This is the summer for Jane Austen festivals; this, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I’d love to attend one of these celebratory functions where I imagine the other ladies dance the quadrille wearing custom made, empire waist gowns, and adorable bonnets, sip tea and quote J.A.. But of course as a servant I would be slaving away in the kitchen, the garret, or the stable. I wouldn’t be dancing or sipping or strolling in the garden with the proper guests. I’m pretty sure I would have been a servant. My English ancestors left the mother country for America in the 18th century, so they probably weren’t landed gentry — or else why would they have have left? Darn the luck!
Roy and Lesley Adkins have written a terrific book every Austen lover should read: A sweeping survey that sheds light on the wider world Jane Austen and her characters inhabited — the same world my ancestors, the servants, merchants, farmers and artisans, inhabited. Yes, the other 98 percent.
Jane Austen’s England will be released in the U.S. on August 15, 2013. The book was released in the U.K. earlier this summer as Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England. I’m a fan of Team Adkins and I was delighted to read an advance copy, which I reviewed on HistoricNavalFiction and Amazon.Co.UK.
The Adkins are authors of numerous books, mostly popular history, and many of them written together as a team. Jack Tar; Life in Nelson’s Navy, and, The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, are particular favorites of mine. Thank you Roy and Lesley (I think the credit goes largely to Lesley) for taking time from your busy season of appearances and book talks to answer my questions. Tell your publicist your American fans are clamouring for a stateside tour.
Our connections with Jane Austen probably have more to do with geography than literature. Lesley was brought up in Hampshire – Jane Austen’s own county, where the novelist lived most of her life and did much of her writing. Roy was born in the adjoining county of Berkshire and spent much of his childhood leisure time in Hampshire. Both of us are well acquainted with the area where Jane Austen lived.
Hampshire has a distinctive appearance, with rolling hills, woodlands and fertile valleys used for farming, intersected by winding, sometimes narrow lanes. One feature of the older buildings, including the churches, is the use of brick and flint (with thatch for roofs), since the county has no decent building stone. It is a gentle landscape, with no large cities or bleak moors, and somehow it appears a warm and friendly place, but perhaps that is because both of us have pleasant associations with the area.
2. What made you decide to write a book about life in England during Jane Austen’s time?
For our previous book, Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy, we explored the way of life of lower-deck seamen and lower-ranking officers during the period 1771–1815. The year 1771 is when Nelson first joined the Royal Navy as a captain’s servant, and the year 1815 is of course ten years after his death at Trafalgar, the very end of the wars with France and America. During the wars, many men were pressed into the navy against their will, but some did volunteer, and we wondered what sort of life the pressed men had left behind and why others willingly chose such a hard and dangerous life at sea. Was their situation on land really so bad that life in the navy was preferable?
It’s all too easy to divide history into completely separate units, such as naval, political and social history, but everything is intertwined, and we felt that it was an obvious progression to venture onto land. When researching Jack Tar, we constantly came across a great deal of material about life on land. Naval seamen were recruited ashore, often forcibly by the press-gang, and they had an impact when returning home after the wars. Similarly, thousands of people were directly employed in dockyards or in industries supporting the navy. With Britain being an island, it was inevitable that the navy was inextricably entwined with what happened on land. Perhaps we could have called the book Nelson’s England, but it was more appropriate to use Jane Austen as a constant thread – she lived from 1775 to 1817, which is much the same period as covered by Jack Tar, and in the end we chose the dates 1770 to 1817 for Jane Austen’s England. We hope it is a fitting companion to Jack Tar.
3. What do you hope readers will glean from Jane Austen’s England?
Jane Austen’s novels may be superbly crafted and timeless classics, but they focus on a very narrow slice of society. She herself said that her work was a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour”. We set out to explore all of England during her lifetime rather than the part of society about which she wrote. Her novels concentrate on the upper classes and barely mention revolutions, overseas wars and civil unrest at home. Her few surviving letters do touch on mundane subjects, but they do not mention the extreme poverty and hardship suffered by so many people. Even the servants who surround the upper-class characters in her novels are hardly mentioned.
Our book shows how ordinary people fitted into the period when she was alive and how her world and her fiction connected with the England around her. Many people think they would love to experience Jane Austen’s time, but not everyone could go to the fancy balls and dances – most people’s ancestors were more likely to have been the servants at these balls, doing all the laborious chores and working interminable hours.
Re-reading her fiction during the research for our book made it clear to us just how much is sketched or hinted at in the novels and how much you can miss if you don’t know the background to the characters and society she is writing about. Because Jane Austen was writing for a contemporary readership, there was no need for her to include explanations of everyday life and manners. In fact, we learn more about such matters from her letters. The aspect most often misunderstood about Jane Austen is that she was not a writer of historical novels but of contemporary satires. The publication of Northanger Abbey, which was finished in 1803, was delayed by the publisher, and Jane Austen was such a modern writer that in 1816 she added a note explaining that because of this delay, parts of the book might appear “obsolete” because “places, manners, books and opinions” had “undergone considerable changes”. Alas, the novel was not to be published until after her death the following year.
4. How do you get along as a writing team? Do you have specific responsibilities or does it vary from book to book?
Each book is different, but for this book (as with most others) we had to prepare a 20,000-word proposal for the publisher to consider before the book was commissioned. This gave us the basic structure of the book, and so we divided the chapters between us, a fairly amicable process! We each researched and wrote the first draft of those chapters, but even at that stage we would exchange material as our research threw up items that sat more comfortably in other chapters. There was, of course, far more material than could be squeezed into the book, and sometimes we would discuss the relative merits of different items while we were writing.
When one of us finished a chapter, a print-out was handed over and eventually returned, covered in comments and amendments in red ink. These elements were then changed or discussed, altered or rejected. When such roughly constructed chapters were all complete, they were assembled together and the long process of forming them into a coherent book began, with material being passed back and forth and discussed until we were happy enough with the result. We are never entirely happy with the books we write, but there comes a point when further changes are more likely to damage rather than improve the end result. That is the time to let the publisher see and comment on it.
We have written together as co-authors for so long that it does not seem anything out of the ordinary, but the place where we write surprises some people. Our house is too small, and so the living space is very restricted in order to make room for our office and library. The biggest room is used as an office, though bookshelves have infiltrated everywhere else, with another room filled with rolling stacks of books. Our office has a huge window on one side, with a view towards Dartmoor in the distance, so we can see for miles around. We are often asked if this is a distraction, and it is true that the landscape presents an ever-changing picture, but it is refreshing to look up from your work and gaze outside for a few minutes. And at night, there are very few lights visible, a reminder of Jane Austen’s era.
5. What advice do you have for others who are writing, particularly historical nonfiction?
Whatever you are writing, fiction or non-fiction, it is the people you are writing about that hold the most interest for a reader. Jane Austen’s novels are a good example of this point. She is not famous for her plots, and some people think that plot is her weakest element. What makes her novels great is the interplay between the characters. For historical fiction, with strong characters and plot, readers will forgive a few flaws. Not so non-fiction. Accuracy is essential, but non-fiction also presents different sorts of challenges than those encountered in writing fiction. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to make it readable, since factual writing can so easily become boring.
For anyone contemplating writing historical non-fiction with the intention of getting it published, then our advice is to ask “Who is likely to buy this book?”. If your subject is very specialised, then you either need to broaden its appeal in order to attract a mainstream publisher or else offer it to a genre or local history publisher. Too many writers think that publishers have a duty to publish their work, and yes, we’ve all been guilty of such thoughts. It’s also very irritating to be reminded that publishers and booksellers are businesses who need to make profits, but if you accept this premise (even if you think their business model is flawed), then it becomes easier to turn your idea into something that will attract the widest possible readership.
Writing a good book that appeals to many readers is only half the battle, since getting it published is very difficult. Publishing is in a state of flux at the moment, with small presses and self-publishing providing viable alternatives to the traditional publishing houses, but it remains true that even if you have written the most wonderful book, it is still largely a matter of luck whether you can find a publisher – Jane Austen herself encountered many problems when trying to have her books published. Most traditional publishers will not look at anything unless it has been submitted to them by a literary agent, and we really don’t have an answer on how to deal with that problem. As with all writing, if you think you are good enough, never give up! And never play by the rules. Your book is too important for rules.
6. How does Jane Austen’s England differ from other books about Jane Austen?
It seems to us that most other books about Jane Austen deal with the England of her time as if it was the country portrayed in her novels. Jane Austen wrote about a small section of society in a country that is a lightly sketched backdrop to the interaction between the characters. Our book Jane Austen’s England sets out to link two Englands – the England of Jane Austen’s novels, which focus on a privileged class of people, and the England that is barely mentioned in the novels – a country that is at war and gripped by austerity, one where women were still burned at the stake for counterfeiting and young people might be transported to America, or later Australia, for stealing a pocket watch. We describe the plight of children weaving fine muslin in the factories for the gowns of the wealthy; the women – even pregnant women – and children who toiled down the coal mines, producing coal for the fireplaces of wealthy homes (except for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park who was, of course, denied a fire in her room); the smock weddings and forced weddings that were a far cry from the romances of the Austen novels, as were the instances of selling wives in the marketplace.
Another topic is the dire state of medicine – how often in the Austen novels have we been slightly perplexed by characters taking to their beds in total panic after “catching a chill” – and yet ignorance bred fear. There was a belief in miasmas and bad humours, and for anyone with a chill, the best remedy might be to draw off some blood to eradicate the bad humours – the application of bloodsucking leeches was one favoured method. And dentistry was a horrifying proposition, something that Jane Austen mentions in her letters. False teeth were available at a price, though often they were made with teeth illicitly obtained from corpses by graverobbers.
We have woven a narrative from a variety of sources, all of them voices from two centuries ago, contemporary with Jane Austen herself. The previously unpublished archive material ranges from criminal trials of the most lowly pickpockets to the letters of Sarah Wilkinson detailing the progress of her baby girl and then her tragic death, while the diaries of William Holland let us see fascinating everyday details. He had a status similar to George Austen, Jane’s father, and their world was interconnected. At times, his diaries and other sources even throw additional light on the life of the Austen family itself.
7. What are your favourite venues for author talks and presentations?
Over the years we have given talks at a wide variety of venues, both large and small, and it is difficult to select particular favourites because they all have an individual character. The smaller venues are often very informal and provide plenty of time to meet readers, but there is also a particular satisfaction in talking to a large audience, and some are especially memorable.
We recently gave a talk at the annual weekend festival called “History Live!” organised by English Heritage at Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire, the biggest historical event in Europe. The lectures were held in a huge tent, organised by the BBC History Magazine, and ours was packed out and went really well. In the background, we could hear gunfire, because many other attractions were being held at the same time. We were able to see all sorts of displays and historical re-enactments (from the Romans to World War 2), as well as attend talks by other authors.
That is also one of the joys of the Telegraph’s Ways With Words Festival at Dartington in Devon. The medieval Dartington Hall is a beautiful setting for the festival, and this year the weather was glorious. We gave a talk about “Women in Jane Austen’s England”, and because we live nearby, we were able to attend talks given by other people. We could go on and on about the various venues, but perhaps we can just squeeze in the “Off The Shelf” festival at Sheffield. This is an October festival which has an autumnal feel about it that is strangely fitting for a town with such a great industrial heritage. We have a number of future talks lined up, details of which can be found on our website at www.adkinshistory.com (under “Latest News”). We have given talks all over Britain and even in mid-Atlantic on board a cruise liner, but the one thing we haven’t done is a lecture tour abroad – we are open to offers!
7. What next for the Adkins authors?
For the next few months our priority will be promoting Jane Austen’s England to bring it to the attention of as many potential readers as possible. Long gone are the days when you could simply write a book and expect the publisher and booksellers to publicise and sell it. Despite our best efforts, we are still contacted by people who have only just discovered and enjoyed books we published over a decade ago! It’s therefore far more important for us to concentrate on doing promotion work to make readers aware of Jane Austen’s England at this stage. There is nothing better than word-of-mouth recommendations – but this of course relies on people reading the book first before they can recommend it. We are also concentrating on writing articles for magazines, and we continue to send out our free email newsletters to anyone who signs up for them on our website at www.adkinshistory.com.
We do have many ideas for books and later this year we will sit down and start a proposal for a new book, trying to heed the advice we have given above. One thing we have learned over the years is that there is no point in rushing things. It’s best to move slowly into success than rush into failure!
Roy & Lesley Adkins
3rd August 2013
Hear Lesley Adkins on the BBC History podcast!