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.



Too much information

Turns out I’m an information lightweight.

I joined twitter, thinking, well, novel’s finished, time to seek out My People and commune with them in the great twitterverse.

There are a lot of My People out there, a lot. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are one of them. People who love Jane Austen, people who write JA fan fiction, people who are obsessed with Pride and Prejudice (both the 2005 and the 1995), general Regency Period nutcases, many, many enthusiastic self-publishers of all kinds.

And then there are the journalists, the historians, the random funny people (I recommend @rhymeswithjen), familiar names that I can follow and feel bizarrely connected with in that bizarre internet way that feels real and yet isn’t – that feels so strangely real that when I actually meet friends of friends who I’ve chatted with on Facebook, I hug them with tears in my eyes. No joke.

So, what you don’t know about me (or care about either, and who can blame you), is that generally I try not to follow the news too much. In my day job (i.e. not writing) I hear lots of terrible things – basically that is what my day job is, listening to terrible things – and I feel that I am pretty much maxed out in the hearing-terrible-things department. I also believe that whether I know about the news or not, isn’t going to make much difference to the poor bastards who are going through whatever terrible thing it is. I read the Saturday paper, and eavesdrop on the odd conversation, just so that I have something pertinent to say when I am called upon.

But oh dear, once you start twittering or whatever it’s called, you’re just doomed. You get sucked in. You start having opinions. Next thing you know, you’ve clicked a link to the Tory Party Conference and are reaching for the nearest mallet to beat the shit out of the computer while you wipe the froth away from your chin.

Yesterday, there was this thing – I call them threads but I don’t think that’s the right word – it was called #mydadhatedbritain – and it was a response to the froth-inducing, mallet-requiring repulsiveness that is the Daily Mail, and their pathetic attack on a politician’s dad. Anyway, it was fab – joke after joke after joke, pouring in at great speed. The power of humour to undermine the twattiest newspaper in the country, even worse than the Sun.

Thing is, it filled my head so much I was actually hallucinating the twitter feed when I went to bed. And now I know so many dreadful things about Tories and what they’re doing, and I feel really angry and powerless and upset.

Today I am fried. I have information overload. I truly believe there are too many opinions in the world. I used to think just journalists had opinions. Journalists and Kesslers (you know who you are). But it turns out everyone has an opinion, and everyone’s kind of angry. Though actually loads of people are very witty, which is nice.

But just one other thing – you know when people say, ewwwww, too much information, like when you tell them something gross about a body part or some sort of excretion. Weirdly I don’t mind that.

The whole Mr Darcy wet shirt thing: why ‘Becoming Mary’ isn’t about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that Mr Darcy wet shirt thing. In fact I love it so much, here’s a photo of it.


(hmm shirt is actually dry here, but never mind)

You know what, looking for that inspired me to post this one too – the “look of love” across the drawing-room at Pemberley


(God I love that moment. Can’t actually count how many times I watched it.)

So yeh, I really loved the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, had a massive crush on Colin Firth, and he and Jennifer Ehle remain my preferred actors for Darcy and Elizabeth (having said that I loved Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen too and that whole film).

But. But. (Sorry back to the point….) I have also loved the book ever since it ruined my life when I was 13 years old. (Yes Jane Austen, thanks, thanks a bunch for ruining my life. I mean it. Ruined. Totally. Ruined.)

And like so many people out there, I really couldn’t bear that the book was over. So I decided I’d better write a sequel. I think  probably the only way for me to write is to write the book I want to read that I wish someone else had written. I still wish someone else had written it, dammit.

So back to the wet shirt thing. It is my contention that it is the wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of P and P that spawned the whole P and P sequel industry. Of which I have read and enjoyed much.

However, the book I wanted to write was less about sexual fantasies, enjoyable as they are, and more about what happens after “happily ever after”. When I was first thinking about it, I was in a cynical mood, probably at the tail end of one of my marriages, and I had mean thoughts about the Darcys, along the lines of ‘yeh, well, they may love each other now, but we’ll see what happens when the honeymoon period’s over’ etc etc. However, when I started to write, I realised that however much of a realist (read cynic) I am, I could not spoil the Darcys relationship, even in fiction. So that’s when the idea gradually came to me about how Mary might try to do so, seeing as she suffers from the same envy and bitterness that I was feeling at the time.

I suppose I wanted to explore how Mary goes from that  state of envy and bitterness to something even more painful, a realisation of the cause of her own envy, the lack of love in her own life, and then a realisation of the horrible and potentially destructive thing she has done to disguise and relieve her feelings. It’s an age-old sequence: if you can’t have something, first of all pretend you didn’t want it anyway, and then try to ruin it for the people who do have it.  Ouch.

Sound vaguely familiar to anyone else?

Here’s a scene from near the end of the novel, when Mary is full of remorse and is discussing it with “someone”. Hopefully no spoilers.

I took a deep breath and spoke in a rush. “I have destroyed the marriage of Mr and Mrs Darcy!”

“Mary, no! How can you say so? If ever there were two people who loved each other and will love each for ever, it is your sister Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. They could not be more devoted.”

“I know, I know! They were! But you have observed, I know you have, the cold looks he has given her. I have done this; I have poisoned his ears with lies. At least, I did not know they were lies, but I have filled his head with slander and untruth about Lizzy, and now he does not love her any longer, and their lives are ruined and it is all my doing.”

I yielded to a burst of sobbing that lasted at least five minutes.

“But Mary,” Mr Someone said when I had calmed somewhat,  “if you were genuinely mistaken about these lies, then of course that will be understood. If someone has misled you, it is not your fault.”

“No! No! I was not misled! Nobody lied to me; it was my own imagination, my own black and distrustful mind that invented it all. And now my poor sister will never be happy again!”

“Oh dear, this is certainly all very terrible. But I know Darcy, have known him for years, and a fairer-minded man does not exist. He will not blame you for your errors, and he will certainly be reconciled with Mrs Darcy, if indeed they have become seriously estranged, which I beg leave to doubt.”

I shook my head. “I know you are trying to comfort me, but it has gone too far for forgiveness – and anyway, I do not wish to be forgiven. I do not deserve to be. I only hope they can find a way to recover, so that the damage I have done can be repaired.”

He took my hand and held it. “Well, Mary, I think you may be proved wrong, and you will find that these misunderstandings can be cleared up by such rational people as your sister and brother. Meanwhile, if they do cast you off and you need shelter, I have been told that old Mr Jackson’s grandson who works the bellows on a Sunday no longer wishes to do so, so there is a vacancy there for a strong young person such as yourself.”

On plagiarism. Or unconscious homage, to put it more kindly

I went round the Brighton Pavilion at the weekend, built by the crazy old Prince Regent himself, and costing brazilians of pounds. Image

It’s a lot prettier on the outside than on the inside. The man was probably certifiable. He certainly had dreadful taste. Talk about plagiarism – it was supposed to be kind of Chinese/Indian style. Yergh. Bleurgh. Good Lord. etc.

Anyway, the slightly annoying thing was that as I wandered round the repulsively sumptuous palace, it triggered a memory of a scene from Regency Buck by one of my favorite authors, Georgette Heyer, and I realised I have a very similar scene in my novel. In Regency Buck, the heroine, Judith Taverner, is at a dinner at the Pavilion, and is preyed upon by the lascivious Prince Regent, who has the idea that she is a woman of easy virtue, after her disgraceful curricle race from London to Brighton, something no lady would do, obviously.


In my novel, poor little Mary gets preyed upon by an equally lascivious older man who she thinks is interested in her mind (a familiar delusion – in my case I’ve always wished someone would love me for my body and not my mind, but hey ho, you can’t have everything….). Like Heyer’s Judith, she is rescued by the hero, though in my novel, Mary’s sister Lizzy Bennet now Darcy also plays a crucial part. The reader doesn’t find out what Lizzy said to the horrible man, as Mary has been spirited away from the scene and is crying onto the hero’s shoulder by this time and we only see things from her POV; however, the smile on Lizzy’s face when she returns to the company is enough to tell you that she’s still on the same form as when she took on Lady Catherine de Bourgh back in the day.

So anyway – is it plagiarism? If so, it was most unconsciously done (spot the quotation from P and P anyone? A free mention on my twitter feed for the first person to identify it [now slow down everyone, don’t all rush at once]).

And to be fair, I think lascivious men preying on young females in historical novels – well, is it plagiarism, is it just a well-worn trope, or is it just a fairly accurate reflection of what it’s like to be a young and ignorant and compliant female? Or is it a crucial plot device?


Why Mary?

In Pride and Prejudice, Mary is a caricature: she is vain, stupid, pompous, self-righteous and completely lacking in self-awareness. I’ve seen other sequels which have taken Mary as their starting point, and the writer has wanted to make her into a modern heroine – feisty, clever, talented, a square peg in a round hole. I can see the attraction of that, but I’m much more interested in the reality of Mary as Jane Austen created her.

I was intrigued by imagining the interior world of this poor, empty, conceited and lonely young woman. And of course, I wanted her to have a chance, to see if anything could be made of her life, if she could change and develop.

You can probably work out what my answer was to that question: how it happens – well, you’ll have to read the book.