Maria, thank you so much for inviting me to talk about my new book, Project Darcy, and share an exclusive sneak peek!
When I first read about the fact that there’d been an archaeological dig at Jane Austen’s childhood home, I couldn’t help thinking that it would make a marvellous setting for a novel. The idea of a group of volunteers, from all walks of life, coming together in secret to discover all sorts of interesting possibilities about Jane Austen’s first twenty five years of life at Steventon Rectory, really fired my imagination. I wanted to combine a modern story with undertones of Pride and Prejudice alongside a tale in the past, and having written one timeslip novel, I couldn’t wait to get started.
Ellie, Jess, Martha, Cara, and Liberty, are five friends just leaving university, and all have their own reasons for volunteering for the dig. They arrive at Ashe, just a couple of miles from Steventon and are going to be staying at Jess’s godmother’s house - Ashe Rectory. What none of them realise is that this house has its own connections to Jane Austen’s past in a very special way as the house where she fell in love, but for one person, in particular, being haunted by a particular young man has life-changing consequences!
Here’s a little excerpt - the girls have arrived at the house where they’re staying, and immediately, Ellie senses the enchantment of the place.
‘Ashe Rectory,’ called the driver.
Ellie stared at the life-sized doll’s house in front of them. A doorway surmounted by a beautiful fanlight was set in the centre of the elegant Georgian façade, its panelled doors opening as they stepped down from the coach. Wisteria and roses climbed over the rose brick walls and the windows on either side. On the upper floor, the window under the pediment caught the glow of the sun in its rectangular panes. The light was blinding, but Ellie sensed they were being watched and when she shielded her eyes to squint at the glass, she saw she was right. It was momentary, but the sight of a young man with pale hair and skin standing at the window made every hair on her body stand on end. He was looking down at them and, for a moment, Ellie thought that she knew him. There was something so familiar about the turn of his head and his stance that caused a flicker of pleasure to quicken inside her, and when, at last, their eyes met, the sense of recognition and consciousness felt almost like coming home.
The light bounced from the panes, the sun blinking in her eyes so strongly she was forced to close them and when she looked again, he was gone. As all five girls stood before the house with the noise of the coach rumbling away down the lane, the doors opened and a white-haired lady in a twin-set and tweed skirt stepped out, dogs barking at her heels.
‘Now Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, don’t carry on so. You remember Jessica, there’s no need to bark like that.’
The dogs were all over Jess, leaping up excitedly as they recognised their old friend. ‘Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley,’ cried Jess, laughing as they almost bowled her over. ‘It’s so long since I had the pleasure of seeing those wagging tails - you were always the most handsome and loving men of my acquaintance!’
‘We should have known they’d have names from Pride and Prejudice,’ said Cara, ‘Is your godmother as obsessed as you, Jess?’
‘No, not one bit,’ said the apple-cheeked lady who greeted them after she’d bestowed affectionate kisses on Jess. ‘Mrs Burke always says she prefers the Brontë sisters and has no time for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. It was Jessica who was allowed to christen the dogs, you might know. I’m Betty Hill, by the way, the housekeeper. Come inside – leave your suitcases in the hall, my dears, and my husband will see to those. The kettle is on, we’ll have a nice cup of tea and then I’ll show you to your rooms.’
The girls walked into a large hallway with a staircase in front leading to the upper floors, and rooms leading off left, right, and beyond. A polished circular table in the centre held a Chinese bowl of pot-pourri and a country arrangement of roses and lavender from the garden scented the air with its fragrance. Off to the right they were taken into a morning room, a pretty old-fashioned space with chairs and sofas sprigged in chintz. The walls were panelled and on each side of the marble fireplace the alcoves held shelves in the recesses topped with richly carved seashells, on which were displayed pretty, floral china.
‘Oh, I thought we were to be on our own,’ Ellie heard Liberty whispering to Cara, the disappointment in her voice plain to hear. ‘I had high hopes of entertaining Greg Whitely here a bit later.’
‘Liberty, you are too naughty for words,’ Cara answered, giggling, as she plumped down onto an armchair covered in dove grey linen, sending the flowered cushions tumbling to the floor.
Mrs Hill appeared not to notice and when the tea came in they were introduced to the young girl, Nancy, who bore pots of Earl Grey tea, piles of chicken sandwiches and slabs of chocolate cake on delicate tea plates.
‘Nancy comes in from the village to help me,’ said Mrs Hill. ‘If you need to know anything at all about Ashe, Steventon or Deane and the people that live here, she’s the one to ask. Her people have lived here since before Jane Austen’s day. In fact, they were a very special part of the family.’
Nancy wore an expression of pride as she set down the tray. ‘Yes, my ancestors worked for the Austen family, they helped bring up the children. Mrs Austen used to send them off, once they were weaned, to live with my family until they were old enough to walk and talk and mind their manners. I suppose that seems an odd practice today, but that’s what they did in the olden days. The children were visited every day, and, no doubt, were in and out of the respective houses as they were growing up.’
‘So your family actually knew Jane Austen?’ Ellie asked.
Nancy nodded. ‘My granny told me that one of the Littleworths once dressed Jane Austen’s hair for a ball. They were servants, really, but the Austens treated them as if they were their nearest and dearest. There’s not much the Littleworths didn’t know then, and there’s not much we don’t know about Steventon and all its neighbours now. And if there’s any gossip to be had, we’ll be the first to hear the news. It’s not a place for keeping secrets, I can tell you,’ Nancy said, lowering her voice to a whisper as if the walls themselves might hear something they shouldn’t. ‘It’s just village life, but if you’re not used to it, it can seem as if people are being very nosy and interfering, if you know what I mean.’
‘I’d better be on my best behaviour then,’ said Liberty, who pressed her lips together as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
Everyone laughed. It was hard to get cross with Liberty who knew more than anyone else that trouble seemed to hunt her out like a heat-seeking missile.
‘It’s a beautiful house,’ said Ellie, keen to change the conversation. ‘It looks as if Jane Austen might walk out of a door at any moment.’
‘Yes, indeed, my dears, this house is not without its associations to that great lady. It was a former rectory and belonged to a very great friend of Miss Austen,’ Mrs Hill replied, as if the author was still alive. ‘Her name was Madame Lefroy, that was how she was known. She was married to the Reverend Lefroy who was the rector at Ashe. Jane always ran to her dear friend for advice – they shared a great many interests, I believe, books and poetry, in particular.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ said Jess, sitting up in her seat, instantly alert to the name of her favourite author. ‘I’ve never heard Aunt Mary talk about Jane Austen being here in this house.’
‘Well, Jane Austen and her books have never been of any interest to her, and it’s a few years since we’ve had the pleasure of seeing you in this house, Jessica. I suppose she thought you too young before, to be interested in the history of the rectory itself and the people who lived here.’
‘Just think, Jane Austen might have sat in this very room,’ said Jess.
‘Without a doubt, she did,’ answered Mrs Hill. ‘Not only did she sit in this room, but Jane also attended a few dances here. Madame was quite a figure in the neighbourhood and loved to throw parties. You see the folding doors that separate the rooms? They were always thrown back to make room for the dancing couples.
Jess opened her mouth to speak again. Ellie could see how curious she was and longing to know more, but Mrs Hill stood up, gathering cups and saucers together on the tea-tray. ‘I’ll just pop these in the kitchen – Nancy will show you to your rooms whilst I tidy up. I understand you’re all going out in an hour or so. I’ll leave the side door open and there’ll be a spot of supper, something cold left out for you when you get back. Have a lovely time, my dears.’
They followed Nancy upstairs and on reaching the first floor, Ellie remembered the haunting face that she’d seen earlier. ‘Does anyone else live here, Nancy? I thought I saw someone at the window when we arrived … could it have been Mrs Hill’s son?’
‘No, Mrs Hill’s nephew stays here with her sometimes, but she and Mr Hill were never blessed with any children. It’s such a pity because she would have made a lovely mum. Perhaps it was Mr Hill you saw – he’s always seeing to odd jobs around the house.’
‘I doubt it, unless Mr Hill is a very young man,’ said Ellie, wondering if she had, in fact, imagined the face that had seemed to smile when he saw her.
‘Oh, in that case it was probably the ghost you saw,’ Nancy pronounced, in such a matter of fact way that Ellie wondered if she’d misheard her.
‘Don’t tell me there’s a ghost,’ cried Liberty, ‘I shan’t sleep tonight. I love nothing more than a horror film but I don’t want to be in one!’
‘I don’t know anything about a ghost,’ Jess joined in. ‘Aunt Mary’s never mentioned him to me. Where did you see him, Ellie?’
‘Well, he must have been here standing at this window but, to be honest, I didn’t see very much and it could just have been a trick of the light. The sun was really bright … I got the impression of someone about our age, quite pale and fair. He was only there for a second – I probably imagined it.’
‘That’s not likely with your history, is it?’ Jess had lowered her voice to a whisper and was looking at her friend earnestly. Ellie had only ever confided in Jess about the people she saw – not people exactly, they were more like shadows of real people, in three dimensions but dimmer in intensity, other worldly.
‘There is a young man haunts the place from time to time,’ said Nancy, opening the door of the first bedroom on the left. ‘He’s harmless enough, but I expect your aunt didn’t want to say anything to you about him when you were a little girl, Jess, for fear of frightening you.’
Martha who’d been quiet for some time spoke up. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve seen too many so-called séances with hysterical people, mostly ridiculously stupid actresses, who whipped themselves into a frenzy of believing all sorts of nonsense – contact with the dead, and even one who swore she’d lived in another time.’
Ellie didn’t want to say too much. ‘I think some people are more in tune or have a sensitivity to such things. I’d hate to dismiss it completely.’
‘I agree with Ellie,’ Jess chipped in, ‘there is so much that we don’t understand. I was reading about the Akashic records the other day, the belief that everything that happens in the world is imprinted on the unseen ether around us, present in every atom of the world and universe – like a multi-sensory photograph or holograph being constantly captured and kept on file.’
‘Now you’ve lost me with all this talk of hollow graphs and science. It sounds like a lot of gobbledygook to me,’ said Liberty, hitching up her shoulder bag.
I’ve had a few strange experiences in houses myself - I’d love to know what you think about the idea that we leave a little bit of ourselves imprinted in the fabric of the walls of buildings we have lived in! Have you ever seen a ghost or ‘felt’ a presence?
Jane Odiwe - Austen Effusions: http://www.austeneffusions.com
Jane Austen Sequels: http://www.janeaustensequels.blogspot.co.uk
It is high summer when Ellie Bentley joins an archaeological dig at Jane Austen’s childhood home. She’s always had a talent for ‘seeing’ into the past and is not easily disturbed by her encounters with Mr Darcy’s ghost at the house where she’s staying.
When Ellie travels into the past she discovers exactly what happened whilst Jane danced her way through the snowy winter of 1796 with her dashing Irish friend. As Steventon Rectory and all its characters come to life, Ellie discovers the true love story lost in Pride and Prejudice – a tale which has its own consequences for her future destiny, changing her life beyond imagination.
Jane Odiwe is the author of five Austen-inspired novels, Project Darcy, Searching for Captain Wentworth, Mr Darcy's Secret, Willoughby’s Return, and Lydia Bennet’s Story, and is a contributor to Laurel Ann Nattress’s anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It, with a short story, Waiting.
Jane is a member of the Jane Austen Society; she holds an arts degree, and initially started her working life teaching Art and History. When she’s not writing, she enjoys painting and trying to capture the spirit of Jane Austen’s world. Her illustrations have been published in a picture book, Effusions of Fancy, and are featured in a biographical film of Jane Austen’s life in Sony’s DVD edition of The Jane Austen Book Club.