How do you go about ‘ghosting Austen’?
Let’s start with the language
I was writing Murder at Mansfield Park when The Duchess came out on film, and I heard it being reviewed on BBC Radio 4. The critic said she loved the authentic settings and costumes, but felt it was let down by the script – especially the reference to Georgiana offering to ‘make a deal’ with her husband, when what she would actually have said was ‘make a bargain’.
It was a salutary reminder of what I already knew – even relatively small things like this will cumulatively detract from the authenticity of your prose. Right from the start, I’d always been determined to get this aspect of the book right – perhaps it’s the academic in me – but I knew my novel would never pass muster with the true Austen fan if it didn’t pass the accuracy test.
In practice this meant downloading all the novels, and checking pretty much every word as I went along. It sounds time-consuming – and it was – but imagine trying to do that before computers and wordsearch! The other key aspect of this process was to check not just if a word was used, but the context in which it appears. For example, my copy-editor came back to me after her first reading, and asked if we could change ‘the mood in the room’ to ‘the atmosphere in the room’ in one scene. I said I wished I could, but Austen never used the word ‘atmosphere’ except in the context of the weather. Again, it’s the little things.
I did make one conscious compromise though, and that was with ‘stepson’. In my novel Edmund is Mrs Norris’ stepson, but Austen would have referred to him as her ‘son-in-law’. That usage has fallen so far out of favour now that it would have been downright confusing for a modern reader, so I kept to stepson (which was used in Austen’s time, even if not by her).
As I suspected, this process of word-checking worked fine for the first half of the book, up to the point of the murder, but after that I had to go looking for my vocabulary elsewhere. After all, even though people do die in Austen it’s always of natural causes or accidents, and there’s nothing remotely like the violence I have in my book. I needed a new linguistic register, but where was I going to find it? The answer was to turn to Jane Austen’s great literary hero – and one of my own – Samuel Richardson. His masterpiece Clarissa, in particular, has much darker and more sinister subject matter than anything you’ll find in Austen, and was a literary treasure trove from my point of view.
There were also other aspects of Jane Austen’s style I needed to master. For example, there’s very little description of people or places – as she wrote to her niece Anna, ‘Your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left.’ There are exceptions – like the landscape at Donwell Abbey she gives us in Emma – but in general you don’t know much about the surroundings and even less about the people – we only know one fact about Mr Darcy and that’s that he’s very tall!
The other distinguishing feature about her style is her famous ‘balanced’ sentences – an embodiment of her belief in reason, order and decorum. She also uses the ‘pivot’ in the middle of a sentence to shift from apparent approval, to vicious irony or bathos, as in ‘The Miss Bertrams were much to be pitied on the occasion; not for their sorrow, but for their want of it’, or ‘[The Grants] had their faults; and Mrs Norris soon found them out’. Austen describes this herself as ‘playfulness and epigrammatism’, and I’ve done my best to imitate it, as in sentences like ‘As Mary well knew, the path a gentleman considers to be dry enough for walking, may still prove ruinous for a lady’s shoes’.
If that’s what I tried to imitate, was there anything I did differently? Probably the major difference is the fact that I’ve included a higher proportion of dialogue, and less authorial comment. That helps the pace of the plot, and is more to a contemporary reader’s taste.
Obviously anyone who knows Austen’s work well will get the most out of Murder at Mansfield Park, but I’ve deliberately written it so that it works on a number of levels, and hopefully can appeal as much to those who merely like a mystery story, as it can to the card-carrying Austen connoisseur. But those who do know Mansfield Park quite well will recognise some of its well-known phrases and sentences, which I’ve deliberately re-worked and re-used in a different context. In fact, part of the sheer joy in writing the novel was to lay down hidden treasure for Austen fans to find – like the fact that the first and last sentences are exactly as Austen wrote them, or weaving in direct lifts from Austen’s letters, like this one “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal”.