Sunday 16 March 2008

"Only a Sequel"

A lot of you will have been enticed by Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma by Diana Birchall, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, which was reviewed by me here, and all over the blogosphere. Well, Diana has very kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions about herself and her novel... but, having stepped into Jane Austen's shoes once, I shouldn't expect her to relinquish them absolutely. Their voices intertwine throughout... see if you can spot the joins...

-So, Diana, tell us a bit about yourself...
(Looks furtive and uncomfortable) I'd much rather talk about Jane Austen, thanks. Perhaps, as I creepily channel everything through her anyway, I can try to imagine how she would have portrayed me. With you, Simon, she would have had no difficulty; she might have described you as "being to a precision the most charming young man in the world," like Miss Tilney's lover in Northanger Abbey. But this may be channeling Mr. Collins, who did not exactly have "the talent of flattering with delicacy," and you would doubtless prefer to be called, like Captain Benwick in Persuasion, "a reading man." (That would be a good blog title for you, too, if you didn't have an excellent one already, and nobody else was using it.)
As for me, I'm American and would be an outsider to Jane Austen, so inevitably she would think my manners "in fault," as Elizabeth once said her own were. Yes, I fear I should surely sink at once to be Mrs. Elton to Jane Austen. "A little upstart, vulgar being," she would call me, one who "meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar." I hope she would not abuse me to quite the extent she did poor Mrs. Elton ("self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred") but she certainly would consider me "hardened." But then, she would think our whole century that.

....and maybe a bit more?...
"What wild imaginations one forms where dear self is concerned!" as Anne Elliot said in Persuasion. But you will say (like Elizabeth), "I cannot make you out. I hear such reports of you as puzzle me extremely." So would Jane Austen have described me like Lady Catherine, with "strongly marked features, which might once have been handsome"? Or think me given to "fat sighings," like Mrs. Musgrove in Persuasion? Perhaps we had better quit the subject, though you may protest, as Elizabeth did, "But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity." I will only conclude that I am, like Elizabeth, a 'studier of character," and leave it at that.

-And how did you come to write Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma?
You can be in little doubt by now that if you read Jane Austen so many thousands of times as will always be called ten, and start channeling her characters until they talk to you, you are in danger of becoming, as Mrs. Elton said about Mr. Knightley in Emma, "very eccentric," at the very least. Trying to write in something like her style was a madness that first seized me when I won a contest in JASNA's journal Persuasions, imitating Miss Bates. "Why not do a whole novel like that?" thought I. So that became Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, in 1994. It was the first Austen sequel written since Pemberley Shades in the 1940s, as far as I knew; and I thought I was inventing the form. Unfortunately for me, there are not so many ideas in the world as there are aspiring writers to seek them, and with uncanny synchronicity, others went and did likewise. I sent the manuscript to a London literary agent, who, since the idea was in public domain, "assigned" it to Emma Tennant to turn out in a couple of months to get ahead of the American competition. There ensued a War of the Sequels. I had a New York literary agent who'd been anticipating a bidding war centering around me, but it never happened: I was the least known of the aspirant sequellists, and no one would publish my effort. "Put it away for ten years," the agent said, "and it will be published." How right he was; but I remember flinging myself down on the floor of the Novel Cafe in Santa Monica where I write, and uttering a primal howl of despair. You will say that was not Jane Austen-like behaviour, but it did closely resemble Marianne's paroxysms of grief over Willoughby's defection in Sense and Sensibility. At the age of five I had declared I would be an Authoress, and forty years later, I still had not achieved it. I thought I was a most ill used creature; but I have since learned that a writer's life has as many disappointments as joys - Jane Austen could have told me that, had I been really listening. As she has Elizabeth say, "But now suppose as much as you chuse; give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford, and unless you believe me actually married, you cannot greatly err." Substitute the word "published" for "married" and you will know how I feel.

-Describe the novel for us...
Well, first Jennifer Ehle comes on the screen, to be replaced by Keira Knightley. Or is it Elizabeth Garvie? And then Colin Finch takes off his wet shirt and Darcy and Elizabeth consummate their marriage on a Plinth outside Chatsworth with strobe lights on their beautiful depilated odalisque bodies. Oh, dear, I am running mad again. No vision that dreadful could possibly happen, no, not if Jane Austen's novels lasted two - or even three - hundred years. But you mean my novel of course, not the movies. And my novel will never be a movie - as Mr. Crawford said in Mansfield Park, "That lady will never allow a theatre at Everingham."

-How has time changed Mrs. Darcy?
"My dear sister, now be, be serious," Jane Bennet said to Elizabeth. So I will tell you without embellishment that Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma takes place in 1837, when the young Queen Victoria is coming to the throne. Mrs. Darcy has been married five and twenty years, and naturally she and the times have both changed. The Railroad is starting to alter the face of England for ever, and in manners a certain Regency roguishness is giving way to early Victorian decorum. Elizabeth herself, now between forty and fifty, is still in love with her husband, who still smiles tenderly when he looks at her. However, even living in a great house does not remove cares; and Elizabeth is anxious about many things, her grown children, her father, her sisters.

-What do you think Jane would think?
Allowing for adjustments to the horrors of our time, which would naturally kill her dead instantly, I have not the slightest doubt in the world that she would be amused and diverted, at her sly wit being blown up to the size of a cosmic joke. "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own," as Elizabeth said; and what could be greater folly and nonsense than the idea of as many as a hundred sequels to her novels, which were perfect to begin with?
As for what she would think of my particular practice of pseudo-Austen fiction, she was gentle with younger writers (and though, in her words, I must "leave off being young," she will always have "seniority of mind," as Anne did over Mr. Benwick). She criticized her niece for having a character fall into a "vortex of dissipation" and other literary crimes, but on the whole I suspect she rather approved of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery - "You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on," she wrote encouragingly to Anna. Why should we not interpret her famous defense of "Only a novel" as extending to include, "Only a sequel"? There are good books within despised forms, and bad ones within revered ones. What I try to do in my "day job" as a Story Analyst reading novels for Warner Bros. Studios, is to approach each novel on an individual case basis and to keep an open mind, though only too often I have to say with Jane Austen, that an expression is "so old that I daresay Adam met with it in the first novel he opened."

-What makes an ideal hero in a novel?
If a novel has an ideal hero, than that novel is a bore. Mr. Darcy himself was never an ideal hero, but a man with plenty of flaws; in my imagination they are mellowed, but I regret to tell you that he is losing his hair.

-And what should be there in an ideal heroine?
I don't deal in the ideal. Mrs. Darcy wears her maturity lightly, but maturity has come to her. In my view, it is more interesting to follow beloved couples in the changes that come to them with age, than to force a frantic flurry of picaresque adventures or "very striking beauties" and novelties, like those near Maple Grove in Emma. Rather than follow the beloved Darcy and Elizabeth to exotic locales, or planting a webcam in their bedroom, I wanted to see them undertake the great adventure of changing with time, and of practicing their happiness in middle age. What did Elizabeth herself say? "But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."

-What can we expect from Diana's pen in the future?
I am writing a book in which Lord Byron appears; and it is extremely vexing to me that he is thirteen years younger than Jane Austen and most inconveniently never can be made to be around where she is. It can't be helped, however. I'm also finding him difficult to write about because I have not read him thousands of times, as with Austen, and he is so provocative and exasperating a man, so human, so glib, so base, so sublime. He clearly never had an Elizabeth to make him say, "By you I was properly humbled."
But now I ought to conclude with Mrs. Bennet's rejoinder, "Remember where you are, Lizzy, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home."

Diana Birchall


  1. How lovely to get the author's comments fresh for your blog. I have despaired of other sequels but will definitely be trying this one.

  2. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a popular subject treated beautifully in sequel will be unscrupulously purloined by others more famous.

    But I am so glad that Mrs Darcy's Dilemma has finally made it into the world - and is seeing off all sequels. I have heard about its beauty and originality and shall be reading it soon.

    May Byron treat you well, Diana, and thank you for such a wonderul interview Simon.

  3. Lovely interview -- thanks Diana and Simon!

  4. What a scoop! A delightful Monday morning read - but. Oh, Diana, will Colin forgive you for referring to him as Finch instead of Firth? Ah me!

  5. Dearest Diana --
    I AM HUMBLED at your abilities to purloin the voice of Jane Austen so sumptuously and wittily, with such pomme de terre and elair. Pray call me on the thingamajig as I should like to interview you for our very redoubtable publication CINEMA WITHOUT BORDERS ( I trust you will be reading these cyber-epistles and will respond post-haste. James von Ulm

  6. Diana's writing voice never fails to delight me. I know her through a much more casual context in a piffling sort of YahooGroup, and even there her posts are witty and delightful to read, no matter what they're about.

  7. Thanks for providing us with this most entertaining interview.


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