This series of mini-interviews features the authors who contributed to our Austen anthology A CERTAIN PERSUASION.
Next is Manifold Press stalwart Adam Fitzroy, who wrote the story One Half of the World, inspired by the novel Emma.
Blurb: How much more romantic must it be to be stolen away in the night by a lady dressed as a man, to be thrown across the saddle of her horse and to be galloped off with across the moors by moonlight?
Q: How did you discover Jane Austen and her works? What was the initial appeal?
It was the 1972 BBC TV version of Emma which first took my fancy; I was never an Austen fan growing up because I was far too invested in the Brontës, and I’d got it into my head that it wasn’t actually possible to like both. (I had a pretty strange childhood, so it’s probably best not to enquire further!) Not knowing the stories, of course, the fact that Emma ends up marrying Mr Knightley initially took me by surprise – and I remember being similarly astonished years later when (spoiler alert!) I found out that Marianne married Colonel Brandon. This wasn’t the standard boy-meets-girl template I was used to at the time from TV and movies, and I suspect I was initially wowed by the idea of an experienced older man being selflessly in love with someone considerably younger.
Q: Has she surprised you since then?
Yes, by being funnier than I originally expected. The Brontës, bless their hearts, may be many things, but ‘funny’ isn’t really on the list! There’s a wry, waspish humour in the creation of characters like Mrs Elton, Miss Bates and (elsewhere) Mrs Norris which makes them laughable on the surface but also gives them a deeply unhappy core. Who would envy Mrs Norris’s lot, after all, being sent off into what sounds like the dreariest possible exile? And can we really imagine that Mrs Elton and her caro sposo will ever truly be happy? And the putting-on-the-play sequence in Mansfield Park, which gets more and more out of control as it goes on, just feels like slapstick to me – complete with the sudden glowering intervention of the comedy villain to bring it all crashing to a halt!
Q: Which Austen character do you like best? Which do you identify with most?
No doubt about it, right at the top of my list is Mr George Knightley. I like him because he embodies so many of the restrained virtues of an English gentleman; he’s gracious, charming, attentive to old Mr Woodhouse (who is another of the comical characters with sadness inside – not only is he a widower, but he’s probably also struggling with the onset of dementia), fair, patient, slow to anger and generous to a fault. Some of these qualities are of course also shared by Colonel Brandon, but Knightley is more at ease than Brandon in a social setting and less burdened by an unhappy past – although it’s also fair to say that he’s had less of the suffering which is supposed to be so good for the development of a person’s character!
I don’t think I identify strongly with any of Austen’s characters, but I have great sympathy with Harriet Smith’s romantic ineptitude; her persistence in falling for the wrong person and being damaged by it, and her daft obsessions such as saving Mr Elton’s court-plaster, definitely ring a distant bell with me. In the present day Harriet – who is, after all, a teenager – could get this sort of thing out of her system early by having crushes on TV or film stars; in the narrow world of Highbury she’s restricted to having futile obsessions for unsuitable men. Her crush on Mr Elton is largely Emma’s doing, and although Harriet’s deeply upset by the ending of her hopes I’ve never really been sure how much of her heart was in it in the first place. Her crush on Mr Knightley, on the other hand, strikes me as being perfectly reasonable – if transient – not least because he’s clearly the finest specimen of manhood to be discovered in the area. Her first-and-last love for Robert Martin, however, is a combination of teenage crush and grown-up decision-making; in modern parlance she ends up marrying the boy next door, and when that’s a clear-eyed choice arrived at with a bit of perspective the chances are it’s going to turn out rather well.
One more thing I’d like to add about Jane Austen’s work is this: it’s no surprise to me that a ‘spin-off culture’ has emerged from it. Her characters are so deep and richly-drawn that it’s natural to want to know what happens to them next, what would happen if characters from different books met up, or how they would deal with the sudden arrival of either Jemima Rooper or a zombie plague; there are enough characters, enough plots, and more than enough wonderful writing in Austen to provide those who enjoy her work with talking-points to last them quite happily from now until Doomsday – or beyond!
Author bio: Imaginist and purveyor of tall tales Adam Fitzroy is a UK resident who has been successfully spinning same sex romances either part-time or full-time since the 1980s, and has a particular interest in examining the conflicting demands of love and duty.