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.

‘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!

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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. 
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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.

Secrets of the Silverscreen

There is an expectation that the audience has a certain level of wit and intelligence that will enable them to figure out the unspoken word for themselves, enabling a more powerful, intimate experience of the film.

What is it about the silver screen classics that make them so re-watchable? What is the secret to writing something that gives a little more of itself every time you watch it?
I’ve been watching a few old movies lately, Casablanca is one of my two year old’s favourite movies, so we’ve had that on fairly high rotation. Every time I watch it there is something I didn’t see or hear before, and a new depth is added to my understanding an appreciation of the movie. Watching it for the first time in the context of writing a novel, I’ve been paying particular attention to the dramatic devices used to create all that wonderful tension that Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart portray so well.
Now; a disclaimer. I have no training in media analysis or movie reviews, and I’ve never tried to write a script, I am just a girl, trying to write a book, wanting some of that Casablanca magic for myself.
Part of that magic is that it’s hard to define. It’s subtle and pervasive and very convincing. I love that the classics don’t feel the need to explain everything to the audience. There is an expectation that the audience has a certain level of wit and intelligence that will enable them to figure out the unspoken word for themselves, enabling a more powerful, intimate experience of the film. I think Jane Austen put it rather well when she said:
‘I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’
This is the power, indeed the whole point of that tired old (but nevertheless true) mantra ‘show don’t tell’. If you can show just enough so that your audience will fill in the gaps themselves, they will take on a kind of ownership of your story. Your audience becomes invested in a way that keeps them close to the story, almost a part of it.
In Casablanca there is a scene where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) comes to see Rick (Humphrey Bogart) after his Café Américain has closed for the night. She tries to explain herself to him, but he is drunk, bitter, and won’t listen to her. Eventually he brushes her off with a snide, angry remark.
Tell me, who was it you left me for. Was it Laszlo- or were there others in between- or aren’t you the kind that tells?’
We see the pain Rick’s words cause Ilsa, we hear the insult and we see the wound, but she says nothing. She leaves. She does not explain her hurt with trite dialogue or impassioned speeches, she simply looks devastated. The script directions are as follows:
Ilsa, shuddering, gets up. Tears in her eyes she stops in the doorway, looks back at him, then she turns and walks out.
And we are left wondering and making our own surmises.
There is another famous line from Casablanca. When Rick and Ilsa first meet unexpectedly in Rick’s Café, Ilsa tries breezily to pass of their acquaintance as simply that, nothing more. She wonders when they can have last met and Rick tells her exactly. It was the day the Germans marched into Paris. She is pleased he remembers and he replies;
‘I remember every detail, the Germans wore grey, you wore blue.’
What a wealth of imagery in a single line.
I can’t remember who it was who suggested reading movie scripts as a way to learn about dialogue, some wonderful writer I was listening to on a podcast (and that podcast was most likely So You Want to be a Writer), but I’ve found it incredibly helpful. Not only is it an interesting way to look at dialogue, but it’s a great way to learn about the written emotional response as well. After all, the movies are all about showing, and some do it so very well. I recommend giving it a go. You can find the scripts to most movies just by googling them.
To finish I’m going to leave you with my favourite example of ‘show don’t tell’.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
-Anton Chekhov
Tell me what’s your favourite classic movie? What are your secrets to achieving the perfect balance of ‘show and tell’? How hard do you work to achieve it in your writing?
For everyone doing NaNoWriMo, congratulations on getting the first week down. I hope you’re all getting enough sleep and good luck with the next week. If you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Hidden Moments of Humanity

A moment raw and human lying forgotten amongst the enormity of history that somehow still manages to speak for itself with quiet unassuming dignity.

Every now and then I come across something in my research that stops me in my tracks. A moment raw and human lying forgotten amongst the enormity of history that somehow still manages to speak for itself with quiet unassuming dignity.
I found a moment like this recently. A few lines in a diary from 1943 that made me pause and assess everything I knew, or thought I knew about the morality of World War Two.
By December 1943, Rome had been under German occupation for three months and the religious houses all over the city were full of refugees. In the early hours of December 22, the sheltered peace of the men hiding in three of these houses was shattered when, in flagrant disregard of the Lateran treaty that protected all pontifical property, a group of armed fascists forced their way in to search for patriots and Jews. Many got away, some were caught.
One of the properties raided was the Russicum, the college for Russian Church students. Three men were arrested, and as the fascists were leaving the leader turned to the Rector and asked him: ‘Why did you hide these men?’
He answered: ‘For the same reason for which I shall probably be hiding you before long.’
The humanity of this response has stayed with me. Such a simple response, such powerful compassion behind it. In that one sentence the politics, the bloodshed and the importance of everything the government argued about and the soldiers enforced slipped away. For this Rector nationalism, religion, political creed, guilt or innocence didn’t matter. For him all that mattered was the fact that there were fellow human beings in need, men that he was in a position to help.
At first, I must admit, I found the Rector’s response a bit counter-intuitive. The fascists, the Germans, they were the enemy. Why would you hide them? Why would you shelter them from the consequences of their own evil deeds? But as I thought on it, and I did think on it because that simple response stuck with me throughout the day, I realised it was not the Rector’s intention to save a man from answering for his crimes. He was not talking about hiding a man from justice. He was talking about protecting a human life, and maybe even giving a second chance to a damaged soul. No matter what. Perhaps, in a spiritual sense, the fascists and the Nazis needed his help more than anyone else, and he was clear-sighted enough to realise that.

I wonder if the Fascist commander realised that too?

Have you come across any hidden moments of humanity in your reading or research? Tell me about them in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
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On another note, tomorrow is the start of NaNoWriMo, a challenge that writers all over the world participate in to try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I’ll be trying to get my historical novel finished during NaNoWriMo this year, and probably not sleeping a whole lot in the mean time. So, if you’re also NaNo-ing, good luck! I’ll be burying my head in 1943, trying to keep my heroine out of trouble (while at the same time pitching her into it) and getting my head around just what could and couldn’t be purchased in a city that was cut off from the southern end of their country. If you’d like to know more about the novel I’m working on, you can check it out here. Until then, I’ll see you next week!