Sex! Pride and Prejudice! Mr Darcy! (Did I get your attention yet?)

I asked a friend of a friend to read my novel – I’ve had a lot of love for it from family and friends, as you do, and I thought I’d better bite the bullet and see what people think who don’t care about hurting my feelings, and don’t love me in the first place. She kindly critiqued it for me, and basically enjoyed it, which was great, though I have lost a few teeth in my bullet-biting experience.

One of her reactions intrigued me: it was a rather endearingly old-fashioned discomfort at the sex in the novel. Now just to be clear, as P&P sequels go, Miss Mary Bennet is as pure as the driven snow and other pure things. It’s much closer in tone to Georgette Heyer than to Fifty Shades. There are no explicit sex scenes. There are references to off-stage sex, ranging from Mary’s naive comments on Elizabeth’s state of deshabille, which the reader understands though Mary does not, through Lydia and Wickham’s obviously active sex-life (off-stage) to some kisses, desired and not, via some instructive conversations that Mary has with Lizzy and Jane.

My friendly critic was partly shocked by the non-Jane Austen nature of the – I can’t call it sexual content, let’s say sexual knowingness, or what I think it was – a fairly uncomplicated acknowledgement of the existence of sex as part of life; it felt a bit clunking to her, especially at first, and she also felt intrusive as a reader, as though she had strayed rather impolitely into the master bedroom and caught some respected figures in flagrante.

This got me thinking, mainly about sex and Mr Darcy (as you do). As you all know (massive assumption based on the thought that if you’re reading this post, you already have a keen interest in P&P and are probably familiar with a few of the sequels and may even have read some of them), the vast majority, and I mean vast majority, of P&P fanfiction, spin-offs, sequels etc etc are about sex. Yes, there are zombies and murders and christianity and feminism, but mostly, in the vast majority of the genre, the books are essentially about Darcy and Elizabeth having sex. Occasionally the other characters too.

As I have written before in my post “the whole wet shirt thing”, it is my contention that it is the wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of P&P that spawned the whole P&P sequel industry. The overt sexuality of Darcy and Eliz on the TV got people very excited – as it does – and it set something off in the national and international psyche – basically, it gave all the women of the world permission to fantasize about having sex with Mr Darcy.

It was a slow-burning phenomenon at first, this massive global sexual fantasy – I remember being delighted and astonished and I confess somewhat aroused by discovering my first lot of P&P inserts (sorry can’t think of a better word – there is one, isn’t there?) on the internet, and I have watched in amazement as it has proliferated and shows no sign of stopping.

This has inspired me to create a brief analysis of this global worldwide universal phenomenon of the sexual sequel to P&P. Here’s my 2 cents. I apologise for occasional wild generalisations and over-statements used in order to make my point.

Reasons why there are so many of these damn sexual sequels to P&P

1. Every woman in the world wants to have sex with Mr Darcy. He is your absolute classic blank-sheet hero onto whom everything can be projected. Plus he’s handsome, rich and mean. Luckily he gets nice enough to marry in the end. He is sine qua non the prototype for the romantic hero of Mills and Boon, Harlequin and pretty much all romantic fiction, up and to and including 50 Shades (interesting typo moment there – I accidentally typed 50 Shags…hmm no need to disturb Professor Freud for that one).

2. Next reason: every woman in the world – and I mean every woman, no exceptions, is convinced that she and she alone is the real Elizabeth Bennet (trust me this is true – I have literally come to blows with my sisters about which one of us is Elizabeth – and no, Lizzy, having the same name does not qualify you. Not as much as being the second-born daughter, that’s for sure [sorry everyone, I just can’t let it rest]). Because in our secret hearts we know we are witty, pretty with fine eyes, just as attractive and lovable and beloved of our fathers as Lizzy (or if not, dammit, we should have been). In a word, we are Cinderellas, one and all. (sorry if you’re getting mad now, feisty modern females, but you know I’m right. You don’t have to admit it to anyone, it’s fine.)

Reason no. 3: the costumes. It is  pleasantly pervy to be a sexual modern woman who in her imagination is wearing a high-bodiced dress with little puffed sleeves such as only children wear – i.e. very unsexual – and having sex with a man with big leather boots on. Well, I’m sorry, but it is. Or is it just me? Oh god, embarrassing. Never mind.

Reason 4: a nicer, innocent age where people had lovely manners and wore high-bodiced dresses with little puffed sleeves. The lovely enduring fantasy of the age of innocence – where nobody was bitchy or complicated or neurotic or corrupt – or if they were they were obviously baddies. Somehow it’s just classier to have sex in period costume than in modern clothes. There were actual virgins in those days too.

(Obviously Reason 4 is bollocks. We all know it wasn’t a nicer time – a) there was no internet b) there were no flushing toilets c) dentists were terrible as were teeth d)and what about antibiotics? I’m afraid a mustard plaster just isn’t as effective. also e) no central heating. Come on!)

Reason 5: I may have run out of reasons.

But it’s interesting isn’t it? Well, I think so.

 

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The devil is in the detail: the pleasures of research

In my first Mary Bennet novel, I had a ready-created world, kindly provided for me by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. I had no desire or need to stray from that – the point of the novel was to take an aspect of that world and run with it, to imagine what happened after P&P ended – for all the characters, but particularly for Mary – and to stay true to the universe of the original novel with some broadening out of landscape and particularly of Mary’s inner world.

In the novel I’m working on now, the sequel to the sequel, Mary is no longer in Jane Austen’s world, and although I am hanging on to some of the characters (because I love them too much to let them go), I’m having to imagine my own Regency world.

Of course, there’s Georgette Heyer to steal from, but I have tried very hard to excise all Heyerisms from my writing – which isn’t easy, given the number of times I’ve reread her books. I recently picked up a Regency period historical – ever hopeful to find the equivalent of an unread Heyer – and was horrified at how many direct steals there were in the dialogue in the first chapter (the author kind of gave up after that and went all MA-in-Creative-Writing on my ass but that’s another story). [Ouch. I can’t believe I’ve got ass and Georgette Heyer in the same sentence].

Thing is, Heyer invented her own Regency world, with its own highly researched but also highly stylised language, and its own social parameters, and I don’t think other writers can use her research and keep authentic. Also it’s just so glaringly obvious to any Heyer aficianado that they’ve simply stolen her research and her style.

(Will I ever get to the point???)

The pleasures of research, the pleasures of research. It’s not so much  getting accuracy of facts: facts are great – which kind of carriage, what you call that bit of a frock etc – but far more interesting to me is what would have felt like to live in that world. The noise, the smell, the utilities, how you pay a bill, what’s it like if you’re neither an aristocrat or a pauper, but earning a living somewhere in the middle, what are the pavements made of, who cleans the street, how was that banquet for 1200 people at the Lord Mayor’s organised, who did the catering, how did they get the courses ready on time, what was it like to be on stage having sung a big duet and have the pit and the boxes roaring at each other over whether you were going to do an encore or not?

There is a lot of music, both professional and amateur in my current project, so I’m reading a lovely book about Haydn’s trip to London at the end of the 18th century, to try and get a feel for what it was like to live and work as a musician at the time. Haydn speaks to my heart, not just in his music, but in his curiosity about this country he’s arrived in. He likes figures, he’s interested in how much things cost, he’s interested in the domestic and thinks it worth commenting about.

Here are some bits that I particularly like, and which open up a sense of everyday life at the time and also give a sense of the continuity of ordinary urban experience that it’s still possible to identify with:

“I have nice and comfortable, but expensive, lodgings. My landlord is Italian, and also a cook, and serves me 4 very respectable meals including wine and beer.”

“The noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.”

“The City of London keeps 4,000 carts for cleaning the streets, and 2,000 of these work every day.” (Helps you imagine what the streets must have been like)

“Oranges from Portugal arrive in the middle of November, but they are quite pale and not so good as they are later.”

“Lord Barrymore gave a ball that cost 5,000 guineas. He paid 1,000 guineas for 1,000 peaches. 2000 baskets of gusberes [gooseberries], 5 shillings a basket.” (That was in May: how do you get peaches and gooseberries in May in England?)

This is from a flyer for a concert:

“Tickets transferable, as usual, Ladies to Ladies and Gentlemen to Gentlemen only.” (What? Why have gender-based tickets? What was that about?)

“The subscribers are intreated (sic) to give particular orders to their Coachmen to set and take up at the Side Door in the Street, with the Horses’ Heads towards the Square.” (Of course you’d have to have all the carriages facing the same way – these things had to be thought of.) “The Door in the Square is for Chairs only.” (Yes, don’t forget that lots of people would arrive by chair. It was 1791)

But a final caveat. This is what Bernard Cornwell says about research, and he’s generally worth listening to, whether you like his books or not:

Research, how much is needed?  The answer is annoyingly contradictory – both more than you can ever do and only as much as is needed.  By that I mean that you can never know enough about your chosen period, and so your whole life becomes a research project into the 16th or 18th or whatever century it is you are writing about, but when it comes to a specific book there really can be too much research.  Why explore eighteenth century furniture making if the book doesn’t feature furniture?  Do as much research as you feel comfortable doing, write the book and see where the gaps are, then go and research the gaps.  But don’t get hung up on research – some folk do nothing but research and never get round to writing the book.

http://www.bernardcornwell.net/writing-advice/

 

First rejection

You know what, it was OK.

Apparently they only represent crime and thrillers and such (oops I thought I’d researched that).

But they still went to the trouble of reading some of what I wrote.

And they said I “caught Jane Austen’s idiom very well” – which I liked. But then I am the kind of person who eats food off the floor.

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Not really crying.