(Originally Published in “So Little Time” blog, 6/27/17)
Outsiders to our world may react to the genre much in the way that Ms Austen’s contemporaries reacted to novels (see any of countless Darcy snorts over Georgie’s taste in reading material). However, honest JAFF authors who appreciate their craft do analyze their writing with the same level of intensity as a Le Carre, O’Brien, Ephron, or Lewis. Simply pick up any of the works by authors in the Austen Variations or Austen Authors collectives (and many more outside of those two baskets). You will discover honest, well-written literature that transcends the romantic formula to force you to rethink the traditional memes.
There are times when I become concerned that readers will become disequilibrated with some of the darker aspects of my stories.
Mary being assaulted by Collins in “The Keeper” is an example. Or Kitty being injured in the park in “Of Fortune’s Reversal.” Yet, in the first case, the attack is used to establish Collins’ character. In the second, the attack is to set the underlying character of that particular version of Kitty Bennet…bravery in the face of danger to another…where she had been established (barely) in the Canon as a mouse-like follower. The Bennet Wardrobe Kitty’s trials in The Exile, while disturbing, are neither gratuitous nor unnecessary, but rather are intentionally offered up.
But, this is something upon which I reflect as I write. This angst is often derived from reading other authors’ works and seeing that the crux-stresses are frequently emotional rather than (in most cases) physical. See Ola Wegner’s deft use of emotional crises. But, as a counter-balance, consider Melanie Schertz who uses physical danger to great effect.
Is this a question of my gender? Am I predisposed to action rather than reflection because I am a man? Is a woman more likely to be contemplative?
When Barbara Tiller Cole interviewed me for her wonderful blog, Darcyholic Diversions, she alluded to the question of gender when she noted the paucity of male writers of JAFF (you can probably tick off the names on the fingers of one or, at most, two hands). Her question led me to reflect not upon the biological distinctions that separate men and women, but rather the cultural and social forces that shape that which social scientists refer to as gender. Here is an excerpt of my response:
“…why should there not be a hundred women writing Napoleonic sea sagas…or spy novels? Why should there not be a hundred men writing Jane Austen Fan Fiction? Oddly enough, while novels were seen as not ‘serious’ writing in the Regency, we need to recall that one of Ms Austen’s biggest fans was the most important man in the kingdom!
If the writing is honest and does not reflect either the male ego or the female ego in its structure, can it not transcend biases and reach an even broader audience? I found Austen’s original stories to resonate as truthful examinations of human behavior. It was her truthfulness that spurred me forward to try to offer my own variations on her efforts.” (DD, 6/21/17)
As part of my preparation for the interview, I re-read one of the best discourses on writing…Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I commend it to you. Writing in 1929, Woolf discusses how problematic it is for “regular” male authors to discuss women’s subjects. She clearly points out that the male ego (“The Shadow of ‘I’) is prevalent on every page, making it obvious—and subsequently oppressive—that it is a man opining.
I continually fear that I may be falling into that trap by allowing my work to grow organically from deep within me.
Yet, I am mindful of the aforementioned John LeCarre. The bulk of his work, while about male spies, deals with men of emotion and thought. Smiley, a male character, a ruthless spymaster, is the opposite of everything we have been conditioned to expect from a male lead. George Smiley is preternaturally quiet and placid, yet he has depths of sensitivity that enable him to prevail precisely because he is NOT a man of action.
In fact, the care with which Smiley is written convinces me that LeCarre is writing with Coleridge’s “Androgynous Mind”—or as Woolf suggests: man-womanly or woman-manly. LeCarre writes with both halves of his mind. He expresses human emotions in a non-gendered manner—to brilliant results.
I believe that I, myself, am conversant with both sides of my mind—the male and the female. As such I believe that the work that is growing in front of me is an organic result of both parts of me.
Not all writing about a female character needs to be structured in soft, gentle and other feminine characteristics. However, in order to have any writing to be meaningful, the gendered natures of the actions must be erased. If Darcy throws a crystal decanter into the fireplace…is his expression of anger more acceptable than when Caroline Bingley smashes a vase against her sitting room wall? Is Caroline being a virago while Darcy is a man in extremis?
Consider how Annie Reynolds surprises Henry Wilson and General Fitzwilliam in The Maid and The Footman by suggesting actions more suitably proposed by a man.
“We cannot allow Miss Margaret to drink anything prepared by Winters’ hand. I think you understand what I am saying, my Lord.”
Fitzwilliam’s eyes widened. He whistled below his breath and said, “Sergeant, take this woman’s words to heart. They say that the female of the species is deadlier. Your Miss Reynolds has just argued that we ourselves must drug the child tomorrow evening.” (M&F, Ch. XVIII)
Conversely, 6’ 3” Henry Wilson drops to his knees and screams in anguish moments after Annie takes matters into her own hands and dives upon the sword held by an existential threat to the British nation.
“Great cris de coeur shook the big man. He could feel the slickness that had spread through her gown. He knew that if it were daylight his hands would be stained, covered as they were with the seep that had enveloped her body.” (M&F, Ch. XXV)
We might look at either set of actions through gendered lenses—yet is Annie Reynolds acting manly and Henry Wilson womanly? Or are they taking the best and most humanly expressive paths for their characters?
I cannot answer if it is easier for a woman to write woman-manly. I can argue that it is difficult to set aside my decades of immersion in the socially-constructed discourse that asserts that men who act with bluster and loudness are being assertive, but that a woman who does the same is being shrill and a B#@%&. The voices that are ingrained in us can stand in the way of the truthful development of the characters with which we populate our stories.
I can only hope that I am successful in stepping beyond the fences socially constructed to normalize and explain the unfamiliar. T’will be up to you to decide my success or failure.
Please enjoy this excerpt from The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque. This comes from Ch. XXXVI where Lord Henry Fitzwilliam, now the Earl of Matlock has stepped into the gardens behind le Château des Brouillards, the home of Pierre-Auguste and Aline Renoir, in early May 1892.
Closing his eyes, he could feel his consciousness being pulled down into the center of his being. The swirling sensation was unusual but not disquieting. He could feel his entire corpus as if every nerve ending was on full alert, ready to go over the top. He was aware that a world outside of his core existed, but it held no real meaning as his mind expanded and explored the panoply of solutions laid in front of him.
The deeper he slid into the trance, the more aware he became of another presence, one that was as much him as it was distinct unto itself. This inner guide was reaching out to him, trying to communicate, to help him find comfort.[i]
Gradually, within the reality behind his eyelids he could sense and then ‘see’ another face gazing at him with the kindest eyes…or what he imagined a friendly expression for a phantasmal being. Sound slowly welled up in this other reality.
The whispers became louder as he immersed himself in his thoughts. But rather than becoming a maddening babble, each stream was crisp and clear. He could ‘reach out’ and touch a current, a solution, and appreciate it for what it was, what potential it could offer.
Holding sight and sound in his metaphorical fingers, Henry could sense that each of these individual strands, while interesting in themselves, had a broader importance when combined. They were awaiting a unifying force. When this realization rose to the surface of his internal discourse, the presence appeared within this remarkable environment. An ethereal hand, his and not-his, slid along the filaments, bundling them together with a brilliant thread that coruscated through the spectrum before settling upon the richest hue of china blue.
He reached out and gripped that strand. The haunting familiarity of the color coalesced into a clicking and rapidly moving kineograph, a flipbook, showing at first still pictures, but quickly changing into motion and sound.[ii] And there was only one subject—Miss Catherine Bennet.
Her life in his time flew by. He caught every interaction they had ever experienced, every instance when she had brushed against his consciousness. The sound of her rich alto chuckle echoed across the folds of his mind as she and Ellie had played some sophomoric teenaged prank designed to prick his ‘so-much-older-and-more-serious-than-you’ pretensions. Her infectious happiness morphed into her quiet lip-chewing moments as she wrestled with a difficult color combination in her efforts to capture a sunset over the Peak above Pemberley.
How could he have not known it before?
From that moment he first espied her terrified figure in his chamber’s doorway in those first seconds after she had stepped into his life from the Wardrobe, those china blue eyes had wrapped themselves around his heart.
He had fought it…Lord, how he battled with it since ‘86…all because of a woman he could never attain, lost as she was in his future. He had nothing of her, never would have anything of her. Just a fading memory of a feeling, of a scent.
All those years—wasted upon a dream that could never exist in this world.
And then his tears came as he mourned both the past…and the future.
She had quietly slipped down the rear stairs and had passed through Monsieur’s studio to exit into the garden. The meetings with Freud had continued to deliver relief. Today, however, as Kitty processed their work together, left her unsettled, as if some unseen gigantic hand had shaken the fabric of the universe. Ripples flowed across her thoughts, the wavelets leaving their traces on the shores of her unconscious mind.
She needed the peace she could only find beneath the willows.
Early on in her sojourn with the Renoirs, Kitty had discovered the hidden treasure that was the garden behind the house. Whenever Monsieur was between compositions, there he could be found. If little Pierre had finally driven the ever-gentle Aline to motherly distraction, Jacques would spell her and spend an hour chasing the youngster through the trees and shrubs. The more Kitty had learned of the Impressionist process, the more she understood the beauty that resided in the Renoir’s garden, whether it was hibernating in February or bursting forth in May.
Crossing the threshold, her shoes touched the lawn so carefully clipped each morning while still damp from the mists that gave the house its name. As she passed the boundary into greenness, she heard a soft, choking sound, as another soul released its sadness, throwing it into the wands that hung from a thousand branches.
Kitty was curious. T’was a man who sobbed. She was drawn to that at once strange yet so thoroughly familiar source of energy radiating from one who rarely released his pain. Rounding the buttresses of the eldest tree in the garden, Kitty nearly fell to her knees when she beheld he who had been haunting her dreams for the past month.
Henry, Oh my poor Henry!
Throughout all the years she had known him, she had never seen him in such a state. His grief when Lydia had died had been profound, but did not reach the gut-wrenching pain she was observing. The sheen of his tears on his cheeks glimmered in the scattered rays that lightened the darkling shade beneath the ancient willow. His hands rested limply by his legs, palms up, and fingers softly curled in supplication.
Something cracked inside of Miss Bennet. The wall that she had been chipping at during the dozens of sessions with the Doctor now suddenly was rent asunder like rotted muslin rather than holding firm like grey fieldstone. The healing mercy she had so carefully husbanded to bathe her own wounds poured forth. This she ached to dispense to the bruised figure seated before her.
Kitty moved closer, silently crushing the young green blades beneath her feet.
As Henry’s emotions raged throughout his body, blistering his raw nerve endings, an explosion fractured his fugue. A soundless scent raced through the gap—roses over cut grass—and washed away the channels of sadness and regret scoured into his soul.
So fresh! So new! Into what madness have I descended? Have I displaced myself back to October 1915? Am I trapped behind my eyelids in an eternal time loop?
Then a hand softly stroked his hair back away from his forehead in another familiar gesture not felt for those same nine years. With infinite gentleness, his left hand, so recently unoccupied, reached up as if under its own volition, to grasp that member and pull it down to his lips for a tender kiss.
Am I dreaming? Is She here? Am I there?
Her sudden gasp penetrated his awareness.
His eyes flew open, transitioning him from his inner world to the glorious beauty of Renoir’s garden.
And the china blue eyes under the blonde fringe that had beguiled him for months.
[ii] During the Victorian era, prior to the perfection of motion picture cameras and projectors by Thomas Edison, the kineograph or flipbook pioneered what today would be known as the animation process. See http://smfaanimation.blogspot.com/2011/01/flip-book.html