I’d like to welcome Barbara Cornthwaite to Just Jane 1813. Barbara is the author of the series, titled “George Knightley, Esquire, Books One & Two.” Her first book in this series was a popular group-read this past March on the 2016 Austenesque Reading Challenge Group on Goodreads, where Barbara also joined the group to offer her insights about the book and discuss the feedback on GR. I am also reviewing it today on Just Jane 1813.
As a big fan of the book “Emma,” and now her retelling as well, I was honored when Barbara offered to join us here to discuss her “George Knightley, Esquire” series, along with her love of Jane Austen.
Barbara, I know the readers on Goodreads loved your book, “George Knightley, Esquire.” Some readers even enjoyed it more than “Emma,” which must be the ultimate compliment for you in regards to this series. Before we head straight to chatting about your work as a writer, can you take this opportunity to share with my readers a little bit about yourself?
Thanks for all your kind words! I grew up in Los Angeles, taught English at the university level for a few years, met my Irish husband, and moved to Europe (first England, then Ireland). We live in the Irish countryside and have six children, aged 7 to 17. I homeschool them all, so my days are pretty full.
Can you take us back in time and sketch for us the story of how you came to be an admirer of Jane Austen’s book?
I took a class in college called “The English Novel,” and Pride and Prejudice was one of the required books. I didn’t know anything about it (this was in about 1990, before the famous adaptations were made), but I thought it was probably like War and Peace because the titles were similar! However, I read the book and loved it, and then went on to read all the Austen novels on my own.
How did your love for Austen lead you to write your own JAFF stories and why did you choose the path of writing a series based on her book “Emma?”
I had written a few things (non-Austen-related) and loved to write. When I read Pamela Aidan’s trilogy, and also Susan Kaye’s books, I decided I wanted to do the same thing for Mr. Knightley. He’s my favorite Austen hero, although I do like them all. One thing that appeals to me about Emma is the humour in the book, and I thought it would be fun to reproduce that in my own work.
Many scholars claim “Emma” or “Persuasion” as Jane Austen’s most accomplished novels. Do you agree or disagree with this statement, and please tell us the reasons for your answers?
I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I can see why this assertion is made. For one thing, the heroines are quite unlike Jane Austen herself in personality, from what we know of her from her letters and what contemporaries wrote about her. (It’s hard to imagine Anne Eliot saying “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked”!) It’s my personal theory that first novels tend to have heroes/heroines that are very like their authors. It’s almost as if the writers have to get that out of the way before they can see through the eyes of very different characters. (Of course, Fanny Price is also very different from Jane Austen, but I don’t think “Mansfield Park” is one of her most accomplished novels.)
For another thing, “Emma” is almost like a detective story with clues dropped along the way and plenty of red herrings to lead the reader astray in their assessment of what is going on. That’s a difficult thing to do well.
In “Persuasion,” Austen successfully gave us a character that both the reader and the heroine can be ambivalent about—Lady Russell. It’s hard to know whether she is a good guy or a bad guy, in terms of the story. She’s certainly kinder to Anne than the rest of her family is, but she also was the prime mover in Anne losing the love of her life. A character like that is not usually produced by an amateur writer.
Many readers commented about the amount of research you completed to create a historically astute series based on the English gentry of 200 years ago. Can you describe what this process looked like for you as a reader and as a writer?
I think the most difficult thing about writing historical fiction is figuring out what you don’t know. I do editing for other writers, and the most common mistakes in historical fiction books are made because the writers just assume that people have, for example, eaten ham sandwiches since Roman times. One thing that helped was that as a student and then as a teacher of literature, I had read a lot of books written around Jane Austen’s time, and had absorbed some of the mindset, culture, and customs of that time. Beyond that, I bought books written for and about magistrates and landowners and servants of the Regency. That gave me a good start, and then when I had specific questions, I found experts to answer them. Many of the incidents—like Mr. Knightley giving out pennies to the children of the parish on Valentine’s Day, were based on real people who did those things.
Why do think after 200 years, so many people are still reading Jane Austen’s books?
I think she succeeded in creating characters that are flawed and human, but still admirable—people you would want to be friends with. I think her humor is subtle but brilliant. And I think she created plots that make the reader care what happens. I think it’s difficult, in a modern love story, to re-create the same sense of desperation—if Lydia doesn’t marry Wickham, what will become of the Bennet girls? If Elizabeth loses Mr. Darcy, it is a real tragedy. Her life will take a definite turn for the worse. In a modern story, Lydia’s situation would have almost no bearing on the future prospects of her sisters, and if someone marries the wrong person—well, there’s always divorce as an option in the modern world. It’s hard to care as much about the outcome.
I understand that you haven’t written an Austen-inspired story in a few years. I read in one of your interviews from a few years ago, that you struggle to find ideas for your writing. Has this held you back from publishing new stories in recent years? What can you share with my readers about your future writing plans?
I have thought about writing a sequel to the Knightley books, mainly following the adventures of Edmund Gilbert as he goes to University and becomes a detective kind of character—seems his bit of spying for Mr. Knightley intrigued him and got into his blood. However, that’s the kind of book that would require tons and tons of research to do properly, and at this point in my life, I don’t have time. We adopted two children with special needs in 2012, and between helping them, homeschooling all six kids, teaching online writing classes, and occasionally doing some editing, my writing time is practically nil. I do miss writing, but I would rather be investing in the lives of these special kids (all were adopted) right now. I did start a modern novel set in Ireland, and I’ve gotten to chapter 5…but I’ve been there for two years. I’m sure I’ll finish it someday!
Thank you so much for joining us here today! I know my readers will enjoy meeting you and appreciate your time here with us. Good luck with your family and work commitments. Hopefully, you will return to the JAFF community one day with a new story, and when you do, you’ll have lots of fans ready to welcome you back!
To connect with Barbara, go to the following links:
Writing blog: https://intheshrubbery.wordpress.com/
She also contributes to the Crownhill Writer’s Blog, Jane Started It: www.crownhillwriters.wordpress.com
Her Facebook page is Barbara Cornthwaite.
Please feel free to leave any comments or questions for Barbara below this post. I know she still enjoys connecting with the JAFF community!