My Journey with Jane Austen…

Over the last little while, I have got to know a rather splendid person, one I’ve come to admire immensely.  Her name is Sue Pomeroy and she’s the director of a film-to-be about Jane Austen…

You know, there’s so much hype and chatter and all sorts about Austen’s work these days, but so often, at least to me, she seems to have got lost in it all.  Forgotten.  And perhaps it was that which made me warm so much to Sue and her ideas.  Because she puts Jane herself back into the picture.  And I love that.  I just love it.  And I thought you would too.

Ovecoming Pride & Prejudice coverSo without further ado, please welcome Sue Pomeroy talking about her Journey with Jane Austen

“My first encounter with Jane Austen was on a school trip to a stage production of – I think it must have been Emma.

“All I remember was an old fashioned ‘box set’ and actors wandering about with cups of tea in tights and carpet slippers, speaking very archly.  It was a total turn off and it put me off Jane Austen for years.  If that was the best Jane Austen could offer I wanted nothing more to do with her.

“The highlight of the evening was when one of the students dropped a box of Maltesers in the back row and they all bounced down under the staggered seats for ages.  That at least made us laugh.

“How wrong first impressions can sometimes be!  As the plot of her novel of that name reveals, sometimes first impressions prove to be the exact opposite of the truth.

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

“When I turned back to Jane Austen some years later to read Pride and Prejudice I realised how wrong I had been in my estimation of her.  I had reacted to the creaky theatre production and not to her at all.  So, somewhat humbled, I started afresh with a rediscovery of this rather brilliant novelist.

“The other major factor in my re-assessment of Jane Austen was my stay in East Berlin.  Strange, but true.

“I was thrilled to be awarded an arts bursary to work behind the Berlin Wall with the world famous Berliner Ensemble.  What an amazing experience that was.

“One of the things I saw at very close quarters were the tactics employed by writers and playwrights to step around the censorship of the communist regime, and get their ideas across.  For instance there were no less than three productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare in East Berlin during one season, which bemused me – until I realised they were using ‘the Wall’ in the Pyramus and Thisbe story, acted out by the rude mechanicals as a comment on the ‘die Mauer’, the Berlin wall.

“The more productions I saw in East Berlin the clearer it became – writers were using symbolism, humour and comedy as well as adaptations of classical work, to communicate their ideas. The audience knew this and were looking out for all the clues to the author’s real views.  In a repressive regime you have to employ all sorts of inventive ways to step around the political restrictions.

“That opened my eyes when I got back to reading Jane Austen.  It was her delicious wit and mischievous sense of humour that allowed her to find her own unique voice and deal with issues that would not have been considered palatable for a woman to voice openly in Regency England!

20130609_151400“She exposes hypocrisy within the church, the obsequious behaviour of the landed gentry to anyone of title, the blind obsession among the upper classes with breeding, the limited opportunity for intelligent women when a good marriage offered their best, and only, chance of happiness.

“In the period in which she was writing, novels were dealing with fantasy, great adventures, romantic extremism and epic subjects.  Jane on the other hand created novels which reflected the real world which she observed in great detail.  She had strong opinions and her characters played out her views on the world she lived in.  I am sure she got away with it through her wit and comedy.

“By the time I was working on an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I was smitten.  The more I worked on the adaptation, the more Jane Austen’s novel resembled a beautifully crafted cut jewel, shimmering as you hold it up to the light.

JA1“We took the production on an extensive UK tour of No 1 theatres at the same time as the BBC series was broadcast, and enjoyed the same rapturous reception.  It was fascinating to see the audience response to the characters and the twists and turns of the plot.  They picked up all the nuances of the hidden barb, the ‘off the cuff’ witticism, the send up satire. As readers would have done when first reading the novel, published during Jane’s own lifetime.

“Over the years, I feel I have become closer and closer to Jane Austen.  I feel I have got to know her as a person.  And my feelings toward her are of the greatest admiration, and an almost sisterly pride in her achievements.  I also feel a little protective of her.  To watch the public enthusiasm for her work grow to such proportions is breath taking.  And I sometimes wonder when I hear the experts pronouncing on her work, see the opulent screen adaptations and observe the universal delight in dressing up in frocks and breeches, what would Jane have made of it all?

JA2“I see her in her modest cottage in Chawton, writing away quietly, leaving the squeaky door so she could hide her papers when someone came in and I wonder if we have forgotten her individual journey to bring those novels to fruition and then to publication. Hers was not an easy life, as a poor country parson’s daughter, and it became less easy after her father died and she and her mother and sister had to rely on the generosity of others to get by.

“Her sense of humour, her love of family and her deep faith must have sustained her through some of the difficult times, but I do feel for her.  My heart goes out to her. This single woman, writing, keeping the flame of hope and love alive.

“That has been the catalyst for wanting to make this film. The growing love and enthusiasm for her work across the world is wonderful, but amid all the adulation and admiration and commercialisation I see a woman at her desk, in a small English village, having the tenacity and courage to keep on writing, to keep on hoping, to keep on loving.  I want to celebrate the events of this 200th Anniversary year, and the people we have met on our journey to film them.

“But before we all get carried away with the delight and the fun of it all, I want to bring the focus back to Jane herself and remind ourselves of her story.  To look at what it must have taken to write six brilliant novels as a woman at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and how Jane overcame the pride and prejudice of her own life and times to become a published author.  That’s what my film will be exploring.

***

Sue Pomeroy is currently making a new film about Jane Austen’s life and work.

Fuschia Films logoTo find out more about this new film, and to help make it happen please visit http://www.fuschiafilms.com/jane-austen-film-products-and-events/.

For more on Fuchsia Films see http://www.fuschiafilms.com

For regular updates follow the project on twitter @JaneAustenFilm and @FuschiaFilmsLtd

and www.facebook.com/JaneAustenOvercomingPrideAndPrejudice

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In which Bennetts mouths off…

Righto.  I thi-ink I’m about to offend just about everyone I know.

Good.  Excellent.  Carry on.

The thing is, of late I’ve noted a growing habit among authors which is fast becoming a source of vexation to self:  it’s this constant trotting out of ebook sales figures.

Now, this doesn’t particularly vex me because it engenders any sense of inferiority or otherwise.   Indeed, I’m delighted that many of my friends and acquaintances are prospering.

(I’ll also tell you right now, I don’t know my sales figures.  I daresay I could ask–though, to be honest, I really can’t be bothered.  And if you think I’m techno-savvy enough to even begin to know where to look for such things, think again.)

No.  But this whole thing really disturbs me–because it’s essentially treating the publication of a book, and the sales, as if it were all some kind of a competition.  It invites or even demands comparison.  And preening.  Or envy.  And that is not what it is about.  Authorship isn’t, or it shouldn’t be, a popularity contest! Continue reading

The calm before the storm…

Despite my oft-asserted claim that I’m nothing but an idler, I’m actually not much good at it. 

In fact, I’m complete rubbish at it.  Worse than rubbish.  I’m just plain annoying.

So, the enforced ‘break’ that finishing one book entails leaves my mind empty of problems to mull over, depleted of characters to wake me in the middle of the night, lacking the excitement of scenes to envisage…

I become, in short, a complete pain.  Especially to myself.  (The dogs aren’t that keen either.)

And this further leaves me without any excuse to procrastinate over those things I must do:  like choose and practise my readings for book signings and launches. 

So, I’m rather thinking I should get writing again.  If only to stop annoying the dogs in their afternoon napping. 

Righto.  Research, here I come.

Authors as publicity bods…

It’s sort of the way it’s done now, isn’t it? 

You, an author, publish your book and the very next thing is your out doing signings or talks about writing.  Doesn’t much matter what your book’s about–the appearances are de rigeur. 

So you dress yourself in what you imagine the public would like to believe authors dress like–a bit on the slovenly or scruffy side of vaguely arty (yes, the boots and breeches stay home)–and turn up to do your bit.

All well and good.

And I should say, one meets some genuinely superb people this way.  Fascinately, engaging, intellectually active people.  Which is a delight.

But…

(You knew there was a but coming…)

There’s always one.  One who’s watched every documentary–no matter how naff–on your subject, and they know best and will not be gainsaid. 

And they are there for the distinct purpose, not of listening to you.  No, not that.  They are there for the distinct purpose of demonstrating to anyone who is forced to listen by virtue of courtesy just how much they know. 

And they will argue with anything.  Absolutely ANYTHING. 

You say it, they will argue with it.

It can be something as boringly incontrovertable as “the upper ranks of the French navy were not as badly decimated by the Terror as the ranks of the French army”.  Fine.  Terrific. 

But this individual will see this not very provocative statement as a neon red rag to a particularly malevolent bull.

And charge in.

Now, let me just say, I loathe confrontation.  Detest and despise it.  (Which may be a clue to my affinity with horses–the ultimate ‘fleeing’ animal.)

I would do just about anything to avoid a confrontation, an argument, a let’s see who’s best and who knows more, a competition.   And I don’t care what the subject is.  I don’t care if the individual is spouting absolute drivel about things upon which I’m a bit of an expert. 

I will head off in the opposite direction the second they open their gobs.  Because these sorts of people have to be right.  They have to be.  Doesn’t matter how much you know, how much research you’ve done, how many degrees you hold, they know best.

Wonderful.  I’m delighted for them.

But to me, it’s just not worth it.  Which is now starting to present a problem, do you see? 

Because now, as a published and publishing author, I have to turn up and either sign books.  Or, heaven help me, burble something meaningful about the early nineteenth century or research or that kind of thing.  And as I say, in the main, it’s good and I meet tremendous people. 

And having been annoyed myself when people have muscled in on speakers I have very much wished to listen to, I reckon I need to think of a way to terminate these incipient disputes with the greatest of diplomacy and tact and without alienating the individual who’s determined to demonstrate their knowledge and acumen to the wondering world.  

So, from this angle, it looks to me as if I should concentrate a bit more on the riding and less on the authorship…What d’you think?  

Writing and talk…

spinningI’m meant to meet someone and talk about writing today.  Let’s just take it as read that’s an opportunity for me to demonstrate just how ineloquent, how buffle-headed, how truly inane I can be.  I may not be able to write myself into a corner–or at least I may be able to write myself in, but as a general rule, I can write myself back out…

Whereas talking, ha!  Show me the corner and I’ll be in faster than you can say hobbledehoy.

And then we get down to what makes me tick as a writer…it’s not making money–if ever there was a joke, that’s it.  And it’s not that I believe I’m cleverer than anyone else.  Or that I have more of a ego.  (Perhaps I do–though my loathing for the limelight would suggest otherwise…) 

In so many ways it boils down to love of the English language.  I love it.  I love the writers who write in English:  Shakespeare, Donne, Hopkins, H.D., Chrisopher Fry, Byron, Tom Stoppard…we have so many words that beg to be used, to be pronounced, to be held in the mouth like fine wine and tasted. 

I’m not saying there aren’t writers in other languages about whom I’m not equally passionate:  I have quite a thing for Pierre de Ronsard.  And for Friedrich Ruckert too. 

But where else than English could you have, “I caught this morning, morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, in his riding…”  And when I read that I just want to read it again, aloud, cherishing the sounds, the assonance, the alliteration, the way Hopkins has captured the smoothness of that falcon’s flight with his language.  It’s like Waugh said about Venice, “drowning in honey, stingless…”

Now a little recitation of that may go down well enough with the beloved, late of a winter’s night, with a fire roaring in the hearth…but I’m not convinced it will cut it in the current commercial market. 

But because that poetry, that love, is at the heart of my work, it puts me at a disadvantage when people start talking about cuts or changes or commercial deals…because when it comes down to it, I don’t care about all that.  When the talk turns to the commercial market, in fact, you’ve lost me.  I might be sitting there nodding (doing my best to look interested and perhaps even vaguely intelligent) but in fact, I’ve wandered off. 

I probably shouldn’t admit all this.  But in the face of the increasing determination to see books and writing as a commodity, one that is no different from a Barbie doll and her latest interchangeable wardrobe, I feel someone has to stand up for good writing.  Someone has to say, it’s not the same thing. 

Stacking ’em high, and selling ’em cheap is not enriching anyone’s life.  It’s not uplifting, it’s not encouraging or inspiring, it’s not contributing to a better future.  And good poetry, good writing does that.  It makes us think, it makes us dwell in a better place mentally, it does, just as the American poet Wallace Stevens says of art–that its purpose is to create a cushion against the pressures of reality.  And to that I say, yes and yes and yes.

And so as I go forward today to talk about some of this stuff, to talk about things like book trailers–which for all I think they might be unavoidable–makes me want to say, fine, but what about the written word?  What about the beauty of the language for the language’s sake?  Why should any of us labour to create that perfect sentence, that perfect fusion of sound and visceral reaction, and meaning, when it’s really only going to be a screenplay anyway? 

And if that’s how we’re now selling books, how will anyone be able to tell the difference between a great or even good writer and the chap who knows a bit about making a sharp video?   Which I daresay leads back to the question:  Are we interested more in writing our books or selling them?

And when the discussion gets to that point today, you may be sure I shall be thinking those words written some 400 years ago, echoing them with my wonted mystification at the modern world:  “Why is my verse so barren of new pride?  So far from variation or quick change?  Why with the time do I not cast aside to new-found methods and to compositions strange?  Why write I still all one, ever the same…O, know, sweet love, I always write of you…”