“Will & Jane” Exhibit at the Folger ~ Interview with Co-Curator Janine Barchas ~ Brochure Giveaway!

UPDATE #2: watch “Will & Jane: The Movie” – 6 minutes on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pevAsxvhts

UPDATE #1: new images from the exhibition have been added!

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Folger Exhibit Brochure

The Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library is garnering a good deal of press (as it should!). Apparently there are record crowds wanting to get a glimpse of their two favorite Literary Heroes and how they have shown up in popular culture for the past 200 years – and “The Shirt” is no small part of this (a.k.a. Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy) – no, no, don’t get your hopes up, Mr. Firth is not part of the Exhibit (though he would be most welcome…), but rather the shirt worn for the endlessly-youtubed scene of Darcy emerging from a pool of standing water at Pemberley is on display in a locked glass case where it can be on view but protected from the expected mass hysteria of, well, the masses… Kissing a glass case is not quite the same as stroking a cotton shirt, albeit hanging rather listlessly from a plastic form… but it is still a must see if you can get there! Grown women have been known to faint away, despite the message from a young Jane to “run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint…” I do hope the Folger is up to the task of a gallery full of shirt-mad persons… (and dare I add that though I am NOT one of the shirt-hysteric Janeites who think this scene is the best in all of the nearly 6 hour film, I do confess a strong interest in getting a glimpse of the actual shirt worn by Colin Firth…)

If you are able to attend the JASNA AGM this year, to be held in Washington DC, October 21-23  (but do allow extra days for all there is to see and do) – you will get a chance to go to the Folger and see what all the fuss is about – the two curators (Janine Barchas of the University of Texas at Austin, and Kristina Straub of Carnegie Mellon University) will be on hand to tell us all about it. If you are not at the AGM, the exhibit runs from August 6 – November 6, 2016 and admission is free. In the sad event you shall miss it entirely, there are also various articles to read – see the links below.

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18th-century Staffordshire porcelain of William Shakespeare (Folger) /
and 20th-century figurine of Jane Austen (Joan Doyle)

Today however, I welcome Janine Barchas, who most graciously answered a few of my questions about how the idea of this Will & Jane grouping came about… if you have any questions, please comment below and she will get back to you. As an incentive, and especially for those of you unable to make it to the Folger, Janine has provided us a copy of the 18-page exhibit brochure – another piece of Jane Austen celebrity “stuff” we all like to collect! (see below for details)

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Will and Jane at Chawton Cottage

JAIV: Tell us how this exhibit came about?

JB: This was a case of classic academic one-upmanship. In 2012, Michael Witmore, the Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, came to the University of Texas at Austin for a conference about the fate of books in a digital world.  Over a meal, I joked that Jane Austen was “giving Shakespeare a run for his money” and asked what he was planning to do about it.  As Mike and I continued to spar about the differences and similarities between the fan cultures around these two famous authors, an idea was born: “Will & Jane.”

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Busts of William Shakespeare (Folger) and Jane Austen (Joan Doyle)

JAIV: How did you and Kristina Straub come to work on this exhibit together?

JB: Our partnership was the result of solid academic matchmaking! Mike Witmore was her former colleague at Carnegie Mellon University, so Kristina’s name came up right away in the context of her deep knowledge of Shakespeare’s reception in the 18th century.  She and I had never met before our work on “Will & Jane” even though we are both 18th-century scholars and know many of the same people in what is a smallish field.  This exhibition has been a full three years in the making, during which time we have grown very close.  I look at our publications and label text and cannot tell you what sentence began as mine and which was first drafted by Kristina.  Given that academics are known for their social awkwardnesses and a tendency to work best when alone, our partnership on “Will & Jane” has been an extraordinary intellectual experience – even outside of the unique content of the show.

Shakespeare bellows - Folger

Shakespeare bellows – Folger

JAIV: You mostly talk and write about Jane Austen, but also the book itself as part of the material culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What was the biggest challenge in taking on this exhibit that largely deals with the artifacts of celebrity created and collected over the past 200 years?

will-jane-porcelain-figures-jb[2]Royal Worcester porcelain figurine of “Emma Woodhouse” (1998) from the collection of Joan Doyle / and a colored pottery tableau entitled “Othello Relates his Story (ca. 1880) from the collections of the Folger

JB: The dominance of non-book artifacts in this exhibition (ceramics, paintings, odd assortments of relics, tchotchkes, and souvenirs) may seem at odds with a serious library of rare books such as the Folger. However, although both Shakespeare and Austen are fundamentally admired for their great literary works, the history of their afterlives and the nature of their modern celebrity is not just about steady streams of new editions but about the material objects that ordinary fans crave and collect.  This exhibition took us out of the usual library stacks of books and into art vaults and collections of so-called “realia.”  Part of the challenge, then, of putting this exhibition together was for two academics who were used to talking about the language of plays and novels to learn how to think and talk about non-book and JABandages-Amazonwordless objects and the stories they can tell. Mixing high and low culture in this exhibition (books with bobble-heads, so to speak) has been both a joy and a challenge.  In practical terms, today’s objects that celebrate Jane Austen at her 200-year mark lack the historical patina of those Shakespeare “relics” and souvenirs that have been carefully preserved for two centuries.  And yet we wanted these authors to stand together as potential equals.  This meant that every juxtaposition of old and new objects, every comparison between the afterlives of Will and Jane, had to show similar impulses across centuries of fandom – in spite of any obvious differences between current market values of the materials shown.

JAIV: What most surprised you in your findings?

JB: We initially thought that in order to fill 20 large display cases, we might have to stretch the comparison a bit here and there. But we were amazed by the tight parallels between, for example, the public spectacles that celebrated Shakespeare around his 200 mark (e.g. a museum dedicated to the Bard and a Jubilee) and today’s BBC bonnet dramas that, in essence, do some of that same work to promote Jane Austen.  Also, we were genuinely surprised by the manner in which Henry and Emily Folger resembled, in their dedication to all things Shakespeare, the collecting impulses of Alberta and Henry Burke, the couple who amassed the world’s most significant Jane Austen collection (now split between the Morgan Library and Goucher College).  One thread across the exhibition is how these two American couples, collecting decades apart and focused on two very different writers, pursued their purchases in the same way.

JAIV: What do you hope visitors will take away from this exhibit?

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Will and Jane at the Folger

JB: A sense of fun. We hope the combination of whimsy and scholarship is infectious and will help folks to see that even pop culture benefits from a larger historical framework.

JAIV: What has been the response so far?

A chalice made from the mulberry tree Shakespeare planted (Folger) /
a lock of Jane Austen’s hair (Jane Austen’s House Museum)

JB: A lively and lavishly illustrated review across two pages of the NYT weekend section on opening day surely helped to boost visitor numbers as well as raise our curatorial spirits.  The public seems genuinely curious about a show that pairs these equally famous but very different authors.  So far, we’ve had some record numbers in terms of daily visitors and received enthusiastic feedback from Folger docents.  The docents are the well-informed volunteers who lead daily group tours and have their finger on the pulse of true public reaction.  When they remain enthusiastic, you know a show is doing well.

JAIV: Who besides Shakespeare and Jane Austen has had such an impact on our celebrity-obsessed culture?

JB: Modern movie stars (and before them the starry thespians of the 18th-century stage) have glammed up both Will and Jane.  Our exhibition features a number of film actors who have their feet in both Shakespeare and Austen camps and whose own celebrity is in a symbiotic relationship with these authors.  From Laurence Olivier (photo stills and movie clips) to Emma Thompson (she loaned us the original typescript of her Sense and Sensibility screenplay), objects about and from movie stars adds a bit of Hollywood sparkle throughout the exhibition.

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The Shirt – Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (BBC)

JAIV: What is your next project???

JB: Hopefully another project with Kristina. It will indeed also be very hard to go back to a steady diet of “just books” after this.   I suspect that odd bits of material culture will cling to all my research from now on.  I see both Will and Jane differently now.  They are each bigger than their written works alone.

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This collector’s album for cigarette cards (London: Carreras Limited, ca. 1935) is one of many items in the exhibition showing Will and Jane being used to advertise non-book products

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Thank you Janine! – very much looking forward to seeing you and Kristina at the Folger in October!

If you would like to comment or ask Janine a question, please do so in the reply box below. Deadline will be Wednesday August 31, 2016 at 11:59pm – winner will be announced on Thursday Sept 1, 2016. Domestic only, sorry to say (our postal rates have soared).

barchas-janineJanine Barchas is Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin.  She is the author of  Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity (Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2012).  Her  first book, Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge UP, 2003), won the SHARP book prize for best work in the field of book history.  You can visit (and spend hours browsing!) her online digital project What Jane Saw (www.whatjanesaw.org) which includes the gallery of the British Institution that Jane Austen visited on May 24, 1813 and the “Shakespeare Gallery of 1796.” Barchas, along with colleague Kristina Straub, is currently curating an exhibition at the Folger on Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.

Further reading:

“Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity” runs August 6 through Nov. 6, 2016 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street S.E., Washington; 202-544-7077.

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“The Shirt” at the Folger

c2016, Jane Austen in Vermont

“Curating ‘Will & Jane'” – Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub on their Folger Exhibition

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Eighteenth-Century Life has just published “Curating Will & Jane” by Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub. The article is an overview of their upcoming “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity” exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library (opens 6 August and closes 6 Nov).

Because of public interest in the show, Duke University Press has just made the article freely available for a whole year while Cedric Reverand, enthusiastic editor of Eighteenth-Century Life, made possible an unprecedented thirty-seven illustrations, many in color. It takes about 10 seconds to download.

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Here is the link: http://ecl.dukejournals.org/content/40/2/1.full.pdf+html

See also the Folger website: http://www.folger.edu/exhibitions/will-and-jane

Those of us attending the JASNA AGM 2016 this October in Washington DC will have the opportunity to see the exhibition first-hand. Can’t wait!

 

Book Review: Nicholas Ennos’ Jane Austen: A New Revelation ~ “Conspiracy is the Sincerest Form of Flattery”

Dear Gentle Readers: I welcome today Janine Barchas with her review of the recently published Jane Austen: A New Revelation by Nicholas Ennos – his book tackles the question of who really authored Jane Austen’ s six novels and juvenilia…

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“Conspiracy is the Sincerest Form of Flattery”

Review of Nicholas Ennos, Jane Austen: A New Revelation (Senesino Books, Oct. 2013).  Pp. 372.  £25.  Available from Amazon.com as an e-book for Kindle for $10.99. 

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The litmus test of true literary achievement is whether your works are deemed so great that you simply could not have written them.

Janeites need no longer envy students of Shakespeare their intricate web of Renaissance conspiracy theories.  Whereas Shakespeare scholarship has long enjoyed the spectral presence of the Earl of Oxford, Austen studies can now boast a countess named Eliza de Feuillide.

The self-published Jane Austen: A New Revelation alleges that “a poor, uneducated woman with no experience of sex or marriage” could not possibly have written the sophisticated works of social satire and enduring romance that we traditionally attribute to Jane Austen.  The book’s author, Nicholas Ennos (the aura of conspiracy allows that this is not necessarily his/her real name), asserts that biographers have been leading everyone by the nose.  The true author of the Austen canon is, instead, Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide, born Eliza Hancock (1761-1813).  Eliza was the worldly and well-educated older cousin of Jane Austen who, after being made a young widow by the French Revolution, married Henry Austen, Jane’s favorite brother.  The sassy Eliza has long been pointed to as a model for the morally challenged characters of Lady Susan and Mary Crawford in the fictions.  To identify Eliza as the actual author was, Ennos explains, the next logical step.

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Shakespeare’s First Folio – Haverford.edu

Just so, and also about two centuries into his literary afterlife, William Shakespeare’s lofty literary achievements were judged incompatible with his humble origins, sowing seeds of doubt that a person so little known could have achieved so much.  Slowly, the man named Will Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon came to be considered by a small-but-articulate fringe to be a mere front shielding the genuine author (or authors) of the works written under the pen name of Shakespeare.  Austen’s genteel poverty, relative isolation, and biographical quiet allows for a similar approach.  For how, asks Ennos, can genius thrive with so little food of experience to feed it?

The arguments for Shakespeare reattribution rely heavily upon biographical allusions as well as the absence of works in manuscript.  Similarly, Austen critics who have been keen to spot biographical references to real places and family members in the fictions have apparently opened the door to skeptics who can now point to Cassandra’s “systematic destruction” of her sister’s letters as proof of a conspiracy.  Ennos also draws attention to the “suspicious” parallel fact that no Austen novel survives in manuscript.  The juvenilia, which does survive in Jane’s hand, is explained away as early secretarial work for Eliza during her visits to the Steventon household.

Eliza died in April of 1813, well before the publication of Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), or Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (Dec 1817).  The so-called Oxfordians overcame the timeline obstacles posed by Edward de Vere’s early death in 1604 by redating many Shakespeare texts, which (their logic dictates) must have been composed earlier than previously thought and squirreled away for later publication by an appointed agent.  So too is the Austen corpus deftly redated by Ennos—with husband Henry, cousin Cassandra, and amanuensis Jane as co-conspirators.  Some historians allow that Eliza was in all probability the natural daughter of politician Warren Hastings.  Ennos adds to this existing context of secrecy that Eliza’s illegitimacy was the “disgrace” that the Austens “were determined to cover up after Eliza’s death” and the reason that “the myth of Jane Austen’s authorship was invented.”

Readers of Austen will doubtless need some time to process the implications of these revelations.  For example, what of the presumed poignancy of Persuasion’s temporal setting?  The events in this novel take place during the false peace of the summer of 1814—a short reprieve in the Napoleonic wars that saw the premature return of Britain’s navy men after the initial exile of Napoleon to Elba.  Persuasion has been on record as composed between August 1815 and August 1816, in the full knowledge of both the false hopes of that summer and the true end to the war that came with the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.  Ennos moves the novel’s date of composition prior to April 1813.  Although he does not go so far as to urge Eliza’s historical prescience, he suggests that these features are merely evidence of judicious tweaks to manuscripts left in Henry’s care at Eliza’s death.

Eliza de Feuillide                 Frances Burney                 Jane Austen

This is not all.  Ennos further declares that the precocious Eliza also wrote the novels conventionally attributed to Frances Burney (1752-1840).  The resemblances between Evelina and Pride and Prejudice have long been acknowledged by scholars who have (mistakenly, according to Ennos) attributed this to Burney’s literary influence upon the young Austen.  Ennos reasons that Frances Burney’s lack of literary success after Eliza’s death, including her “truly dreadful” novel The Wanderer in 1814, is evidence of her being, in fact, an imposter.  While future stylometric analysis may eventually confirm that Jane and Fanny were one and the same Eliza, this method has not settled the authorship question irrevocably for Shakespeare.  Perhaps this is why Ennos does not turn to computer analysis or linguistics for help.  He does identify Elizabeth Hamilton, the name of another minor authoress, as a further pseudonym used by the talented Eliza—ever widening the corpus of works that might appeal to those already interested in Austen.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novels attributed to Jane Austen were published anonymously during her lifetime.  Logically, any book written anonymously must be in want of a conspiracy.   The grassy knoll of this particular conspiracy is the biographical notice in Northanger Abbey, released simultaneously with Persuasion six months after Jane Austen’s death in 1817.  History has taken Henry Austen, a failed banker, at his word in identifying the author as his sister.  Ennos, who is not very gallant towards the species of academics and literary critics whom he dismisses as “simple souls,” suggests that Austen scholarship has been surprisingly gullible in accepting Henry’s attribution without question.

In the wake of the Ireland forgeries of the 1790s, generations of Shakespeare scholars offered dozens of different names for the man behind the mask of “Will Shakespeare.”  Although the Earl of Oxford has garnered Hollywood’s vote, Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are next in popularity.  We can only hope that these allegations by Ennos prop open the doors of Austen authorship so that additional candidates can step forward to provide generations of graduate students with dissertation fodder.

Does the Eliza attribution theory expect to be taken seriously?  Or does this maverick publication deliberately mock established scholarship by means of cartoonish imitation?  I’m not sure it really matters.  If this project had ambitions to be a serious Sokal-style hoax, then it did not manage to convince a top publisher and, as a result, lacks the ability to wound deeply.  The prose is also too earnest and unadorned for an academic satire—devoid of the jargon that should dutifully accompany a spoof.  The resulting pace is too sluggish for irony.  That said, there are plenty of moments that even David Lodge could not improve upon.  For example, Ennos points to an acrostic “proof” of hidden clues in the dedicatory poem to Evelina (only visible if decoded into Latin abbreviations).  There is also the syllogistic central assertion that if the novels of both Burney and Austen resemble the Latinate style of Tacitus, then these could only have been written by 1) the same person and 2) someone schooled in Latin.  Ergo, Eliza is the true author behind both, since only she could have learned Latin from Reverend George Austen, Jane’s father (who might teach a niece but never his youngest daughter).  Finally, there are gestures towards wider bodies of knowledge: “In this respect the philosophy of both authors has been linked to the views of the Swedish philosopher, Swedenborg.”  Perhaps Ennos is simply angling for someone to buy the movie option.  “Anonymous” did well at the box office, so why not a film dubbed “Eliza”?

No matter what the intention, hearty congratulations are due to Jane Austen.  For her, this news makes for a strong start to the New Year.  Exactly two centuries into her literary afterlife, a doubting Thomas was the last requirement of literary celebrity still missing from her resume.  Austen can now take her seat next to Shakespeare, secure in the knowledge that her authorship, too, has begun to be questioned.

You know you’ve hit the big time when you didn’t write your own work.

— Reviewed by Janine Barchas

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Barchas is the author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity (Johns Hopkins, 2012).  She is also the creator of “What Jane Saw”, an on-line reconstruction of an art exhibit attended by Jane Austen on 24 May 1813.   Recently, she has written for The New York Times and the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog.

c2014 Jane Austen in Vermont; text c2014 Janine Barchas

Guest Post: Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Courtyard Theatre, by Chris Sandrawich

Gentle Readers: I have posted previously a review of Shakespeare’s Richard III, a review written by Chris Sandrawich of the JAS-Midlands Branch in the UK [ you can read this review here], and I welcome Chris back today with his review of another play in this year’s World Shakespeare Festival. This festival has been an outstanding, stunning event, and because I live Here [and alas! have not seen a single one] and Chris lives There, I am most pleased to have him share his witty and brilliant analysis of the plays he has attended… [the delay in posting entirely my fault – blaming this like everything else on Moving…] – so herewith, without further ado and with my heartfelt Thanks, is Chris on Much Ado About Nothing.

[image: Courtyard Theatre, Stratford – wikipedia]

Much Ado About Nothing at The Courtyard Theatre on 9th August 2012.

Driving south and approaching Stratford we felt an element of sadness that this Play was to be our penultimate visit in the series of six that we had booked and this one would be the only play showing at The Courtyard Theatre.

Getting there in good time is a must for car-parking in Stratford and as we strolled in good time into the paved courtyard space dividing the theatre building from the road the first signs of an Indian influence and a different flavour to the evening were evident as an impending “assault on our senses.” There was a caterwauling of car horns, bangs and shrieks layered with sitars, tablas, as well as western drum kits and reed instruments too varied for my limited musical ear to distinguish which ones, all emerging as a wall of sound from inside the theatre proper. The whiff of spices and burning joss-sticks made me feel once again that I was in my youthful days of the South Kensington of our swinging sixties. The aromas were doing their best but any olfaction was losing against an off-putting drift of a zephyr sufficiently persistent to ruin the overall effect of “something in the air” on what was, for this very wet unseasonable season, a beautifully rare azure skied summer’s evening. Directly in the centre stood a man with a tray selling freshly baked pakoras and samosas, and although we had eaten earlier they seemed too tempting to resist. Just like Oscar Wilde we can resist anything except temptation and gave in gratefully.  We sat on a bench to one side and enjoying the evening sunshine ate these delicious starters. The fascination of the British with Indian food is now remarkably well-entrenched for something which was so negligible it did not exist when I was born in the baby-boom. The relationship of the British with the subcontinent had run for over two centuries without much of an encroachment of curries into a land of roast beef and three veg. At the time I was ushered into the world there were only three, very expensively posh, London West End, Indian restaurants (or so I am informed) and all essentially serving food to those who had been in the Armed Forces based in India or who had lived through the days of the Raj. Even at half my present years, there were easily more fish and chip shops than all the rest put together, and any Briton wanting a taste of the East went to a Chinese Restaurant. Now, and nobody is quite sure why, except that Indian food tastes great, two-thirds of all restaurants are Indian (over 10,000) and they serve over two and a half million customers a week generating a yearly turnover of well over £3 Billion pa. The taste of India is here to stay. Of course, when the British say “Indian food” they include without any discrimination indigenous Pakistani foods, especially Balti dishes. Neither is there any great distinction between the types of Indian food originating in India which varies as does the availability of foodstuffs and spices determined by the sea, forests, plains and mountains that are nearby and the endless variety of cultural and regional differences. From the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to West Bengal these thirty-three distinctively different types of Indian Cuisine (see Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_cuisine) are all merged into an “Indian” for the mostly unknowing but very ‘hungry for a curry’ British. We, the British, do have very cosmopolitan tastes these days. To somebody of my parents’ generation such a description of the amounts of Indian food consumed in these Islands would have seemed as far-fetched as landing a one-ton atomic-powered vehicle on Mars which can motor up a 3000 metre high mountain and which sends back pictures, performs experiments and tests rock samples remotely with a laser gun. Or as the bizarre and outlandish events of seeing in the same wet English summer a winner of the Tour de France and a winner of a men’s Tennis Grand Slam tournament by Britons.

[Samosas at Indian Foods Co]

Polishing off these snacks we idly watched other theatre goers wander about and chatted, as is my wont, to some of them about their experience of The World Shakespeare Festival 2012.  Everyone was very positive and had something good to say about the plays they had chosen to go to. There was this communal feeling of yearning to be able, subject to the constraints of time and expense, to see all the Plays and at all venues. We may not like to concede inevitable defeat in the face of such a commitment, but we all had to choose only some, and give up many, to see. We did so with some regret at what we were missing as well as the great pleasure in what we had seen and heard. There is no doubting the overall success of this venture and I do hope that in future years this “International Flavour” is encouraged and nurtured alongside home-grown talent. We must recognise that Shakespeare is owned by the whole world these days and is studied and played everywhere, phenomenal though that thought is. Normally the British are more tight-lipped than seemed the case in these discussions and I wondered whether there was some overspill of general bonhomie from the feel-good factor of the Olympics. I rather think there was, and I hope it lasts.

Meera Syal as Beatrice

Deciding that, interesting as chatting proved to be, we could wait no longer to explore what this cacophony of sounds was all about we wandered in to look and lurk on a slow dawdle to our seats. The cast, with many associates, were doing their level best to recreate Indian City street scenes (I assume successfully but I have not had any first-hand experience) with vendors, musicians, singer sewing machines, comestibles, bright colours and a generous dollop of paraphernalia seeping in all directions. As the zephyr’s powers failed at the portal we got a lovely whiff of spices and joss-sticks so that our eyes, ears and nostrils were acutely aware of all things Indian. There were no elephants or sacred cows lumbering about but I suppose there are limits! Enjoying the scene we ambled down aisle 5 into seats 20 and 21 on the end of Row A which put us in the stalls front centre. The stage came right up to us, of course, and directly in front of us were steps up onto the stage and so we could surreptitiously hang our feet out onto the first steps and later claim we were onstage, treading those Shakespearean boards at Stratford, during a live performance. It has a similar ring to my saying I was “up at Oxford in the sixties” when in reality I was only there to see Boro play Oxford Town in the third round of the FA Cup in a cold snowy January.

To get a flavour of just how well the cast play and look, and how they dress, and to hear “Benedick” speaking against a background of Indian rhythms then go to http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/much-ado-about-nothing/ and press play.

Much Ado About Nothing

Whenever I think about Much Ado About Nothing I think about another kind of nothing associated with the Play and wonder about what Shakespeare originally intended. The original versions of the Play have many stage directions and in the opening directions there is a mention of Leonato’s wife Innogen. However, she never appears or says anything and so in most versions of the Play in modern times she does not even rate a mention. Shakespeare in his creative passion must originally have had a role in mind, but later found the plot and dialogue had no way of including her and so she is left as much ado about nothing, as well. I still wonder though.

The stage looked magnificent with an imposing edifice at the back of the stage of a family house of someone well-to-do if the numbers of doors, windows and balconies were any indicator. There was an enormous (artificial, of course but nonetheless imposing) tree on the right and around the tree, which is exactly how it has been described to me, depicting the rapid growth of technological industries and usage in India without the necessary time or money to build an infrastructure that keeps such things out of sight; were the coiled wrappings of cables thick and thin and of many colours. This is typical of the pragmatism that makes do whilst allowing the flow of commerce and telecommunications unabated. Actors on stage were involved in comings, goings and all the minutia of filling in the time until the Play proper could begin whilst giving the early arrivals something to look at and listen to.

Courtyard Theatre – image: The Guardian

Chatting to the couple just behind us we learned that this was their third visit this year to see this Play alone and that they simply loved it, especially this production. They had tried sitting both left and right and were now viewing from front and centre. They lived locally and wished to see other plays but each time the subject arose between them they kept returning just like frogs to a pond to see this one again. The lady did say that although the Play had received rave notices she had thought the Times Critic a little picky for adversely commenting that Paul Bhattacharjee (Benedick) and Meera Syal (Beatrice) were a little too ‘long in the tooth’ for the parts suggested. We were unable to establish just how much we could agree on about the critic being mistaken when the Play started. Have you noticed how they never seem to worry about an interesting conversation or two going on out there but just start when they want to? Later, I pondered on the merits of the Times critic’s attack (although I did not actually read what he said) and found that although I could see where he might be coming from I did not agree.

Beatrice and Bendick

Unlike Romeo and Juliet there are no exact mentions of age with Beatrice and Benedick, and although Claudio and Benedick are described as “young lads” of Florence and Padua respectively they do not have to be of the same age bracket. There are many suggestions of Benedick being older than Claudio. When Beatrice says, “Scratching could not make it worse, an ‘twere such a face as yours were” is she describing a young visage? When she later says, “You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old” she is not talking of a brief acquaintance. When Benedick says to Claudio, “I can see yet without spectacles . . . . .” is not that a reference to advancing years and an age difference between them? There is also references to Benedick regularly taking up the company of young(er) men, the latest being Claudio, and there is in Elizabethan times (and even with Shakespeare himself it seems) as shown in The Merchant of Venice with Antonio and Bassanio the examples of “close relationships” between an older and a younger man. There are as a counter argument references to “young” or “youth” in the play but such terms are relative. All I know is that having Beatrice and Benedick older than Claudio and Hero as with the Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson film version worked very well and our two leads were brilliant.

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick

The naming of Hero as “Hero” is quite deliberate by Shakespeare to foreshadow her “doubtful chastity” which is part of his plot. The myth of “Hero and Leander” was well known to Elizabethans and Shakespeare himself uses references to them in many of his plays, and Christopher Marlowe had written a poem Hero and Leander in 1598, and the timing of Much Ado About Nothing is generally fixed as 1599, so as usual Shakespeare borrowed from ancient and modern and just about any good story he could get his hands on. What he did with these stories is the real mark of his genius. In the same way with naming characters it is no coincidence, we can infer, that Don John is chosen as our villain when the bastard brother of Phillip II was also called Don John and was a personage well known to Elizabethans.

The Play transfers very well from Italy to India and to Delhi. Messina, Padua and Florence are kept in the text but references to Italy are simply replaced with India and all the rest unchanged with the obvious notable exception of the Friar replaced by the Panditji.

Well the Play rattled along with its wonderful set and fine troupe of actors but as mentioned above Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee were scintillating as the brightly sparkling duellists in language that prickles with the heat of their exchanges and they displayed a great chemistry between them as sparks flew off in their verbal sparring sessions. Whilst tearing down each other’s reputations they did take careful note of exactly what the other was up to at all times and demonstrated a fulsome ambiguity throughout of the real nature of their interest in each other.

In the Kenneth Branagh film alluded to above the parts of Dogberry and Verges are wonderfully played and sent up to the moon and back by Michael Keaton and Ben Elton (who can ever forget their boyishly ‘pretend’ horses and dismounts) and they have ruined forever in Olivier fashion these parts for a generation of actors. Simon Nagra and Bhati Patel did their best, I suppose; but I was unimpressed. Long before Richard Brinsley Sheridan invented Mrs Malaprop in the The Rivals we have Dogberry butchering the English Language and uncannily substituting a similar but wrong word for the one intended. This misuse reaches a high art form as Dogberry urges his charges to be “vigitant” and expressed his hopes that they remain “senseless” of it! For me this difficult part did not quite work for Simon Nagra’s skills, and a lot of the humour was lost in the lack of emphasis and facial expressions needed to bring the audience along with each new twisting verbal cudgel swiped at the passing words.

“Dogberry and Verges with the Watch.” Engraving by Robert Mitchell Meadows, before 1812. Public domain.

The parts of Dogberry and Verges are important enough to require more powerful actors than we saw here to not only make them memorable but to extract all the humour their use of language brings to the play. These absurd officials were stretched by Shakespeare into seemingly unlikely “real people” but the audience of the time recognised only too clearly that these sorts of constables could be met with everywhere. “Hazlitt praised Dogberry, regularly hailed since as an all too convincing depiction of petty officialdom” (as taken from page 309 of The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Edited by Michael Dobson & Stanley Wells – which Dame Judi Dench describes (and I warmly agree) “A wonderful treasure-house of information and insight”). As further supporting evidence of just how “real” Dogberry and Verges are to their time my Annotated Shakespeare by A L Rowse offers on page 394 a letter from Lord Burghley to Walsingham (Elizabeth’s principal Ministers at the time of the hue and cry over the search for the Babington Conspirators who intended Elizabeth’s death and her replacement by Mary Stuart) which says:

Sir, As I came from London homeward in my coach. I saw at every town’s end the number of ten or twelve standing with long staves, and until I came to Enfield I thought no other of them but that they had stayed for avoiding of the rain, or to drink at some alehouse, for so they did stand under pentices at alehouses. But at Enfield finding a dozen in a plump, when there was no rain, I bethought myself that they were appointed as watchmen, for the apprehending of such as are missing. And thereupon I called some of them to me apart, and asked them wherefore they stood there. And one of them answered, “To take three young men.” And demanding how they should know the persons, one answered with these words, “Marry, my Lord, by intelligence of their favour.” “What mean you by that?” quoth I. “Marry”, said they, “one of the parties hath a hooked nose.” “And have you,” quoth I, “no other mark?” “No,” saith they. And then I asked who appointed them. And they answered one Banks, a head constable, whom I willed to be sent to me. “Surely, sir, whoever had the charge from you hath used the matter negligently. For these watchmen stand so openly in plumps as no suspected person will come near them; and if they be no better instructed but to find three persons by one of them having a hooked nose, they may miss thereof.”

You get from this slice of Elizabethan writing (don’t you just love the ‘standing in plumps’) and reported speech a pretty picture of “idiots in charge”.

It is interesting to note that “pentices”, mentioned by Lord Burghley, is normally used in modern usage to signify Penthouses but in Tudor times it meant a ‘hipped building’ where the upstairs was larger than the ground floor and so there would be an overhang that offered shelter from inclement weather. Don John’s agent in malice, Borachio, actually says to Conrad, “Stand thee close then under this pent-house, for it drizzles rain, and I will, like a true drunkard, utter all to thee.” And confesses to the trick played on Hero whilst the Watch listen. This shows some change of meaning to the word “penthouse” over the centuries, unless the original Penthouses also had an overhang being on the topmost floor. Anyone out there know?

One of the cameos of the evening’s entertainment was the brilliant acting of Anjana Vasan (the maid) who they used instead of the ‘boy’ bid by Benedick to fetch his book from his chamber window to bring to the orchard. She arrives back but is unable to find Benedick hidden as he is from the others. She kneels down in the front centre of the stage in order to get away from the others and not attract their attention or distract them as they circle and try in loud conversation to catch Benedick’s ear.

Anjana Vasan as Maid in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Ellie Kurtz.

[Image: RSC website]

Wide-eyed she kneels there drinking in and believing every word of their overblown description of how much Beatrice is fancied to be in love with Benedick. This maid’s face reflects the action as she enters more and more into the supposed turmoil of Beatrice’s mind as her excitement grows and reveals a most delightful range of high-flown passionate expressions as in a crescendo Claudio gets to his speech

Hero thinks surely she will die, for
She says she will die, if he love her not, and
She will die, ere she make her love known,
And she will die, if he woo her, rather than
She will bate on breath of her accustomed crossness

And at each belling of the word die the lovely Anjana’s face was a picture to behold, riven through with Beatrice’s living pain, whilst holding onto Benedick’s book as a kind of talisman in defence all the while, and finally collapsing in a heap as the rest take absolutely no notice of her whatsoever. A marvellous piece of unwritten addition to the Play and the Director and cast should be well pleased with themselves for its inclusion. Well done Anjana Vasan.

When the entire Play was done the cast received from a full house a most rapturous and fully deserved burst of applause. They (apart from my gripes about Dogberry and Verges) were simply wonderful. On the way home we discussed how well the play had worked and just where we had seen the actors perform in other areas. We really could not call anything to mind for the excellent Paul Bhattacharjee although he seemed very familiar to us indeed. As luck would have it and without even planning to have an Indian theme to our week we saw the film, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” the next night and whilst enjoying the main parts we noted how so many of the smaller roles in this film were also being played by first class performers. If you have seen the film there is a wonderful hospital scene in which Maggie Smith’s character is displaying rampant racism and insists upon an English doctor. The Staff Nurse brings her one speaking perfect English and lo and behold there in his pin-stripe suit stood our Benedick from the previous night, Paul Bhattacharjee, this time playing a hospital doctor.  We were also able to compare the attempts at giving us a flavour of a city in India with those from the film and found them, space and expense permitting, pretty close.

Another Triumph seen and heard and once more worth every penny of the £48 per seat, and as we had booked six for a ‘Stratford Pass’ we got 20% off as well.

Chris Sandrawich, 14th September 2012.

The Schedule:

  • 26 July – 15 September (The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon) – alas! it has already moved to London!
  • 22 September – 27 October (The Noël Coward Theatre, London)
c2012 Jane Austen in Vermont

Guest Post: Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Swan Theatre

Richard III, by an unknown artist – National Portrait Gallery

Fellow Readers:  I welcome this morning Christopher Sandrawich, in a guest essay on the new production of Richard III at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon – [Chris last posted here on his visit to Worthing, wherein he wrote of his concerns about the closing of the “Library Passage”, the twitten frequented by Jane Austen during her stay in Worthing in 1805.] – I expressed some jealousy of his attendance at this new take on Richard III, and he kindly offered to write a full review, which only increases my jealousy to nearly rabid levels … I confess to an obsession with the much maligned Richard since reading many years ago Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time,

[The Daughter of Time – cover from Open Library]

where through the eyes of her detective Alan Grant , she sets out to “prove” the innocence of Richard III – [ a compelling read and I highly recommend it!] – but I digress! – and how does any of this relate to Jane Austen you might ask? – well,  let’s recall her first paragraph in Northanger Abbey, where she denigrates Catherine’s father so: 

Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard … 

And later in a 1796 letter to her sister, she remarks on Mr. Richard Harvey’s match being put off, “till he has got a better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes.” [Letters, p. 10] 

No one has ever satisfactorily explained this aversion to the name ‘Richard’ – and if you read her History of England, her tale of Richard III is a tad contradictory, so one does not quite know what she really thought [forever the elusive Jane] – though she does say she is “inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man” [see above!] and later “I am inclined to beleive true” that he did not kill his two nephews. So Jane likely would have been a reigning member of the Richard III Society, no?

[You can read Austen’s History here at the British Library, and here at Jane Austen’ Fiction Manuscripts , both in the original edition and facsimile. Here is Cassandra’s sketch of Richard, hump and all:

… but I am digressing again, the ‘play is the thing’ after all, and here is Chris on that right now,  Shakespeare’s view of poor Richard though it be:

******************

Richard III at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
on Thursday 15th June 2012

As those in the know, know, we are well into the start of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012 planned to coincide with the Olympic Games and Para-Olympic Games taking place in London, England this year. Using some thirty stages throughout the UK and bringing artists, companies, directors and actors from all over the world we are seeing an unprecedented celebration of all of Shakespeare’s work which is as daring as it is inspiring as all the productions and adaptations are fresh and new. As we live close to Stratford, if ninety miles is close, then six plays have been pre-booked for family and friends. As the Tempest at the RSC has already come and gone leaving us panting for the next, then a few days ago it was the turn of Richard III at the Swan Theatre. Four still to see.

All three Stratford stages have a new, and similar, look with a “Thrust Stage” and a three tiered horseshoe around for spectators which allows for uninterrupted views and a warm closeness to the action that is almost tangible. The action is as central to the audience as seems possible to achieve and all with the minimum of fuss. All the stages also allow for actors to make entrances along aisles through the spectators onto any of the four corners, and frequently lines are spoken just feet away or from behind the spectators. This allows the audience an intimate relationship with whatever is unfolding right in front of, or alongside, their vantage point. The RSC, The Swan and the Courtyard now differ only in size. Chatting to other theatre goers before the performance we found some who had been to the RSC the previous night buzzing with fervour about Julius Caesar whilst others who had seen King John at The Swan were interested in what a different play, but with the same actors, would feel like for them. I find these newly redesigned staging arrangements to be an improvement on the old, but I never felt any previous cause for complaint, anyway.

The Programme opens with something ‘saucy’ from James Shapiro that I will share with you,

In 1602, John Manningham, a law student at London’s Middle Temple, jotted down in his journal a racy story that had been making the rounds:

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III, there was a citizen grown so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.”

David Garrick as Richard III – by Hogarth –Liverpool Museum

Amusing though the story is it provides an insight into just how charismatic, powerful and sexy the character of Richard III appears despite the hump, limp and withered hand on top of being “cheated of feature by dissembling nature”. The problem for any actor playing Richard III is just how to be so very seductive, both with other characters and the audience, whilst trying to resemble “a bottled spider”, and in turn show such a bewildering array of character traits in turn as they suit the opportunity of the moment. Taking the audience with him on his ascent and continuingly vicious butchering ascent to the throne is an art so that we almost feel sorry for his immediate fall happening abruptly in the classical style of the Roman Plays about despots. To say that the character facets and motivations of Richard III are complicated is like saying astronomical distances are large. Much easier to say than to grasp or understand.

[Jonjo O’Neill as Richard III]

The actors were attired mainly in modern dress apart from weapons and armour but Richard III wears boots and leathers (just like a biker) throughout, even when he puts on ermine for his crowning moment. There is little in the way of props and so the rapidity with which the scenes change from the Tower, to Streets, Castles, Palaces and countryside keeps the pace of this long play galloping along. Including a twenty minute intermission, presumably whilst Jonjo has a lie down and takes pause to get his breath back, this play runs for three and a quarter hours. Only Hamlet’s longer. Jonjo O’Neill and all the cast require a large dollop of stamina to maintain this level of intensity.

The beauty of seeing new productions of Shakespeare’s Plays that bring the old lines afresh to modern audiences is to see how the Director’s interpretation works, or not. It is simultaneously a challenge to avoid reworking the past and a risk to make a new departure into untested waters. I was idly wondering if we were in for a rendition of the play along the lines Richard Dreyfuss’ character in “The Goodbye Girl” is forced to take in his off-Broadway production; and if modern audiences were quite ready yet to see a version in which Richard tries to become King and Queen at once. Well, Roxana Silbert’s direction takes a moderately conventional line, as one might expect.

You can see a clip of O’Neill as Richard III in Act I,  Scene I  here:
[a youtube link that refuses to embed today!]

http://www.youtube.com/embed/K9wzWYtYGBI

However, Jonjo O’Neill’s teeth were blackened (at least I hoped so) so that they resembled “points” reminding me strongly of Christopher Walken’s “Hessian Horseman” in Sleepy Hollow (a film of a Washington Irving story) and I wondered if the same hellish, relentlessly remorseless, murdering intent as the headless horseman was being suggested with each of Gloucester’s crocodile smiles. Whilst on the subject of films I rate Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard very highly indeed. It’s well worth watching and boasts an all-star cast.

Jonjo O’Neill’s depiction of Richard III is wryly beguiling, horrifying, dynamic, passionate, charmingly subtle, brutal, and focused on his ambitious rise, and rise, as those between him and the throne are disposed of piecemeal, by trickery, villainy or craftily laid spoors, and always by the hands of others. The energy displayed throughout in these constant betrayals wanes only as does his declining star in the ghost-filled night before Bosworth Field. To watch at the start of events Jonjo confront, bewilder, disarm and finally seduce the beautiful Lady Anne as she stands by her husband’s bier is as exciting as it seemed unlikely in its success. After this he seems capable of anything. 

The role of Richard III is very demanding containing over 1000 lines and about one-third of the play. There is hardly a scene he is not in, but even when he is not speaking other characters are speaking of him, mostly with as much spluttering vim as they can muster. Whilst I thought Jonjo O’Neill’s performance was a triumph, it must be said that the whole cast put a lot of energy and verve into their performances and the rousing ovations given at the end were well-deserved.

First Quarto, wikipedia

In writing this “History Play” about Richard III, Shakespeare synthesises a rich brew of facts and scenarios from a wide range of historical, literacy and dramatic sources. We must recognise the politics of the times and realise that Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet’s and Elizabeth I was a Tudor just like Richmond who defeats him in battle. So, like Thomas More before him Shakespeare paints Richard much blacker than other accounts may show. Looking at likely sources we have Edward Halle’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (1548) from which Shakespeare takes the nightmares before the Battle of Bosworth and the suggestion for “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” It is said that Shakespeare gets his idea for the wooing of Lady Anne from the Senacan tragedy Hercules furens with Lycus’ wooing of Megara. There is also a document edited by Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) from which Shakespeare takes the idea of Henry’s corpse bleeding afresh with Richard III mere presence coupled to the violence of the original deed. But it is Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, so biased against Richard as to make him Machiavellian, and “The Prince” was widely read at the time, and gives full reign to the idea of ruthlessness in powerful men when disposing of competitors whilst dissembling and breaking promise as it suits. It must be borne in mind that these plays are fictions and any attempt to treat them as historically accurate is doomed to failure. It was Shakespeare’s intention, it seems, to entertain and explore ideas about human relationships and the truth of history is a casualty in this exercise. The Play is very popular and still entertains today, and in turn I was staggered, bewildered and shocked as I followed headlong the tortuous twists and turns (trying not to be confused by the multiplicity of Edwards) in hot pursuit of Richard’s rise to power, and left the theatre thrilled, entertained and wondering if this sort of thing still goes on in the corridors of power . . . . . . . . . . . . . surely not?

************************

Further Reading:

@2012 Jane Austen in Vermont, by Christopher Sandrawich

Part II ~ The Perfect Visit ~ Interview with Stuart Bennett, Wherein We Meet Jane Austen and Shakespeare ~ Plus, a Book Giveaway!

Today I again welcome Stuart Bennett, for Part II of our interview where we discuss his new book The Perfect Visit, a time-travel tale, a romance, and a pure escape into the Regency world of Jane Austen and the Elizabethan world of William Shakespeare! [Please go to this link for Part I of the interview.]

You can enter the book giveaway by commenting on either post before 11:59 pm 15 April 2012.  Winner will be announced on Monday April 16, 2012. [worldwide eligibility]

Talking about the Feminist Question: [because I always have to ask…] 

JAIV:  Vanessa is in all ways a 21st century woman, yet when she finds herself stranded in the early 19th century England she is “visiting” she must, I assume, “just fit in” – she even goes to the lengths of wanting marriage for protection alone – she cannot earn a living as she would have done here in the present – she is trapped and at times just so incredibly sad. You do have her debating women’s rights and voting and the realities for women publishing, and she does stand up for herself innumerable times – and you did create Meg, a lovely character, true to her time and herself – but I am perhaps taking Vanessa and her story too much to heart here? –  she feels very real to me [and I thought only Jane Austen’s characters are really real!] – and I felt that if I were there, I would be pushing Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on every passer-by, screaming for equality, hanging out with the bluestockings! – yet you have her taking such a back seat in these socio-political conversations of the day.  I just see that as a difficult issue for you as a writer – making her a very modern woman living in an earlier time and not scaring all the people around her! Did you feel this in creating her? – needing to make her an almost “invisible” being, with your own time travel rules at play to not change things, to lay-low so to speak, to not bring too much attention to oneself? …  And did you find her enforced silence painful as well? Or is this more my response as a female reader moved by her inability to speak out – more so than even for you who created her? [you might just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and head on to the next question!]

[Image: wikipedia]

SB:  It is tempting just to say “yes” and move along.  But a question that shows such close and sympathetic reading deserves better than that.  Vanessa is young at the beginning of The Perfect Visit.  Resourceful and tough as she is, she still has to deal with the triple-whammy of being trapped in another time, imprisoned, and ill.  Without Meg (and other interventions which I hope readers will discover for themselves) Vanessa would surely have died. 

And so she does her best to lie low, to get by, to fit in.  And at times it all makes her feel like she is about to explode.  This is the Vanessa who came alive for me, and as a writer it brings me joy to know that she came alive for you too.  Thank you!
 

Talking about Books

 

JAIV:  All references to book titles, authors, prices, etc. are you say valid – in your words, you may have “tinkered a little with history, but I have done my best not to tinker with bibliography.” [p.341] – and this book abounds in Bibliography! I love to come away from such a story with pages of things, people and places, and books to research! – And I thank you for your “Historical postscript – the truth in Jane Austen’s life and her fiction, and the amalgamations of real people to create your heroine and hero and all the various booksellers… [though I did miss the Godwin reference I am ashamed to say! – so clear after reading your postscript…]  

So I would ask, can your story be enjoyed by the non-Austen aficionado? The non-bookseller? The person little acquainted with Shakespeare bibliography? – What can you tell us about your basic plot without all these fabulous extras that give the book such depth and meaning…? 


SB:
  I suspect most authors, like me, have readers they can count on for honest opinions.  Several of my readers, warned that the typescript was on its way, voiced advance worries about the time-travel, others about the bibliographical elements.  Virtually all reported that neither got in the way of what I wanted above all to be a romance: a romance for those who wish we could meet the authors we love, and for those who love (or wish they could love) someone as bookish as they are.  The rest of the novel could perhaps be seen as illustrating the old adage “be careful what you wish for. . . .” 

JAIV:   The value of Jane Austen’s books today either seems outrageous [to those who know that she received so little for her labors] or a fair accounting of what the market will bear… what are your thoughts on this, as a bookseller and an author?

 [Pride and Prejudice – 1st edition, 1813.  Sold for $35,000, Sotheby’s, June 17, 2011]

SB:  First, I don’t think Jane Austen fared too badly in the context of the commercial publishing world of her day.  It may have helped (here comes the gender discrimination again) that she had her father and brothers on her side in dealing with publishers, and she certainly had the last laugh when in 1816 (through her brother Henry) she bought back the manuscript and copyright of what became Northanger Abbey, for the same ten pounds a neglectful publisher had paid for it in 1803.  The net proceeds to JA’s heirs from the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion amounted to a hefty £453.14.11 – somewhere (by my rough reckoning) on the order of £35,000 in today’s money.

Second, I suppose if JA’s first editions are selling at today’s hefty prices (a nice Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, the two most difficult first editions, might well appear on the market for the same £35,000 I just mentioned) then those prices must surely be judged a fair accounting. 

But I’m not sure those prices are sustainable.  When I was selling J.A. first editions in the early 1980s, auction prices were normally in the mid-hundreds of pounds, and my copies – almost never more than £1,000 – flew off the shelf.  When the modern movies came along prices went up, and up, and up – and now many high-end antiquarian booksellers have copies of the first editions that have lingered for years.

JAIV:   You have published the book Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles (2004), which surely comes into this story with the variety of publishers and booksellers and Vanessa’s publication of children’s books. What were the realities of publishing in the Regency period? And how different from today? …

 Oak Knoll Press, 2004

Indeed, you created your own press [the aptly named Longbourn Press!] to publish your book, as well as offer it as a kindle ebook.  Did you try to publish with a traditional publisher? And how is this form of publishing any different from what was available to Jane Austen as a first time novel-writer [sell her copyright outright or pay for printing and marketing costs herself, etc.]? 

SB:  I’ve given a couple of clues about Regency publishing in my previous answer.  “How different from today?”  Well, today’s publishing, with Kindle etc., seems to me to be reverting more to the Regency model than otherwise, with those able to pay for self-publication able to get their books printed and distributed more easily than in the last half-century or so.

Regency publishers were, of course, always on the lookout for potential blockbusters, especially if they could buy the copyrights outright (often for small sums, like the ten pounds originally paid for Northanger Abbey – then titled Susan).  Many women writers, often publishing anonymously, produced novels and other works, especially children’s books, at their leisure; others were desperate for money and sold manuscripts and copyrights for whatever they could get.  Those (men and women) able to pay the cost of their own publications could negotiate commissions with commercial publishers.  John Murray took only ten percent of the net proceeds of Jane Austen’s later novels, a deal which if available to J.K. Rowling might have made her a whole, whole lot richer than the Queen of England.  

The Perfect Visit had wonderful literary agents in London and New York who offered the manuscript to commercial publishers in the even-darker-than-usual publishing days of early 2009.  There were no takers; one London publisher described it as a nice “potential mid-list” novel, but not the blockbuster they were looking for.  But some wayward typescripts kept bringing notes and e-mails, and when a couple of enthusiastic ones came from perfect strangers as far away asAustralia, I decided to consider the Amazon route.  Another bonus, as a much-published friend observed: printing the book meant I had to stop revising.

JAIV:   Well, I for one am certainly glad you listened to those perfect strangers!  And yes, it is interesting to read about Austen’s publication history – very ironic that the only work for which she sold the copyright outright was Pride and Prejudice, always her most popular and enduring work.

One question I have about the story:  what might the ethical issues be about this bringing of old manuscripts and books into the present to sell? even if the resulting profit is for a good cause?

SB:  I think any reader’s guess is as good as mine.  Would it be unfair to the original author? If so, how?  Certainly if I could go back to Jane Austen’s time (not to mention Shakespeare’s) and buy new copies of her first editions to bring back to sell in 2012, I could also undercut the prices of my high-end bookselling colleagues.  Does caveat emptor apply in such circumstances? 

But of course the paramount ethical issue involves time-travel itself.  Surely time-traveller appearances would change the past, à la Ray Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder,” and so skew subsequent history.  People who should have been born might not be, and vice versa.  

Someone once wrote an apocalyptic story where only the very rich could afford to travel back in time to escape the end of the world.  Against those kinds of fantasy possibilities, surely sneaking a few otherwise-vanished books and manuscripts out of their own times seems comparatively harmless.  Or not? 

JAIV:  Yes, it is an interesting question – one way to look at it is to believe you might be preserving a work that would have been destroyed in a fire or such, and otherwise lost to posterity…. [and I do have to remember, this is a fiction, after all!]

Here is a very specific question about a book you mention: You place your heroine in a library reading The Invisible Gentleman – I had to research this one I confess – written in 1833 by J. Dalton, author of Chartley the Fatalist, and The Robber, all published by Edward Bull of Holles St, London… you call it “a heavy-handed historical romance set in the twelfth century” [p. 312]… no wonder Vanessa tossed it aside! – So I ask, why this book for that scene?? –


SB:
  Because Vanessa wished she were invisible – and because I found it on an 1833 list of novels “just published” and couldn’t resist. 

JAIV: Oh good! glad I don’t have to add this to my TBR pile! 

Can you share anything about your writing process? – When, Where, and How [and maybe even Why?] – any advice for budding writers? 

SB:  I don’t think this is any kind of advice for budding writers, but here’s the truth behind my Perfect Visit process.  I’d written a couple of non-fiction books, lots of magazine articles on rare books and auctions, and during the 1980s attempted and abandoned a couple of novels.  I knew a little bit about sitting down and writing, and even writing with deadlines.  This helps.

 But the inspiration for The Perfect Visit and its (unpublished) sequels came as a surprise.  I have George R.R. Martin to thank – and if your readers aren’t sure who he is, the ubiquitous advertisements for the television version of his Game of Thrones gives the clue. 

[SPOILER ALERT re: Game of Thrones] At the beginning of 2006 I started reading Martin’s “Fire and Ice” series (Game of Thrones is Book One).  Initially I was hooked, but I started having doubts somewhere in Book Two.  By the middle of Book Three (I’ve repressed the books’ individual names) I felt like I was being had, that the author had realized he was onto a cash cow and decided to turn what might have been a trilogy into a five-parter (is there a name for that?)  

And Martin also killed off the one character I felt close to, whose name happened to be Ned.  Sometime towards the end of January 2006 – I remember the moment – I flung Martin’s Book Three across the room, stood up, and said “I’m going to write a book I’d want to read.”  The result was The Perfect Visit, central male character by name of Ned Marston. 

I should add, in case I appear delusional, that I am in no doubt Mr. Martin’s formula has a much broader appeal than mine. 

Are there any nuggets of gold here for budding writers?  I don’t know.  All I can say is that once I started, my characters took over large parts of my life.  They woke me up in the middle of the night with their dialogues; I started walking to work with bits of paper in my pockets so I could write down what they were doing and more of what they had to say.  And I would scribble, or clatter away on the computer most mornings, until I thought I’d done them some kind of justice.  Then I’d work at my business until the characters interrupted all over again.  The original typescript of The Perfect Visit went on, and on. . . . 

JAIV:  I love this story of your inspiration! [I have always thought a really good blog post would be to question people about the one book they most remember throwing across the room!]  I have not read the “Fire and Ice” books but do admit to being quite absorbed with the Game of Thrones on HBO, and like you, stunned at the outcome of Book I – indeed the only character I liked as well [being Sean Bean helps too!] 

You mention above other books revolving around The Perfect Visit. Can you tell us more about these? A sequel to this tale, or another time-travel book to another time? And if so where would you next most like to go? 

SB: Oh yes, there are a couple of sequels, one close to finished, and a kind of “part-prequel” set in 1823 in which Vanessa discovers the “truth” behind a lost episode in Jane Austen’s life.  There’s even, for better or worse, a half-written (maybe “half-baked” would be a better term) prequel about Ned Marston’s adventures in classical Greece. 

JAIV:  Can’t wait! 

And finally, in your answer to my question on London  – because it was so convoluted and actually contained four questions, so no guilt please for missing it! –  I asked what is your favorite London haunt, other than perhaps the British Library? 

SB:  I confess I love the London Library more than the British.  It’s climbing around in the stacks that does it, and all the books you find that way that you’d otherwise never known existed.

London Library - Geograph.uk

London Library label – wikipedia

But you asked my favorite London haunt, and I have to confess a hopelessly bourgeois affection for the Wolseley restaurant on Piccadilly.  I take myself there for breakfast whenever I can, all alone, reveling in perfectly-cooked bacon and eggs, and the best pastries in the universe.  People-watching there brings me as close as I can get to the way I think Vanessa must have felt at Molland’s Tea-Rooms in Bath.

The Wolseley, London

JAIV:  You make me want to go back to 1833! Just for a cup of tea!

Thank you Stuart for answering all my questions – you have been a gentleman and a scholar and I appreciate it!

Readers, please ask any question you might have for Stuart or leave a comment on either this post or the Part I 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. The winner will be announced on Monday April 16, 2012 – all are welcome to particpate, i.e. worldwide eligibility.

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Stuart Bennett was an auctioneer at Christie’s inLondon 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
ISBN: 9780615542706

For more information:

C. E. Brock. illustration for Persuasion, image from Molland’s

Copyright @2012 Jane Austen in Vermont

Part I ~ The Perfect Visit ~ Interview with Stuart Bennett, Wherein We Meet Jane Austen and Shakespeare … and Enter to Win the Book Giveaway!

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).

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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…

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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?

Chawton Cottage

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? 

Newgate Prison - eb.com

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.

 

Elizabeth Fry, by Charles Robert Leslie - wp

 
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.

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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
ISBN: 9780615542706

For more information:

Copyright @2012 Jane Austen in Vermont