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!)






Q & A Part II: Jane Austen’s “Romantic” Possibilities and Limitations

Jane Austen has consistently provoked strong emotions, and among writers who deal in romantic love, they have not always been positive. In 1848, three decades after Austen’s death, newly-published Charlotte Bronte called Pride and Prejudice, “. . . a commonplace farce; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck . . .”


Is this what Bronte was hoping for?

Well, given the radically different approaches of these writers it’s not so surprising to see the disconnect, but it’s as good place as any to open the second part of the Q & A with our modern romance writers.

Question 3: What in Austen has your romantic-writer-self either used or discarded? Are there aspects of Austen that I have overlooked that may have provided an enduring template?

Jenna Da Sie: I’ve used Jane Austen’s pattern of main characters meeting and taking a dislike to each other in the beginning. Sometimes my characters realize they care for one another or there is attraction near the beginning/middle but are too scared to voice their opinions out loud. So, I think [modern romance writers] each take a little bit of Austen  make it our own.

Barbara Burke: I’m always getting in trouble with my editor for leaving it to the reader to use his or her imagination (or at least that’s the way I interpret it when I’m facing edits and feeling grumpy). She’s constantly writing little notes in the margin that riff on the theme of ‘tell me how that makes him/her feel’. . . No, I expect you to put yourself in his or her shoes and figure it out. That way we can all come away with something different from the story. However, that’s not the modern method, even though it’s what Jane would have done. Also, I’m a huge fan of dialogue. Keep your clothes on and get to know this person.

Kate Robins: What I love most about Jane Austen’s novels is her incredible dialogue. Since she wrote in the omniscient POV, her character’s dialogue was the best way to show the reader who they are and how they will react in a challenging situation. I think she does this better than any other author I’ve ever read.

I strive to capture that wit and the intended meaning with every word my characters speak. And I thought eliminating author intrusion was difficult! Clear, concise, and realistic dialogue is a critical part of creating characters and an author cannot go wrong studying Jane Austen’s work.

Robin St. Croix: Pride and Prejudice is such a rich and complex novel that more than 200 years later, it still evokes an emotional response in the reader. We react to every single character – even Mr. Collins who is a complete idiot. We hate Wickham. Lydia is annoying. Bingley and Jane are none too bright, but we love them anyway. And on and on the list goes.

Love stories are powerful things. They speak to our need for human connection and intimacy. There’s a huge market for books that skim romantic relationships on a superficial level. In fact, sales of modern romance novels are keeping the publishing industry afloat. However, there’s a need for books that dive deeper and have higher stakes.

Carolyn Parsons: I think I employ all Austen’s patterns in different places and at different times. I certainly wouldn’t take any of them off the table. And a happy ending is a must in a romance novel.

Question 4: What other 19th century writers had a great impact on the genre which would become romance? Which books from that era are your favourites and how do they influence your work?

Carolyn Parsons: Beyond Austen, the works of the Bronte sisters come to mind when I think of romance precursors. But neither of them impresses me in the way Austen does.  I’ve never read them after studying them in school. I read Austen frequently.  Other authors of the 19th century that I enjoy and consider most influential—Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde– are not precursors to the modern romance writer but had an impact on my work.  I am first and foremost a poet so my writing tends to be far more poetic than Austen’s. I am a huge fan of the Concord transcendentalists including Emerson, Louisa May Alcott as well. I certainly tend to think of myself as a romantic writer as much as I consider myself a writer of romance.

Barbara Burke: Sir Walter Scott immediately springs to mind if looking for a contemporary of Austen’s. I would say Diana Gabaldon is a direct literary descendant of his (not to mention our own Kate Robbins).  I don’t think kilted heroes have ever been as popular as they are now. I’m a big fan of Ivanhoe (my daughter is even named Rowena and though she wasn’t named after the character in Ivanhoe that might be where I learned to love the name because it’s not exactly common in Canada), which is actually medieval, also a popular time period for modern writers. Do we even have to mention the Brontes or is that blindingly obvious? I’d say Scott and the Brontes were the ones with the greatest influence on later generations, but there were bucket loads of romance authors in the nineteenth century, like Mrs. Gaskell or Disraeli to name just two who were famous at the time, who might have had an indirect influence on the genre.

Jenna Da Sie: I think Charlotte Bronte, Lucy Maude Montgomery, and Emily Bronte along with Jane Austen have had a great impact on the genre. I know Anne of Green Gables was written much later, but Lucy Maud Montgomery did a wonderful job interspersing romance throughout everyday life. Anne disliked Gilbert from the very beginning but in the end, love won out. I think all these authors have influenced me in some way. I love to read and always reread the classics. 

Kate Robbins: While Jane Austen has certainly had the biggest impact on the format of the modern romance novel, other authors from the 19th century have greatly influenced the genre as well. One cannot discuss this impact without including the words of the Bronte sisters, specifically Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Though darker, the primary theme in these novels is still a love story. Other novels like Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy seem to follow this dark path just staying shy of the HEA, while Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South works hard to give the hero and heroine everything their heart desires in the end.

In all of these books, the reader roots for the hero and heroine and their HEA, though that may actually mean something different in each case. But there is no doubt they belong to one another and in that sense has helped shaped the format for today’s romance novel.

Thanks to these talented authors. Check out their work!

Kate Robbins is the author of the Highlands Chiefs series.

Barbara Burke is the author of the regency romance Recompromising Amanda and the WWII romance Not2Nite.

Jenna Da Sie is a California-based romance writer completing her regency romance novel.

Carolyn Parsons is a Canadian author whose latest novel is Charley through Canada.

Robin St Coix is the author of Masquerade, a novel in twelve parts.

Don’t forget the New Hook Contest in the previous blog!

Jane Austen: Romance Author or Anti-Romance Author?

Sweeping moorlands, craggy mountains, and kilts fluttering in the breeze. These images could not be farther from Jane Austen. In fact Austen rarely “engaged the senses”  – that single most oft-repeated advice to the modern author, romance and otherwise. Yet, in some crucial ways, Austen helps us define the ingredients of the English-language love story. For instance, her novels are models of symmetry and resolution (the famous happy ever after, for instance) and she explores the psychology of romance in a way that left a recognizable path over which others would follow.

Jane Austen portrait

In this first in a two-part series, five modern romance authors — Jenna Da Sie, Kate Robbins, Robin St. Croix, Barbara Burke, and Carolyn Parsons  — each tackle the question of how we understand Austen in terms of her influence on the modern genre of the romance novel.

Question  1: How might Jane Austen be a precursor to the romance novel as you write it?

Kate Robbins: It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels are some of the first romance novels of the modern age. However love stories have been around for as long as people have been sharing tales and embellishing the details.

The thing about her novels that makes them stand the test of time is that struggle between the hero and heroine with the promise of the Happily Ever After (HEA). Surely half way through Pride and Prejudice, few could see how Lizzy and Darcy would ever find common ground, yet Austen shows us time and again that no matter what the stakes, love will prevail in the end. The fact that the number one requirement of a romance novel today is the HEA, illustrates her impact on the genre.

Jenna Da Sie: I’ve always been taught to write what you know and all Jane Austen’s characters play out within the realm of the possible. She wrote about the behavior between parents and their children, the dangers and pleasures of falling in love, making friends and discriminating between those who mean us well and those who may not.

There is a clear relationship between Jane Austen’s works and modern day historical romances. Everything that I’ve written has had happy endings, love that overcomes hurdles and many other situations that happen in everyday life.

Jane Austen defined a structure. We all write for the happily ever after. Just as in Pride and Prejudice my novel starts with the main characters having an aversion to one another and in the end find out they are actually attracted to one another.

Barbara Burke: If it weren’t for Jane Austen there wouldn’t be regency romances — So asking this question is like asking a staunch Roman Catholic how God might be a precursor to the world! Georgette Heyer came along in the twentieth century like Jesus and started a whole religion (subgenre) around her worship. Though JA created the template she was actually a contemporary writer, not a regency writer.

Robin St. Croix: It’s important to recognize that in contemporary fiction there’s a distinction between romance novels and love stories. If you look at the Amazon category list, the term romance has taken on a very limited definition. The books tend have simple story lines (i.e. no sub-plot) and half-dressed men on the covers. The lovers are kept apart by nothing more than a bad first impression. Authors think they’re writing a heroine who is prejudiced like Elizabeth Bennet, and a hero who is proud like Mr. Darcy, but they’re not. In modern storytelling, if you want to a book with more oomph, you’ve almost certainly got to head over to the women’s fiction list.

Carolyn Parsons: One similarity is in the creation of rules of engagement. The era plays a role in the navigation of love in the Austen novels with rules determined by society.  In modern times they’re often author-created, but they still exist. By creating and employing rules (usually self-imposed, e.g. a character has decided never to  marry or the lovers live in separate cities and neither can move) the modern-day romance writer mimics Austen.  Navigating these rules and occasionally breaking them creates the tension required to keep a reader engaged.

A second similarity is that she, like the modern-day romance author, brings them close, where they both see the possibility and then creates a situation that blows things all to hell, usually in the form of contrived misunderstandings between the characters. This is followed by despair and a feeling that all is lost. Eventually resolution is found and she brings them to their happy ending(s) in the same way a modern romance writer does.

Question 2: How is she an anti-romance writer? Little physical description of heroines or heroes, except in the vaguest terms, little sensory description of anything. The success or failure of romantic couplings on character strengths or flaws, not physical desire.

Barbara Burke: Bite your tongue. We fall in love with the mind, not the body.  Having said that, there probably isn’t a lot of room in the modern romance world for a writer who emulates Austen too closely. People seem to want their love scenes very graphic and physical these days. I expect if she were alive today she wouldn’t be considered a romance writer – with her penchant for analyzing social mores and interactions as they play out against the background of the central romance she’d probably be classified as a woman’s fiction author, whatever the hell that means.

Carolyn Parsons: One notable difference is that she pays a lot of attention to several love stories at once.  In a modern romance, there is one central romance. Any hint of another romance is taken off into another book altogether which creates many of the series so popular among romance readers today.  Unlike modern romance writers Austen spends a great deal on all the potential couples in her books. Jane and Bingley get a great measure of attention in Pride and Prejudice as do Maryanne and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility (and then eventually Colonel Brandon.) This leads to another exception…Maryanne’s great love is not the love she ends up with.  Another huge difference is the ages of the characters. Austen’s characters are often teenagers. (Maryanne Dashwood is just sixteen). I consider the Austen novels to fit into the women’s fiction genre far more neatly than they do into the romance genre in many ways though mostly they stand alone and fit into modern literature as simply a literary novel.

Kate Robbins: She is [an anti-modern Romance writer] in the sense that she wrote in omniscient point of view (POV). Romance writers are highly criticized today if we are not deep into the character’s POV with no author intrusion whatsoever. This you will not see in a Jane Austen novel. She is always telling the story resulting in a disconnect between the reader and the characters.

Take the first line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Who is telling us this? Lizzy? Mrs. Bennett? No. Jane Austen is telling us this. Incidentally, this is my favourite first line of any book I’ve read.

Jenna La Sie: Jane Austen never wrote love scenes into her novels, the couples always just got together in the last few pages. I think that would be considered anti-romance in the way today’s romance novels are written.

In today’s romance the main characters would meet and dislike each other, but there would still be an attraction between the two of them, either the man or woman noticing. When Mr. Darcy meets Elizabeth he strongly dislikes her and says so: “…till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. . .”

More to follow. In Part II as we discuss the other 19th century influences on the romance novel and other ways that Austen herself may have impacted the genre. Thanks to our romance authors (links below) for these insights!

Kate Robbins is the author of the Highlands Chiefs series.

Barbara Burke is the author of the regency romance Recompromising Amanda and the WWII romance Not2Nite.

Jenna Da Sie is a California-based romance writer completing her regency romance novel.

Carolyn Parsons is a Canadian author whose latest novel is Charley through Canada.

Robin St Coix is the author of Masquerade, a novel in twelve parts.

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.
  • Do not send your only copy. Copies without sae cannot be returned. If you do not want your entry returned, it will be shredded and recycled.
  • There is no cost to enter.
  • There is no residency or nationality requirement.
  • Copyright remains with the author. We may ask for permission to publish an extract of the winning work on this website but this will not be done without the author’s express permission. Withholding permission will in no way invalidate the entry or disqualify it from winning a prize. By entering you merely give permission for me to use your name and the (provisional) title of the work.
  • One winner will receive a cash prize of $250.00 (Canadian).

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.

Open Book Interview: Subverting Jane Austen and How We Define Love

Delighted to have taken part in this Open Book interview, Subverting Jane Austen & How We Define Love. Either click this link. Or copy and paste the following in your browser: http://open-book.ca/News/Paul-Butler-on-Subverting-Jane-Austen-How-We-Define-Love.

In the upcoming months, I will be exploring Jane Austen’s influence in a series of articles. Stay tuned!