Celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen: An interview with Susannah Fullerton

July 18 marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. Two years (and two children) ago I went to listen to Susannah Fullerton speak in the Blue Mountains. Susannah is a literary lecturer, author, and President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia.  Her wealth of knowledge about all things Jane and the regency period is incredible and it is an absolute joy to hear her speak.

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‘There certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them’

Mansfield Park

If you’ve spent more than five minutes on this blog you’ll know that I love Jane Austen. Her novels are like old friends, we know each other, and yet they are constantly surprising me. The subtlety of her wit, so gentle and yet so sharp is, as a reader delightful, and as a fellow writer, quite depressing, frankly.

Pride and Prejudice has always been my favourite, the comedy, the romance and, as I get older, the social commentary,  make this a story that never bores or disappoints.  And the characters! I have met them all in my own life, as one of five siblings I’m convinced I’ve lived with most of them. We all have a Mr Collins in our life, a Charlotte Lucas and a Mrs Bennet.

‘There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.’

Pride and Prejudice

I have always loved the elegance of Elizabeth Bennet’s manners. Even though her family quite often drive her mad and her neighbours make her laugh, her criticism of the other characters in the book is never displayed by bad manners or rash words. Her patience in refusing Mr Collins and foiling Lady Catherine is praiseworthy, and I remember, even as a young reader, being impressed by her forbearance when speaking about her parents. She can love her mother, even without thinking well of her, and her sense of filial duty, as well as her sister Jane’s, is something that has always made an impression on me.

‘I cannot make speeches, Emma…If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it’

Emma

July 18 marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. Two years (and two children) ago I went to listen to Susannah Fullerton speak in the Blue Mountains. Susannah is a literary lecturer, author, and President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia.  Her wealth of knowledge about all things Jane and the regency period is incredible and it is an absolute joy to hear her speak. Susannah is speaking at many events over the month of July as part of the bicentenary celebrations. If you have the chance to go and hear her speak, make sure you take it!

janeaustin
Jane Austen is to replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note 200 years after her death.

 

I emailed Susannah recently and asked her some questions about Jane Austen, Australian literary history, and research. I hope you enjoy reading her responses as much as I did.

To begin with, an easy question, although perhaps not an easy answer; who is your favourite Jane Austen character?

My favourite Jane Austen character is Emma Woodhouse. She has faults and virtues and is so wonderfully human. I have learned so much from Emma, I admire and love her, and feel, just like Mr Knightley, that she is “faultless in spite of all her faults”.

What do you think is Jane Austen’s most important legacy?

Jane Austen hugely developed the progress of the novel. She was the first writer in English to use the technique of free indirect discourse, something soon taken for granted in fiction, and she made other writers realise that the domestic scene could be a good subject for fiction. She also set a standard for the novel which, in my view, no other author has ever matched. She balanced humour and seriousness, gave us characters to love or to hate, and she made every single sentence work – Jane Austen never wasted a word!

What has been the most astonishing fact you have come across in your research? 

When I wrote my book ‘Jane Austen and Crime’ I came across many things that astonished me about crime in the Georgian era, and the ways Jane Austen used crimes in her writing. It is amazing to note that some of her characters commit hanging offences in the novels and juvenilia. I began that book as the subject for a short talk, but found so many crimes in her fiction and such interesting ways of using them, that the talk turned into a book that took me 7 years to write. I felt very proud that I was showing modern readers things Jane Austen’s contemporaries would all have taken for granted when they read her novels. 
 in vain notebook

In your book Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia 1836-1936 you delve into the visits of a diverse array of writers to Australia. Who do you think is Australia’s biggest literary legend? 

I had a wonderful time following 11 different authors in their travels around Australia – Darwin, Trollope, Conrad, Kipling, RL Stevenson, Twain, London, Conan Doyle, DH Lawrence, Agatha Christie and HG Wells – and writing ‘Brief Encounters’. It was fascinating to view this country through their eyes and to see how the visits they made here influenced their future writings. When it comes to Australia’s own literary legends, I guess it has to be Patrick White who is the only Australian Nobel Prize winner, but I am not a Patrick White fan, nor do I know many people who really love his novels and return to them again and again. I think ‘Seven Little Australians’ is a wonderful Aussie classic.

And finally, for all of us writing historical fiction, what are your top three research tips? 

I adore historical fiction, but lack of research can so easily cause some awful blunder which immediately collapses any conviction on the part of the reader. I think the most important advice is READ, READ, READ – books about the era, other novels set in that era, biographies of people who lived then. And a good dictionary is an essential tool, so you can make sure that words you use are not anachronistic. 

 

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Who is your favourite Austen Character?

Thank you Susannah, I tried out one of my many dictionaries on anachronistic, and I’m pleased to report that it is up to the job. Readers, tell me, who is your favourite Jane Austen character? What is your favourite quote? Do you agonise over the language in your historical writing?  What is the most interesting thing you have read in the name of research?

And just like that, my blog and I are back from maternity leave. It’s nice to be back. Next month I have another interview, this time with Kirsty Manning, author of The Midsummer Garden. Until then, make sure you keep in touch and come say hi to me over on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Stay warm everyone, I’ll see you all in a month.

 

Image credits for header illustration AG Doyle.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen: An interview with Susannah Fullerton

  1. Hi Sarah and Susannah, This is great! The only Jane Austen I’ve read is P&P, but I know I should read more. Susannah’s book about the crimes in Jane Austen novels sounds intriguing, too.
    By the way, Sarah, I read the blurb for your story–it sounds so good! Can’t wait for you to finish it! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. P&P is definitely my favourite, but they are all so wonderful in their own way. I think I will be revisiting Northanger Abbey next. And thank you Louise, I can’t wait for me to finish it either, and on that note… I’m off to type some story! xx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome back from maternity leave, Sarah! This was a really interesting article on Jane Austin. Thanks Sarah and Susannah – I learned many new things. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Jane Austin novel, but her bicentenary seems like the perfect time to pick one up again.

    Like

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