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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INK STAINS — OCTOBER

Dear HB Creativity clients and friends,
Entries are coming in fast for the Instant Hook Writing Contest. It will be exciting to see how writers have tried to tease reader curiosity this time around. All envelopes, of course, will remain firmly sealed until after the (postmark) deadline of December 7! Please see the previous post for the complete rules and regulations.

Novel Writing Workshop Series

The Online Novel Writing Workshop Series is presently full but spaces are expected to open up on December 1, 2015. For full details about the course, see Creative Writing Courses and Endorsements. In the meantime, find  information below regarding three highly recommended books available now or coming very soon..

Alumni News – New Books & Contracts

Amanda LabontéCall of the Sea (Fierce Ink Books, $16.99)

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The Plot: After returning to Newfoundland from a month away at art camp, Alex is just starting to settle in when things start to sound all too familiar. For as long as they can remember, Alex and his twin brother Ben have been hearing a sweet but disturbing song in the salty East Coast air — a song that reaches only them. 
When Ben disappears during a fishing trip, Alex’s best hope of recovering his brother comes from the melody he’s been hearing since childhood … and an alluring and dangerous girl he meets amid the frothing ocean waves.
Advance Praise: “A mysterious figure in the ocean, a suspicious loss in the waves, a riveting treasure hunt, and surprise after surprise, how could anyone not want to read this novel?” ~Alice Kuipers, author of 40 Things I Want to Tell You and Life on the Refrigerator Door.

“Call of the Sea is a vividly imagined novel of folk lore and legends smoothly mixed with realistic, colourful characters of an East Coast village. Amanda Labonte’s paranormal coming of age story effortlessly lifts you along with Alex’s journey to the brink of suspended disbelief…” ~BR Myers, author of Asp of Ascension and Girl on the Run.

Eric ColbourneDancing on Air
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The Book: Set in the turbulent decade before Confederation, Dancing on Air is a true crime drama of justice and injustice. The story begins in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland during the spring of 1942. Herbert Spratt is on trial for the brutal murder of Josephine O’Brien. Despite a strong plea for mercy, a guilty verdict results in a death sentence. The final decision must be made by the British governor, Sir Humphrey Walwyn.

Advance Praise: “…The exacting research gives real context to shaping the period, but it’s Colbourne’s ability as a writer that allows the reader to feel the crisp bite of the wind, smell the damp night air, and experience the pain and anguish of the characters. Colbourne’s deft footwork in handling the historical record while giving life to the characters is to be applauded, and it separates this work from the pack.”  –Glen Tilley

“…The book reads like a richly textured novel but the story is flawlessly woven into the historical account (or borne out of it). It is clear that the book is meticulously researched, an excellent read on all fronts.” –Monty Henstridge

Keith J. Collier — Cold Seasons

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The Book: Highly-praised Newfoundland author Keith J. Collier here presents a collection of five linked stories. Three of these tales were previously published in The Newfoundland Quarterly, one of Canada’s oldest and most respected cultural journals.

In the next issues, please read about new books from Tara Nanayakkara (author of Priya’s World), Ian Gillies, Kate Robbins (author of the Highlands Chiefs series), and Valerie Francis (author of the Nature Knights series).

 

Instant Hook Results and Other News

At last we have a winner and two runners up for the second annual Instant Hook Literary Contest!

This award, which is given to the writer who composes the most enticing first 300 words of an unpublished novel, drew submissions from every province of Canada, as well as from the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. As you can imagine, the competition was fierce and the adjudication unusually challenging.

Sincere thanks to all those who entered. Taken together, all these submissions would make one fantastic novel of first pages. Many of these stories open like the mouths of wonderful caves, promising twists and turns and treasures to come. The winners below, you can be certain, have created something remarkably gripping.

The Winner: Marianne Jones for her entry The Book of Common Prayer.

Runners up: Jenna La Sie for Hope and Loss and Deborah Hedd for Truck-Driving Girl.

Marianne wins a cheque for $300 and a sodalite keychain, created by Open Earth Designs*. Jenna and Deborah both win a free hour-long writing tutorial.

This time I have chosen not to give any significant details about the winning entries as they are high concept enough for it to be wiser for the authors keep the specifics firmly bottled until the stories appear as completed works.What I can say is that the winning entry deftly introduces a supernatural occurrence replacing conventional disbelief with humour and charm. Both runners up introduce characters in very significant motion. One features a relationship which feels very established before we enter but which now faces a new challenge; the other introduces a voice of unreliability and menace who unnerves the reader by claiming his/her empathy.

Again, many thanks to all for taking part!

*Featured at Corner Brook’s Wonderful Fine Market, Open Earth Designs produces one-of-a-kind gemstone bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and keychains, many with sterling silver settings. For more information, contact hanrahan.maura@gmail.com

For those who wish to look into the Online Novel Writing Workshop Series, I will be accepting a limited number of new participants from May 1.

Stay tuned for the May edition of INK STAINS and for more exciting alumni news! Look out for the next contest deadline.