Please join us today in welcoming author David Liss on his blog tour in celebration of the release of The Twelfth Enchantment, a new Regency-era novel featuring Jane Austen’s character Mary Crawford and a bit of magic, published by Random House.
There’s no bad girl like a Jane Austen bad girl. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I’ve always been fascinated by some of the worst women in Austen’s novel. Not the unlikable, begrudging, judgmental, and pinched women, but the big-hearted and flawed ones – the ones who are close to being good except they’re not. They’re bad. High on my list is Lydia Bennet, the wayward youngest sister from Pride and Prejudice, but my number one Austen vixen has always been Mary Crawford, the wicked rival from Mansfield Park.
When I set out to work on my most recent novel, The Twelfth Enchantment, I knew I wanted my main character to be based on an older and wiser version of Lydia Bennet – an iteration of the character type who did not succeed in running off with an older man. The book’s protagonist, Lucy Derrick, ended up evolving away from the source material and becoming her own character since that’s what happens when you write a novel, but the germ is there, and I think any Austen reader will recognize it. I also knew I wanted to have Mary Crawford in the book. Not a character based on her, but the character herself. I wanted to pick up the character’s story after the events of Mansfield Park and show her in an altered state. In my novel, she is most certainly changed, but parts of the character remain the same – beautiful, charming, clever and scheming.
Mansfield Park is not, in my opinion, Jane Austen’s best novel. As a protagonist, Fanny Price is insipid and forgettable, and the novel often evidences an attention to petty detail that is near stultifying. Nevertheless, the book rises above these faults because the world Fanny Price inhabits is nuanced, rich and socially dangerous. The supporting characters are fascinatingly flawed, and the relationships are among the edgiest in Austen’s work. Though Austen’s novels are generally oblivious to the cultural and economic upheavals and human suffering visible everywhere during the early industrial revolution, Fanny’s return to Portsmouth showcases how masterfully the author could have worked with gritty social realism had she so chosen.
Nevertheless, the showcase of the novel is Mary Crawford, whose magnetic presence in the book is rooted, to no small degree, to her similarity to the most popular Jane Austen character of them all, Elizabeth Bennet. Both characters are intelligent, witty, socially adroit, and charming. Mary Crawford, however, is not guided by the same moral compass as Elizabeth Bennet, who may at times be too clever for her own good, but nevertheless remains kind and generous and forgiving. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is a kind of a villainess, but the line that separates Austen’s most lovable heroine and her most charming antagonist is extraordinarily thin, and that is what initially drew me in.
In my novel, we find Mary Crawford a few years after the events of Mansfield Park. She’s suffered from her romantic failure and the disgrace of her brother that ended the novel, and she’s endured more besides, though to say more would be revealing too much. Suffice to say that she is a changed woman, though the core remains the same. But what exactly does that mean? Is a “bad” character capable of becoming “good?” And if so, what is the nature of this goodness? These were immensely satisfying questions to explore as I wrote the book, and I hope they are satisfying to read about as well.
I loved having the opportunity to play with the seeds planted by Jane Austen and move the archetypal characters into the later stage of their lives – as well as set them loose in a world that is much less cloistered than most of Austen’s work. The Twelfth Enchantment finds its characters amid the real social upheavals of the early 19th century when the world was literally changing before the eyes of ordinary Englishmen and women. The novel is also a fantasy, however, in which traditional English folk magic, as well as more scholarly high magic, really work – the way real people imagined they worked when those same real people practiced magic.
Writers always work in the shadows of their predecessors, and there are few writers as influential as Austen, who revolutionized both what kinds of characters were fit subjects for novels and how those characters can be brought to life. On the one hand, taking Austen’s characters and continuing their stories is an act of fandom and devotion, but given Austen’s influence on the form, I think it could also be argued that that’s what most novelists are doing most of the time anyhow.
David Liss is the author of six previous novels, including A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) which was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First Novel. The Coffee Trader (2003) was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year’s 25 Books to Remember. A Spectacle of Corruption (2004) was a national bestseller, and The Devil’s Company (2009) has been optioned for film by Warner Brothers. Liss also writes the monthly series Black Panther for Marvel Comics. He currently lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.
The Twelfth Enchantment: A Novel, by David Liss
Random House, New York (2011)
Hardcover (416) pages
Cover image, guest blog, & author bio courtesy of Random House © 2011; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2011, Austenprose.com