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I could not resist beginning a post about Jane Austen with this wonderful early illustration from Pride and Prejudice, which shows Lizzy telling Mr Bennet how Mr Darcy had helped Lydia and Whickham.
Cleary in the 1830′s the idea of a contemporary novel being a thing that could only ever be rooted in the period it was written or published did not apply. Hollywood did not have this problem either which gives us Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in a similar high romantic mode in the movie of 1940.
Given our period accuracy fetishism it is quite interesting to consider whether period inaccuracy has something to be said for it. Certainly an author as resonant as Jane Austen can survive the dress shapes being wrong, the furniture being wrong and the hair even more wrong. In that she is like Shakespeare – the stories are big enough to be played out in any world at any time. Pride and Prejudice in space perhaps? Emma in austerity Britain? (I do like that idea actually.)
I digress. What I wanted to consider in this piece was the long gap in Jane Austen’s writing career when she seems to have written nothing. Her father retired as a parson and they moved to Bath, which according to one biographer provoked a deep depression in Austen at being exiled from the only home she had ever known. According to another the period was a long one of revision of existing manuscripts and private writing. I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two – a mixture of block and mid career reflection.
By this stage Jane Austen knew what she was doing as a writer. She had mastered her craft. She knew she could write. She had also been very productive and may have been feeling a little burnt out. She may have needed the time to grow her new ideas. Is this what was happening in this long period of apparent silence? We can bet her mind was not silent, nor without new ideas forming.
I think we in the writing world have become a little hung up on the idea of visible productivity. There is a lot of be said for writing everyday – it keeps that side of you alive and creates a habit, but for a writer already as skilled as Jane Austen, it may not have been necessary. She had the necessary focus through long previous practice and instead of writing feverishly, she could allow ideas to gestate. This is such an important part of the process. Writing fiction is not just about writing stuff down. It is about story development and world building and deep characterization. Now, you can write all that down, but you can also hold it in your head and your heart and work it over and over again there. For a woman like Jane Austen this would have been a very real possibility and perhaps a necessity. Although there is some evidence she was excused some household duties to allow her to write, there were still daily obligations to be met – a certain amount of sewing for example. She was also a diligent pianist. From my experience both these activities are perfect for ‘writing in the head’ as we might call it.
When the Austens did return to the country, to Chawton, Austen began to produce again in earnest. What she did produce was a succession of masterpieces. Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion rank as some of the finest novels ever written in English. So the long gap, which may have been painful for her and frustrating at times, was also fertile. Novels as perfect as Emma do not arrive fully formed. They have to grow and evolve in the mind of the writer. This is what I think must have happened with Jane Austen.
The comfort we can draw from this is we should not always be afraid that we have not filled the blank page with words. Sometimes the words are not ready to come. Sometimes we do not have the space or the time in our lives to let them come. But we always have our minds and we can write in our heads no matter where we are or what we are doing. The long gap can be turned to our advantage.
Storms have been brewing in the world of BBC serial drama over the festive period. Firstly to mark 60 years of rural radio 4 soap, The Archers, the decision was taken to have one of the show’s most popular characters fall off a roof to his death. The untimely demise of Nigel, an aimiable toff, and wife of Elizabeth Archer provoked a howl of protest from the Twittersphere to the broadsheets. Only this morning in the Telegraph Alison Pearson accused the show’s producers of political correctness in piece called Ambridge and its putsch of the posh while complaints and laments continue to pile up on the BBC website when the actor who plays Nigel, Graham Seed explained how and why the decision had been made for him to leave the series.
However this fades in comparison to the fuss about Eastenders, which celebrated Christmas day with two birth scenes and then proceeded with a plot line over the next few days to extinguish one baby in a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and then send the bereaved mother to kidnap the other newborn child. This story has received at time of writing at least 6000 complaints from the BBC, not least from Anne Diamond, who lost a baby in the same tragic circumstances and has campained ever since for research and understanding of such deaths.
According to a piece in the Guardian she
“branded the plot “tacky sensationalism”. “I think it’s crass what they’ve done,” she told ITV1′s Daybreak.”I find it amazing that a cot death isn’t awful enough for any drama.” That they’ve had to actually make the cot death mother go slightly mad and then do a baby swap, is frankly offensive.”
The Guardian continues,
“The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), which worked with EastEnders ahead of the story, has also spoken out about the storyline, stressing its involvement “was limited to advice on SIDS risk factors, bereavement and the involvement of health professionals and the police”.
The charity added in a statement: “FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific ‘baby-swap’ plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way ‘endorsed’ by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent.””
The BBC have apparently now been forced to cut short the storyline due to these complaints.
For a writer and storyteller it has been interesting to observe the arguments and emotions that these two dramatic story lines have evoked. It is in fact a powerful and heartening reminder of the meaning and value that people attach to their stories. These programmes, which are fictions, are significant parts of their lives. They love and hate the characters that the writers and actors create. They are enthralled and involved by the events portrayed. They care about those fictional worlds and their inhabitants and draw solace, distraction and amusent from them. In the case of the death of Nigel Pargetter there is a real sense of loss and indignation that someone that they have allowed into their lives has been disposed of so callously by the powers that be. To many listeners it is a betrayal.
As a result, as storytellers, we have to remember that our task is a delicate one. A shocking storyline is always a great temptation. I have done horrible things to my own characters in my time and been berated by readers for it. There is always a danger of going too far and forgetting the impression that such events cause, or worse still, thinking gleefully “that’ll make ‘em cry.” Of course there must be drama, there must be heartache, there must be shock and awe, despair and triumph. We have to make things happen. We do not want anodyne fiction where tea cups clink together and passion is banished. But there are lines which we cross at our peril. The great trouble is that those lines are very often invisible.