Hazel McHaffie

Claire Tomalin

More Jane Austen … why not!

It’s that time of year again – Festival time. As someone once famously said to all actors/performers/dramatists: ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.’ And we are fortunate enough to live here.

Chez nous we have a stack of tickets for a whole range of shows still to come but this week’s star performance goes to a one-woman show featuring the brilliant actor Rebecca Vaughn with Austen’s Women. I loved her faultless eloquence and brilliant stagecraft with Jane Eyre last year, so she was a must-go-to this time.

And she didn’t disappoint. She took on the characters and mannerisms of fourteen different women from nine of Austen’s novels and linked them all with wise statements about life through the all-seeing eyes of the ubiquitous Austen narrator, all without pausing even while she donned her next costume. She segued from twittering Miss Bates, to a petulant Mary Musgrove, to simpering Harriet Smith, to snooty Mrs Elton to vivacious Lizzy Bennet with consummate skill. And the entire 70 minutes was in Jane Austen’s own words, a patchwork of commentary from her whole canon. Put together by Rebecca Vaughn herself. Amazing skill and an enviable memory!

Though I’ve read all the Austen novels and watched several films of these classics, it seemed fitting to prepare for this particular event by reading Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin to understand better the author’s influences and backstory. Sobering to think Jane herself was so little acknowledged in her lifetime, but critical literature about her now ‘runs to thousands of volumes and tens of thousands of articles’  and that ‘between 1952 and 1972 alone there were 551 books, essays and articles published, not to mention 85 doctoral dissertations‘ written about her … although it has to be said, that many of us who love her work would probably prefer to protect this quietly unassuming young woman from this relentless scrutiny and critical dissection and just enjoy her writing.

In telling Austen’s life story Tomalin has done her best to preserve the intimacy and spirit of her subject. I particularly liked her assessment of those now-famous Austen fictional women and how time influenced their development and sometimes contributed to little inconsistencies in the final published versions – time while Jane waited … and waited … and waited for others to appreciate her writing.

When she first drafted Pride and Prejudice she was 20. By the time it was published in 1813 she was 37. Imagine! Seventeen years between composing it and seeing it in print! Sense and Sensibility took sixteen years to achieve the same goal. Northanger Abbey only found a publisher after twenty years by which time the author was dead. How sad is that? A sobering lesson for the rest of us who’re frustrated by a couple of years delay while agents or publishers do their stuff. And her edits and revisions weren’t simple cut-and-paste jobs either!

Two hundred years on, we accept her ‘exquisite touch’ and ‘vitality of voice‘ but even once she was published, Jane had to endure some pretty vitriolic criticism and quite unjust treatment. Only over time and posthumously did she gain the recognition she so richly deserved.

Then there were the periods of writers’ block. Displacement, bereavement and depression in real life stilled her pen for ten years between the ages of 25 and 35. Without familiar and predictable routines – ‘the same views from the same windows; the same household routines and daily walks in the garden or to the church or the village; the same sounds and silences’ – and bogged down with the relentless care of other people’s children and relatives, she was bereft of the secure and peaceful environment in which her imagination could take flight. Adrift without anchors. She had lost father, home, any prospect of marriage, and all hope of getting anything published. Penniless, she was dependent on her brothers, obliged to accept whatever living arrangements were chosen for her, feeling very much like an awkward parcel.

More than enough vicissitudes to make a writer give up for good, you’d think. How much more should we value the resilience and determination that brought her amazing and enduring work to us.

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Celebrating Jane Austen

I promised you a short and easy post this week after the long serious one last week. So relax!

As I’m sure you’re aware, 2017 marks the bicentenary of the death of one of this country’s greatest writers: Jane Austen. You’ve probably seen references to some of the special tributes and events marking this date. A number of papers and magazines have invited celebrities to chose their favourite Austen books or characters, and since the Telegraph didn’t come calling chez nous, I contented myself with revisiting my own collection and rereading Persuasion (not my favourite, but I have a lot of sympathy for Anne Elliott).

What a phenomenally successful author this unassuming daughter of the manse was; wise, humorous, astute, despite a very limited and sheltered 41 years of life. And yet only really revered after her death. What would she have made of her image being used on the forthcoming new polymer £10 note, I wonder? It won’t be in circulation until September but last week it was unveiled to the public in Winchester Cathedral, the very place when Jane was buried precisely 200 years before.

Her words and perspicacity endure; we still love her stories, quote her best aphorisms. She’s still deemed worthy of translation into films and TV series. Who doesn’t know about Mr Darcy’s dip in the lake, or Mrs Bennett’s campaign to marry off her daughters to rich young men, or Emma’s incompetent matchmaking, or … (insert your own favourite excerpts). Long may she be respected and loved.

Can’t wait to get stuck into this little treasure.

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Super Thursday

Have you heard of Super Thursday? Nor me. A least I hadn’t until this week.

This year Super Thursday fell on September 29th. And on that day a raft of books were launched onto a unsuspecting public, books that the publishers (and authors) hope will become Christmas bestsellers. Titles by folk like Robert Harris, Joanna Lumley, Alan Sugar, Lee Child. Hmm. Three months early. But apparently these contenders need to build up a head of steam, and be seen in bookshops, on coffee tables, on trains and planes, etc. ‘Seep into the public consciousness.’ Seep, not zoom, because if they fly off the shelves too quickly the book’s in danger of dying prematurely. Riiight.

Anyway on Super Thursday this year, more than 225 books were published. And more big names are on the way in the next few weeks, to stagger the impact. Again a fair smattering of famous faces from the small screen rather than literary giants.  Jeremy Paxman, Rob Brydon alongside Claire Tomalin. You can find the whole list at the link above. What does that say about people and Christmas, eh? Hey ho.

No prizes for guessing that my new novel is not among them. But then McHaffie is not a household name – in case it had slipped your busy notice. I do not appear in quiz games or political rallies. I do not grace the front pages of the glossies or make a double page splurge in Saga magazine. Yet.

However, Saving Sebastian is scheduled for January, when I hope lots of people have Christmas-gift vouchers and money to splurge out on lesser known authors. Hey, come on! A girl can dream, can’t she?

But I’m not just dreaming. I’m actually being diligently proactive at the moment. What am I up to? I’m converting my back-list into ebooks. Yep, really, truly, I am. And having a lot of pleasure in the process. It feels good. At last I’m taking back some kind of control over my novels. But I’m anxious to get them right – I hate muddled formatting and missing capitals and all the other errors that creep in when conversion isn’t done efficiently. So there’s a lot of browsing through how-to texts and consulting experts and editing and generally pfaffing about going on. It’s almost as compulsive as writing the books in the first place.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

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