Austenesque Author Diana Birchall: Brouhaha in the Haha!

Image of the cover of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, by Diana Birchall, Sourcebooks (2008)LAUGH

“Oh! shocking!” cried Miss Bingley. “I never heard anything so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?”

“Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination,” said Elizabeth. “We can all plague and punish one another. Tease him — laugh at him. Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done.”Caroline Bingley & Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 11

My introduction to author Diana Birchall came in a very humorous round-about-way. Last fall, as I wandered onto a book review of a new Austenesque sequel that she had reviewed on AustenBlog, I was doubled over with laughter and filled with awe.

In my professional capacity as a bookseller, I read book reviews by the boat-load, always searching for a new author or title to recommend or enjoy myself. Many of the reviews are skillfully written by professionals who use trite phrasing and power words. (blaugh) Few rarely tell the truth. This was not the case with Diana’s review. She had entirely broken the mold, caught my attention, and earned my deep respect.

It’s always a good sign when the reviewer has me laughing within the first paragraph, and even more astounding when it continues throughout the entire book review – to the point of hysteria! Something very honest and profound resonated with me in her confident off-the-cuff remarks laced with irony and wit. What aplomb! What talent!

I was delighted to learn that her book Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, which had been previously published in England, had been picked up by SourceBooks and would hit the bookstores in April 2008. It could not have happened to a more talented or virtuous Janeite. Better yet, she might receive the recognition that she deserved, and other readers would have the opportunity to share in the delights of one of the finest writers in the Austenesque genre.

Diana has kindly agreed to contribute a bit of writing to bring us up-to-date on her latest news about her book, and her amazingly diverse life.

Wednesday 12 March, 2008

RE: Brouhaha in the Haha

Dear Laurel Ann:

Can any other author of Jane Austen-related fiction be having a stranger week than I am?  First, this week my Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma has sailed into all the Barnes and Noble bookshops across the country, flags flying and sails fluttering.  My son and I rushed to the one in our neighborhood last night, and he took a picture of me plopped down on the floor among the books, grinning ear to ear, and pointing wildly and inaccurately at a book by Maeve Binchy.  Very exciting!  And the overwhelmingly warm reception the book has already been given by a dazzling cyberuniverse of book reviewers has made me, as an author, feel like Fanny Price when Edmund assured her of his love:  “Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.”  Happiness indeed!  Why, at this very moment, a cat temporarily named Mr. Darcy is pondering, on the Dove Grey Reader site, who is to win five free copies with a touch of his paws!

So, wild and wonderful happenings enough for one week, you’d think.  But no.  I’ve just been told that I am to fly to New York on Wednesday to appear as a deponent in the Harry Potter Lexicon trial!  The connection between Jane Austen and Harry Potter may appear to be tenuous; though in fact there is more than one link:  J.K. Rowling is known to be an Austen fan (or why else would she name a cat character Mrs. Norris?), and of course both are well beloved in our time.  Jane Austen, however, is dead, more’s the pity; and safely in the public domain, so that people like me and many of you can frolicsomely write about her characters, and she can neither complain nor institute intellectual property lawsuits.

That is not the case with Harry Potter.  J.K. Rowling has filed a lawsuit against the author and would-be publisher of a Harry Potter Lexicon, an encyclopedia dealing with her books, and the case is to be heard beginning on March 24.  So that is how it happens that J.K. Rowling and your far humbler author and blogger, namely me, will take the stand!  You may well wonder how this came about.  For I have lived in Austen’s created worlds for several decades now, reading her novels so many times as would always be called thousands. I actually wrote Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma as long ago as 1994; it was originally published in England, and I am thrilled that SourceBooks is giving it international publication in this very exciting week.

But my “day job” is at Warner Bros Studios, where I work as a Story Analyst.  This means that I read novels, manuscripts, sometimes quite old books (I’ve read all of Jane Austen for work at one time or another) to see if they’d make movies.  I love my work, but it’s usually fairly quiet in nature.  In fact, the years of my career have passed quite uneventfully, with nothing much happening except that I’ve read and recommended books and scripts that became movies ranging from Rocky and Terminator to Moonstruck and Becoming Jane.  Inevitably, I’ve read quite a lot.  And written a bit too:  a scholarly biography of my grandmother, the first Asian American novelist Onoto Watanna, as well as my Jane Austen-inspired fiction:  Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and several Mrs. Elton stories, published as In Defense of Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Elton in America.  Late last year, however, it fell to me with my Story Analyst hat on, to do the literary/legal assignment of comparing the Harry Potter Lexicon with the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling.  Compare them I did.  And that, in short, is how it happens that I am being Disapparated to New York next week.

It should be an extremely interesting experience; the case (which I will not describe explicitly for obvious legal reasons) is a fascinating investigation into intellectual property matters, and it is certainly shaping up as the biggest media circus I’ve ever been, or am ever likely to be, involved with in my life.  I labor, after all, in far more modest literary pastures than Ms. Rowling – mine is “the modestest part of the business,” as Mary Crawford said.  But I am not such a modest creature as not to be thinking how this remarkable media storm might be made, like the forked lightning that raked Harry’s brow, or the thought of love that fled with the speed of an arrow into Emma’s heart – into benefiting publicity efforts for my book!

Perhaps I ought to draw the curtain here; an author’s flailing energetic promotional efforts are not a pretty sight, and ought to take place behind the scenes.  Yet several helpful friends have already come up with suggestions.  I take the stand wearing a “Buy Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma” T-shirt.  I hand Ms. Rowling a copy of the book.  I give interviews and invoke the name of Mrs. Darcy twice for every once I say Harry Potter.  No:  I must regretfully conclude that the two events, my publication and this trial, had better not be mixed.  They are an unequal match.

Yet it is undoubtedly an exciting time.  My spirits, like Elizabeth’s, are sometimes in a “high flutter”; but then the next moment I feel like another heroine:  “Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial.”

Perhaps I should stick to the subject at hand here and tell you about Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma.  One thing I can promise you:  it is not as dull as Fordyce’s Sermons which had Lydia gaping.  No, it is a work, I hope, light, bright and sparkling; though as it opens twenty-five years after the close of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s eyes are a little dimmed by time.  Their love for each other is as strong as ever, and they are happy in their mature lives.  Until, that is, a certain possibly unwise invitation is issued and Lydia’s two daughters descend upon Pemberley, with consequences to the neighborhood, to the Darcys’ sons, and to the London theatre. The book takes place in changing times, when the young Queen Victoria is coming to the throne, and she is the exact age of Elizabeth’s daughter, who…

But I must not tell the whole story!  Don’t you want to own a book that by this time next week, J.K. Rowling herself may be reading?

Diana Birchall

Image of author Diana Birchall in Barnes & Nobel with Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma (2008)Thank you Diana and good luck with your Potter exploits. We hope to have a review of your book, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma up shortly, but “I would not wish to excite your anticipation” by thinking that it will contain a fraction of humor or insight of your own genteel, but no-holds-barred book reviews! La!

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