Saturday, March 28, 2015

The era is the characters

So as much as I try to read and enjoy modern P&P fanfiction, I just can't wholly get into it. For me, the era in which they lived, the technological and societal limitations, are very much what make these characters who they are. To illustrate this contrast between the Regency world and the modern world, my brain has lately been playing with what-ifs that set various scenes from my stories in the modern era, where technology and communication are no longer limitations. Following are three examples, comprised wholly of text messages that would have been sent between the characters. Granted, some of these topics might better have merited a phone call, but then I could hardly write them so easily...

In "A Constant Love," Darcy learns of the Corn Bill riots:

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Bbc1 says there is rioting in the West End. You ok?

Elizabeth Darcy: Yes, Captains Stanton and Ramsey have some sailors here for our defense. We are keeping a close watch but so far everything is OK.

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Ok, am going to take the 7 36 from Derby to St Pancras. See you soon.

Elizabeth Darcy: Be careful about crossing town with the riot on!!! Have no idea what things are like on the Underground but please be careful if you take a cab. I would send the car, but don't want to put John at risk driving in this.

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Understood. Was going to Uber, anyway. Will have driver swing way around if needed or maybe take the tube if that seems better. Love you. See you soon.

Elizabeth Darcy: Love you too. Be careful.

In "A Constant Love," the Fitzwilliams send word of Edward's fate:

Andrew Brandon: We have come across your sister, Lydia. She has not had any success at finding her husband, but we are going to keep her with us in our search, now.

Elizabeth Darcy: Oh, thank God. I hope you are successful in both of your attempts. 

Andrew Brandon: Edward is alive!!! Has lost left arm but is otherwise well. Your aunt is a little upset, but bearing up fairly well, considering. No word on Wickham. Since he is yet to text or call Lydia I fear the worst, but it may be a month at least before they finish DNA testing on the remains of the battle, and she knows anything definitively.

Elizabeth Darcy: Oh, I am so glad to hear about Edward!!! Will tell Fitzwilliam and Georgiana now! Send him my love! Hoping for the best for Wickham, but fear the worst as you do. Am glad Lydia is at least with you.

Andrew Brandon: Had a smooth flight. Will stay a night or two in London and then on to Pemberley for Georgiana's ball. Very much looking forward to seeing you all and spending some time amongst society after all we have seen. Your sister still with us.

Elizabeth Darcy: We shall be so glad to see you all! Will let Georgiana know that BOTH her guardians will be here to give her away at her wedding. She shall be so pleased. :-) Give aunt Ellen and Lydia my love.

In "A Change of Legacies," Matthew responds to news of Georgiana's fall:

Matthew Stanton: Got your vm, tried to call back but reception here is horrible. Any update on her condition?

Fitzwilliam Darcy:  Wish I had some better news to give you, but she is still unconscious, and doctor confirms baby has most certainly been lost. She is due to get ct scan in half hour or so. Will update you as soon as I know anything.

Matthew Stanton: Pls do. Still 1 day out of copenhagen but have booked easyjet flight to manchester for tomorrow afternoon. Due to get in at 3 10, will grab cab to hospital.

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Ct confirms moderate concussion, no skull fracture, so at least she shall wake in due time. Dont worry about cab, will have car waiting for you.

Matthew Stanton: Thank God. Pls keep me updated if any changes. Thx for car, appreciate not having to waste a moment before seeing her.

Fitzwilliam Darcy: None so far. Elizabeth in labour. Fortunately things moving slowly, so should be time for her doula to drive here from Derby.

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Elizabeth has had her baby, James, and is well. No change in Georgiana's condition, she is still stable.

Matthew Stanton: Congratulations. Due to pick up harbour pilot soon. Wish I could be there now.

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Elizabeth still has not passed placenta. They are looking at options - may have to do procedure. But seems might be second child that did not show up on ultrasound. G still stable.

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Georgiana is awake!!! Fully cognizant, although quite aggrieved over the baby. She will be very glad to have you here. Second baby confirmed for Elizabeth, she is resting. If takes too long they might induce.

Matthew Stanton: Oh, thank God, tell her I will be there as soon as I can, and I love her.

So...

I know people were getting antsy in ACL2 over Captain Stanton's having been gone so long. I'll admit, I was a little antsy, too. but the truth is, that was reality. Think about the logistics of his sending a letter home from the Baltic. He was sent there specifically with despatches -- he was assigned to handle communication, in other words. In order for Matthew to get word back to Georgiana before his ship touches English soil, he must meet up either with another navy ship or a merchant ship which is bound for England, and given he is there during winter, there would not be a lot of ships risking that journey. To me, it's pretty miraculous that any mail managed to pass to and from naval ships at all.

So while I missed Captain Stanton as much as anyone, the fact that he was gone for so long, without word, was part of the story. Georgiana and Matthew's separation is painful, but realistic, and what a large number of naval wives must have gone through, for while some lived on board ship with their husbands, a far larger number would have remained at home.

So to me, the way that these characters communicated, the manners and the propriety of their day, and even their lack of understanding of modern medicine, are a large part of what makes them who they are. I know there are a large number of people who enjoy writing and reading modern stories, and I respect that, but personally it's just not my cup of tea.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Incomes

So a reference to a character's having 286 pounds a year in the latest chapter of "A Change of Legacies" prompted a very good question about just how much that was, income-wise. The answer is, it depends on whom you're comparing it to.

In this very class-based time of British society, you have to remember that there were people for whom 20 pounds a year would have been a tremendous amount of money. Granted, some of the people we see in this layer of society in ACL and ACL2 are servants and seamen, and they have a place to stay and food to eat provided for them, taking away two of the major elements of basic subsistence.

But still, even the 50 pounds a year that Elizabeth would have had to live on eventually, had she not married, is not an amount that would have put her at risk of starving (regardless of what Mrs. Bennet says), but what it would have constituted was a fall from the gentry. With that income her only hope might have been to become a companion, as she is not skilled enough to be a governess, if she still wished to live among the gentry.

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath had a fantastic sign up that summarized better than anything else I've read just what various income levels meant, although I've read other accounts that put incomes even higher for the most substantial of the gentry -- one indicated that 10,000 pounds a year was the minimum required to support a town house in London.

But at any rate, this one is quite good. I typed it up to post on AHA awhile back and have resurrected it here.


"£100 a year
This is the lowest income that can support the price of a ticket to a circulating library. In this group you would find poor curates, clerks in government offices and moderately prosperous tradesmen. This income could supply a family with a young maid servant, at a very low wage.

£200 a year
Jane Austen's parents married in 1764 on a church living of only £100 a year, plus the use of 200 acres of land as a second source of income, which brought in another £100. £200 makes a claim to gentility, but only with the narrowest style of life. It supplies a better servant, though, at a higher salary.

£300 a year
This amount allowed a comfortable bachelor existence. The income brings two servants. Jane's brother James married on this sum, but found it insufficient to maintain a carriage for his bride and a pack of harriers (hunting dogs) for himself.

£400 a year
An income that approaches the comforts of genteel life. It usually brings a cook, a housemaid, and, perhaps, a boy. Fanny Price's mother had just this amount per year and kept two servants, but managed very badly. Isabella Thorpe is disappointed on learning that this amount is all she will have on her marriage to James Morland.

£500 a year
This sum, according to domestic economists, fills the cup of human happiness. It would allow for three servants, but no horses or carriage. The Austen family had just this much to live on during their years in Bath, however when Mr. Austen died in 1804 and his church pension was stopped they had considerably less. This forced a change to their domestic arrangements with a move to a smaller premises.

£700 to £1,000 a year
This higher range of upper professional incomes marks the most prosperous pseudo-gentry families. It's most significant consumer marker was the ownership of a carriage. Jane Austen's father took a carriage when his income reached £700, though he found it too expensive to maintain on that income. Mr. Perry, the local physician [sic] in Emma, lets his income be known in Highbury when his wife longs for a carriage.

£2,000 a year
At this level we have the landed gentry, however, domestic economy must till hold a tight rein, especially when, as with Mr. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, there were five daughters to marry off! Colonel Brandon's Delaford is described as "without debt or drawback." 

Above £4,000 a year
Incomes of £4,000 a year and above (Darcy's, Bingley's, Crawford's, Rushworth's) leave behind the 'cheese-paring' cares of middle-class incomes, to enter a realm of unlimited genteel comforts. To spend more than this, according to contemporary wisdom, a man must go into horse-racing or illegitimate pleasures' (Landowning as a Business 1882). In terms of consumer show, this income is characterised by its ability to provide a house in London for the social season with all the expected social activities.

Many heiresses were worth a lump sum. Miss Bingley's £20,000 would be worth £1,000 a year, while Elizabeth Bennet's £1,000 would bring £50 a year.

With this formula for turning inherited money into yearly incomes, and investment around 5%, heiress's fortunes quickly come into focus as the bottom line for romance.

From: The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMastre."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Restoration Home

So my new television (well, YouTube on television; thank goodness for smart TVs) addiction is "Restoration Home." It's a BBC series where they feature what are generally long-running restorations of historic homes in Britain. Hint: they almost always take longer and cost a lot more money than originally budgeted.

One of my favorites of the houses that have been featured so far is Stoke Hall. It's a Georgian country house (on the smaller side) in Derbyshire. It's now what I think of when I think of Barrowmere Park, right down to the additional wings that could be demolished to make for a more compact and symmetrical house (in A Change of Legacies, the wings are so far gone it is not worth trying to renovate them).

They've had to really strip some of the rooms down, so you get a real sense for the traditional methods that were used in building houses at that time. Even though this was a relatively small country home, there was true style and craftsmanship that went into the homes of that time.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Follow-up to my last post

So I discovered someone has nicely separated out all of the directly Austen-related clips to "At Home With the Georgians:"


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Stradbroke Castle, Part 1

So in my last post, I wrote about being careful not to over-describe things, and instead letting the reader's imagination do the work. I hope that has been the case not only for characters, but also for the spaces they inhabit.

Of all the spaces, none, of course, could be more important than Pemberley, and it's Pemberley that I've put the most active effort into not describing, beyond what Austen has already given us. I actually have a floorplan of Pemberley that I've mocked up, because I came to realise that in order for me to be consistent as a writer, speaking of a large house, I needed to ensure that I had the geography straight in my own head. Rooms exist, and they are gotten to by going through other rooms (this would have been the era before hallways in the main public spaces, although I have put them in the residential wings), but beyond that, a brief description of the library (basically establishing it as your "standard" amazing old library), and the colour of two drawing rooms, I have tried to be vague and leave Pemberley to everyone's imagination, because I suspect we all have a Pemberley that exists in our own heads, and my last wish is to contradict it.

But I do happen to have a real interest in the evolution of English architecture and interior design. So I hope you all will forgive me a little indulgence at Stradbroke Castle.

Stradbroke is based on two different real-world locations: Skipton Castle, in the lovely town of Skipton, and Speke Hall, outside of Liverpool. Skipton Castle is a rarity in a land filled with English Heritage-managed ruins: a fully intact medieval castle. Interestingly, though, although the castle survived and kept its roof (the primary reason for its survival), the family's living area migrated to a "new" Tudor-era addition beside the castle.

A mix of the medieval (left) and Tudor (right) sides of Skipton Castle. 

I liked the idea of this old castle that had at some point been essentially abandoned by the family, used perhaps still for its kitchens and some servants quarters, but left behind for its primary living spaces. But I decided to mix it instead with a timber-frame house more like Speke Hall:

The spectacular timber-frame facade of Speke Hall. 

In the story, Georgiana goes to the Great Hall, which would have been a staple of either a medieval or Tudor house of this size, and cannot find her family there. She is informed by a butler that they are in the drawing room, which was newly decorated by Lady Ellen and her niece.

Here is where we come into a tremendous change in interior decoration. Those tremendous great halls, where lords of the manor feasted in front of those who served them gave way to smaller, more intimate spaces, but still ones which were heavy, dark, and tremendously masculine, even if there were fewer dead animal heads on the walls.  

At Speke Hall, a good example of these dark, Jacobean interiors, where heavy wood panelling is complemented with heavy wood furniture.

When Georgiana finds her family in the newly redecorated drawing room, it is decidedly modern, rather like its counterpart at Speke (a total revelation, after the rest of the house). And with its modernity comes femininity -- the touch of the countess and her daughter-in-law. 

Light, decorated plaster, wallpaper, and far more feminine furniture: the drawing room at Speke Hall.

Why was it that Lady Ellen took so very long to redecorate, when Lady Caroline Harrison seems determined to burn as much money on decoration as quickly as possible? Beyond that particular clue, there are some other hints in A Change of Legacies, but the whole story will be awhile in coming.

If you're interested in learning more about Georgian interiors and home life, an era in which women gained some measure of control over their homes, if nothing else, I recommend "At Home With the Georgians," a three-part series with Amanda Vickery. Unfortunately it's only available on DVD, but the trailer is on YouTube (and below) and you might be able to find more clips there with some digging.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

The most important thing I learned from Jane Austen

This is probably going to sound weird given she's one of the main characters of my books, but I don't know what colour Georgiana's hair is. Sometimes I see her as blonde, sometimes more of a mousey brown, and occasionally full brunette. In my mind she's got fair skin, as does her husband, but hair colour for both of them continually morphs as I imagine them in my mind, and eye colour tends to follow along in its wake.

The thing it took me a long time to realise as a writer was that: this is okay. Actually, it's good. And that's the most important thing I learned from Jane Austen. Hair colour, eye colour, and other detailed details about appearances are not something she spends time on. People might be handsome, or pretty, or look very well, but Austen leaves it up to the reader to imagine just exactly how they do this. Once I understood this, it took a lot of the pressure off of introducing characters; a general description is important, of course, enough to engage the reader's imagination, but any more than that is actually detrimental, because it doesn't let the imagination do the work.

I suspect that because so many film adaptations have been done, we all have a certain, erm, prejudice about what Elizabeth and Darcy look like, now (I suspect, furthermore, that for a great many of us, it is Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). I'm hopeful that my readers have images in their minds of Captain Stanton and Georgiana, however, that are pleasing to each of them, but may be very different, from reader to reader.

It always makes me happy when I get feedback from readers that's something along the lines of saying that my writing is vivid, because I actually put a lot of effort into making it not vivid. I'd guess somewhere between 40-50% of my stories are fairly unadulterated dialogue. Details usually come in where I think the reader's imagination will not have enough background, and will need me to fill in some things to let the imagination continue on its way. Occasionally I will indulge a particular interest of mine, but I try to stay mindful to be careful, and not overindulge.

So if the story is coming across as vivid for a reader, it means their imagination has made it vivid, and that, I think, is the most important thing about fiction, to be able to imagine yourself in another world, watching these characters and the things they do. It wasn't the easiest thing to do, to get here; it involved a fair amount of paying attention to myself as a reader, so that I could become a better writer. But I hope that effort has paid off.

So thanks again to Austen, for teaching me this and so many other important things about writing. I am constantly in awe of her.

Dear readers, I need your help!

It's here! Pride and Prejudice: A Novel. In Three Volumes. (Annotated and Restored to 1813 Egerton First Edition) is now available at ...