I started writing my first book at the age of nine. I got as far as the end of chapter one before I ran out of ideas. As I recall, the chapter was all of two handwritten pages long. My mother thought it was wonderful and kept it for years. Easily impressed, my mother. As the years passed, I kept writing. Entries in my diary, some (terrible) poetry, a longish fairy tale, and some short stories made it out of my head and onto paper by the time I graduated from high school. It wasn’t enough to make me believe I could write as a profession.
I really wanted to get married right out of high school (school was not my favorite thing), but no one wanted to marry me. So I went to UCLA and majored in English with a minor in creative writing. More short stories came from that, but no husband. Stalling for time, I went to Cal State Northridge for graduate school (in English, naturally–I can’t do anything else). While there, I managed to write a chapter for a textbook. This would have been nice to add to my writing credentials, except that it was a chapter on how to run a personnel office in a community college–a subject that inspires no confidence in editors and literary agents as to my abilities to write fiction.
Having gained an M.A., I settled down to teach English in a small liberal arts college. I got to teach literature, research, and writing, and was so busy that I had no time to write anything but journal entries where I lamented my single state and hoped that I wouldn’t have to teach forever. At last I was set up on a blind date with an Irish seminary student who proposed after three months (and three dates!) and I got to give up my career and be a full-time homemaker. Loved it. We moved to Ireland, and along with caring for the children that came along, I started to write again.
Why Jane Austen fiction? I had discovered Jane Austen in college, when I was required to read Pride and Prejudice. I had always avoided it because the title sounded similar to War and Peace, and I am allergic to depressing Russian novels. I was delighted to discover that Austen’s novel is nothing like Tolstoy’s. In the next few years I read the rest of her novels on my own.
I bought my first copy of Emma in Edinburgh, Scotland on June 8, 1994 (I still have the book, and that’s the date I wrote on the title page). I was on my own version of the Grand Tour–my parents and I had together scraped up enough money for me to spend a month traveling in the British Isles as a sort of graduation trip from college. I remember buying Emma from a shop called “James Thin, Booksellers” and sitting down to read it in some kind of public park not far away. I think Emma was the third Austen book I read.
Anyway, I read Emma as I traveled around Scotland. I went to a place called Oban because someone had told me it was beautiful. It was, but there was nothing to do there but gaze at the boats in the harbor, and shop. Shopping was out of the budget, and once you have stood and stared at the sea for an hour you start to feel conspicuous, so I went back to my bed and breakfast and read the rest of Emma.
I was the perfect reader for such a book–gullible, unsuspicious, and completely taken off guard by the ending. For some reason, early in the book, I had got a mental picture of Mr. Knightley as a short, middle-aged man, slightly pudgy and sporting a mustache (!). With that image in my mind, everything he said and did could be easily interpreted as the actions of a benevolent, caring, uncle-type. I was as shocked as Emma when he declared himself. Of course, I wasn’t sure that such a pudgy man with a mustache should be the romantic hero, and the end was a little unsatisfying in that regard. However, a few more readings allowed me to alter my mental picture, and the ending became the standard by which all other novels are judged.
It was a few years later that the internet really took off and with it, Jane Austen websites and fan fiction. I read the books of Pamela Aidan and Susan Kaye online as they being written, and was captivated. I had a decided longing to do for George Knightley what they had done for Mr. Darcy and Captain Wentworth. It took me several years (I am one of the world’s slowest writers), but the George Knightley, Esquire duology was finished in 2011. I wrote a few novellas for the A Very Austen anthologies in the next few years, but it took until 2022 for me to publish another JAFF novel, Much Ado About Persuasion. Did I mention that I’m a slow writer?
However, ideas are percolating for a sequel to Emma. Ever wonder what Mrs. Elton’s relatives, the Sucklings, made of Highbury when they eventually condescended to visit? Me too! I miss Highbury and its denizens, and can hardly wait to revisit them. What about you? Which characters from Emma would you most like to read more about?