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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’s life’ Category

I had the great pleasure of “meeting” Zöe Wheddon, author of Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd, online earlier this year. Her book immediate caught my eye because I’ve always been intrigued by the friendship between Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd. (You can read my book review here.) We started to chat and instantly hit it off. She’s a kindred spirit for sure!

The following is my interview with Zöe about her writing process, her thoughts on friendship, and some of her favorite highlights from her research for Jane Austen’s Best Friend. Zöe grew up and lives in Austen’s Hampshire countryside, and I think you’ll enjoy her unique perspective.

Question: What was it about Jane and Martha’s friendship that intrigued you and what inspired you to write this book?

Answer: I had been reading lots of biographies about Jane Austen following taking part in the Basingstoke Book Bench Art Trail to commemorate the bicentenary of her death and I was volunteering at Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House, at Chawton in Alton. Martha just seemed to pop out of her bedroom one day and say hello to me. I was so compelled to find out more when I discovered that Martha had lived with Jane for such a long long time. It struck me as a rare and poignant position that she held within the household, a quiet yet fundamental person in Janes’ circle, someone very close knit with her but who was not a blood relative. I had to know more about this person – I knew she must have been pretty special for Jane to keep her so close and for so long. I was so surprised to learn that there was nothing much written about Martha and the more I researched the more amazed and intrigued I became.  I was delighted to learn that this lovely lady had been there for Jane and it honestly made me so happy to find out about the different elements of their friendship, I just had to find out more.

Question: Can you tell us about some of the ways Martha impacted Jane’s life as a woman and as a writer? Why did Jane and Martha have such a strong bond?

Answer: Jane met Martha at an important time in her life, she was fresh back from boarding school and turning 13, when Martha moved into the neighbourhood. 10 years older than Jane, she was a breath of fresh air, with that curious mixture of sense and sense of humour and the pair became thick as thieves. I think that Martha and Jane were kindred spirits who brought out the best in one another. The fact that they had so much in common helped, but that they both wanted to explore their talents and creative ideas also drew them closer together. They were the type of best friends that shared that special and unique blend of being able to encourage each other and also, at the same time, to not let each other off the hook. Their strongest bond was their shared Christian faith which meant so much to them both in terms of identity but their sense of humour was the glue that held them together. 

Question: Describe your research process for this book. What were some of your personal highlights?

Answer: I started by reading all of Jane’s letters and looking for any reference to Martha and her family – we don’t have many of Jane’s letters left, for as we know her sister Cassandra burnt them all, which was an Austen family tradition, but we have quite a few either written to Martha or talking about her. I loved the humorous side eye that Jane gave Martha in them – I felt as if I was listening in on one of their private conversations.

I also read lots of family diaries, including the pocket books that belonged to Martha’s sister Mary and family Wills and letters. I truly love being in an archive, as it is thrilling to open up original documents that are hundreds of years old.

I also visited lots of significant places in Martha’s life. I was struck at how the scenery and landscape of their shared Hampshire experiences reflected that of Jane’s novels. It was so incredible to go back to different locations and see what is left too. Sometimes there was a whole building or church, albeit extended and amended, sometimes there was one simple entrance tower, as in the case of the church where Martha married Francis Austen, and sometimes there was a housing estate built right on top – How I would have loved to have seen the real Portsdown Lodge.

I also did lots and lots of reading and spent many hours curled up on the floor in my local library or typing away in a coffee shop. Reading and researching and then heading back out on their trail and discovering different elements that still existed was a huge thrill. Visiting Martha’s grave was very special, to trace her life from start to finish and to marvel at all she had experienced was humbling.

I started out being very envious of Martha, being Jane’s best friend, but by the end of my journey, I was pretty envious of Jane – Martha was one amazing lady.

Question: How have your friendships shaped your life and why do you think close friendships are so important?

Answer: Like Jane Austen, I too have a small circle of friends, and it is a cliché to say it, but my husband, Matt, who I have been married to for 30 years really is my best friend. We have grown up together, having got married quite young at 19 and 21 respectively. There is something so lovely about having so many memories and in jokes and that sort of short hand that best friends have. I have another special friend who goes back years too, and the best thing is that it doesn’t matter if we don’t see each other for a while – we just seem to pick up where we left off, which is lovely. I also have a friend with whom I can keep everything real, we know we can tell each other how we are truly feeling and that we will be understood, without any judgement. I think everyone needs at least one friend that they know they can call in the middle of the night or the middle of an emergency – knowing that they are in your corner helps keep us sane.

Question: What has your experience been growing up and living in Jane Austen’s Hampshire?

Answer: My grandparents lived in Overton, a village just next door to Jane Austen’s Steventon and I visited often as a child. I feel so lucky to be able to relate to the settings and the countryside in Jane’s novels, as they always seem like another character in themselves to me, and through this shared experience, I have always felt such a personal and profound connection to Jane Austen. Locally we are so proud of Jane. For the bicentenary of her death the town commissioned a statue of her, to be placed in the market square, just outside the Town Hall and opposite where she is believed to have danced at local balls. Knowing that she lived and moved and had her being in the same places as I do has always felt magical.

In fact, the reason I started researching Martha Lloyd in the first place was after taking part in an Art Trail of Book Benches scattered across the local Hampshire area; at sites Jane visited, stayed at and lived in. Each bench was designed and painted by a local artist. (See photo below of me sitting on the one outside St. Nicholas’ Church in Steventon.) This experience plunged me into a reading frenzy. I read every biography of Jane that I could get my hands on. As I read more, I started volunteering at Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House and I kept hearing Martha’s name mentioned here and there.  I spotted her in my mind’s eye, on the edge of this special family group. I imagined what that must have felt like, and so I started following her – I had to know more. I felt that Martha might be able to teach me something about Jane that other biographers could not. Thrillingly, I was right.

Question: Do you continue to visit the Jane Austen sites often? 

Answer: I visit Jane Austen’s House and Chawton House on a regular basis, as often as I can and at least twice a year, because they feel like such special places. Truly. With just a short, 45-minute drive I can be walking where Jane walked, taking in the views which are fundamentally unchanged from when she gazed upon the same verdure. I just love it.

Question: When did you start reading Austen?

Answer: I started reading Austen at the age of about 9. I remember being intrigued by a set of books with such long and unusual titles. I loved the alliteration ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and even though I didn’t really know what they meant, they seemed so enigmatic to me. I wish I still had those copies.

Question: Do you feel as though being a “Hampshire girl” yourself has given you special insight into Austen’s life?

Answer: I have always felt deeply rooted in Hampshire; I love that I have the same feeling of ‘home’ there that Jane and Martha did. Researching the book and venturing out into the local environs, I tangibly felt their strong bond weaved within their shared environment and surroundings. They both adored walking, getting out and about, exploring and enjoying the natural world. To a large extent time stands still when you are out in the countryside and it is a privilege that as a Hampshire girl one can feel closer to them there, out in the fields, than anywhere else. 


Thank you to Zöe for taking the time to answer my questions! I’m sure you can now see why I was interested in this book and in knowing more about Zöe’s life and writing. It’s especially lovely to read a book about our beloved Jane that is written from the viewpoint of an author who is a Hampshire girl herself. -Rachel


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A native of Jane Austen’s beloved county of Hampshire, Zöe Wheddon lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their 3 grown up children and their cat Leia. When she is not researching or writing, Zöe can be found in the classroom teaching Spanish and French or singing ABBA songs loudly in her kitchen. People can get to know her better at www.zoewheddon.co.uk.

Zoe Wheddon, Author

SOCIAL MEDIA

Instagram – Zoe_Wheddon
Website – www.zoewheddon.co.uk
Twitter – @ZoeWheddon
Facebook – @authorzoewheddon


ABOUT THE BOOK

JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD is a heart-warming examination of the ‘recipe for friendship’ between Jane Austen, (with whom all Janeites are best friends in their imaginations,) and Martha Lloyd. In looking back somewhat longingly at Martha and Jane’s strong and enduring bond we can examine all their interests, including the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats.

Through an examination of the defining moments of their shared lives together, the book gives readers an insight into the inner circle of the famously enigmatic and private authoress and the life changing force of their friendship.

All fans for Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that. JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Each chapter details fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

Available in the USA with Pen and Sword/Casemate.

PURCHASE LINKS:


Amazon (US)
Barnes and Noble (US)
Bookshop.org (UK)


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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Book cover of Jane Austen: The Missing Pieces by Harvey T. Dearden, using the popular profile image as a puzzle.Inquiring readers: Not only did I enjoy reading Jane Austen: The Missing Pieces, but spent many silent hours debating with its author, Harvey T. Dearden, agreeing or disagreeing with his points of view, and thinking back on my history of reading about and researching her life to find how I arrived at my own conclusions. This succinctly written book, only 168 pages long, including endnotes and bibliography, is packed with ideas and suppositions based on Jane Austen’s letters, novels, history, and the scholarly articles and books written about her. 

Introduction:

Like me, author Harvey Dearden is an amateur Janeite with a  keen interest in the topic, but whose area of expertise is in another subject area. In Mr. Dearden’s case, it is as an engineer; in mine it is as a professional development trainer. We do not pretend to be academics. Like amateur scientists in the 19th century who formed societies in pursuit of scientific knowledge, Mr. Dearden and I resemble Janeite enthusiasts the world over – those who study Austen’s novels and life to become well informed and are curious to learn more.

Mr. Dearden’s book, which examines questions regarding the many missing pieces in Jane Austen’s life and work, is divided into short chapters in a variety of topics, all of which pose questions or suppositions which readers and scholars have addressed about Austen for ages. Supporting evidence in these instances may be hard to find or might once have existed (such as in her letters to Cassandra and members of her family) but have either been destroyed or might be hiding undiscovered in an attic. 

Jane’s Face:

Here’s how my reaction and silent debate with Mr. Rearden’s conjectures worked, and why I took longer to read this book than I at first anticipated:

One tantalizing question most of us have is: “What Did Jane Austen Look Like?” The author addresses this in a chapter titled “Jane’s Face.” (p.99.) He refers to Cassandra’s small watercolor portrait of her sister, (which, in my instance, I saw as an American tourist in the National Portrait Gallery) and which he (and most of us) characterizes as an amateurish attempt; the engraved image included in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt, which was a supposed “improvement” upon Cassandra’s real life attempt; Jane’s engraved image on the 10 pound bank note; and recent forensic artists’ attempts at recreating her image in painting and sculpture according to family descriptions, family portrait resemblances, and physical traits that descendants have in common with the Austen bloodline. (Compare the images of actress Anna Chancellor, a direct descendent of the Austen family, [she played Caroline Bingley in P&P 1995] to Cassandra’s portrait of Jane and one of her father,  and you will see a family resemblance in the dark eyes, long nose, and smallish, tight mouth.)

Mr. Dearden’s clear language, his engineer’s logic, and his talented wife, Linda’s, lovely pencil portrait of Jane Austen, based on a portrait bust by sculpturist Suzie Zamit, makes sense from his POV and logic. I respect his conclusion and the two artist’s representations, so why am I introducing my own interpretation? First, because Mr. Dearden invites inquiry and makes it clear that our informed guesses are as good as his.

Second, because I’ve been trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art and practiced as a successful local artist in Charlottesville for ten years. My experience painting a family member’s portrait places me in a unique position to discuss the difficulty of capturing a likeness of a stern-faced woman. Mom and Dad Sanborn (my in-laws) had their portraits captured by a local artist, a talented man who delineated their features perfectly. Dad’s face showed a kind, smiling man. Mom looked like a mirthless, tight-lipped school marm. She framed Dad’s portrait, hung it in his study, and tore her portrait up. She then commissioned me to paint her. Aaargh! 

I could have fallen into a trap, for I considered her first portrait an accurate representation of her features. What the artist did not capture was her personality. So I asked the family how they viewed her, and thought about my relationship with her and her kindness, sweetness, and willingness to put family and friends above herself. The changes I made in her portrait were to enlarge her eyes slightly and soften her prim mouth into a half smile. I removed many of her wrinkles and worked on the pencil sketches a long time before embarking on the painting. She loved it. The family loved it. And none realized that I had cheated in favor of personality over feature accuracy. What they saw in my portrait was MOM.

This brings me to Cassandra’s watercolor of her sister. We Janeites have formed a personal connection to Jane Austen and have our own perceptions of how she might have looked. Cassandra’s watercolor, drawn and painted by an amateur, portrays a tight-faced woman with arms crossed in a protective, stay-away-from-me body language. The painting is extremely small and I would have used a smaller brush to paint her features, but it also lacks any semblance to the descriptions that Jane’s family gave us: her sparkling eyes, her liveliness and sense of humor, and one who enjoyed a loving relationship as a daughter, sister, and aunt.

I speculate that Jane felt comfortable to be totally herself in front of Cassandra, and that she might have been thinking about writing, editing, or correcting a particularly difficult passage she’d been working on, thus the “resting bitch face.”  As for us, her fans, we are still searching for that illusive image that reflects our knowledge of her, our personal relationship with her, and our own interpretation of what she might have looked like.

I spent a long time on my reaction to this 7-page chapter to illustrate that, while Mr. Dearden’s book is succinct, well-thought out, and clearly written, his speculations inspired me to examine my knowledge of Austen and how and why I reacted the way I did to her many mysteries. At times I agreed with him completely, but at other times I paused to think back on how I came to a different conclusion. 

I suspect Mr. Dearden would enjoy a healthy debate, as would I. I’d like to add that reading this book gave me great enjoyment and pleasure, and much food for thought.

Addendum: Denise Holcomb contributed her image of Austen portraits in a Will & Jane exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. in 2016.  She took an image of the progression of 3 portraits of Austen, from Cassandra’s rendition to the Memoir engraving.

The book’s organization:

This book is organized in such a fashion as to facilitate how the author arrived at his conclusions. Sources are listed after each chapter. The bibliography lists most of the books and resources I’ve used, but a few are included from authors that I have not read before, such as Marian Veevers.  Mr. Dearden backs up his arguments using Austen’s letters from Deirdre LeFaye’s excellent, fully inclusive edition, direct quotes from family and friends, evidence in Jane’s novels, and examples of her manuscripts digitized online at the Bodleian Library, for example.

Images of Jane Austen taken in progression from 1810 to an engraved portrait in 1870, Folger Exhibit, 2016.

Image taken by D. Holcomb at the Folger Exhibit, 2016.

I loved how the author used his engineer’s logic to consider the size and weight of the quatros of letters from Jane that Cassandra must have stored over the years, and the difficulty and the considerable time it would have taken her to burn those that she did not want to keep for posterity. He used both LeFaye’s information and his precise mathematical skills to calculate the sheer effort it would have taken Cassandra to burn those letters. 

I feel that Mr. Dearden missed one opportunity when he introduced Charlotte Bronte’s three letters regarding her opinion about Austen’s talent and genius. I loved that he reproduced the letters in full, which placed some of her more controversial opinions in context. Bronte could not have known of Austen’s Juvenilia at this time, but it bears repeating that the lack of passion that she accuses Austen of not having was displayed in full in these exuberant scribblings of a young and budding genius. 

For Janeites who are new to this conversation, this book will be a valuable addition. I see it as a great conversation starter for a book group who could use its list of topics for discussion over a year of meetings, or as a source of Austen resources that add value to any Janeite’s library collection. The bibliography for the neophyte Janeite, combined with Le Faye’s meticulous listing of all her known existing letters, provide an immediate resource for those who are only familiar with Austen’s novels and would like to know more about Austen’s conversational style and the missing information about her.

Riddles and word games abound in Emma. This book puzzles out the many mysteries in Austen’s life and continues that tradition. Dearden’s conclusion fits my assessment of Austen and why her novels attract readers with different political backgrounds, religions, sexes, and ages the world over.

“She is celebrated for the nicety of her language and, preferring the rapier to the bludgeon, she could use it in a most cutting manner. There is plenty of evidence for this in her private correspondence. There is with Jane no self-indulgent ornamentation beyond the immediate purpose of her stories. She would have wielded Occam’s razor with admirable zeal.” 

Purchase the book:

Amazon US: Click here

Amazon UK: Click here

About the author: 

Harvey T. Dearden Linked In portrait

Author Harvey T. Dearden

Harvey T. Dearden is a Chartered Engineer who works as a consultant in the process industries (power, oil and gas, chemicals, etc.; basically those with something in a pipe)…He is married to an Anglesey girl and lives in north Wales. He has one child who is mum to Otts [to whom this book is dedicated.]

This book is a family affair and I wish to record my gratitude to my daughter, Lucy Dearden Jones for the editing, my wife, Linda Dearden, for the portrait sketch of Jane and first proofreading, and to my niece, Alexandra Parkinson, for the book cover.

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I’ve always been intrigued by the friendship between Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd. (Who wouldn’t want to be close friends with Jane Austen?) When I saw Zöe Wheddon’s new book, Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd, I knew I had to have it.

As a lifelong student of Jane Austen’s life and works, I particularly enjoy books that focus on one aspect of her life. It’s helpful to have gathered into one place all of the information I want to read on a certain topic. Jane Austen’s Best Friend tells the story of Jane and Martha’s friendship and brings together many of the finer details of Martha’s life and her impact on Jane as a person and a writer.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Dodge

I was personally touched by the closeness that was shared by Cassandra, Jane, and Martha. Jane’s deep affection and care for both her sister and her friend are clear. I took note of the fact that Jane formed her strongest bonds with women who were wise and clever, devoted and kind. Her active mind needed people who could keep up with her quick wit—and even challenge her and keep her on her toes—and Martha seems to have fit the bill perfectly.

“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power.—She is very cunning, but I see through her design;–she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”

Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, June 11, 1799.

While this book takes on a lighter, more modern tone, the research is thorough and detailed. Jane’s letters to and about Martha reveal yet another warm, loving relationship in her close circle. The early years of their friendship were marked by silliness, witty remarks, dresses, and balls. Later, their relationship deepened as they walked through pain, loss, change, and grief together. Martha’s inner strength seems to have been particularly important in Jane’s life, especially as she grew older, began to see success as an author, and later became ill.

When I set out to read Jane Austen’s Best Friend, I wasn’t sure how much information could be found about Martha herself, but after reading it, I was amazed at just how much there is to learn about Martha Lloyd. While I enjoyed reading about the bosom friendship between Jane and Martha, I was blown away by Martha herself. She was truly a remarkable woman, and I could have just as happily read a book based solely on her life. It’s easy to see why she and Jane became as close as sisters. I’ve always wished I could spend a day with Jane Austen, but now I’d like to spend a day with these two friends. It certainly seems like they never ran out of things to say or do—and they always had a lot of fun along the way.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Martha Lloyd and her friendship with Jane Austen, this is the place to start!

Stay tuned next month as I interview Zöe and share details about her inspiration for Jane Austen’s Best friend, her thoughts on friendship, and some of her favorite highlights from her research for the book.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A native of Jane Austen’s beloved county of Hampshire, Zöe lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their 3 grown up children and their cat Leia. When she is not researching or writing, Zöe can be found in the classroom teaching Spanish and French or singing ABBA songs loudly in her kitchen. People can get to know her better at www.zoewheddon.co.uk.

Zoe Wheddon, Author

ABOUT THE BOOK

JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD is a heart-warming examination of the ‘recipe for friendship’ between Jane Austen, (with whom all Janeites are best friends in their imaginations,) and Martha Lloyd. In looking back somewhat longingly at Martha and Jane’s strong and enduring bond we can examine all their interests, including the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats.

Through an examination of the defining moments of their shared lives together, the book gives readers an insight into the inner circle of the famously enigmatic and private authoress and the life changing force of their friendship.

All fans for Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that. JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND: THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF MARTHA LLOYD offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Each chapter details fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

Available in the USA with Pen and Sword/Casemate.


PURCHASE LINKS:


Amazon (US)
Barnes and Noble (US)
Bookshop.org (UK)



SOCIAL MEDIA

Instagram – Zoe_Wheddon
Website – www.zoewheddon.co.uk
Twitter – @ZoeWheddon
Facebook – @authorzoewheddon


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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After sharing my book review of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice by Jasmine A. Stirling, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jasmine about her background, her writing process, and the inspiration behind her book. Thank you to Jasmine for her time and her thoughtful answers to my questions!

Q. What initially inspired you to write A Most Clever Girl? Describe your vision for the book and your writing process.

A. When I set out to write this book, I chose Jane Austen because I admire her life and her work, and because I believe she is one of the most misunderstood women in history. Jane Austen was far from being the prim, prudish, “dear Aunt Jane” depicted by her brother Henry and her nephew Edward in their biographies of the author. She is also far from being an author of swoony romances, as we are sometimes led to believe.

These discrepancies between the popular image of Austen and the real Jane Austen gripped me. I wanted to help young people understand Austen the rebel, Austen the humorist, and Austen the artist, so that when they encountered her work later on, they might better be able to fully appreciate and enjoy it.

However, as I delved into my research, it became clear that Jane Austen was a perfect subject for a children’s book about creativity and persistence, because her upbringing, life struggles, and triumphs tell us a great deal about what a writer needs in order to fully master her craft. Of course, I still hope that A Most Clever Girl will help kids relate to the real Jane Austen and encourage them to pick up her novels when they get a little older.

As for my process, it was extensive. I read widely on Austen—both primary and secondary sources—for two years before I wrote a single word. Then, I sat down and wrote a draft of the book in less than an hour. Of course, it was mediocre. It was my first attempt at creative writing as an adult. I was a beginner.

Over the next ten months, I worked for hours each week rewriting and revising the manuscript based on feedback from dozens of people—writers, kids, freelance editors, and agents. I continued to refer to and pull things from primary and secondary sources as I went. Ultimately, I rewrote or revised my initial draft more than 60 times. The final story was unrecognizable when compared with the first draft.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing this book was figuring out how to explain the literary significance of what Jane Austen did—pioneer her witty realist style, rich with social commentary and moral imperatives—to very young people who have no idea what literature was like in Regency England and have scant understanding of what a writer’s voice is all about. Hopefully I pulled it off!

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Q. What do you hope young readers and the worldwide Jane Austen community will gain from reading this book?

A. A Most Clever Girl is about the process of creative mastery. It’s about all those boring, mundane aspects of creative achievement that our culture doesn’t like to talk about—being rooted in place, having community support, getting consistent feedback, having time, money, and a room of one’s own, discipline, and maturity—which are critical for an artist to bloom.

My hope is that if children (and adults!) study and learn more about how someone becomes a great writer, or filmmaker, or painter, or musician, it will give them insight into how to nurture their own talents—whatever they may be—to greatness.

The message, I hope, is an empowering one. If one begins a project and it isn’t coming out quite as nicely as one expected, do not despair! Set aside ninety minutes each day before or after school or work and keep at it. Find your community. Get feedback. Advocate for the time and space to work on your craft. Be patient.

Although Jane Austen had written drafts of her most famous and beloved novels by her mid 20s, it was not until more than a decade later that she had fully developed her voice as a writer. In fact, by the time Austen had mastered her craft, she had been writing for more than a quarter of a century.

In short, creative mastery is not born of a flash of inspiration. Inspiration plays a part, but not the major part, in any creative endeavor.

Q. When did you first discover Jane Austen and how have her books touched your life?

A. I first fell in love with Jane Austen while reading Persuasion at age nineteen while studying abroad as an associate member of Keble College at the University of Oxford. I also adore Pride and Prejudice.

One way in which Austen inspires me is in her ability to create literature that is fun and escapist and yet anything but light. I am dazzled by Austen’s depth and skill as an artist, and love that she challenges our notion that great art must be a moody, dark, and bitter tonic. Austen, like Shakespeare, is able to work simultaneously on many levels at once. While distracting us with her perfect sentences and tidy plotlines, she entertains and amuses while also viciously satirizing patriarchy, the church, the aristocracy, and conventional views of women. Her characters are of her time and yet distinctively modern. She is perennially relevant, offering each new generation corrective wisdom without being gauche or overbearing.

Q. What was your research process for A Most Clever Girl and what sources did you consult? Have you visited any of the Jane Austen sites in England?

A. One of the things that I think is unique about A Most Clever Girl among children’s books is its liberal use of and reliance on primary sources. Austen’s letters are used to describe details of her life in three spreads. Actual examples from her juvenilia are referenced right at the beginning of the book. Quotes from her novels are sprinkled liberally throughout the text (in italics) to describe Austen’s own creative journey. Every detail, from what young Jane is reading in the second spread to what she thought about her how brother James cut up his turkey, is grounded in a primary source and laid out on an accurate timeline.

Each decision I made was carefully considered, often in agonizing detail. For example, several biographies state that Austen fainted upon hearing the news that the family would move to Bath. On further investigation, I concluded that, based on the primary sources used to develop this theory, this might not have occurred. So although I had included it in an early draft, I wrote it out later on. The last thing a biographer for children wants to do is to perpetuate inaccurate information about someone in history.

I was painfully aware throughout my writing process that Austen is a unique subject. Her enormous popularity and the vast number of professional and novice Austen experts means that anyone writing about her needs to be particularly sensitive about the many versions of the Austen narrative. I tried to tread that line respectfully while also making sure my own version of her story had real heft and direction.

When I was a student at Oxford I had the opportunity to visit many of the sites mentioned in my book. My college friends from those days are currently planning an Oxford reunion (when things open up again) and we plan to revisit the sites in A Most Clever Girl on the same trip.

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Q. The illustrations for the book are charming! Tell us about those and any other special features in the book.

A. I love that Vesper Stamper visited the sites that she illustrated for the book on a research trip to the UK. Her work emphasizes the three-dimensional portrait of Austen I worked hard to evoke in my writing. Vesper’s Austen sparkles with mischief and wit. At the same time, her illustrations are gorgeous and lush and tap into that escapism that I think make Austen such a delight for grownups to read.

Q. This book traces Jane Austen’s journey as a writer, from Steventon to Bath to Chawton, and explores the way she found her voice. What parts of her story were particularly meaningful for you? In what ways do you relate to Austen as a writer?

A. My journey mirrors Austen’s in that, as a child, I wrote prolifically. From the age of three, I regularly composed poems in my head and dictated them to my mother to write down. I wrote throughout my childhood and into my young adult life. But as an adult, I stopped writing completely, until a few years ago, when I began my first creative writing project—a picture book biography of Jane Austen.

My reasons for abandoning creative writing are probably not dissimilar to Austen’s. In hindsight, I wish I had understood more about how creative achievement works. I think it would have motivated me to carve out time for writing during those years, even when I struggled with where to begin.

Q. If you could step into one of Jane Austen’s novels, which one would it be and which character would you like to play?

A. I would most like to be Anne Eliot in Persuasion. I appreciate that Captain Wentworth is a self-made man, and that he does not come with a large estate. We would be free to make our own, new home together. I think his industriousness, good sense, and lack of inherited wealth would put me at ease. Furthermore, Wentworth writes the most romantic and self-aware letter in human history when he proposes to Anne. That letter would get me through many a quarrel in later years as we raised children and managed a household together.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I have a 450-page YA/New Adult narrative nonfiction book coming out next year about the women’s suffrage movement titled: We Demand An Equal Voice: Carrie Chapman Catt and Votes for Women. I am also working on a novel.

Interior illustration of A Most Clever Girl

Thank you again to Jasmine for her wonderful interview! If you haven’t read my book review of A Most Clever Girl, you can read it here. I found the book utterly charming. I’m planning to give copies to my friends at birthday parties, baby showers, and graduations–and pretty much every other occasion I can think of. I hope you do too! –Rachel

ABOUT THE BOOK

Witty and mischievous Jane Austen grew up in a house overflowing with words. As a young girl, she delighted in making her family laugh with tales that poked fun at the popular novels of her time, stories that featured fragile ladies and ridiculous plots. Before long, Jane was writing her own stories-uproariously funny ones, using all the details of her life in a country village as inspiration.

In times of joy, Jane’s words burst from her pen. But after facing sorrow and loss, she wondered if she’d ever write again. Jane realized her writing would not be truly her own until she found her unique voice. She didn’t know it then, but that voice would go on to capture readers’ hearts and minds for generations to come.

PURCHASE LINKS:
Amazon
Bookshop.org


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jasmine A. Stirling is the debut author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography of Jane Austen about persistence and creative mastery. Jasmine lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. From a young age, she loved to write poems and stories and worked her way through nearly every children’s book (and quite a few for grownups, too) in her local library. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found hiking in the fog, singing songs from old musicals, and fiddling with her camera.

Follow Jasmine on Instagram and Facebook @jasmine.a.stirling.author where she posts about kidlit and life with two young girls.


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases later this year. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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In light of Women’s History Month, I’m pleased to share my review of a beautiful new book by Jasmine A. Stirling that is sure to delight the hearts of Jane Austen fans of all ages entitled A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Found Her Voice.

This exquisitely illustrated, full-color book traces Austen’s writing journey from her younger years at Steventon, to her “quiet” years in Bath after her father died, and finally to her years of astonishing creativity at Chawton. This is a book you’ll want to read for yourself, give as a gift, and display on your coffee table.

The writing by Jasmine A. Stirling and the illustrations by Vesper Stamper truly make this book a feast for the eyes and the heart. As a lifelong Austen fan, I found myself swept up in Stirling’s writing style. Her exploration of Austen’s talent, her heart, and her genius brought me new-found joy. This book vividly captures Austen’s experiences as a writer and shows us why her writing still endures today.

Jasmine and I connected on social media several months ago, and I was intrigued by her book because it is a fictional telling of what I and many others have noticed about Austen’s writing career: that she found her perfect time and place to write when she came to Chawton. (You can read my article on this topic here: New Beginnings at Chawton Cottage.)

Jasmine’s book explores the early foundations of Austen’s literary upbringing, the depth of character that Austen’s life experiences produced, and the intriguing set of circumstances that allowed Austen to discover her unique writer’s voice at Chawton.

I highly recommend A Most Clever Girl to any Austen fan of any age. I especially like the idea that I can give this book as a gift to my friends and family members who have younger children so that their children can be exposed to Jane Austen at an early age and be inspired to follow her example as a person and as a creative.

Please continue reading below for the book details, purchase links, and details for a lovely giveaway contest which includes a Jane Austen-themed picnic basket and a hardcover copy of A Most Clever Girl autographed by Jasmine A. Stirling!

ABOUT THE BOOK

A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Found Her Voice
Written by Jasmine A. Stirling
Illustrated by Vesper Stamper
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Release date: March 30, 2021

Publisher’s Synopsis: Witty and mischievous Jane Austen grew up in a house overflowing with words. As a young girl, she delighted in making her family laugh with tales that poked fun at the popular novels of her time, stories that featured fragile ladies and ridiculous plots. Before long, Jane was writing her own stories-uproariously funny ones, using all the details of her life in a country village as inspiration.

In times of joy, Jane’s words burst from her pen. But after facing sorrow and loss, she wondered if she’d ever write again. Jane realized her writing would not be truly her own until she found her unique voice. She didn’t know it then, but that voice would go on to capture readers’ hearts and minds for generations to come.

PURCHASE LINKS:
Amazon
Bookshop.org

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jasmine A. Stirling is the debut author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography of Jane Austen about persistence and creative mastery. Jasmine lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. From a young age, she loved to write poems and stories and worked her way through nearly every children’s book (and quite a few for grownups, too) in her local library. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found hiking in the fog, singing songs from old musicals, and fiddling with her camera.

Jasmine first fell in love with Jane Austen as a student at Oxford, where she read her favorite of Jane’s six masterful novels, Persuasion. A Most Clever Girl is her dream project, done with her dream team—award-winning illustrator Vesper Stamper and Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing. Jasmine also has a YA/New Adult history of the women’s suffrage movement out soon, titled We Demand An Equal Voice.

Visit www.jasmineastirling.com to get a free Jane Austen paper doll kit with the purchase of A Most Clever Girl. While you’re there, enter to win a Regency tea party gift basket!

Follow Jasmine on Instagram and Facebook @jasmine.a.stirling.author where she posts about kidlit and life with two young girls.

GIVEAWAY DETAILS

Enter for a chance to win a glorious Jane Austen-themed picnic basket, including a hardcover copy of A Most Clever Girl autographed by Jasmine A. Stirling!

ENTER GIVEAWAY HERE

One (1) grand prize winner receives:

  • A picnic basket filled with:
    • A copy of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, signed by author Jasmine A. Stirling
    • A vintage teacup
    • 1 oz of tea From Adagio Teas
    • Truffles from Moonstruck Chocolates
    • Gardenia hand cream
    • A set of Jane Austen playing cards

Two (2) winners receive:

  • A copy of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, signed by author Jasmine A. Stirling

The giveaway begins March 16, 2021, at 12:01 A.M. MT, and ends April 16, 2021, at 11:59 P.M. MT.

BOOK TOUR SCHEDULE FOR A MOST CLEVER GIRL

March 16The Children’s Book Reviewhttps://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/Book Review
March 17Life is What It’s Calledwww.lifeiswhatitscalled.blogspot.comInterview
March 18Library Lady’s Kid Lithttps://janemouttet.wordpress.com/Book Review & Guest Post
March 19Austen Prosehttps://austenprose.com/Book Preview & Guest Post
March 20A Dream Within A Dreamhttp://adreamwithindream.blogspot.comBook Review
March 21Barbara Ann Mojica’s Bloghttps://bamauthor.meBook Review
March 22Jane Austen’s Worldhttps://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/Interview
March 23Satisfaction for Insatiable Readershttps://insatiablereaders.blogspot.comBook Review & Guest Post
March 24icefairy’s Treasure Chesthttp://icefairystreasurechest.blogspot.com/Book Review
March 25Heart to Hearttynea-lewis.comBook Review
March 26Confessions of a Book Addicthttp://www.confessionsofabookaddict.comGuest Post
March 27Eccentric Eclectic Womanhttp://finamoon.blogspot.comBook Review
March 28J.R.s Book Reviewshttps://jrsbookreviews.wordpress.com/Book Review
March 29My Jane Austen Book Clubhttp://thesecretunderstandingofthehearts.blogspot.com/Interview
March 30Jane Austen in Vermonthttps://janeausteninvermont.blog/Book Review & Guest Post
March 31Some the Wiserhttps://somethewiser.comBook Review
April 1Austenesque Reviewswww.AustenesqueReviews.comBook Review
April 2Absolutely Austenhttps://absolutelyausten.com/Book Review
April 3Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austenbrendascox.wordpress.comBook Review
April 4Fairview Elementary School (Library)https://fveslibrary.blogspot.com/Book Review
April 5Comfy Chair Bookshttps://comfychairbooks.com/Book Review
April 6Reading Is My SuperPowerhttps://readingismysuperpower.orgBook Review
April 7ShootingStarsMagwww.shootingstarsmag.netA Beyond the Book Activity
April 8Glass of Wine, Glass of Milkglassofwineglassofmilk.blogspot.comBook Review
April 9Book Q&As with Deborah Kalbhttp://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com/Interview
April 10The Fictional Cafehttps://www.fictionalcafe.com/Review + Interview
April 11Ingenious Babyhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkNfesiHAPnqc4STgBn-LjwInterview
April 12The Children’s Book Reviewhttps://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/Guest Post
April 13Tucked In Tuesdayhttps://www.instagram.com/tutoringyoutoexcellence/Instagram Live: Tucked in Tuesday

RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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