Here’s a composite question gathered from several sent to me over the summer (many thanks to Nikki, Clarissa, Meg, and Colleen):
Q. When writing The Widow’s Fire how did you decide when to preserve Jane Austen’s approach, when to alter it, and when to oppose it?
A. I’ll start with something specific; one question was why I chose a first person narrative for Captain Wentworth, Mrs. Smith, Nurse Rooke, and Plato.
Jane Austen didn’t use first person narrative, except in the special sense of a character (for instance Emma‘s Miss Bates) going into an extended monologue. Why then did I decide on this mode?
One compulsory element when re-entering the literary creation of another is contrast. My most obvious model for The Widow’s Fire was Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s 1966 prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea makes no attempt to mimic Bronte’s prose style and if an anti-colonial theme is present at all in Jane Eyre — as it is in Rhys’s novel — it is unexplored.
I wanted The Widow’s Fire to signal departure straightaway by plunging the reader into the consciousness of each character. Each narrator has a distinct philosophy which they express for themselves; each inhabits their own moral universe.
But I also wanted my narrators to carry a wisp of the Austenesque flourish. Jane addresses the reader directly. She editorializes when she feels like it. And when it most suits her, she pulls away from the drama to give a general overview of the future.
While there is no omniscient narrator in The Widow’s Fire, I did see a chance of splitting an Austenesque-style omniscient voice into several characters. Each of the first person narratives in my novel — Plato, Captain Wentworth, Mrs. Smith, and Nurse Rooke — retain control. They too address the reader directly. They editorialize, like Jane, when they feel like it, and, like Jane, they reserve the right to pull away from the drama to give an overview of the future.
So I had, in effect, a narrative approach which was both opposite and the same.
When it came to plot, I didn’t want to contradict the events in Persuasion, but I did intend to give some events radically different interpretations, especially when it came to exploring the hidden levers of power. The most notable of these in Persuasion is information, its giving and withholding.
Mrs. Smith, in Persuasion, does both when it serves her purposes. She doesn’t tell Anne that Mr. Elliot is a scoundrel when she might gain from their marriage, then, when marriage is off the table, she does tell Anne about Mr. Elliot’s character in order to retain Anne’s sympathies. As Mrs. Smith takes centre stage in The Widow’s Fire, so does the politics of information. The possibilities opened up for me at an early stage when Mrs. Smith whispered in my ear that she could be not only the holder of information; she could also be a procurer.
My theme, like Persuasion‘s theme, is love, how we define love and how love sustains itself. My brief was to expand love beyond the romantic kind by making each of the characters (except Mrs. Smith) a seeker as in Plato’s Symposium.
Had Austen been writing a hundred-plus years later, a member of the Bloomsbury set perhaps, I suspect she would have tackled a broader definition of love, and she would have done so with the insight we expect from her.
I think a project like mine is all about the ‘what ifs’ of literature.