

Instinctively, being a visual artist, I looked at Jane’s handwriting.

In today’s fragmented digital age, handwriting is losing its elegance, becoming disjointed, rushed, and even obsolete. Uniform typefaces replace the colourful idiosyncrasies of hand lettering and obscure much of the writer’s character. But in Austen’s time, handwriting was still an art in itself, something to which to devote time and precision. Fortunately, there is no shortage of examples of Jane’s beautiful penmanship, especially in the form of her letters, so I spent many hours analysing these to get a better feel for the mind that had expressed itself through this hand. This exercise suggested the work of an elegant and effortlessly creative mind, a lilting dancer, self-assured, yet humble. Looking closely at Jane’s handwriting gave me a fresh respect for her and a deeper insight into her character.

As an artist, I regularly work in a number of different styles and art mediums, and so I decided to create my own handmade paper-cut stencils to evoke Jane’s handwriting as part of my design for the BookBench. Cutting each stroke of Jane’s pen out of a piece of paper using a surgical scalpel allowed me to create a precise stencil for the lettering. In addition to fragments from Mansfield Park, I also included Jane’s signature, copied from her will, which features a special form of the capital letter ‘A’ that she appears to have reserved exclusively for her surname. In this way, I could incorporate quotations as part of the actual artwork and Jane’s signature beneath for an added personal touch of authenticity.

Q. 3: More generally, do you find words poems, plays, novels, or philosophy a useful starting point for your work?


Lois: Words are a very powerful starting point for my work. Words and art are both expressions of human consciousness and as such are inseparably linked. A lifelong fascination with language, etymology, literary imagery and analysis has often inspired me in my visual art, sometimes obviously, sometimes less so. I love words and freely confess I use far too many of them when writing, and have to prune back ruthlessly when editing. I do not consider myself a writer, though as a visual artist I find it extremely valuable to be able to communicate effectively through words as through pictures.

I am fascinated by handwriting and the way it affects the appearance of text. Even computer generated typefaces can subtly influence and interfere with our perception of language whenever we read advertisements, posters and signs.

Contrary to my parents’ and teachers’ expectations, I took formal art training only as far as A-level, preferring to choose a degree subject that would include not only aspects of visual art but also literature, history, philosophy, culture, and languages. I gradually focused my studies on languages, taking in modules of Arabic, biblical Hebrew and Greek, Amharic and Sanskrit along the way. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore the links between words, thoughts, imagery, and even the supposed mystical dimensions of ancient scripts.

I am particularly interested in the way memory once played a crucial role in the transmission of purely oral traditions, which only later became ‘fixed’ in written form. I challenged myself to memorise an entire pre-Islamic Arabic poem, Lamiyyat al-Arab by al-Shanfara, and even though the poem was riddled with obscure and archaic expressions that would be as much use in everyday conversation as regurgitating bits of Chaucer, the experience allowed me to glimpse a distant past in which storytelling was far more than a children’s amusement but rather a lifeline to ancestral heritage. Witnessing this process of ‘fossilisation’, in which a fluid utterance that works on many levels becomes set in stone and therefore prone to overly literal misinterpretation, has taught me a lot about the dangers as well as the powers of the written word, in particular as regards religious texts. It also forms an interesting parallel with visual art, in which a fluid thought is pinned down in a visual form. Suffice to say, human consciousness of every era tends to express itself primarily through words. Language is a living thing and its evolution can never be halted. I cringed when I first heard of blogs, memes and hashtags, but have learned that they have their place.

Eventually I focused my university studies on Arabic, partly because it has an obvious relevance to building bridges of understanding in our fraught contemporary world, and I am endlessly grateful for the insights, experiences and friendships it has bestowed on me. But Arabic has also had a powerful impact on my visual and artistic expression. To this day, I am aware of the influence of Arabic script on my own handwriting as on my art. Arabic calligraphy encompasses a vast spectrum, ranging from formal geometric patterns that are not obviously writing at all to lyrical cascading waterfalls of ink that seem more reminiscent of musical notation. Interestingly, when I resumed visual art after spending four years studying Arabic, everyone remarked that I had made a huge leap of progress in my art. Above all, what I learned from endless hours of effort in mastering Arabic script was effortlessness.

Q. 4: I note that on the same project you also did a speed portrait in 60 minutes of Austen herself. Is speed is an important part of some of your work? What qualities can speed of creativity give to visual art? Is it for instance about vibrancy, movement, or escaping inhibition?
portrait US

Portrait commission

Lois: I seem to gain a reputation for being a “speed-painter”, which is an interesting term. I rarely set out to work against the clock, but I do surprise myself and others at how quickly I paint. Between forty to ninety minutes is about average for me to complete a painting from scratch. The challenge is to capture a likeness or an essence within a few seconds or minutes, and then spend the rest of that time bulking it out, so to speak.

Even in the case of my paper-cut art, which may seem the opposite end of the scale to my speed-painting, taking many hours of painstaking work to carve out an intricately detailed result, I balance the surgical precision of the blade with something far less precise: the initial sketch for one of my paper-cuts is often a 30 second effort, gradually honed and refined, just as in my speed-painting.

The 60 minute portrait of Jane Austen that you mention was painted live at the Ark Cancer Centre in Basingstoke on the evening of the Sitting With Jane BookBench auction, at which all of the BookBenches went under the hammer to raise vital funds for this charity. While I painted, I talked with dozens of visitors. The portrait was later auctioned separately to raise additional funds for the Ark. — Following the auction of my 60 minute speed-portrait of Jane Austen, I received a request asking whether I might be persuaded to do a second portrait of Austen for an avid Janeite in the USA who had set her alarm clock in order to be able to bid in the Ebay auction but had fallen asleep at the crucial moment! So I have since completed another portrait of Jane.

Similarly, I completed the entire paintwork on my BookBench “Look Upon Verdure” in the space of about 4.5 hours, including all the imagery on the front and back, the sides, and the lettering. Admittedly, as explained above, I had prepared my own paper-cut stencils to evoke the spirit of Austen’s elegant handwriting, which sped up this part of the process while painting live at Festival Place in Basingstoke in February 2017.
Lois Cordelia BookBench in progress

Public art; beginning the BookBench

Working in public is a crucial aspect of my work. I perform live demonstrations of my speed-painting almost every week, and this has the effect of making me work more quickly, simply because, when you have an audience watching your every brush mark, you have no excuses to hesitate. You have to overcome all your inhibitions and launch in. Moreover, you have to maintain the pace right up until the finishing touches, to sustain people’s interest. It becomes a performance art, and this gives it a vitality that it might otherwise lack. I often quote Leonardo da Vinci: “Art is never finished; it is only abandoned.” This puzzled me when I first heard it, but I came to understand that, if you truly “finish” art, you kill it. There should always be something left to fill in, because this is what allows the spirit to move within the physical form of paints and brush marks. A painting completed in the space of an hour or two tends to retain a lot more freshness than one that has been laboured over for months on end. Less is more.

Q. 5: Related to this, as an educator working in the arts, do you think speed one of the ways people connect with their vision?


Lois: According to graffiti artist Banksy, “The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it.” The point is not so much to work against a stop clock, but to preserve as much of the energy and spontaneity that inspired the first few marks as possible, and above all not to fiddle obsessively with your work. In my painting workshops, I encourage people to launch in directly with a large brush and sweeping movements from the shoulder (as opposed to the relatively tiny arc of the wrist or the fingers), and without first taking several hours to meticulously draw every detail in pencil. This approach instantly loosens up the painting style and the results flow swiftly. People are amazed to realise that less effort and time can produce something so vibrant.

Every now and then it is an excellent discipline to work against a stop clock, so long as it doesn’t trigger panic and paralysis. Just as a deadline focuses the mind for a task, drawing or painting against a timer encourages the artist to focus on the essential and leave out the rest. I have attended life drawing sessions for many years for this reason, and now run a drawing group myself, because I find the exercise of timed poses so valuable. A pose might be as short as 30 seconds, or as long as several hours, with breaks. Some sessions even feature a moving pose, in which the model never comes to a complete stop, and the artists are therefore forced to capture a fleeting impression of motion.

As the saying goes: less haste, more speed. As confidence and skill improve, painting becomes more and more effortless, but it should never be a frantic rush. It may take an experienced artist only a few minutes to capture a likeness, but in reality it has taken all the years of patient practice that went before.

Q. 6: I imagine you must have had many encounters with Austen fans as you were working on the BookBenches project, which was, again, timed. What kind of reactions and interactions took place while you were working?

I travelled 150 miles from Ipswich to Basingstoke in February, carrying all my paints and other equipment on the train as I often do, to paint my Jane Austen inspired design onto a blank BookBench for the Sitting With Jane trail. I was the first of several artists to occupy the public painting space (a temporarily empty shop unit at the bustling Festival Place shopping centre), and for that reason, I was proud to be an early ambassador for the trail, engaging dozens of passers-by in conversation as they watched me at work, explaining the relevance of the BookBench for a literary art trail and telling them about the significance of 2017 being the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Adjacent to the painting space, a number of elegant period costumes were displayed to help set the scene.

The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Within minutes of starting, people stopped to remark: “Love the colours!” The more my painting progressed, the more people paused in their busy shopping activities to stand and watch it unfold, and the more they engaged with the idea of the trail. People told me about their favourite Jane Austen novels and films, told me how they came from the same village in which Jane Austen had been born and lived as a child, and above all how much Jane still means to people in Hampshire and how proud they are of this connection. Children’s reactions especially were delightful to watch: suddenly they would fall silent and stand mesmerised, watching me paint.

Sitting With Jane

Lois Cordelia on the finished BookBench

During the duration of the Sitting With Jane trail, my BookBench was located in the heart of the picturesque village of Overton near Basingstoke, close to the headquarters of the sponsors, De La Rue. Appropriately, the view from the BookBench was framed by leafy green trees, allowing people to “look upon verdure”. My partner Jason and I travelled down to Overton to visit my BookBench and were touched by the warm and friendly reception we encountered from local people. Everyone wanted their photographs taken with us. Jane must have often visited Overton to go shopping and to post her many letters – I posted a few myself while I was there, with this in mind. Throughout the Summer, the social media channels were full of Jane Austen and the BookBenches.

In September 2017, my BookBench was sold at the Sitting With Jane auction, raising £6,750 for the Ark Cancer Centre (the second highest bid of the evening). Thanks to the generosity of Laura and Matt Haystaff of the Topiary Salon, “Look Upon Verdure” is now on permanent display at their stunning beauty salon in Old Basing. The shimmering and iridescent paints I used for the design now gleam in the shiny salon lighting and reflect in every bright mirror. And so the Sitting With Jane legacy lives on. People are still talking about the BookBenches. As I write, a glossy new book about the trail has just appeared in print, with a strictly limited edition of 500 copies, telling some of the colourful stories behind the BookBenches.

I think Jane Austen would have greatly approved of the Sitting With Jane trail with its emphasis on elegant art and culture depicted on book-shaped canvases. “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!”


Thanks for these wonderful answers, Lois! See Lois Cordelia’s website

In January I’ll be looking back through my year with Jane Austen which has been a (happy!) whirl. Presentation commitments took me in Canada from New Brunswick in Eastern Canada to Vancouver in the west and many places in between. In the US, I presented to the Jane Austen Society of North America AGM in California and finally I ended up in Europe. I’ve met many fascinating people, shared ideas and thoughts, and have emerged feeling enriched.

For those who wish to flex their literary revisionist muscles you still have time to enter the New Hook Literary Contest. Hit this link to see the details.






New Hook Writing Contest – Re-post

Some visitors have difficulty finding the rules and regulations of the “New Hook Writing Contest,” so here they are again below this message. And since the challenge of this year’s contest is to create a riff on classic literature, don’t forget to check out my October 16 Q & A with Kathleen A. Flynn author of the acclaimed novel, The Jane Austen Project and my two-part Q & A with some live-wire romance authors on the influence of Austen on the romance genre.

Quick updates: Some last events in 2017 (more are being scheduled for 2018) for The Widow’s Fire

!. The Jane Austen Society of North America Calgary branch, (Calgary, Canada) November 18, A Meeting of Worlds: Jane Austen and the 21st Century Reader.

2. Waterstones, Ipswich, UK, November 29, Meet the Author, Paul Butler

3. Also, see The Jane Austen Book Club of India for a lively debate on villains and heroes in Pride and Prejudice! I ask whether inherited wealth correlates to virtue when it comes to Jane Austen’s male characters, and whether a 21st century readership finds this a stumbling block.

Writing Contest: “New Hook” Update

Are you preparing for the 2017/18 Instant Hook? Good! There are some changes though in keeping with the theme of the history of fiction.

The main one is this: your extract no longer has to be from the very beginning of your novel, but the work must be some kind of ‘riff’ on classic or previously published work (in the public domain). Could be anything from a Helen Fielding-like romp on 19th century literature to a work which uses a Shakespeare play as its template. Your entry could even be a riff on a poem if you like, though, of course, the entry itself must be prose. For the sake of clarity, please state on the entry itself the title of the classic work as well as the title of your entry. Here, below, are the rules:


  • The awards are open to anyone who is over 18 at time of entry.
  • The submission must be sole-authored, in English, and no more than 250 words.
  • It must reference, though character, situation or plot, a literary work in the public domain.
  • The extract may have been written for the competition or may be part of a manuscript already completed. But it cannot have been published, and cannot have been accepted by a publisher at time of entry.
  • These awards are open to new or established, already-published, authors (it does not have to be a first novel).
  • This is a blind-judged competition. HB Creativity must not have seen any part of this novel prior to entry; it must not be a work for which I personally have provided tutoring or editing services. I cannot absolutely guarantee I will not recognize a writing style, but I must not recognize the writing, the characters, or the plot.
  • Please use 12 Times New Roman font and double space your entry.
  • Send your entry by mail only (no emails please) to Paul Butler, HB Creativity, 8 – 121 Silkstone Road West, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, T1J 3Y6 (make sure you have “Paul Butler, HB Creativity” as well as the address) with a postmark date no later than December 31, 2017. Winners will be announced in March 2018.
  • Please do not put your name on your entry! Enclose in a separate envelope your name and contact (email and phone), plus the title of your entry. This envelope will be opened after the winners have been decided. Along with your name and contact please indicate whether you wish to receive our bimonthly INK STAINS news bulletin.
  • There will be a one-time email to entrants to announce the competition winner. There will be no advertising of any kind on this email. If you do not wish to receive this email, please indicate this on your entry.
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Q & A with The Jane Austen Project author, Kathleen A. Flynn

At the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM recently, I had the good fortune to meet Kathleen A Flynn, author of the highly acclaimed novel, The Jane Austen Project.

There are so many excellent reasons to read this book, not least of which is a feeling that you really are meeting Jane Austen in the flesh. The Austen here is a convincing composite of all the wit, the penetration, and self-awareness that you see in her novels. She is guarded at first, as you feel the real Jane Austen would be, and she is capable of warmth and generosity. But she is decidedly not someone you would ever want to cross, which makes the mission of time traveler protagonist, Rachel Katzman, all the more suspenseful. In order to get close to Jane, she must do a great deal of deceiving.

Jane Austen Project Cover


 “Both have an air of having fallen to earth. One can tell at a glance that they are not truly English. They are so correctly, so perfectly English.”

So comments an already-ailing Jane Austen in The Jane Austen Project. She refers to mysterious new acquaintances William and Mary Ravenswood. Jane’s eye for a paradox is as ever spot on. The Ravenswoods are not, as they claim, a brother and sister fresh from Jamaica, but rather time travelers. And they have reached a crossroads in their mission. They have infiltrated the Austen household at Chawton. Mary Ravenswood, who is actually physician Dr. Rachel Katzman, is getting very close to finding Austen’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, and her sensationalist early work, The Watsons, both of which will eventually be lost to posterity. 

Q.1. I think it’s fair to say that Jane Austen and time travel do not automatically go together in most readers’ minds. Yet, within a fairly short time of beginning The Jane Austen Project, they actually do go together very well. We in the 21st century are driven by a sense of literary conservation and stewardship and you have created a future in which these things have taken on even more import, where there is even an “Austenworld,” a literary equivalent of Disneyland, and where cutting edge science is used to reclaim lost works of art such as Austen’s discarded manuscripts and letters. The optimism of this vision is highly persuasive. How did the idea of a time travel Austen novel come about?

Kathleen: Paul, thank you so much for inviting me on your blog and coming up with all these great questions! The idea had a lot to do with wish fulfillment. I would love to be able to meet Jane Austen and see what she was like (though I’d be terrified), to get answers to questions biographers can only speculate about. Also, I’d love to live in a world where literature is so important that a time-travel mission to meet Austen would seem like a perfectly reasonable use of resources.

Another inspiration was reading the novels of Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander, etc., about the adventures of a British sea captain in the Napoleonic Wars).  They are Austen-like in their wit and insight, and so well done that you get no sense of a late 20th-century writer imagining all this. It’s more like he was there himself and reported back. But what if he did? I remember thinking. What if Patrick O’Brian was not just a writer, but also a time traveler, and there was a portal between our world and Jane Austen’s England?

Q.2. While the science of time travel, the future world, and the dangers (and benefits) of altering the past are very convincingly presented, the novel dwells much more in regency England. Am I right to think that the main impetus for writing The Jane Austen Project is Austen herself and the times in which she lived?

Kathleen: Absolutely. Although I was interested in imagining certain aspects of our own world taken to an extreme (like supercomputers, environmental destruction, veganism, more equal relations between the sexes), I was chiefly trying to reverse-engineer a world where sending people back in search of Jane Austen’s letters would seem like a great idea.

Also, I wanted to write about Austen and her times from an outsider’s viewpoint, and for that I required time travelers.

Q.3.The mission of our time travelers gives you an unlimited license to pull the camera back and give the reader the information needed to negotiate regency society history. The sense of hindsight is fascinating, including the dos and don’ts. Though Rachel is the physician, her time traveling male colleague has to play the doctor and examine Henry Austen when he is ill. But he must refrain from touching a gentleman, and so everything is done too discretely to be of any medical use. Can you tell us a little about your research process, the time it took and the discoveries you made that most excited you?

Kathleen: Combining time travel and Jane Austen does seem like a strange notion, as you say. To work, I felt it would need to treat its crazy premise with utter seriousness and a sense of verisimilitude. For that, I needed to know enough to give a feeling of a world existing outside the boundaries of the page. Getting there took several years.

I consulted many books and articles and wonderful historical blogs before I started writing the novel, and continued to do so while writing and revising. There’s a reading list on my blog. Things I needed to know about included Jane Austen herself: her writing and the major events and people in her life. The times she lived in: what was going on historically and politically and economically? Because it’s so much a book about illness, it was crucial to know about the state of medical science in 1815. I am not a doctor, as my first-person narrator is, so I spent a lot of time trying to learn things that could help me imagine the mind of a modern doctor. I was also interested in all aspects of daily life. How did people travel around, what did they typically eat, what novels were they reading, how did they light their homes and their streets, what kind of clothes did they wear? Our time travelers notice such things, because it would all be new to them.

Mentally living in the past was a welcome respite from our own turbulent era and helped lend me some perspective on it. There is a tendency to think of Austen’s age as far more placid and settled than ours – maybe it’s all those movie versions of her books with the beautiful green landscapes and stately homes. But it was a time of great turmoil and change – which is there in her novels too, just off the page.

Q. 4. One of the many joys of reading The Jane Austen Project is experiencing, firsthand, the raw materials in terms of people from which the Jane Austen’s novels are drawn. Not only do we see the mischievous, humorous spirit of the famous writer when she speaks to her brother Henry, we also encounter a number of people who are likely models for certain characters. There is a privileged relative Edward Knight who carries the flavour of an older Frank Churchill. I think I see Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove in some of the London chapters. Did you have any sudden insights in your researches, any realization that a certain character has a particular source which had not been revealed?

Kathleen: I think that Jane Austen did not take her characters and plots straight from life, yet aspects of her biography and people she knew do show up in altered form, and as I learned more about her life I noticed this more. It was not a sudden insight as much as a renewed appreciation of her subtle genius. Edward Knight’s adoption by rich relations has fictional echoes in the character of Frank Churchill, as you observe. The real Edward Knight seems have been more like responsible Mr. Knightley than flighty Frank Churchill, however, so there’s an interesting opposition going on there in Emma. That is also a novel where I see not one but three humorously disguised authorial self-portraits, starting with Miss Bates, the penniless spinster parson’s daughter who sees everything, yet is never taken seriously. Jane Fairfax represents another possible Jane Austen: if not for having numerous brothers to provide financial help, Austen too would have faced the prospect of earning her living as a governess. Emma is a third version of the author: someone too intelligent for her surroundings, whose thwarted creativity takes the form of trying to manage the lives of her friends and neighbors, to imagine their futures. Isn’t that sort of like novel-writing?

I’m not the first to notice that Austen named two of her most interesting characters Henry: the witty clergyman of Northanger Abbey and the attractive but amoral seducer of Mansfield Park. What might this suggest about the real-life Henry Austen? (As E.J. Clery observes in her wonderful new book Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister, there are also a lot of Henrys in the juvenilia, which seems to point to an ongoing family joke.)

Part of the fun for me in writing this novel, which I hope will also be fun for readers, was the interplay between Austen’s novels, her real life, and the events I’ve made up. Liam and Rachel, as they themselves observe at one point, are something like Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park: rich outsiders with a love of acting, who play by different rules and end up disrupting the place they come into. But that’s only one of the more obvious correspondences.

Q.5. I love the way your characters become seduced by the times and the Austenesque spirit. As we move through the novel the time travelers begin to adopt lines like, “A great lie is no harder to believe than a small one,” and “Liam, who’d started eating ham with a provoking calmness, failed to reply.”

Did this come very naturally to you?

Kathleen: From all my reading it eventually did. I was interested in how 1815 would change my characters, the way a person who has the opportunity to live in a foreign country remains an outsider, yet is subtly altered by his or her new surroundings

Q. 6. You bring the woman’s curse of the time — her passivity, her need to be patient — into very vivid focus. Rachael must wait while Liam meets Jane’s brother Henry and even then is not told the whole story straightaway. And we are all on tenterhooks for a very long while until we meet Jane herself. I suppose one of Jane Austen’s triumphs is that she manages to completely absorb her reader while making them wait, because this is what women did at the time. You have managed the same trick here as it only makes the reader want to carry on, and the waiting makes the reward that much greater. Was this a joy, a challenge, or both?

Kathleen: Both! I have sent my narrator – an energetic, daring and self-confident woman — on an adventure in which for a long stretch she doesn’t get to do much except observe and wait. She knows this is what she signed up for, yet she can’t help feeling frustrated. The challenge is how to make that lack of action seem interesting, even suspenseful. To the extent I succeed, I think it is thanks to the humor and irony in Rachel’s situation, some of which she is aware of and some of which is more evident to the reader.

Q. 7.You have some lovely passages about women’s lives at the time, such as:

“I considered the waste of human capital I was now part. Maid, mother, milliner, whore. That was it…”

Later, regarding the marriage plot as merely a MacGuffin, Rachel thinks:

“She [Austen] concerns herself with bigger questions: how to distinguish good people from plausible fakes; what a moral life demands of us; the problem of how to be an intelligent woman in world that had no real use for them.”

It seems rather sad in your novel, given Austen’s prodigious intellect and ability, that she must fade into the background when the men start to fight and argue, and yet we know this is what happened no matter how brilliant a woman was. Of course, the same happens with Rachel who must, at least in public, defer to Liam, her time traveling colleague. How much of Jane Austen’s story is about sadness? Was this a special draw for you when writing the novel?

Kathleen: Despite her achievements, there is something sad about Jane Austen’s life, so short and so restricted. It’s hard not to think about what she might have done had she lived longer, or in different circumstances. Born a man; or living in a time and place that allowed women more freedom; or even in a family with more money and slightly less rigid notions of female propriety.

To be that intelligent — to know you were — and yet to always be keeping your genius under wraps, consigned to such a limited role, must have been very hard. She was lucky, in that she never had to be a governess, let alone toil as a factory hand or a kitchen maid — but she was also a prisoner of her time and place.

Yet her talent also seems a perfect fit to her circumstances, which feels like part of her genius. “Perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not,” Virginia Woolf speculates. Or perhaps she trained herself not to want what she knew she could never have? How she managed to accomplish this is something I have long wondered about and a crucial reason I wrote The Jane Austen Project, to try imagine the answer.


Together will a compelling and highly plausible view of Jane Austen, her family, and indeed the times in which she lived, The Jane Austen Project delivers a number of highly ironic plot twists which, in their way, also evoke the spirit of the late author. If you’re a Jane Austen fan and you haven’t read it yet, you should!

Quick reminder: see The New Hook Writing Contest, free to enter and fun here (you have to scroll down!)