The Perfect Visit (Longbourn Press, 2011) is, no way to say it otherwise, a perfect treat – who of us would not want to spend a few days [or pull an all-nighter!] in the company of a time-travelling couple who are each in turn lovers of books, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and just possibly each other? –
Today I welcome the author Stuart Bennett for a blog interview where we talk about how a rare bookseller became a writer of a first novel that brings to life both Jane Austen and Shakespeare, takes us on a whirlwind tour of their times, regales us with book history as we trek about the bookstalls of London and Bath, and all this in a mere 342 pages, a book sure to take a prime spot on your bookshelf. So join us today for Part I of the interview, stay tuned for Part II this weekend, and enter the Book Giveaway by commenting or asking a question on either post before 11:59 pm 15 April 2012. Winner will be announced on Monday April 16, 2012 (worldwide eligibility).
Welcome Stuart! Thank you so much for joining us here at Jane Austen in Vermont. I have known of you for a good number of years as a rare bookseller and for a time president of the ABAA [Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America] – needless to say when I discovered you had recently published this book on Jane Austen [the title even comes from Emma: “It was a delightful visit; – perfect in being much too short.” [Vol. I, Ch. XIII]] – I saw my two worlds colliding in the most marvelous of cosmic alignments! I was so greedy to begin, I immediately downloaded it on my kindle, my hardcopy order far too slow to arrive, and was happily transported to the various times in your tale. So lets talk a bit about your background as a rare bookseller, your love of Jane Austen and Shakespeare [and how you dared to put both in the same tale!], the history of books, the time-travel bits, the woman-issue, and of course, just the sheer pleasure of a really nice romance…
Talking about the story:
JAIV: To start, please explain the premise of your tale – a time-travel, book-loving love story that you say was first titled “A Bibliographical Romance” – so tell us about “The Project,” or at least a quick synopsis without giving too much away!
SB: It starts as the tale of two bibliophiles planning to go back in time to rescue lost books and manuscripts. Vanessa decides on Regency England; Ned goes to Shakespeare’s. But they both have their own agendas as well. Vanessa wants to rewrite history. And Ned wants to meet the Bard himself.
Vanessa falls foul of the law, transported from Jane Austen’s genteel world to the dark underbelly of a Regency prison. 1607 London shows an equally black side to Ned when he antagonises one of Shakespeare’s rivals, escaping with his life only to find that an accident of time takes him only halfway home.
Talking about Jane Austen:
“It was a delightful visit; – perfect, in being too short.” [Emma, vol. 1, ch. 13]
JAIV: I know of your background as an antiquarian bookseller and former ABAA president – you have spent most of your life in books published before 1850. So why Jane Austen for you? And why Shakespeare? Why not Frances Burney or Chaucer? Is it their times or their works, their continuing popularity today?
SB: Jane Austen and Shakespeare are central to my book because I love them. A bookseller writing a “bibliographical romance” is committing a self-indulgent act – the more so with the presence of time-travel – and these two authors are part of it. Frances Burney is intriguing, but I confess that had Jane Austen never written (could I have written any kind of Perfect Visit without J.A.? – I doubt it) I might have been more tempted by Maria Edgeworth as a character. Or maybe Hester Lynch Piozzi. Chaucer and his world needs a true mediaevalist: I don’t have the knowledge of or empathy to go there.
JAIV: You say in your postscript: “It is a presumption of a very high order to bring both Jane Austen and William Shakespeare into a single work of fiction, let alone a first novel … of the two, somehow Jane Austen intimidates me more, even though Shakespeare is perhaps the greater genius.” Explain your thoughts on the intimidating Miss Austen!
SB: Wonderful question. What is it that’s so intimidating? I think it may be that, compared to Shakespeare, we really know quite a bit about Jane Austen’s life, notwithstanding the wholesale destruction of her letters by her sister and niece. And what we know seems domesticated and uneventful.
So how and why did she become, as I see her, the greatest novelist ever to write in English? One could ask a similar question about Shakespeare and his plays: how did the grammar-school boy from provincial Stratford manage those. And of course the fact that we know so little about Shakespeare’s life allows those in Shakespeare-denial (Oxfordians and similar snobs) scope for their own inventions. What we have of Jane Austen’s personal history is secure.
As a novelist it’s a relief to have no sense of what Shakespeare was like as a man, let alone as a conversationalist. I could invent quite freely. The real Jane Austen, on the other hand, survives in family memoirs and letters, and I considered it my job to try to be true to her. All I felt confident about at the time went into The Perfect Visit , but she haunts me still, and features much more largely in one of the two sequels/prequels to P.V. which are complete in first drafts but still have a long way to go.
JAIV: How and when did you first discover Jane Austen? – as a reader or a collector or as a bookseller? Or was your name [despite that extra “t”!] the impetus behind reading and writing about Jane Austen?!
SB: No to the last – I didn’t know there was a character in Jane Austen with my name mis-spelled until I was in my early twenties. J.A. wasn’t quite the household name she’s become in the last thirty years, and I think I was lucky in being no younger than twenty-one, at university in England, when first introduced to the novels via Emma. I couldn’t put it down.
(I should add, however, that I take comfort in the fact that my spelling of “Bennett” is the same as the street in Bath. Perhaps J.A. – or so I like to think – was recollecting the street as a good character name and simply forgot the last “t”.)
JAIV: I don’t like to ask this question because who can ever work through such a dilemma, but I always do because the answers are so enlightening – but first I would ask if Persuasion is your favorite Austen novel? – it figures prominently in your story: Ned’s reading Persuasion; he and Vanessa are in Bath and literally take a Persuasion tour [which was great fun!]; and their romance has echoes of the Anne / Wentworth story. ….
SB: Your question – I’m sure this won’t surprise you – contains its own answer. All the elements you describe in my book derive from my love of Persuasion. which seems to me to express most clearly Jane Austen’s own longings and losses, as the most autobiographical of all her novels.
JAIV: A lovely answer! Persuasion is my own favorite, and it is wonderful how you weave Anne Elliot’s tale into your own.
Is it every antiquarian bookseller‘s dream to actually visit the time of their literary hero[es]? To meet them as Vanessa meets Jane Austen and Ned William Shakespeare – is this your own vicarious dream? And has this time-travel story been in your head for the longest time? I know you have written non-fiction works on book collecting, but have you written other yet-unpublished novels or fictional pieces?
SB: I think I may have answered the salient points of this great question in the course of dealing with other questions, but I would add this: The most successful antiquarian booksellers I know don’t spend time dreaming about time-travel. Instead they get to the auctions and flea-markets I didn’t know existed, woo wealthy collectors, and have healthier bottom lines.
JAIV: Yes! That bottom line does get in the way of day-dreaming and novel-writing, doesn’t it?! Jane Austen’s very own problem as well!
We find, along with your heroine, that we are soon to be in Jane Austen’s presence:
“The first response to Vanessa’s knock was a rustle of papers, receding footsteps, and the creak of an interior door.” [p.5]
– and we know we are in Jane Austen’s house in Chawton! … and we are there almost holding our breath as Vanessa first meets her, describes her – how difficult was she to create on your page, knowing readers all have their very own Jane Austen in their head?
SB: I did my very best to describe the physical J.A., and also Martha Lloyd, that emerge from contemporary accounts. As to that first conversation, as well as later ones, the Jane Austen I hear is graceful, a little shy, with a ready wit and even sarcasm, but fundamentally kind. Can any J.A. aficionado really demur to that?
JAIV: Your heroine Vanessa Horwood is what Mr. Darcy would call an “accomplished woman” – even your Jane Austen character says “I have, it seems, in one young woman a literary critic, a musician, a financier, and an apothecary.” [p. 7]. Is it fair to ask a male writer with a female protagonist, for a good part of the book at least – are you a little bit in love with your Vanessa?
SB: All’s fair, and of course I am. But I was also a little taken aback when many who know me best said that my Vanessa reminds them of me, and not always my most lovable side.
JAIV: Aah – you have created your own better half it seems!
The description of clothing is very exact! – may I ask if you tend toward Henry Tilney in “understand[ing] your muslins, sir”?
Morning Dress @1819, R. Ackermann [wikicommons]
SB: I hope so. But Ackermann’s Repository and other contemporary sources are a great help too, not to mention the modern books by the Cunningtons, e.g. Handbook of English Costume in the Nineteenth Century.
JAIV: As you mention above, these times had heavy realities that Austen kept in the background for the more astute reader to find – but they are there – your heroine is jailed for forgery and will likely hang or will be transported – so this part of your story tells this darker side, the underbelly of Regency life, especially for women. What was prison like and what resources did you use to make this seem so real?
SB: I’ve read, and also bought and sold, so many accounts of English malefactors and their punishments in Regency and earlier times that I can’t really cite many of the sources that contributed to my sense of what a prison must have been like at that time. Did I get it right? Perhaps partly so, but I suspect the reality of most female penitentiaries was worse than I describe.
Two essential sources for the Regency period are those to which Elizabeth Fry (who makes an appearance in The Perfect Visit) contributed: Notes on a Visit to some of the Prisons in Scotland and the North of England with Elizabeth Fry (this was published by Elizabeth Fry’s brother Joseph John Gurney) and Observations, on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners.
Talking about Time-Travel:
“Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” [Twelfth Night, Act V, Sc. 1] – [p. 113]
JAIV: This is a time-travel book: and filled with “Rules of Time –Travel” – are these of your own creation for this story or from other sources? A few of the “rules” for example:
- -you cannot kill anyone
- -cannot play modern music [in this case Vanessa playing Rachmaninoff if anyone is present]
- -only organic clothing and material will pass through the time portal, so books, coins of the times, etc. will go, but no illuminated manuscripts
- - the loss of the language of our 21st century life
- -can only go the past, no travel into the future
SB: As a child I watched, and was haunted by an episode of The Twilight Zone in which (as I recall from my single viewing close to fifty years ago) a criminal transports to the past, remains a criminal, and murders his own grandfather.
Was it in the Wild West? I’m not sure. But what I remember is the image at episode’s end where the onscreen modern criminal dissolves saying something like “If I’ve just killed my grandfather, then how” [more dissolve] “can I” [almost gone] “exist?” That was the origin of the first rule. The others I developed as I sought consistency.
JAIV: Yikes! I remember that Twilight Zone episode! [also quite a faded memory!]. My other favorite was the 2-part Star Trek tale when Captain Kirk goes back in time and falls in love with Joan Collins – her character dies in “real life” and he must watch this and not step in to help so as not to completely alter the socio-political history of the future – I think I’ve seen that show 10 times! And it breaks my heart every time…
So, I must assume you are a fan of time-travel literature? Your favorite?
SB: As a kid I loved Robert A. Heinlein’s Door into Summer. And Ray Bradbury wrote perhaps the greatest of all time-travel short stories, “A Sound of Thunder,” from which “the butterfly effect” has become a scientific term of art. Alison Uttley’s Traveller in Time is a children’s book that transcends the genre (but then so do many of the best children’s books). More recently I sobbed my way through The Time Traveler’s Wife (too bad about the movie though).
JAIV: I haven’t watched the movie because I heard it was so dreadful – and yes, the book was sob-city-central!
Shakespeare’s time reads like a gazetteer of London as Ned tours around looking for booksellers and all things Shakespeare, with detailed street names and historical sites and bookseller stalls – You must be familiar with London, so I must ask what is your favorite book on London? And London during the Elizabethan period? The Regency period? And your favorite London haunt? [other than perhaps the British Library?!]
[Map of London 1593 - Internet Shakespeare Editions]
SB: Oh dear, I didn’t want to sound like a gazetteer. I lived more than ten years in London, and three in Bath, so much of what I wrote was from recollection. Then I went back, retracing my characters’ steps with period maps and other clues to get the street names right, and to remove bridges and buildings that weren’t there at the times I was writing about. I consulted all kinds of odd books, especially Regency ones, that I’d put aside during the course of my bookselling. Pierce Egan’s Walks through Bath (1819) is a good example, and a useful one too. For a modern book on London in Shakespeare’s time, the Oxford compendium Shakespeare’s England, first published in 1916, is still (I think) as good as it gets.
JAIV: On no! I meant that your book reading in parts like a gazetteer was a GOOD thing! I love the old London maps and had great fun following Ned around!
The topic of carriages interests me very much, and the question of calculating distances and times is a difficult one: you say a coach traveling to London from Winchester in 1817 [50 miles] took 7 hours. What sources did you use for those calculations?
SB: Contemporary travel guides are not easy to come by, and sometimes even give conflicting information, but quite a few of the Regency and later guides to London have appendices of travel times. I did the best I could with several of these.
JAIV: I love the little bit about Fanny Dickens, Charles’s oldest sister, though you do say you muddled the dates a bit – why Fanny and not other characters from the London or Bath of the time?
SB: My brain accumulates trivia, and from somewhere or other I knew Fanny Dickens was a talented pianist. That scene in Perfect Visit (I love it too – thank you) unexpectedly wrote itself one afternoon in the London Library where I was supposed to be doing other things. I couldn’t let go of that scene, even when I found out I’d muddled the dates. But with Fanny, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Fry, John Payne Collier, et al., already in the Regency parts of the novel, I felt that cluttering it up with even more celebrities would be too much of a good thing.
JAIV: Your Part III and IV are set in September 1833 [I will not ruin the plot and tell anyone the how and why!] – so without giving too much away, why this date?
SB: Touché! September 1833 imposed itself on an early draft of the novel when I was trying to figure out a way to get Ned to the early 19th century. My justification seemed compelling at the time, and then, quite suddenly, didn’t much matter at all. But I’d gone to a lot of trouble getting the topography and costume of 1833 London as close to right as I could, so I kept Ned there. I could invoke other reasons too, but I agree they would spoil the plot.
Thank you Stuart! – we will continue our conversation this weekend – Gentle Readers, please ask any question you might have for Stuart or leave a comment on either this post or the Part II post, and you will be entered into the random drawing for a copy of The Perfect Visit. Please do so by 11:59 pm, April 15, 2012.
Stuart Bennett was an auctioneer at Christie’s in London before starting his own rare book business. He is the author of the Christie’s Collectors Guide How to Buy Photographs (1987), Trade Binding in the British Isles (2004) which the London Times Literary Supplement called “a bold and welcome step forward” in the history of bookbinding, and many publications on early photography, auctions and auctioneers, and rare books. He currently lives and works near Boston, Massachusetts.
The Perfect Visit, by Stuart Bennett
Longbourn Press, 2011
For more information:
- Stuart Bennett Rare Books
- The Longbourn Press
- You can read an interview with Stuart Bennett by Sheila Markham at ILAB here [and the source for the above photograph]
- You can see a video interview with Mr. Bennett on ILAB here