In Celebration of Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday: From Jane Austen to Charles Dickens: Guest blog by Lynn Shepherd, & a Giveaway

Google Celebration of Charles Dickens 2012

We are basically a tried and true Janeite, but quietly confess to admiration of another nineteenth-century novelist also born in Hampshire; – Charles Dickens. His style is entirely different than the witty underpinnings of our beloved Miss Austen, but one cannot ignore his fabulous characterizations and amazing plot twists.

Charles DickensToday is the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth on February 7, 1812 at Landport, in Portsea, near Portsmouth, England. If Miss Austen is wholly a Regency author, then Dickens is her Victorian counterpart in popularity. He would become the most famous author of his day, writing sixteen major novels, traveling the world with his speaking tours and publishing other authors works like Mrs. Gaskell.

Like Jane Austen, Dickens has a huge following of admirers and sequelers. I was thrilled to learn last year that Murder at Mansfield Park author Lynn Shepherd was also a fan of Dickens and had written a novel inspired by one of his most popular works, Bleak House. Published last week as Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, Lynn’s new novel will also be released in the US in May by Random House as The Solitary House: A Novel.

Lynn is the perfect fellow Janeite to share her thoughts on Dickens’ bicentenary celebration with us on his special day. She has generously contributed a guest blog and a very special chance for readers to win one of three advance readers copies available of The Solitary House. Details of the giveaway are listed below. Welcome Lynn:  

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd (2010)The last time I wrote a piece for Laurel Ann it was because I had just written Murder at Mansfield Park; I’m back now to help celebrate Dickens’ 200th birthday because I’m just about to publish a new murder mystery, inspired by his great masterpiece, Bleak House.

It’s a very long way from the elegant ambiance of Regency country houses, to the dark and dirty world of Victorian London, so why did I decide to make the move from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens? And having made that decision, what challenges did I face?

The first thing I realized was that I didn’t want The Solitary House to be the same sort of book as Murder at Mansfield Park. In the latter I had worked very hard to mimic Jane Austen’s beautiful prose style, rigorously checking my vocabulary to ensure it was in use at the time, and replicating the special rhythm of her sentences. But I knew at once that I didn’t want to do the same thing with Dickens. His style is almost as distinctive as hers, but I suspected any attempt to pastiche it would descend very quickly into parody.

Likewise I made the conscious decision not to even attempt to cram in everything Dickens does – his books are astonishingly broad in their scope, with comedy and satire at one extreme, and drama and psychological insight at the other. I’ve always been more interested in the latter than the former, and I confess I do find his caricatures rather tiresome in some of the novels.  So by now I was clear: I wanted to write a book inspired by Dickens, but ‘darker than Dickens’, with no comedy, no caricatures, and in a voice of my own.

The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd (2012)The result is a book that runs in parallel with the events of Bleak House, with some of Dickens’ characters appearing in mine, and the two stories coming together and intersecting at crucial moments.  Bleak House is, of course, the very first detective story in English, with the first fictional detective, Inspector Bucket. He appears in my story too – my young detective, Charles Maddox, was once fired from the Metropolitan Police at Bucket’s insistence, and their paths cross again as Charles’ investigation deepens.

Anyone who’s read Murder at Mansfield Park, will recognize the name ‘Charles Maddox’ at once, but we’re now in 1850, not 1811, and this new Charles Maddox is actually the great-nephew of my original Regency thief taker. Old Maddox appears in the book as well, but he’s now an elderly man, and suffering from a disease that we recognize at once as Alzheimer’s, but which was unknown at the time. But when Maddox has lucid periods he is still one of the sharpest minds in London, and Charles will need all his help if he’s to unravel the terrible secret at the heart of this sinister case.

One of the great delights – and challenges – of writing The Solitary House was to go back and re-create Dickens’ London. As many people have said, London is not just a setting in Dickens’ novels, but a character in its own right, and I had the opportunity to be even more forthright about the realities of life in the city than Dickens was able to be. We know far more, in some ways, that Dickens’ middle class contemporaries did, and I’ve tried to bring the 19th-century city to life in all its splendor, all its sin, and all its stink.

Great Expectations (2011) UKOf course many of us owe our mental pictures of Victorian London to the screen adaptations of Dickens’ works, and he does translate particularly well to film and TV. The BBC aired a new – and I think excellent – version of Great Expectations this Christmas, with Gillian Anderson as a chillingly beautiful and aloof Miss Havisham. There was also a new adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with a new ending, and some wonderfully atmospheric scenes. There are many other excellent BBC adaptations of the books, and I’m also a great fan of the 1998 Our Mutual Friend, which has a marvelously intense Bradley Headstone, as played by David Morrissey, but my favorite – perhaps unsurprisingly – is the 2005 Bleak House.

Once again Gillian Anderson is utterly convincing and impressive as Lady Dedlock, and she’s supported by a wonderful cast of British character acting at its best. My only quibble is the choice of actor to play Tulkinghorn, as Charles Dance (in my view) is far too young, attractive, and just plain tall, to play the wizened old lawyer I have in my own imagination.

Bleak House (2005) BBCThe other fascinating thing about that Bleak House adaptation was that it was deliberately constructed in half-hour episodes, thereby mimicking the ‘serial publication’ of the original novel. It was a brilliant coup to screen it that way, since it helps us understand how Dickens structured his story with cliff-hangers at the end of each ‘number’, to keep people coming back for more.

And, of course, they did. And they still do, even 200 years after he was born, whether as readers, viewers, or – in my case – writers inspired by his great genius to create something new of their own.

Author Bio:

Lynn Shepherd studied English at Oxford, and later went on to do a doctorate on Samuel Richardson, which has now been published by Oxford University Press. She’s also a passionate Jane Austen fan, writing the award winning Murder at Mansfield Park in (2010), and just released another murder mystery Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, inspired by Charles Dickens Bleak House. Retitled The Solitary House, it will be released in the US by Random House in May. You can visit Lynn at her  website, on Facebook as Lynn Shepherd, and follow her on Twitter as @Lynn_Shepherd.

A Grand Giveaway of The Solitary House: A Novel

Enter a chance to win one of three advance reading copies available of The Solitary House: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd by leaving a question asking Lynn about her inspiration to write a Dickens sequel, her research process, or if you have read Bleak House or seen any of the many film adaptations, which your favorite character is by 11:59 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, February 23, 2012. Shipment to US addresses only. Good luck!

Thanks for joining us today Lynn in celebration of one of literature’s most revered and cherished novelist of all time on his special day. Best of luck with your new mystery novel The Solitary House. I am so looking forward to reading it. 

© 2007 – 2012 Lynn Shepherd, Austenprose

Inspector Lewis: Counter Culture Blues on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Counter Culture Blues © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Series III of Inspector Lewis on Masterpiece Mystery begins on Sunday, August 29th with Counter Culture Blues. Duct tapped in rock and roll excess, deception, greed, and of course murder, Lewis and Hathaway investigate the death of a young boy that is somehow linked to the late 1960’s rock and roll band Midnight Addiction. Joanna Lumley guest stars as the lead singer presumed to have committed suicide thirty-five years ago but reappears to reform the band for one last hurrah, before they are too old, too drugged out, or dead. Here is the PBS synopsis:

Loud gunshots on a local estate interrupt an Oxford church service, and Detective Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) and Detective Sergeant Hathaway (Laurence Fox) are stirred from their quiet Sunday plans to investigate. The estate owner is an aging rock star, Richie Maguire (David Hayman), part of an iconic band from Lewis’s youth. The offending gunfire is the least of the chaos on the estate. Esme Ford (Joanna Lumley), the band’s singer long presumed dead, has just resurfaced. And, Lewis suspects that Lucas (Tom Kane) an orphan boy has recently died just outside the estate gates. As Lewis remembers his rock-and-roll youth, the violence escalates. Yet, these fading rockers don’t seem capable of much of anything, much less murder. It will take the inspiration of Inspector Morse to sort out the true suspects from the rock stars.

Sex, drugs, rock and roll. When they are generated by a rock band there is usually quite a bit of money involved, and as any mystery aficionado worth their Agatha Christie collection knows, money is always a great motive for murder. This clever story idea by Nick Dear (Persuasion) and screenplay by Guy Andrews (Lost in Austen) gives us an inside look at an iconic rock band whose colorful members have secrets, indiscretions and major brain damage from years of excess – but capable of murder? Nah. I had the murdered figured out the moment of his entrance. But it was still fun to be taken on such a nostalgic ride. Seeing Inspector Lewis agog and glassy eyed over these rockers from his youth was funny and lead to great opportunities for classic zingers by Sergeant Hathaway who is always good for a bit of sarcasm. After they meet rock star Richie Maguire on his estate, Lewis is aglow with awe and nostalgia, but observant Hathaway witnesses an unsafely stored firearm and recreational drugs that could get them arrested. Lewis’ defensive reaction:

RL: Why would I want to nick them?

JH: Give you an excuse to come back. Someone’s got to look after your social life sir.

And later on…

JH: Oh the cheerful promiscuity of your generation sir. It takes your breath away.

It did, but this episode did not. There was so much irony and parody that I had a hard time feeling any sense of seriousness in the four murders, yes four. There were more than a few plot holes that even after second and third viewing left big gaps in the logic and motives of the murderer. What did shine, and brightly, was the outstanding cast of guest stars. The Midnight Addiction band members were spot on. Just visualize any of the late 1960-70’s British rock bands such as The Who, Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, and think about what they would look, and act like thirty-five years later. David Hayman as drummer Richie Maguire, Anthony Higgins as lead guitar Franco, Hilton McRae as Mack Maguire on bass guitar and Joanna Lumley as lead singer Esme Ford (whose singing was nails on the black board time) were all so eccentrically excessive that is bordered on silly. But who cared. This was not a serious mystery. More of a psychedelic haze of an Inspector Lewis mystery turned comedy.

Kudos to Perdita Weeks (Lydia Bennet in Lost in Austen)  as the wide eyed Maguire daughter Kitten blackmailed by a sleazy fellow Oxford student Peter (Harry Lloyd), and Simon Callow, who made rock manager Simon Oxe so flamboyant and over-the-top that I will never be able to think about men’s sock garters again without giggling.

RL: You know what I’m doing? I’m going to think like Morse.

JH: Does that mean we are going to the pub?

Watch Counter Culture Blues online through September 12th, 210 at the new PBS Video website. Next week’s episode The Dead of Winter stars Nathaniel Parker (Vanity Fair) and, get ready, here it comes — Hathaway gets a romance!

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Preview: Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron, by Stephanie Barron

Good news Janeites! The four year wait for the next novel in the Jane Austen Mysteries series by Stephanie Barron is almost over. On September 28th, 2010, Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron will be available to quell that consuming need to feed your murder and mayhem meets Austen passion.

Marking the tenth book in this critically acclaimed series, the story set in 1813 throws Jane into a murder investigation in Brighton (oh, won’t Kitty & Lydia Bennet be thrilled) involving that infamous mad, bad and dangerous to know poet of the Regency-era. Here is the publisher’s description:

The restorative power of the ocean draws Jane Austen and her beloved brother Henry to the seaside, after Henry’s wife Eliza is lost to a long illness. But Brighton, a glittering resort overrun by London’s Fashionables, is scarcely peaceful. Not long after their arrival, Jane finds herself caught up in the town’s turmoil when the body of a beautiful young society miss is discovered, lifeless, in the bedchamber of none other than George Gordon—otherwise known as Lord Byron.

Byron has already carved out a shocking reputation for himself, both as a poet and as a seducer of women—swooning legions of whom seem to follow wherever he treads. Yet until this moment, no one thought him capable of murder. Now it falls to Jane to pursue this puzzling investigation and discover just how “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Byron truly is. And she must do so without falling victim to the charming versifier’s legendary charisma, lest she too become a cautionary example for the ages.

I for one am swooning over the beautiful cover (Is that out Jane looking so seductively fetching?) and all anticipation of yet another thrilling whodunit involving our Bardess of Basingstoke solving murderous deeds.