Inquiring readers: Susannah Fullerton and I met in Brooklyn at the annual JASNA meeting, where she was promoting two books and gave two workshop presentations. Here, then, is our share of our ongoing conversation:
Susannah, it was such a pleasure meeting you at the AGM in Brooklyn. I felt as if we had known each other for years, so instant was our connection. As we talked, I came to realize that you lecture, travel, act as guide, write, and have two books coming out in a HALF year, AND you are a wife, mother, and president of JASA (Jane Austen Society of Australia). At the conference you had boundless energy. How and where do you find the time to do it all and look so fresh and enthusiastic? I am in awe.
There’s a lovely quote in Emma when Miss Bates says, ‘It is such a happiness when good people get together – and they always do.” Vic, that’s how I felt when I met you in Brooklyn – an instant recognition that we had masses in common and would get on really well. I do have an incredibly busy life and it has been especially busy these last 2 years with 2 books to write. However, I do find it hard to say ‘no’ to lovely literary projects. I have been President of JASA for 17 years (I’m wondering if that should put me in the Guinness Book of Records?) and I have a fabulous committee, so running the society is a joy. Of course we are all very excited about next year’s big P & P anniversary. My literary tours are great fun. When you yourself get an incredible thrill from walking down the Gravel Walk in the footsteps of Anne Elliot and Capt. Wentworth, or seeing the topaz crosses at Chawton, or actually standing in the room where Jane Austen died (which I did on 2 of my literary tours) then it’s fantastic to be able to take other people on tours where they can share that same excitement. My tours are with ‘Australians Studying Abroad’, and I don’t only take tours to England but to France, Scotland and the USA as well. It’s all such fun that somehow I find the energy to do it all.
In reference to your interview on Jane Austen in Vermont, you mentioned that the time for a book about dance in Jane Austen’s time was right. I agree with you. What were some of the facts you uncovered that surprised you and that you were anxious to share with the world?
What really surprised me was that no-one had written a book on Jane Austen and dancing before now! I think what you find when you focus on one particular aspect of Jane Austen’s fiction is an increased awareness of how utterly brilliant she was. When I wrote Jane Austen and Crime I found that the tiniest bit of information about something like poaching was used by Austen in a way that had so many wider implications if you knew about the laws and perceptions of poaching at that time. In Mansfield Park Mr Rushworth boasts about his “zeal after poachers”, yet completely fails to stop Henry Crawford from ‘poaching’ his wife – the ‘poaching’ undercurrents in the novel are so brilliantly done. I found the same with dancing – when you learned exactly what behaviour was expected in a ballroom, you became so much more aware of the subtler nuances of dialogue and action. For example, it was not proper etiquette to compliment your partner on their dress or looks, because it was taken for granted that everyone would be nicely dressed at a ball. You shouldn’t praise someone for doing what it was assumed they would do anyway – ie, dress nicely. This gives extra point to Mrs Elton’s behaviour at the Crown Inn ball – of course, no-one compliments her on her dress because they are behaving properly, but Mrs Elton is desperate for such attention so she takes on the task herself: “How do you like my gown? How do you like my trimming? How has Wright done my hair?” etc. The more you delve into any aspect of Austen’s world, the more you find and you come away with an even greater awe of her incredible achievement!
Was there any information in A Dance With Jane Austen that you wished you had expanded upon but simply could not due to lack of space and time?
It could have been nice to have included more particular information about steps for individual dances, but unless you are a Regency dancer yourself, that information might be rather dull on the page – more fun to ‘do’ than to read about, I think.
When we were at the AGM, you were promoting your next book as well, Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece. Other authors must be as curious as I am: How did you find the time to write TWO books with such close deadlines? Did you lock yourself in a closet and have food passed to you through a grate?
Just last week I received the most wonderful parcel in the post – two copies of Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and two copies of Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece. These are the UK and American editions of my new book. They are both gorgeous and I was so thrilled I danced round the kitchen with the copies in my arms! The book is dedicated to my daughter “my dearest loveliest Elinor Elizabeth” and she is really thrilled about that. Yes, it was quite a task to finish 2 books so close together. I was just finishing A Dance with Jane Austen when Frances Lincoln suddenly took up my suggestion that a book about 200 years of P & P would be a good idea. I must admit I lay awake most of that night, wondering if I could manage to do it given the tight time frame. But how could I resist? Spending 6 months with Elizabeth and Darcy was pure bliss and no book has given me so much pleasure to write. There were days when I was so involved I forgot to think about cooking dinner. Part of the joy was learning as I went along – discovering new depths and brilliancies in the novel. Just as an example – when I was writing my chapter on Elizabeth Bennet, I stopped to think about how she is first introduced to the reader. Most of us know her so well that it feels she has always been a part of our lives, but what are Elizabeth’s first words in the novel?? I had to go and check because I couldn’t actually remember the very first words she gets to speak in the text. And they are words that contradict her mother! In that age of conduct-book heroines, females who were expected to be obedient to parents, meek, silent and submissive, Elizabeth arrives on the literary scene with a contradiction!! Instantly we know that this woman is going to be different – unlike any heroine before (and of course since as well).
I have tried in my book to give an all-round picture of why this novel has lasted 200 years and goes from strength to strength. I tell of its beginnings; Jane Austen’s struggles to get it out into the world; initial reactions to the book and then reactions as the 19thC continued and went into the 20thC; I have a chapter about the first sentence and why it has become so justly famous; I look at the use of letters in the text; I discuss the translations and how badly the novel fared for a long time in other languages and I look at the challenges faced by translators (would Mr and Mrs Bennet say ‘vous’ or ‘tu’ to each other? They have shared a bed and had 5 children, but still call each other Mr and Mrs – a translator has to make that sort of decision); I look at the extraordinary range of film versions (Dutch, Mormon, Spanish, Italian, Israeli etc); I look at the illustrations it has had foisted upon it over the years – some lovely and some truly terrible (and I include some fabulous pictures as examples) and the different sorts of covers it has been enclosed in; I look at P & P tourism which is now a big industry; I explore the amazing range of merchandise from baby’s nappies to skateboards, cosmetics to clothes pegs, china to jewellery etc. Some of the chapters I most enjoyed writing were about the characters of the novel – I have separate chapters on Darcy and Elizabeth, but then also include chapters on ‘her Relations’ and ‘his Relations’, and one on the ‘Other Characters’. I found that grouping them into ‘his’ and ‘her’ relatives made me think about them in a new way and helped make it clear why hero and heroine had become the sort of people they are.
Anything else you wish to add?
There is a T-shirt which has printed on it “What do you mean Mr Darcy isn’t real??” I think I need to buy that T-shirt! Elizabeth and Darcy, Mr and Mrs Bennet, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine, and all the characters of Pride and Prejudice are as real to me as the people I see every day. There is so much to celebrate about this utterly wonderful book by Jane Austen. My way of celebrating was to write a book about why it is so brilliant, and of course I very much hope that many readers will want to buy and read my book to discover just why, 200 years ago, the world became a far better place!
As always, Susannah, it is a pleasure chatting with you. I wish you nothing but the best and hope to see you during your spring tour in the U.S.! - Vic
NOTICE: CONTEST CLOSED. Congratulations Monica! Dear readers: Susannah is graciously giving away a free copy of A Dance With Jane Austen. Please leave your comment stating which Jane Austen character you would most like to dance with and why! The contest is open to all and closes at midnight November 27th, US Eastern Standard Time.
Preorder Celebrating Pride and Prejudice at this link.
Order A Dance With Jane Austen at this link
Order Susannah’s first book, Jane Austen and Crime, at this link