In Conversation with Janet Todd, Editor, and Essayist of Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Jane Austen's Sanditon, edited by Janet Todd (2019)I recently read and reviewed the delightful Jane Austen’s Sanditon, an excellent new edition in the crowded Austen book market whose timely release, along with the new ITV/PBS eight-part television adaptation/continuation inspired by the unfinished novel, has brought Jane Austen’s last work into the limelight. I have long followed the career of its editor, Janet Todd, and own several of her books, including the soon to be re-issued Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels (February 4, 2020).

For years I have been reading about Janet’s friendship with a mutual Janeite, Diana Birchall, who was also one of my contributors on Jane Austen Made Me Do It. There is so much serendipity in this triangle of friends that I knew that I needed to get Diana and Janet together for an interview regarding her new book.

Diana tells me that she and Janet first met “in 1983, at an early Jane Austen conference at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and chatted away during a lovely side trip to Stoneleigh Abbey.” Okay, I wasn’t there for that one, but wish I had been. “Their conversation continued over the years between visits back and forth to California (Diana’s home) and Cambridge (Janet’s) as well as myriad hiking trips and holidays in places ranging from Rum and Eigg in the Hebrides, the Scilly Isles, Sequoia, and Venice.” Here is the result of their tete-a-tete on Janet’s new book, Jane Austen’s Sanditon, for our enjoyment.

WELCOME TO AUSTENPROSE LADIES:

Diana Birchall: You write that in Austen’s works you encounter political and social opinions sometimes gratifyingly liberal, at others sternly alien to our way of thinking. Can you give an example or two?

Janet Todd: The importance of religion. Jane Austen was a rector’s daughter; her eldest brother was a clergyman and the speculating brother Henry took Holy Orders while she was writing Sanditon. Mr Parker seeks a doctor for his resort but makes no mention of a clergyman. I think this is significant.

Like other heroines, Charlotte isn’t overtly pious but she’s firm in ethical judgments. We now praise someone for being ‘passionate’ about what they do, but Charlotte is repeatedly called ‘sober-minded’. She doesn’t admire enthusiasm and activity uncoupled from moral purpose. She can’t approve Robert Burns’ poetry, however appealing, because of his unprincipled life where we forgive celebrities almost any excess.

On the other side Jane Austen often seems modern in her liberal take on feminism and in her subordination of class and birth to merit and integrity.

DB: Do you think Charlotte and Clara are shaping up to be an Emma/Jane Fairfax sort of relationship? Continue reading

A Very Austen Valentine Blog Tour: Author Interview with Robin Helm, Laura Hile, and Wendi Sotis

a very austen valentine book 2 x 200Just in time for Valentine’s Day on February fourteenth, a new Jane Austen-inspired anthology has been published to fill our romantic hearts with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet and many other characters from Austen’s beloved novels. A Very Austen Valentine contains six novellas by popular Austenesque authors: Robin Helm, Laura Hile, Wendi Sotis, Barbara Cornthwaite, Susan Kaye and Mandy H. Cook and includes stories inspired by Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility. Featuring many of our favorite characters, readers will find sequels, adaptations, and spin-offs of Austen’s works in this new book.

I am very happy to welcome three of the A Very Austen Valentine authors to Austenprose today. They have kindly agreed to an interview.

Welcome ladies. Here are a few questions to introduce us to your new anthology, your writing process and philosophies, and an opportunity to tell us about your next project.

Can you share your inspiration for this Austen-inspired anthology?

Laura: Several years ago Robin Helm and I talked about putting together an anthology – no small feat, as Laurel Ann knows (Jane Austen Made Me Do It) – and last Christmas we banded together with Wendi Sotis and Barbara Cornthwaite to release our first. Who knew that Jane Austen and Christmas would combine so well? Our readers, that’s who! We were overwhelmed by the response to A Very Austen Christmas. Next, we decided to take on Valentine’s Day. This holiday was not widely popular during the Regency, but when we found extant Valentine cards from the period, we were off and running. A Very Austen Valentine is the result.

We call our anthologies “books that friendship built” because, this is absolutely true. They are our way of introducing our writing friends to our reading friends – like you. We plan to include guest authors in each. Susan Kaye (Frederick Wentworth, Captain Series) and Mandy H. Cook (The Gifted) are with us for this one. Continue reading

Q&A with Love & Friendship Writer/Director/Author Whit Stillman

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200Austen scholar Devoney Looser joins us today during the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour to interview ‘Friend of Jane,’ writer/director/author Whit Stillman, whose new hit movie Love & Friendship, and its companion novel, are on the radar of every Janeite.

Welcome, Ms. Looser and Mr. Stillman to Austenprose.com.

Devoney Looser: We Janeites know that you go way back as a Janeite yourself. (Would you label yourself that? I see you’ve copped elsewhere to “Jane Austen nut.”) You’ve admitted you were once dismissive of Austen’s novels as a young man—telling everyone you hated them—but that after college you did a 180, thanks to your sister. Anything more you’d like to tell us about that?

Whit Stillman: I prefer Austenite and I consider myself among the most fervent. Yes, there was a contretemps with Northanger Abbey when I was a depressed college-sophomore entirely unfamiliar with the gothic novels she was mocking — but I was set straight not many years later.

DL: What made you decide that “Lady Susan” wasn’t the right title to present this film to an audience? (Most of Austenprose’s readers will be wise to the fact that Austen herself didn’t choose that title for her novella, first published in 1871.) I like your new title Love & Friendship very much, but clever Janeites will know you lifted it from a raucous Austen short story, from her juvenilia, Love & Freindship. What led you to make this switch in titles? (I do want to register one official complaint. You’ve now doomed those of us who teach Austen’s Love & Freindship to receive crazy-wrong exam answers on that text from our worst students for years to come.)

WS: Perhaps it is irrational but I always hated the title “Lady Susan” and, as you mention, so far as we know, it was not Jane Austen’s;  the surviving manuscript carries no title (the original binding was chopped off) and she had used “Susan” as the working title for “Northanger Abbey.”  The whole trajectory of Austen’s improved versions of her works was from weak titles, often character names (which I know many film distributors hate as film titles*) toward strong, resonant nouns — either qualities or place names.  “Elinor and Marianne” became Sense and Sensibility, “First Impressions” became Pride and Prejudice, “Susan” became Northanger Abbey. Persuasion and Mansfield Park are similarly sonorous. Continue reading

Q & A with Tessa Arlen – Author of Death Sits Down to Dinner

Death Sits Down to Dinner by Tessa Arlen x 200Please help me welcome historical mystery author Tessa Arlen to Austenprose today during her blog tour of her new novel, Death Sits Down to Dinner, the second book in her Lady Monfort series.

Firstly, I want to congratulate Tessa on her recent nomination for the Agatha Award for her debut novel, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman. I enjoyed it tremendously, and obvious others did as well. Set at an Edwardian era English country manor house, it is the first novel in the Lady Montfort series. Death Sits Down to Dinner was released on March 29th, 2016 and is set in London. The two novels are now Town and Country bookends!

Welcome Tessa!

Comparisons of your novels to Downton Abbey were inevitable. When were you first inspired to write a mystery novel, and why did you select Edwardian era English aristocrats and their servants as your main characters?

I have always loved English history and in particular the short window of time we call the Edwardian era (1901-1914). It was an era of great innovation in all areas, but there was a tremendous leap forward in fine arts, the arts and crafts movement and the performing arts. The last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries saw huge innovations in communication, transportation and manufacturing, but I think the early 1910s were rich in societal changes: the fight for the women’s franchise became decidedly nasty with the breakaway from women’s suffrage movement of the Women’s Social and Political Union (Suffragettes). The Irish were becoming more assertive about Home Rule; there was a Liberal government hell bent on social reform and taxing the landowners to provide funds for those changes, and the House of Commons broke the power of veto in the House of Lords which meant that bills for social reform could be passed more quickly. But the rich had never been richer nor the poor more desperate. I thought it a perfect era to write a murder mystery!

I sat myself down to write the book that eventually became Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman in 2008. It was really an exercise in whether I could actually write a full length novel. I wanted my two main characters to come from opposite ends of the class spectrum so they might represent the rigid caste distinctions of the time. Combined with this was my love of the Golden Age of mystery, where the writer gathered a group of ecccentrics together, isolated them in a country house, or on an island, or even on board an ocean liner and turned up the heat with a spot of murder. I was not in the least influenced by Downton, but I was very happy for it to introduce my book to a group of people who were already in love with this time. Continue reading

Q&A with Juliette Wells, Editor of Emma: 200th Anniversary Annotated Edition, by Jane Austen

Emma 200th Anniversary Edition edited by Juliette Wells 2015 x 200We hit another publication milestone this year with the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s most lauded novel, Emma. I have previously reviewed the novel and the 2010 film adaptation extensively, so I thought for this new 200th Anniversary Annotated Edition by Penguin Deluxe Classics that you might enjoy hearing from another source—someone who is an Austen scholar, college professor and all-around-friend of Jane—editor Juliette Wells. Here is an informative interview with her publisher that I am happy to share.

When we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Emma, what in particular are we celebrating? What’s new about this edition? 

We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emma’s original publication, in London in December 1815. The date of publication is a little confusing because “1816” was printed on the title page of the first edition of the novel, but it was actually released in December 1815. I think this gives us the right to celebrate for a whole year!

And what better way to celebrate than to re-read Emma, or read it for the first time? Our 200th anniversary annotated edition has everything you need, all in one place, to help you appreciate this wonderful novel. You can immerse yourself in Austen’s world and also have, right at your fingertips, explanations of some of the elements of the novel that tend to trip up or puzzle today’s readers.

In the Austen canon, what would you say makes Emma special and unique?  

Emma is special because it’s the capstone of Austen’s career as an author. She had already published three novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park), and she was at the very top of her game as a writer. She didn’t know it, of course, but Emma would be the last book she saw through to publication. When Austen died in July 1817, she left two essentially completed novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), which her brother published at the end of that year. So Emma is the last Austen novel that was published in the exact form that she herself approved.

Emma is also special because it’s the most perfect example of Austen’s particular genius as an author, which is (I think) to create a recognizable, engaging fictional world from the slenderest of materials. She writes about everyday life and ordinary people—you won’t find kings and queens in her novels, or ghosts or vampires. Her effects are wonderfully subtle. Continue reading

Q&A with Patrice Kindl, Author of A School For Brides, & Giveaway

A School for Brides, by Patrice Kindl 2015It is a rare delight in reading to discover a new author that you feel could become one of your most cherished favorites. When “every feature works,” I am revved up and ready to share my excitement.

Such is the case with Patrice Kindl, who until a review copy of A School for Brides landed on my doorstep last month was entirely unknown to me. Further research revealed that this new release was a companion novel to her first in the Lesser Hoo series, Keeping the Castle. Set in the Regency period both novels share many of the same characters, paralleling the same time frame, but from a different perspective. Better and better.

Before diving into A School for Brides I decided to power through an audio recording of Keeping the Castle. It knocked my bonnet off. If I could describe Kindl’s writing in one sentence, I would say that it is a skillful blending of Jane Austen’s genius with social satire, Georgette Heyer’s exuberant humor and Dodie Smith’s poignant romance.

Here is a description of A School for Brides from the publisher:

The Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy of Lesser Hoo, Yorkshire, has one goal: to train its students in the feminine arts with an eye toward getting them married off. This year, there are five girls of marriageable age. There’s only one problem: the school is in the middle of nowhere, and there are no men. Set in the same English town as Keeping the Castle, and featuring a few of the same characters, here’s the kind of witty tribute to the classic Regency novel that could only come from the pen of Patrice Kindl!

Curious to learn more about Patrice Kindl and the inspiration for her Lesser Hoo novels I asked her if she would be game for a brief interview. Happily, she agreed.

Welcome, Patrice: Continue reading

Q&A with Poldark Historical Advisor Hannah Greig

Captain Ross Poldark in His Majesty's 62nd Regiment of Foot regimentals (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd for Masterpiece PBS

Captain Ross Poldark in His Majesty’s 62nd Regiment of Foot regimentals (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd for Masterpiece PBS

Getting the historical details correct is so critical in period drama today. Gone are the days when Greer Garson could wear a hoop skirt in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice and get away with it. The production team of the new BBC/PBS Poldark, at Mammoth Screen Ltd., have stepped up to the mark depicting late eighteenth-century Cornwall, warts and all. Advising them in this monumental task is lecturer, author and historian Hannah Greig who joins us today to answer a few questions about her role in the production of Poldark and the historical context that it is set in.

An illustration "A Beauty in Search of Knowledge" derived from a print by John Raphael Smith, 1782 (c) British Library

An illustration “A Beauty in Search of Knowledge” derived from a print by John Raphael Smith, 1782 (c) British Library

LAN: Welcome Hannah. One has visions of historians entrenched in musty library stacks secretly pining for their favorite reference librarian! Besides teaching and writing, you have carved out an interesting niche as Historical Advisor for films, television and theatre. This seems like a very glamorous job. Can you share with us what your duties are, what a typical day would be like, and what kind of questions are asked by the production team? Continue reading

Talking Frocks and Breeches with Poldark Costume Designer Marianne Agertoft

Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner in Poldark (2015)

One of the things I look forward to in period dramas is the costuming. For years we have been treated to fashionable Regency-era finery in Jane Austen adaptations, but the new Masterpiece Classic series Poldark takes us into an earlier era in British history. Set in 1780’s provincial Cornwall, the main plot line revolves around the Poldark family, their neighbors and their tenants—supplying an array of characters from different social classes. Curious about the late Georgian clothing in Poldark, I asked costume designer Marianne Agertoft to joins us today for a Q & A.

LAN: Welcome Marianne.

MA: Hi Laurel Ann. Thank you so much for your interest in the costumes for Poldark.

It was a great and passionate journey for all of us in the costume team and it is wonderful that the work is being appreciated.

Captain George K. H. Coussmaker by Joshua Reynolds (1782)

Portrait of Captain George K. H. Coussmaker by Joshua Reynolds (1782)

LAN: From a layman’s point of view, being a costume designer looks like a very glamorous job. You get to spend your day being creative, researching history, playing with fabric, and working with celebrities! Can you share with us what your typical day was like while working on the costumes for Poldark Continue reading

Naxos AudioBooks Narrator Juliet Stevenson Chats with Austenprose

Juliet Stevenson head shot 2I have had the pleasure of listening to and reviewing many of the Naxos AudioBooks classic recordings narrated by a variety of talented British actors, but collectively my favorite readings are those by award-winning actress Juliet Stevenson—whose five interpretations of Jane Austen’s novels remain paramount in my personal audio collection.

Awarded the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1992 and the C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1999, Ms. Stevenson’s vocal talent is deeply rooted in her classical training at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and her time with Royal Shakespeare Company. While a friend boasts of seeing her stage performance of Hedda Gabler in London in 1989, beyond her audio recordings I have only had the pleasure of her film and television career—and that alone could sustain any lover of finely measured and intimate interpretations of human nature. Some of my favorite Stevenson performances are her tormented, grieving Nina in Truly Madly Deeply (1990), a part tailored for her by screenwriter/director Anthony Minghella, her outrageously pompous Mrs. Elton in Emma (1996), Evie in Being Julia (2004), and the Oracle in Atlantis (2013-2015). Everything she touches turns to gold. Continue reading