Preservation, Change, and Jane Austen: Book Club Q & A, Five

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.

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Symmetry and Contrast: The Widow’s Fire, a 21st Century Response to Persuasion

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.

The Widow’s Fire is available from Inanna Publications, many independents bookstores, the Chapters-Indigo Chain in Canada, Barnes and Noble in the US, Waterstones in the UK.






Book Club Q & A, Four

Here’s a question from Dana in Birmingham:

I’ve been wondering why are so many [Jane Austen] enthusiasts talking about Frankenstein? I thought you might have some ideas on this because there are a lot of Gothic ideas in your novel.


Great question, Dana!

The reason why Gothic flavours invade Persuasion‘s landscape in The Widow’s Fire is because of the enormous contrast between the two worlds.

Gothic literature — which can be briefly characterized as incorporating lurid or ghostly themes, metaphysical explorations, or a preoccupation with death and decay — is so far removed from Austen’s sensibilities that she acknowledges its existence only through satire.


Definitely not Austen: Charles Ogle in the 1910 Edison film of Frankenstein

In Persuasion, grief- stricken Captain Benwick broods day and night over his departed fiancée, reading morbid poetry, only to fall gleefully in love with someone else at the earliest opportunity.  Catherine Morland’s  Gothic intrigues in Northanger Abbey are merely symptoms of her immaturity. So Jane really didn’t have all that much time for Gothic fiction.

Gothic literature existed before, during, and after Jane Austen’s productive period. Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s death, and the same year Persuasion was posthumously brought into the world.  But while gender and anniversaries have conspired to group Austen and Shelley together of late,  they are, as writers, as far from each other  as it is possible to get.

Austen’s work is about making sense of the nuances of conduct in the extraordinarily constricted world in which the author herself lived. Frankenstein values physical adventure, the exhilaration of travel, and active political involvement. Shelley, like her philosopher mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist before the term itself was coined.

And Frankenstein is a coded feminist novel.

One overarching metaphor in Frankenstein is a critique of the story of Eve as presented through Christian dogma. Frankenstein‘s creature is made (it is implied) from bits and pieces of cadavers (think Adam’s rib) then becomes an object of horror to everyone it comes across. Though denied love and nurturing, the creature  gets the education it needs by stealth, reading a purloined copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost and other key works of western culture at the time. When the creature takes over the narrative in the novel, it shocks both the reader and its creator with its eloquence.

This is very far from the drawing room of Mansfield Park and begs the question what would Jane Austen have thought of Frankenstein had she lived long enough to read the novel?

Instinct suggests two possible answers, as opposite to each other as the authors themselves.

First the negative: While Austen’s novels show no obvious signs of religious devotion, Shelley’s allegorical attack on Christian orthodoxy would surely have been seen by Austen, the daughter of a clergyman, as extreme. Even if the ‘creation of woman’ myth bypasses the reader, Frankenstein still reads like the work of a religious skeptic: A mad scientist creates, then callously abandons, his creature. The implication from Shelley is that, if a Christian god exists, this is surely how He has treated us all. This feeling becomes more powerful as most readers’ empathy is drawn more to the abandoned creature than to any other character.

All in all, hardly Regency society’s model of propriety.

On the plus side, however, Austen did understand audacity, and she appreciated it too. Her humour comes from this quality more than any other; she put a radical kind of wit into the mouths of some of her most likeable heroines, Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet, for instance. She saw nothing wrong in a young woman’s observations cutting conventional logic to ribbons if the logic was faulty.

More importantly, the creature’s story in Frankenstein is also Austen’s story, as much as it is any woman author’s story from the period. Her brilliance had to be hidden from human view. When Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811 it was credited to “a Lady”; its follow up, Pride and Prejudice, was attributed to “The author of Sense and Sensibility”.


Illicit talent: the original title page of Austen’s first novel.

Though on opposite poles in many ways both authors are connected by a common theme. Eloquence, from some quarters, is an illicit quality. Perhaps this is why, 200 years on, we tend to put Frankenstein’s creature and Jane Austen together.











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.

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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.
  • 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 or equivalent in currency of entrant).

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.