Thursday, 2 June 2011


Diana Birchall is the author of two Jane Austen-related novels, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, both published by Sourcebooks, and also a scholarly biography of her grandmother, who was the first Asian American novelist (Onoto Watanna, University of Illinois Press).  Diana grew up in New York City but has lived in California for many years, and works as a story analyst at Warner Bros Studios, reading novels to see if they would make movies.  She has written several Jane Austen-related plays, and The Courtship of Mrs. Elton has had performances in ten cities.  Diana has lectured widely on Jane Austen, films, and her grandmother's career, at universities all over the country and in England.  She makes her home in Santa Monica with her husband, son, and three raffish cats. 

Welcome to My Jane Austen Book Club and thanks for accepting my invitation, Diana. My first question is about Jane Austen and the modern world. Why is such an odd match so successful? I’m thinking of modernizations , Austen –dedicated sites and blogs, Austen –Twitter Projects , nowadays film versions…

I think that the crazier, colder, more chaotic our modern world gets, the more we need the voice of sanity, humor, and reason.  That's Jane Austen. And increasingly more people seem to have more need to escape into what is perceived as a more gracious and controllable past, an ordered and civil world.  Of course, the world probably wasn't really any more controlled and civil in the 18th century than it is today, and the stress must have been equally severe - a struggle to survive for most people, and without medicine as we know it, or even such imperfect social safety networks as we have today.  A harsh world where marriage was woman's best "preservative from want," and woman's place was second to man's.  Yet Jane Austen makes her world infinitely attractive...and so it must have been, when she was in it.

For what you know of her personality, what would Jane Austen most appreciate in our world and what couldn’t she bear?

It's impossible to imagine, as her particular kind of genius could not exist in our world.  It was nurtured on leisurely, private reading; a congenial circle of family and friends receptive to her sparkling brand of entertainment; and a value and attention to the weight and beauty of words and their worth that is lost today.  The sensory stimulation and stress overload of the modern world would quickly kill her if she wasn't dead already.

What is it in her world that most fascinates contemporary readers?

A return to lost values and beauties. Romance and humor and sparkling wordplay fascinates us about her, and we want to be in a world where such people exist. And then we feel nostalgic longing for the sheer physical beauty of England in the 18th century when only 8 million people lived there instead of 60 million and there wasn't a building that wouldn't have seemed beautiful to our eyes.  The sensory overload which I just mentioned, makes us yearn for that world.

And what about you, instead? What is it that you like best in her work and world?

Her sanity, her wisdom, her balance, her immense verbal talent, and her humor.  I also admire the quality she wrote about in Persuasion, as having belonged to Mrs. Smith:  "Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven."  I think that Jane Austen possessed that choicest gift of Heaven herself, and that is why we find solace as well as entertainment in being admitted to the company of her mind and nature.

When and how did you discover/meet Jane Austen first?

I think I read all her books through for the first time when I was about twenty.  In the forty years since I have read them literally thousands of times and know them by heart.

And how did it come that you decided to write a sequel to P&P and a spin-off from Emma?

Illustration by Juliet McMaster from In Defense of Mrs Elton
My Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, written in 1994, was one of the first - I thought at the time it was the first - P&P sequels in the first sequel wave since the 1940s when Pemberley Shades was written.  I had won a contest in Persuasions sometime in the 1980s, trying to imitate a character's "voice," and I did Miss Bates.  Having read Austen so much, studied every sentence, turn of phrase and couching of jokes, I found I had some facility for imitation, and thought, "Hm, why not make a whole book of this, as tribute?"  So I did.  My agent was excited and talked of a bidding war, but at the same time Presumption and Pemberley were coming out, and the publishing world said, "There's not enough interest for THREE Jane Austen sequels!"  Sounds funny now, doesn't it?  So I had to wait for actual publication.  Meanwhile I wrote a scholarly biography of my grandmother, who was the first Asian American novelist (Onoto Watanna, University of Illinois Press, 2001), and I was so excited about getting published that I dashed off chapters of a serial story In Defense of Mrs. Elton on the Janeites list.  I believe it was the first serial fan fiction story ever done online.  The story was published by the Jane Austen Society as a conference gift for their 1999 meeting, and later I expanded it and wrote more Mrs. Elton stories, which form my book, Mrs. Elton in America, published by Sourcebooks, like Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma.

Why Mrs Elton? 

Oh, I love Mrs. Elton, the character you love to hate.  I identified with her because she seemed like a pushy New York lady to me, brassy and officious and a kind of Regency Bella Abzug.  It interested me that the first time I read Emma, I didn't see that there was anything wrong with Mrs. Elton's manners; she behaved like everybody I knew.  So I studied her with fascination to see what was wrong with me having grown up in New York and not Regency England.  I learned the lesson well, and then made a second discovery:  Mrs. Elton, in fact, does nothing worse than Emma does herself.  It is the way Jane Austen cleverly and craftily editorially presents and frames the two characters, that makes us feel about them as we do.  She calls Mrs. Elton all sorts of harsh names, while she treats Emma tenderly.  Through studying Mrs. Elton, that one character, I learned a world of things about Jane Austen's methods - it was learning about her world in microcosm.

Is there any other minor character you’d like to write about?

Plenty!  Mrs. Norris, Lucy Steele, General Tilney...Not the good characters, you see!  I'm interested in Jane Austen's demons.

Are you working /planning to work on any new Austenesque project?

Yes, halfway through a Northanger Abbey novel.

As to Austen heroes, have you got a favourite one? Why?

Mr. Darcy and Henry Tilney.  Reasons are obvious, surely?

Which is Austen best-written character in your opinion?

Each and every one of them.  But I think she was inspired to her greatest heights of humor by Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

What is “Jane Austen’s Cat”?
 My story that is being published in the forthcoming Random House anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It.  I'm very excited that it will be coming out in October!

Thanks Diana, it's been really pleasant and interesting to chat with you about Jane Austen and your books. Hope you'll be back on My Jane Austen Book Club once your Northanger Abbey -inspired novel is finished.

Follow Diana Birchall's at her site, blog and at AustenAuthors

Double Giveaway 

Diana Birchall has generously granted you the chance to win two autographed copies of her Mrs Darcy's Dilemma, one for US and Canada readers and one for the rest of the world.  Leave your comments or questions, add your e-mail address, specify which part of the world you live in and ... GOOD LUCK!  
The giveaway ends on June 8th when the names of the winners will be announced. 
This interview and this double giveaway are part of the JANE IN JUNE II event hosted at Book Rat by Misty.


Margay Leah Justice said...

Diana, your books sound fascinating - especially the one about your grandmother. How cool is that?

I'm from the US


mwsgilbert said...

Love the hat!

I look forward to reading how you handled Mrs Elton, that lady one loves to hate, and your other books as well. Isn't it interesting how the backstory can be so fascinating...

Unknown said...

Mr. Darcy is my favorite, too. The book sounds great. Thanks for the giveaway.

Kelly said...

Thanks for the giveaway!
I'm from France.

maniekelly at gmail dot com

_snitchbitch said...

I think I'd really like to read a story about Lucy Steele! I hope you get a chance to write that one, Diana!

Would love to enter the competition, too!

cyn209 said...

yays!! another DianaBirchall book to add to my ToBeRead list!!!
thank you for the giveaway!! VERY generous of you!!!

i'm from the USA!!!!


Lúthien84 said...

I have never read any of Diana Birchall's books but would love to have a chance to win this.

I'm interested to know which stories did Diana analysed that was successfully turned into movies besides the Harry Potter movies if I'm not mistaken (if I remember correctly, I read it somewhere but could not quote the source now).


buddyt said...

I agree totally with what the author had to say about Jane Austen and the present world.

See we do tend to look at the past with rose tinted glasses and see things as better than they really were but the distance in time also makes it believable to us that a kinder, more gentle world once existed.

I have been loving the Austenesque novels that have ben appearing ver the past few years and this sounds like another good one.

Please enter me for the International copy.

I am from South Africa.

Thank you.

Carol T

buddytho {at} gmail DOT com

Maria Grazia said...

Thanks for all your comments! I'm here also to post Diana Birchall's reply, since she wanted to be actively interacting with you here but she has been having troubles at posting comments though she has a blogspot profile. Is anybody else experiencing the same difficulties? Could you please let me know via e-mail at I'll see what I can do with blogspot.

"Thanks for the comments - if you're curious about my Mrs. Elton stories, you can read the first one online, for free. It's on the JASNA website, here:
All of Juliet McMaster's hilarious illustrations are included, too. Margay, the book about my grandmother is available in most university libraries (or interlibrary loan). She led a pretty wild life! Kim, I really am getting curiously drawn, in a horrible way, to Lucy Steele, and may have to write about her. Hope nobody will beat me to it (probably not; most people want to write about the likeable characters!). Evangeline, in 30 plus years in the movie business I've been first reader on a lot of movies...from Rocky to Terminator to Chariots of Fire to Moonstruck. You don't get paid extra, though, and usually a hit movie is made by some other studio about 5 years after you read it, so you don't feel connected! Now, Maria Grazia, how do we select who gets the giveaways? Do I get one of my cats to put out a paw, or what?"

I'm terribly sorry for the inconveniences blogspot is causing to our collaboration, Diana. I'll see what I can do with them (Grrrrrr!!!)
As for the lucky winners in the giveaway, I usually draw a number (or two in this case) by If you want, we can let one of your lovely cats choose this time!

Jo's Daughter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Claudia said...

Hi Diana! I think it's cool you're interested in "Austen's demons" and I'd be curious to see what stories they could perform ;) Having said this... let me tell you the coolest thing in the interview is that your grandmother was a novelist! I wish I've had a writer among my ancestors, lucky you! Thanks for the giveaway, I'm from the rest of the world :)

Patricia said...

Thanks for this delightful giveaway.

I'm from Argentina.

katie skeoch said...

I just finished watching the BBC Pride & Prejudice for the millionth time & headed over to read more about Austen on your brill blog.
I'm from sunny Scotland

maribea said...

Hi Maria Grazia and all you readers of this wonderful blog. Seeing that it seems that Safari is allowing me to post, I would like to enter this giveaway and to be part of this other interesting discussion concerning our love for Jane.
I'm from Italy.

Judit said...

Thanks for this giveaway!
I'm from Hungary( Europe)

Anonymous said...

I love Mrs. Norris for some weird reason, lol.
I live in the U.S.