Dear readers, the following is an interview with Marsha Altman (below at Chatsworth), author of The Darcys and The Bingleys: A Tale of Two Gentlemen's Marriages to Two Most Devoted Sisters.
1. Marsha, Thank you for participating in this interview. So many Jane Austen fans love reading the sequels to her novels, and yours, The Darcys and The Bingleys, released by SourceBooks this September, is a particularly fine one. It must be such a juggling act to write a sequel to a book about which so many fans know every detail. How did you prepare to write this story?
At the beginning I really went headfirst into it, a bit blindly, thinking it was just a little ditty between Bingley and Darcy that I wanted to write. I posted chapters online and people left encouraging comments so I kept writing. I also encouraged them to tell me when they found mistakes either relating to P&P or history, and they did, for which I am very appreciative. It wasn’t until the second half of the book that I really started cracking the books in terms of historical research, and even then I made a lot of mistakes that I later had to revise. There’s a subtle art to Regency fiction in general, much less Pride and Prejudice fanfic, in terms of setting it up to sound like the right time and place. If I had to choose who was the best at this, I would say D.A. Bonvaia-Hunt (author of Pemberley Shades) and Carrie Bebris (author of the Darcy Mysteries series).
2. What are some of your favorite sources and why?
In creating how I wanted to portray the characters, I was drawing from a couple different sources. First, of course, Pride and Prejudice (duh). I suppose I will inevitably get the “Did the author read Pride and Prejudice?!?” angry review on Amazon that seems to be required of an Austen sequel. There’s only one Austen sequel author I know who didn’t read the book and based it entirely on the BBC miniseries, though eventually she probably read it. Several people have accused Elizabeth Aston of never having read Austen because of her decisions to portray the returning characters in the “20 years later” setting, which I find very amusing because Ms. Aston (not her real name) is a professor of Austen literature in England, I forget where. I think it was Cambridge. Anyway, I did read the book, both in high school and again at some point in college and then again after I saw the 2005 movie.
I was inspired by the 2005 movie, though I’d seen the 1995 miniseries before and rewatched it before beginning my writing. Some of the characters are purely in my mind, but others were inspired by particular portrayals. Mr. Bennet is definitely the Mr. Bennet from the miniseries (Ben Whitrow). Mrs. Bennet is Brenda Blethyn from the 2005 movie. I thought she gave a very sophisticated read on a character who had to be annoying but yet had to be someone you were willing to watch be annoying, not be annoyed by. Bingley is a combination of different portrayals, but looks physically like Simon Woods (2005 movie), which is referenced several times in my book because I say he has red hair and it becomes a bit of a running joke. Simon Woods was the only one to play a red-haired Bingley that I know. The rest were blonds. As for Darcy and Elizabeth, I won’t commit to a single source.
As to things that occur in the book, thematically, the first half is the story of the wedding and follows in the traditional “people getting married” plot line of two couples growing into their marriages. The second half is a little different – I had to stretch out a bit. There’s violence and drama and all that. It was something I wanted to do, but I had to test the waters first in terms of writing Regency fiction.
In most sequels or rewrites, characters quote Shakespeare. I have nothing against Shakespeare and it’s completely in-period for characters to quote him, but if I have any Shakespeare quotes, they’re by accident. At the time that I wrote the book and the writing that follows after it which will hopefully be published, I was in graduate school and taking a lot of required literature courses for my writing degree, and I would just take whatever medieval literature course was being offered that semester because chances are I had read half the books already in some translation or another and I wanted to focus on other things. Also I’m very into medieval history. So my characters quote a lot of medieval literature, though I had to be careful as to what was translated by that time period and what was not (Beowulf was not, etc). Mr. Bennet quotes Dante in a dinner scene because I needed him to quote something in Italian and I had to read La Vita Nuova for a paper that week and so the book was on my desk. In time it also became thematic. Dr. Maddox is obsessed with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and he’s a person who rescues people from the dead (as a doctor) and pursues his fair maiden’s hand, which is not precisely what Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is about but is a central theme in medieval literature. And Darcy, obviously, is a knight. Not the Regency baronet type, but he is a medieval knight in a lot of ways, not a historical one but a literary one. He rescues people, he protects, he puts himself in danger. I didn’t just want to write a book about who marries whom, so I took this road instead, though subconsciously at first.
3. How did you decide which characters from Pride and Prejudice to emphasize in addition to the main two couples?
It was haphazard really, just me going from point A to point B to point C. In the wedding preparations, everybody had to have a scene. When I wrote the scene, I had to do something revealing about their inner character or it wouldn’t be worth it or interesting. So it was really, “Who’s in the room? OK, what do I write about them?” And since Austen wrote such multi-layered characters, they came alive quite easily.
In the second half I decided to focus on Caroline Bingley, though there’s not actually a lot of scenes from her perspective or even with her in it, though the action revolves around her. I wrote my first major scene with her on the morning of Bingley’s wedding, and very spontaneously decided to show her emotional. Bingley is her baby brother, even if he’s the one who’s been caring for her and she’s been trying to control his life. In the end, family is what matters, and he’s leaving her to some extent, so she’s upset. Some readers were moved by that scene so I decided to go further with it and see what I could do with her without revising her character into someone we don’t recognize. It was a challenge. I like challenges. I think the most fun I had during the whole experience was writing the flashback to when the Bingley siblings were little children. Everyone’s more human when they’re adorable little kids.
4. I see that you decided to keep your own writer’s voice, but there are times, like when Mr. Bennet comes up with a witticism that sound so uncannily like him, that I can sense Jane Austen’s strong inspiration. Did the characters speak through you? Or did you have to work hard for these bon mots?
Mr. Bennet appears in my closet at night in ghostly form and whispers witticisms while drinking a glass of brandy. Annoying, really. I’ve called my super but he says I have to call management, and they never listen to their voicemail, so I just keep the closet door shut and put out rat traps.
Really, I do work very hard on some of the dialogue, but I’ve always felt dialogue is the best way to show character, and Austen was all about characters, so that works out for me. I hate writing descriptions, which results in a lot of dialogue-heavy stories (my professor once called my writing “sparse”), which results in focusing on the dialogue and possibly doing a better job at it. With certain characters, I reread the line in my head and try to picture the character saying it – especially with Darcy. Bingley’s very chatty so he’s easy to write. Darcy’s quiet and his words are always well-chosen and important, so I have to do that. Elizabeth has to compete with Darcy in terms of wit but she responds in a deferent way, but the key thing is that she plays off him. Jane’s hard to write dialogue for. She was so honest and good that it can get tiring. You have to give her a little wit and sauce to keep it interesting, and my chief job as a storyteller is to keep it interesting. Mr. Bennet is hard to do initially, but once I come up with the line, it sticks. I don’t worry about characterization for him at all. In that way, he’s easier than Jane.
5. Is there anything else that you’d care to share with our readers?
I once heard it from a rabbi that Rabbi Berokah Chuza was greeted by Elijah the Prophet. The Rabbi said, “Who is it who will have a place in the World to Come?” So Elijah took him to the market, where there were three street performers who were singing and dancing and telling jokes. Their entire purpose was to make people laugh. And Elijah pointed to them and said, “These men will have a place in the World to Come.”
And on that I’ve tried to base my entire life and my writing.
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