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Monday, May 30

Interview with Margaret C. Sullivan, Author of The Jane Austen Handbook

Inquiring readers, Tony Grant recently interviewed Margaret C. Sullivan, author of the delightful Jane Austen's Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World. I hope you'll enjoy their conversation as much as I did.

A short while ago a chunky package, smallish, but with some solidity about it came to my door delivered by courier. I haven’t ordered anything from Amazon for a while and I certainly don’t do mail order. It was a book!! Margaret’s book ,”The Jane Austen Handbook.” I perused it. I read bits in the minutest detail, some bits twice over. I examined the index, the glossary. I thought up,”what about , education?” and yes there it was. How about, “dancing,”? Oh yes it was there. The index was an education in itself. A great little book. Margaret’s editor had contacted me ages and ages ago. I think Vic had put him on to me. He asked if I would write a review of this new edition and I accepted. Weeks and weeks later it arrived. I had actually forgotten all about it. It was a very very pleasant surprise.

After writing the review I had no idea of Margaret’s reaction to it. I deigned to contact her and ask for an interview

Oh dear me!!!!! Apparently I had managed to charm the words right out of Margaret.
She wrote back to me.
“I loved the review! A few smiles, a few compliments for my word-nerdiness and I'm a lost woman.”

Here is the interview.
All the best,

Why did you write The Jane Austen Handbook?

Being kind of a bigmouth obsessive Janeite who liked to write and had acquired a largish book collection about Jane Austen, after I had several Austen-related articles and stories and things published in various places, many people said to me, "You should write a book!" But what book to write? It seemed to me that everything about Jane Austen had been done.

Margaret Sullivan at JASNA 2008. Image @Laurie Viera Rigler
Fortunately, an editor at Quirk Books, Melissa Wagner, approached me with a proposal. They had a line of faux-but-not-really handbooks related to various popular culture properties, such as the Batman Handbook, the Spiderman Handbook, etc., and they wanted to do something literary for the next handbook. They asked if I was interested in writing The Jane Austen Handbook. They already had the format, with the "How-to" scenarios with documentation-like procedure lists. I liked the idea and thought the format was fun--it was informative and yet there was an opportunity to really have fun with it, which was right up my alley. It was the book I wanted to write, but didn't know it.

Where did you get all those fascinating facts and information from?

Like I said above, I had acquired a pretty extensive library of Austen-related books, because they interested me and also because I was writing a lot of Austen fan fiction and needed the information. While I was writing the book, I acquired some more books and tortured the local librarians with interlibrary loan requests. Also, I depended on the kindness of friends! My friend Allison Thompson, who is a dance historian, was really helpful with the dance sections and sent me a lot of really interesting information. I also picked up a lot of esoteric information (for instance, how to ride sidesaddle) while researching my fan fiction stories.

What is your writing process when you write a book like this?

Many readers have noted that the book is easy to consume in small bits because there are short scenarios and bits of information. That was how it was written, too; I was working full-time at my day job during the writing process, snatching a few minutes here and there on the train, at lunch, and in the evenings and on weekends. Melissa and I had brainstormed an outline of the scenarios, so I had a starting point. Some of the scenarios were easy, because they were all out of my own books or were suggested by the novels themselves (such as How to Avoid Dancing with an Undesirable Gentleman) and some were more difficult. We had to abandon a couple of scenarios because I was unable to find sufficient information in time to write them. (I had six weeks between the time the proposal was accepted and the first draft was due.)

Incidentally, in your review you noted that the book seemed directed towards women. That was on purpose. because Jane Austen's heroines were young, unmarried women, and the idea was to imagine yourself in the place of one of her heroines. However, I knew a lot of male Austen fans would be reading it, and older female fans, so I persuaded the editor to let me add information geared towards these readers. I knew that a real Janeite would find it all interesting!
Tony Grant in Bath, down the road from
the Jane Austen Centre
Why did you choose to write in a formal, evocative of the period, sort of way? ( I love the words and language you use by the way.)

Thanks! Really, that's how I write most of the time; I tend to use long sentences with lots of semicolons (and I am also a parentheses fiend). I love authors who use language elegantly. One of the best books I've ever read, prose-wise, is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The first paragraph gives me goosebumps--the more so because I am torn between adoration of the elegant economy of the language and revulsion at the subject matter. Jane Austen's prose also frequently gives me goosebumps, and the stories are certainly more pleasant.

Some other authors whose use of language I really admire and love to read are Harper Lee, J.R.R. Tolkien (when he's writing the hobbits and not being all King James Bible, though really some of that I like, too), Stephen King, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Georgette Heyer. You might hear a bit of each of those authors--and of course Jane Austen--in my writing.

Would you like to have lived in the Georgian period?

Yes and no. I'm a bit of a frustrated sociologist so, like Jane Austen, I'm interested in men and women, and would like to travel through time and just see how things were back then. But the inconveniences and lack of mod. cons.* keep me happy right here in the 21st century.

*See, I can talk Brit too when I try. ;-)

Amanda Vickery has recently produced a series of programmes called, At Home with The Georgians. I don't know whether you have seen it on your side of The Atlantic? If you were to turn The Jane Austen Handbook into a TV series what locations would you use to illustrate various themes in your book?

I haven't seen it, but I know of it and it seems very interesting! Like that time travel trip I mentioned above, but you get to come back.

A big piece of the book would have to be set in the country, as so much of it is how one travels to the country, how one runs a country house, how one amuses oneself in the country, etc. But I think, like many of Jane Austen's heroines, at some point we have to go to either London or Bath, because the city has its attractions, as well. Plus I love Bath!


JaneGS said...

Really enjoyed this interview--interesting to read how the book came into being. Awesome that a publisher approached the author with a proposal, rather than the other way around.

Melody said...

That book was so enjoyable...I read it pretty much cover-to-cover, and it's on my bookshelf for my personal reference all the time (very useful!) I love all the indirect references made to Jane Austen's novels; jokes, if you recognize them.

Wendy P. said...

Mags! You might remember me as wend from the Horatio Hornblower days. Can't wait to pick up your book.

Southerner said...

Thank you for all your kind comments.
I've got another question to ask. This is an open one for everybody.

Why is there so much interest in the English Georgian period?

All the best,

Southerner said...

Here is something amazing. There I was watching kids TV with my youngest, Abigail, this morning and this fact popped up.

I was gob smacked to say the least. I've checked, Magaret has no mention of this in, "The Jane Austen handbook."

Here is a quote from a Wikapaedia article.

"The first patented roller skate was introduced in 1760. The inventor was a Belgian named John Joseph Merlin. His invention did not become very popular. The initial "test pilot" of the first prototype of the skate was his grandson Bernard Tyers, aged 12 from Waterford, Ireland."

Would you believe it???????


Mags said...

Tony, if Georgette Heyer is to be believed (and I could probably look it up but I'm too lazy), bicycles were also around by the late Regency period. They were called "pedestrian curricles" and were propelled by pushing yourself along with your feet rather than with pedals.

(And thanks for the interview! I enjoyed it, and yes, I loved the review, too.)

Mags said...

Here you go--patented 1819:,-Maurice/The-Pedestrian-Curricle-patented-by-Dennis-Johnson,-c.1819.html