Interviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
Diana Birchall is the author of Mrs Darcy's Dilemma.
Elaine: Diana, when did you first read Jane Austen and what was the first book of hers you read?
DB: About the age that Catherine Moreland was when she devoured Gothic novels, or maybe a little later. I was about twenty and it was Pride and Prejudice. Austen wasn't as universally, passionately read then and I'd have read it earlier only I was put off by the title - I thought it sounded stodgy, and was imagining a George Eliot sort of affair. Imagine my delight and surprise! Not that I don't like Eliot, but you see what I mean.
Elaine: And which is your favourite or is that impossible to answer? ditto character
DB: My first love is my last love, Pride and Prejudice. But my favorite character is the social horror I have come to identify with - Mrs. Elton from Emma.
Elaine: JA has always been serialised and dramatised over the years but there has been an explosion of interest in her over the last decade. I put this down to the Colin Firth factor myself, but do you agree? And why do you think she is such a perennial favourite for dramatists? No need to mention wet shirts and diving in lakes...
DB: I suppose the dramatizations were the catalyst that caused the new explosion of interest, but I think that the explosion was long overdue, because she was always so good. I wouldn't go so far as to say that she was "marginalized because she was a woman," as the rhetoric goes, because she was certainly an established classic novelist; but everyone didn't read her. People who now read and discover her because of the movies, are finding out for themselves how good she is. There's so much in her and people react to her in so many different ways, that it's not surprising she's become a perennial favorite for dramatists - and of course they will exploit the phenomenon as long as it's making money. Will people get tired of Jane Austen dramatizations and sequels? They might; the rage for adaptations will eventually pass. But I don't think people will ever get tired of reading Jane Austen. I know she's lasted me a lifetime.
Elaine: You wrote Mrs D's Dilemma some years ago but have only now be able to find a publisher. Do you think this is linked to the dramatisations mentioned above? And how did Sourcebooks discover your or vice versa?
DB: Yes it is. I wrote Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma in 1994. As far as I knew it was the first sequel to Pride and Prejudice written since Pemberley Shades in the 1990s, and I thought I was inventing the form. My New York literary agent thought so too, and expected big success. But 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 otherwise. I'd sent the book to a literary agent in London, and he immediately assigned the idea of a 25-years later Pride and Prejudice sequel to Emma Tennant, to write in two months, to "beat the American competition." I knew immediately that was the end of my book; no one was going to publish another sequel at that time, especially by an unknown. I remember lying down in the shape of a cross on the floor of the Santa Monica coffeehouse where I do my writing and howling from sheer disappointment. But that's a writer's life! The agent said, "I don't know what happened, but put it away, and this book will be published in ten years." And it was; a small English publishing company picked it up in 2004. Then, last fall, two more companies approached me simultaneously and asked to give Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma national American publication. That was directly to tie in with all the new films. It was a long time coming.
Elaine : regarding dramatisations - what do you think of them? I refer to the Olivier P&P, the recent P&P, the Colin Firth P&P and the recent Sense and Sensibility on the BBC (if you have seen it) and previous versions. Any comments on any you have seen would be really interesting.
DB: I'm afraid they won't be interesting because generally speaking I can't bear adaptations! Jane Austen took root and colonized my mind (somewhat like what AOL does to a computer) so thoroughly before I ever saw a dramatization, that I couldn't, shall we say, adapt. Dramatizations shatter my own mental images and I don't want them in my head, interfering with the text. I've watched most of them, writhing. To me, the best is the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, they really did a lovely job and brought out the emotion in a natural, convincing way. And, being a contrarian, I also quite like the Rozema Mansfield Park which everybody hates. They hate it because it's not Mansfield Park, but that didn't bother me. It was thought-provoking, it was Rozema's riff on themes she imagined in the book - even if you find it hard to swallow the emphasis on slavery, and the transposition of Fanny into a kind of version of Austen herself and Elizabeth Bennet, I found it quite inventive. The more supposedly faithful adaptations bore me. I do like the Olivier P&P as a kind of glamorous period piece. The one I hated most, the very worst of all, in my opinion, is the Billie Piper MP. I know, how can I like the Rozema one and hate this one, but I do. The Rozema one at least had some thought behind it, however strange. But Billie Piper was possibly the worst piece of inane, willful miscasting I've ever seen. It was like graffiti.
Elaine: have you visited Jane Austen's house at Chawston? I live in the UK and am ashamed to say I haven't which failure I really should remedy. If you have visited I would love to hear what you think.
DB: Yes, many times. My first visit was in the mid-1980s. I'd just colored my hair to look nice for the trip, and had a violent allergic reaction. My forehead swelled up with edema so badly that if I pressed my finger in it left an inch-deep indent. Then the edema slid down to my eyes so when I awoke in the morning on the day my husband and I were to fly to London, they were completely shut. I scotch-taped them open and drove to the emergency room, where all the doctors and nurses surrounded me in a circle and gazed with astonishment, storing up the anecdote. I was given Benadryl and told to stay sitting up, which was the one good thing, since that's what you do on an airplane. We flew to London with me wearing a big hat, sunglasses, and hair over my face, with my husband leading me by the hand through the airport. I looked like I'd been in a car wreck. And the next day was the Jane Austen Society AGM at Chawton, for which one particularly wants to look sweet and pretty and ladylike! Chawton was simply lovely, but I did notice faces turning and staring at me in fascination as I entered the tent and tried to take my seat as inconspicuously as possible. There were some great old names there - David Cecil, Tony Trollope, and the Countess of Huntington. When she spoke from the podium, she rolled her Rs in a very grand manner - "Will you all please Rrrrrrrrise" - I'd never heard anything like it. The people and the proceedings all seemed like the last relics of old-fashioned England. I always enjoy visiting Chawton, and on my visits to England have made many friends so that when I go to an AGM there are many joyful encounters. The people are more up to date now but happily the tradition is just the same.
Elaine: Your knowledge of the books is obviously encyclopedic as you can quote at the drop of a hat (I know!) and have caught her style quite beautifully, in fact, the best of all the prequels and sequels I have read. How do you do this?
DB: I have pretty nearly total recall of the books because I have re-read them not dozens of times, not hundreds of times, but thousands. This is partly because of my "day job" as the book person for Warner Bros, reading manuscripts to see if they'd make movies. I can't read popular modern fiction for pleasure anymore, so I escape into the past...and Jane Austen. As the most enduring and re-readable author of them all, she has become both mental balm and stimulation for me. She has a mysterious quality of there being more in her to discover with each reading; we're forever finding new thoughts, ironies, intentions and jokes, and are never bored. Then, most wonderful to me, is the beauty of her language. She places every word with such precision and balances every sentence so perfectly that studying her art minutely is, as they say about nuns, a living rule: or the best writing school that could possibly be. Loving to play with language, almost insensibly I began sliding into her style. When I won a contest in the JASNA magazine Persuasions, writing in Jane Austen fashion (I was doing Miss Bates - the easiest place to start!), it gave me the idea and the confidence to embark on the experiment of sustaining the imitation for the length of a novel. That was how Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma was born. Of course it’s impossible to write like Jane Austen, and any modern American who thinks they’ve done it has passed the point of eccentricity and gone certifiably barmy. No one in our century, with our influences, can write with the thinking and expression that prevailed in the 18th century. Then there is the little problem that Jane Austen was a genius, and we are not. If writing like Jane Austen is the goal, our experiments are doomed to failure; however, the mere act of trying, and of studying what Jane Austen did, is an illuminating and beneficial enterprise for any writer. Different sequellists have different approaches. Mine's about style.
Elaine: Will you be publishing another book soon and, if so, can you tell us something about it?
DB: I hope so. I'll only say it has Byron in it and a secret!
Visit Diana Birchall at http://www.dianabirchall.net/