This week, I’m stepping back in time – a long way: to 1980 in fact, when I sold my first Rachel Summerson novel, Hearts are Trumps, to Sidgwick & Jackson. The following year, it came out in America, published by St Martin’s Press who renamed it Belgrave Square: A Novel of Society.
Me lecturing at Caerleon Writers’ Holiday, something I enjoy doing.
Lockdown does strange things. I’d been thinking for a long time about getting my back list of 10 novels into e-books but, somehow, it’s remained at the thinking stage. Should I edit and re-write my early novels – I could see where they needed work – or I should operate on the ‘sod it’ principle and, after altering any spelling mistakes or obvious errors, publish them as they originally were. I’d begin with my first Elizabeth Hawksley: Lysander’s Lady, and put them into e-books sequentially, ending with my most recent novel, Highland Summer.
I have long loved the stylish and witty novels of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) and I know that I am not alone. The actor, playwright and composer, Noël Coward, also enjoyed her novels and admired her technique – especially her clever use of irony. The novelist A.S. Byatt itemized why Heyer’s Regency novels were so successful: ‘Paradise of ideal solutions, knowing it for what it is, comforted by its temporary actuality, nostalgically refreshed for coping with the quite different tangle of preconceptions, conventions and social emphases we have to live with. Which is what good escape literature is about.’ Heyer did her research properly; her Regency world may be limited in its social range but she undoubtedly had the gift of drawing her readers in, holding them spellbound, and making them laugh and feel better.
I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that novelists choose the surnames of their characters with great care. I certainly agonise over mine. I was reminded of this when reading Maggie Lane’s brilliant Jane Austen and Food. In it, she makes the perceptive point that Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is ironically named – from the French nourrice, a nurse. She behaves in the most un-nurturing way towards Fanny Price and seems to take every opportunity to put her down.
‘My dear Sir Thomas, Fanny can walk.’ says Mrs Norris. Illustration by Hugh Thomson for Mansfield Park
I have a wonderful book of advertisements in ‘The Times’ from the 1870s. As well as being a mine of information about everyday life in London at that date, there is also a section of personal advertisements, many of which could be the basis for a novel.
Looking for a plot? How about:
C.C.C.C. Do not despair, my Marguerite. Only have patience. I hope we shall meet on the 3rd at P. Be cautious and attend to all the advice I gave you. Do write to the London address if you possibly can, and tell me what has happened that prevents your writing. If I wrote in l.j. it would betray us. Thine for ever, B.B.B.B.
Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes(1936) was one of my favourite books as a child and I suspect that many other girls have also loved it because, eighty-two years later, it is still in print. My own, very worn, copy has the original illustrations by Ruth Gervis (1894-1988) which I’ve always thought were just right.
Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986) Courtesy of Wikipedia
In every film or television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many) Mr Bennet comes across as a sympathetic character; a man we could like. We enjoy his irony with regard to the oleaginous Mr Collins: ‘It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?’
He finds Mr Collins ‘as absurd as he had hoped; and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance…’ And we laugh with him.
But there is a less admirable side to Mr Bennet, one which leads to a great deal of unhappiness for his elder daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, and near disaster for the flighty Lydia who runs off with the caddish (though handsome) Wickham.
Jane Austen’s niece, Anna Austen Lefroy (1793-1872) was, as far as we know, her only relation who was also a novelist – though, in her case, an aspiring one. When she was nineteen, Anna asked her aunt various questions regarding her own novel Which is the Heroine? For example: does Dawlish have a decent library? Jane’s answer was that it was ‘pitiful and wretched’. What I found interesting was that Jane understood her niece’s concern to get things right. Both wrote contemporary novels and they both knew that accuracy was important.
I have posted 101 blogs since I began, rather hesitantly, back in 2016 and, my goodness, was that a steep learning curve. I see that I have covered a lot of subjects – from the frazzled: Dejunking One’s Life: The Cupboard of Doom; and the slightly bonkers: Napoleon’s Toothbrush; to literary criticism: Is Mr Rochester really a Woman in Disguise?; to travels abroad: The Park of Monsters (Italy); and visits to interesting places in and around London: A Visit to Kensal Green Cemetery. There are posts on Jane Austen’s novels: Jane Austen: The Power of Money; and visits to Art Exhibitions: Celebrating Artemisia Gentileschi; as well as posts on simple pleasures: The Rose Beetle (as seen by Gerald Durrell in Corfu, and me in Albania), and: I Love Cambridge Market.
When I was fifteen, my mother gave me Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost for Christmas. It was a book she’d loved as a child and she thought I might like it, too. First published in 1909, it was republished sixty-one times, and, by the time the author died in 1924, more than 10 million copies of her various books had been sold. A Girl of the Limberlost was also turned into a Silent Film.