Margaret C. Sullivan is the editrix of AustenBlog and the author of The Jane Austen Handbook. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). During the day she works as a web content coordinator for a large international law firm, and by night she attempts to convince the world that Henry Tilney is much cooler than that Darcy fellow.
Read the interview and win this precious handbook!
Welcome Margaret and thanks a lot for finding the time to answer all my questions.
Maria Grazia, thank you so much for having me on your Jane Austen Book Club!
I’ve quickly read through the introduction before starting writing my questions for you. It’s perfect invitation to go on! I can’t wait to read the rest of your The Jane Austen Handbook, Margaret. (I sent my questions to Margaret before finishing reading the book) It sounds a precious contribution which all Janeites should treasure on their JA shelf. Who is the reader you were thinking of while writing it?
I wrote it mostly for the newer reader of Jane Austen, someone who is unfamiliar with the time period. When I was writing it, I tried to keep in mind the questions that I had when I was first reading Austen. However, I knew that people who knew me, and who read my blog and my fiction and already knew a lot about Jane Austen, would also want to read it, so I put in little asides and references and jokes for Janeites; and I learned a lot while writing it, so I think even experienced Janeites can get something from it. I also want to say, as there seems to be some confusion about it—if you are not sure at any point in the book if I was joking about something, most likely I WAS joking about it!
I also loved your dedication: “For my mother, who let me read everything”. Can you tell us something more about your freedom of reading and how it led you to discover and love Jane Austen? Do you owe that to your mother too?
That dedication is a little bit of a joke. I come from a family of readers, and had a library card when I was six years old, but even before then my eldest brother and my mother would get books for me on their cards. We were lucky to have a library right up the street from our house, and I spent a lot of time in there and read my way through the very large children's section. I was a precocious reader, and the librarians, knowing I read well above my age level, let me take out some books that were not quite age-appropriate (Paul Zindel is the main one I remember—his books are for teenagers and I was seven or eight years old). I would read them and then ask a lot of difficult questions. But my mother, to her credit, never told me, "You can't read that." It didn't hurt me to read them; the inappropriate stuff went over my head. I've never been afraid to read anything, and I'm sure she had something to do with it.
And yet, I didn't read Jane Austen's books till I was nearly thirty years old! I wish someone had directed me to them when I was younger, but that didn't happen. Sometimes I feel like I will never get to read all the books I want to read.
What is the best part of Jane Austen’s World to you?
If you mean the world of her novels, I think the best thing about it is that there was so much fun and humor in the novels and even the politics of the day. The Victorians weren't really very funny people, but of course Jane Austen's books are hilarious, and other books from the Georgian and Regency periods are really funny, too. I was more accustomed to Victorian fiction when I first read Jane Austen's novels, and I was really surprised and delighted by how funny they are, and now that I've read more from the time period, I have learned it was a very common thing.
Also the design of the time—architecture, clothing, everything—was just elegant and exquisite.
If you mean places in Jane Austen's novels or life, my favorite would be Bath. I know it wasn't Jane's favorite place, but I love Bath. I was only there once for a few days, but I will be back!
Which was the chapter/section you were more amused by while writing? (I love “Making Love” and “How to attend a Ball”!)
I love the sections about dancing and balls, too. I learned quite a bit while researching and writing them, especially about the social aspects of ballroom behavior. I really understand why everyone thought Darcy was so rude at the Meryton assembly, and why Mr. Elton was so rude at the Westons' ball. I also understand why young ladies got so excited about balls—even today, getting all dressed up to go to a party is a big part of the fun!
What do you envy to women living at Jane Austen’s time and what in their lives you are happy to avoid living in the present?
The amount of leisure time that gentry women had is very attractive to me! I have very little free time myself, and would love to have time to read, write, and do needlework.
However, I don't think I would like being stuck at home as much as they are. It was so difficult to travel and just get from one place to the other. Also I'm probably a little too fond of 21st-century hygiene practices to really enjoy living in those days! And with my luck I would probably be a scullery-maid or something rather than a gentry lady.
Studying about her so much and for so long, have you definitely understood what Jane’s opinion on marriage was?
I think Austen was all for marriage, if the two partners loved and respected one another, and if they had enough money to get by—not necessarily lots and lots of money, but enough to live on comfortably. Just love, or just money, would not do for her; and I think respect might be the most important thing of all. Look at the Bennets—Mr. Bennet could not respect his wife, and we see the results. And even the late Lady Elliot in Persuasion made an unwise marriage, and could not respect her husband, and Austen makes it pretty plain that she did not have a happy life. I think she shows that love does not last if respect is not there; or perhaps that "love" formed on the basis of hormonal attraction is not sufficient for a long-lasting marriage.
As for Jane herself, I think she never met a man for whom she felt it was worth giving up her independence. She chose to be single and try to support herself with her writing. Right after she accepted, and then rejected, Harris Bigg-Wither, she started sending out her work to publishers (and Northanger Abbey, in its first incarnation as Susan, was accepted). I suspect that those two things were not unrelated—that she made a very conscious decision to stay single and devote herself to her writing. She probably knew that if she got married that family responsibilities would prevent her from having a lot of time to write. I think that while she knew being single would limit her socially in many ways, the freedom it gave her to write was worth it. However, if she had met a man she wanted to marry, who was willing and able to marry her, I don't think she would have refused him.
The Crofts in Persuasion are a wonderful couple. There is a little bit in the novel that is a great description of their relationship. It takes place in Volume I, Chapter X, when they give Anne Elliot a ride home from Winthrop, and shows how well each complemented the other.
(Mrs. Croft says:) "My dear Admiral, that post! we shall certainly take that post."But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the Cottage.
They get on so well and are so much interested in each other. They are friends as well as lovers. From Volume II, Chapter VI:
The Crofts knew quite as many people in Bath as they wished for, and considered their intercourse with the Elliots as a mere matter of form, and not in the least likely to afford them any pleasure. They brought with them their country habit of being almost always together. He was ordered to walk to keep off the gout, and Mrs. Croft seemed to go shares with him in everything, and to walk for her life to do him good. Anne saw them wherever she went. Lady Russell took her out in her carriage almost every morning, and she never failed to think of them, and never failed to see them. Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral's hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.
I also love that Anne is getting a glimpse of what might be her own future life, though she doesn't know it yet!
Leafing on through the pages of your lovely handbook I read: “Is Mrs Bennet the hero of P&P?” I had never heard of such a hypothesis and found it rather puzzling. I’ve always been so sure the protagonists were Lizzie and Darcy! Do scholars really state Mrs Bennet can be considered as such?
Yes, many scholars and non-scholars have given their opinion that Mrs. Bennet is a heroic character, because she is the only one who truly understands that her daughters must marry well or they will have no home or money once Mr. Bennet dies, and that even though she is ridiculous, she is only concerned for her daughters' welfare. (I think they are exaggerating about Mrs. Bennet being the "hero," however, for extra effect.) There is even a little line given to Mrs. Bennet in the 2005 adaptation of P&P, when Mrs. Bennet tells Lizzy that she only acts like she does because she worries about what will happen to the girls if they don't marry. (There is nothing like that line in the book.) While I agree that the Bennet daughters' situation is precarious, I don't think that Mrs. Bennet's interference is entirely unselfish. One gets the impression that she wants the girls to marry because it will make her look good, not because she is really concerned with her daughters' happiness. Compare the reaction of the Bennet parents to Elizabeth's engagement to Darcy. Mr. Bennet, who doesn't know that Elizabeth has had a change of heart about Darcy and thinks that she is only marrying him for his wealth, tries to talk her out of it. He fears that she will be unhappy in her marriage, which might lead someone of "her lively talents," living among high society as Mrs. Darcy would be, to have an affair, which could be disastrous—Darcy could divorce her, and then she would be in a terrible position. Once Elizabeth assures him that she does love and respect Darcy, he gives his blessing. Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, badmouths Darcy right up till the time that Elizabeth tells her they are engaged, and then she can't say enough nice things about him!
When her mother went up to her dressing-room at night, she followed her, and made the important communication. Its effect was most extraordinary; for on first hearing it, Mrs. Bennet sat quite still, and unable to utter a syllable. Nor was it under many, many minutes that she could comprehend what she heard; though not in general backward to credit what was for the advantage of her family, or that came in the shape of a lover to any of them. She began at length to recover, to fidget about in her chair, get up, sit down again, wonder, and bless herself."Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! Who would have thought it! And is it really true? Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane's is nothing to it -- nothing at all. I am so pleased -- so happy. Such a charming man! -- so handsome! so tall! -- Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted."
"Jane's is nothing to it." Her project of the past year—to marry Jane off to Bingley—is nothing. She thinks Darcy is an awful person, but now that he wants to marry her daughter, he's everything wonderful. If Mrs. Bennet really cared about Elizabeth's happiness, she would, like her husband, have questioned Elizabeth more about her feelings for Darcy before giving her blessing. Also, Mrs. Bennet is very happy when Lydia and Wickham get engaged—though they will not have a good, happy, mutually beneficial marriage. But to Mrs. Bennet, to have a daughter married at sixteen is something she can boast of.
Which are your favourite Austen hero and heroine? (not necessarily a couple)
My favorite hero is Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey, who is witty and amusing and very sweet to his heroine. I love smart, funny men and he might be the smartest (and certainly is the wittiest) of her heroes. My favorite heroine is Elizabeth Bennet, because she is (for the most part) so confident in most situations and people are drawn to her and like her, except of course Caroline Bingley, and who cares what she thinks?
What is the minor character you find most interesting? Why?
I am extremely fond of Mary and Charles Musgrove's two bratty sons, Charles and Walter. I have given a great deal of thought to how they would turn out as adults (and written those stories). The answer: they have enough good adults around them to give them better direction than one might think!
I also gave William Price, Fanny's brother, to Captain Wentworth to be his lieutenant on the Laconia. I think they both will profit by it, not to mention the readers.
I love everything Austen, so adaptations as well as fanfiction. What is your opinion on the great deal of films and books Austen-related come out in the latest years?
As I have produced some fan fiction/paraliterature myself (may I please put in a plug for my novella, There Must Be Murder, a sequel to Northanger Abbey?), I can't very well say bad things about it! I understand that a lot of Janeites don't think it's right to write such novels, but transformative storytelling has gone on since humans walked upright and learned to communicate and tell stories. I wish more people would give them a try—but do check out the reviews, positive and negative, first, so that you are more likely to find something you will enjoy.
I wish there was more variety in the stories, though I suppose fans of the novels other than P&P are too small a niche for commercial publishers. But there are a lot of really good Austen-related books out there, and I hope that those who are unsure will take a chance and try one or more of them.
As for the movies, I was unimpressed in general by the latest crop of them (except for Bride and Prejudice and Miss Austen Regrets; neither was perfect but I enjoyed them quite a bit). I think the mid-1990s films, while also not perfect, are still the gold standard. That could, however, just be a generational thing. Now you kids get off my lawn!
Is there anything of Jane Austen we should remind here to our readers, which is instead often forgotten according to you?
Her books are funny! You would never know it from some of the adaptations—fiction, films, etc. They are so earnest and serious and melodramatic! Not that there's anything wrong with some drama, but it should be, like all good things, in moderation.
I think The Jane Austen Handbook is the perfect present for a Janeite, so I suggest my readers to take notes for their friends’ next birthdays! How would you review it in about 50 words?
Thank you! I hope that anyone who receives the book enjoys it. Here's my short review: If you have read and loved Jane Austen's novels and wondered about anything you encountered there—from money to clothes to social events—you might just find the answers in the Jane Austen Handbook, and if you don't, you will at least have a laugh and celebrate being a Janeite! (Wow, that's exactly 50 words.)
Thanks Margaret for taking the time to answer all my questions. Best wishes for all your Austen related activities and your life!
Thank you for hosting me on your blog, and keep reading and writing about Jane Austen! I love the diversity of voices that are possible on the Internet, and I am delighted that Jane's books are being enjoyed all over the world. I'm sure she would be thrilled about it—any author would be.
That's all for now, Margaret. Keep up the good Austen work !Thank you, Maria Grazia. I very much enjoyed answering your questions—I always love thinking and writing about Jane Austen's work.
Win a copy of Margaret C. Sullivan's new edition of THE JANE AUSTEN HANDBOOK. Leave a comment to this interview + your e-mail address. The giveaway is open only to US and Canada readers. Thanks to Quirbooks for providing the giveaway copy. The name of the winner will be announced on April 20.