Excavating Austen’s Bath

Two years ago, I traveled to the UK and spent several days exploring and mapping the streets of Bath. Bath is the setting for my novel, The Widow’s Fire, which is an unauthorized sequel to Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion.

This was an expensive research trip and initially I struggled with the necessity. I believed in research and I knew that lived experience is the best research of all. However, the primary reference point for a modern novel which revisits a literary classic is not a geographical setting; it is rather the cultural and psychological landscape the original author created. This landscape lies not upon the streets of any city, especially 200 years after the fact, but rather upon the pages of the novel. The 21st century novelist is addressing a perspective, not an objective reality.

And there was another, somewhat romantically-motivated, qualm. Part of me suspected that modern chain stores, the cafes selling lattes and espressos might be a distraction rather than a help when it came to conjuring the 200-year-old Bath of Austen’s imagination.

But, in the end, I needed to be certain I wasn’t making a mistake. I needed to be sure I wasn’t leaving out a detail. This might be something as intangible as a quality in the atmosphere that might shed a light on the states of mind described in Austen’s work.  Bath takes up a lot of space in Austen’s cannon and it is characterized perhaps more carefully, and with more reference to mood, than many of her settings. In Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, it is a city of constant amusement. But it is also a city that does not amuse Austen’s most mature protagonist Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion.

Anne associates Bath with low spirits and sad memories. Its clamour and gossip jars the demure and thoughtful Anne. Bath draws the fashionable and trivial-minded, and it is no accident that this is where her spendthrift father sets up court when he is forced to let the family home, nor is it purely by chance that Bath is where Anne’s duplicitous cousin, Mr. Elliot, should tempt to woo her. This is their city, not hers.

Austen’s Bath is about contrasts, lovely gardens and not always lovely society, grand squares in the central sections of the city, leafy-gardened spacious houses in the opulent north, and narrower, dingier streets in some of the city’s more southerly, and lower, sections. It is here in Westgate Street where Anne, against the wishes of her vain father, visits an old school friend, Mrs. Smith, a widow who has been plunged into poverty. This meeting of two worlds – baronet’s daughter and impoverished widow — and the fact Anne has to journey southwards and downhill is one of the subtle, unstated metaphors Austen was at pains to weave beneath her works.

My first surprise on this trip was that this area of Bath is almost as gentile as the others. Much time has passed, of course, but still the discovery served as a reminder that Austen’s concept of poverty is not quite the same as ours. People genuinely on the fringes – the homeless and hungry – do not feature in her stories.

I had an early draft completed before I set out this journey, and I had already created one protagonist who was entirely beyond the reach of the Austenesque radar, namely a former slave, whimsically named Plato by his late master after his own dedication to the classical world. Plato, now working as a liveried doorman, is one of our guides through the story. Together with the other protagonists – some from Persuasion, some not — Plato is on a quest, like his ancient Greek namesake — to define love.  This is really the core of Austen’s universe too. Love that springs out of apparent dislike and resentment, love which has been under the protagonist’s nose all along, love which is patient and kind, in the words of the saint.

Plato was the character who gained most from my visit and through Plato I got the most out of Bath. His perspective helped me to see everything — the graceful semi-circular Royal Crescent, the fine bath stone buildings, and the Assembly Rooms —from an entirely different angle. Luckily it is Austen’s Bath that has survived more or less intact. The Abbey, which was built and rebuilt many times, and the Roman baths tell the city’s layered history, but the Bath that dominates is the same city which provided the social playground described in Austen. I viewed all this through the eyes of Plato, a genuine outsider and one whose family had once been enslaved by the people he now served.

What would Plato have thought, I wondered, of the swirling masses of fashionable people who ignored his presence. More importantly how would he have compared them to the civilizations upon whose ruins this “modern” Bath was built?

Plato was my anachronism in the social idyll of early 1800s Bath. And, for me, it is this contrast, this clash of values, which is the natural seed of unfolding drama.

I was glad I had properly tasted the city of Bath before a second draft. Some things can never be found solely on the page.

See a review of The Widow’s Fire in Consumed by Ink.

Writing Contest Teaser

Watch this blog for news of the next annual writing contest, temporarily taking the space of the Instant Hook Writing Contest. The deadline will be December 31 as usual and there will be no entry fee. However there will be a twist. So, think of your favourite classic (pre-late 20th century) story and in the spirit of post colonialism — or just the spirit of fun if you prefer! — let your creative juices run on the question of how you might bring it to life in your own imagination.

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Holiday 2015 Ink Stains: One

Dear HB Creativity clients and friends,

Here is another update on contracts signed or books released by alumni this year. We feature three terrific authors Annie Daylon, Tara Nanayakkara and Marianne Jones

Later in the month I hop to feature a few more excellent writers and new works. In the meantime, don’t forget to enter the Instant Hook Writing Contest (postmark deadline December 7). It’s fun, useful, free to enter and has a cash prize.

Tara Nanayakkara

Cardboard Dreams and Dawning of a New Garden

Canadian – Sri Lankan author Tara Nanayakkara has been very busy! She has just released her latest book Cardboard Dreams and will launch Dawning of a New Garden her sequel to the beautiful Priya’s World through Inanna Publications in 2016.

Cardboard Dreams Available Now from Lulu:

product_thumbnailLife is somewhat normal for Vijay and Siyara Pereira—until the blustery night when Vijay’s brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car accident, leaving their temperamental teenager, Jake, an orphan. After Vijay and Siyara take in their nephew, Siyara realizes she understands Jake better than anyone and begins to love him like a son. Through a shared bond of unfulfilled dreams, they both try to forge their respective paths: Jake through his music and Siyara through her work. But when Jake becomes seriously ill, Siyara’s world begins to implode as her shaky marriage shudders under the weight of too many secrets. Just when it seems that Siyara has no choice but to continue down a lonely path, a confession leads her to a shocking truth that will change everything. Cardboard Dreams is a touching story about love, loss, and betrayal as a woman and her nephew embark on separate journeys of unrequited dreams where each finds an underlying spirit of hope and triumph in the face of adversity.

Dawning of A New Garden (Inanna Publications)

Confronted with the task of re-inventing her life, young widow Priya grieves by researching spiritualism for a new age magazine and spending time in the garden her late husband, Gabe, had tended.

Human contact is limited to an elderly nursing home resident, Jeevan, who is from her father’s native land of Sri Lanka. Soon Priya is drawn further into Jeevan’s world which includes a mysterious nephew, Suresh. Despite rigid religious views, Suresh takes advantage of Priya’s vulnerability.

Soon an isolated Priya finds herself facing the prospect of either single motherhood or a loveless marriage. While her Canadian and Sri Lankan friends Meg and Shobi conduct a tug of war over Priya’s destiny, Suresh’s jealous and coercive tactics prevent her from exploring a third possibility; kindly neighbour Ryan is the only person whose presence gives her a genuine sense of solace.

Priya finds her life is mired in uncertainty, but as spring begins to stir, the garden Gabe planted begins to speak to her of new life and fresh possibilities.

Marianne Jones

Mariannes-face-228x300

Poet, fiction author and children’s story writer, Marianne Jones, the winner of last year’s Instant Hook Writing Contest, is also the  place winner in the Word Alive Publishing Contest with The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. This biography of Linda Stewardson was launched on November 7.

“When I first heard share her life story, I was, like everyone else in the room, transfixed,” says Marianne, “I knew I had to write it in a book so that all the world could know her incredible journey.” See the contest details. See Marianne’s website with a host of other publishing  activity.

Annie Daylon

Of Sea and Seed

Set on the rugged island of Newfoundland, Of Sea and Seed takes the reader on a tragic journey through the 1920s as one family strives to hold onto life in the face of secrets, betrayal, and a devastating tsunami. Chronicling this journey is the family matriarch, Kathleen Kerrigan, who is condemned to an afterlife of atonement for the depth of her crimes. But what possible mortal sin could cause heaven to banish this loving mother, grandmother, and storyteller?

of sea and sand

A poetic, literary masterpiece, this first book of The Kerrigan Chronicles illuminates the depths of the human heart as it follows three generations suffering from toxic family secrets, shocking betrayals, and the harsh everyday reality that accompanies a life entangled with the sea. This suspenseful account of life in early twentieth century Newfoundland is as lovely as it is heartbreaking.