ABOUT THE BOOK
Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden: An Illustrated Novel is a new literary and life-affirming book by Janet Todd, the acclaimed Austen scholar and author. The novel will be published on September 7, 2021. The book celebrates how lives are made extraordinary through friendship, books, and new experiences at any age. To top it off, it is a gorgeous book (perfect for gifts) with 50 colour illustrations, special paper and craft finishes, all printed on a hand-fed printing press.
Jane Austen is a presence for thousands of readers; some even look to her for guidance in their lives. This novel is about three women friends, one of whom channels Jane Austen. The story provides a light meditation on literature, friendship, aging, hope, and the joy of new opportunities. There are interchanges with Jane Austen, along with a Shelley twist. Advance readers have hailed it as dazzling and inventive and it features literary criticism as well as history. It is set in England, Wales, and Venice.
Eccentric Fran wants a second chance in life. Thanks to her intimacy with Jane Austen, and inspiration from Shelley, she finds one. Jane Austen is such a presence in Fran's life that she seems to share her cottage and garden, becoming a close imaginary friend. Fran’s conversations with Jane Austen both guide and chide her. Fran reunites with a long-standing girlfriend and also a new writer friend, and their friendship circle leads to something new. The women unite in their love of books and in a quest for the idealist poet Shelley at two pivotal moments: in Wales and Venice.
Shelly’s yearning for utopian communities and visionary power lead the women to interrogate their past relationships, literature, motherhood, death, feminism, the resurgence of childhood memories in old age, and the tensions between generations. Despite the appeal of solitude, the three women open themselves to different ways of living outside of partnership and family. Jane Austen has plenty of comments to offer.
MY INTERVIEW WITH JANET TODD
Thank you so much. A pleasure to be here.
Here’s my first question for you: how and when did the inspiration for Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden come to you?
It came with the first English Lockdown in March 2020. My usual days of working partly at home and partly in the nearby library, scoffing a croissant or cheese scone with a friend in a bookshop café, were ended. I was left to my own devices. So, I turned to writing a novel. Since Lockdown demanded virtual house-arrest with or without company, I began to think about loneliness and solitude and the nature of the ‘family’: these became central concerns of the novel.
Having given away the bulk of my library before the last house-move, for a new fiction I had only memories to hand, as well as photos and leftover bits from earlier projects. My earlier book with most loose ends was Death and the Maidens, which told the sad story of Fanny, Mary Wollstonecraft’s eldest daughter, sister of the future Mary Shelley. A central character and mover in this history was the young Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. I felt I had unfinished business with him.
Could you tell us something about the characters that in your novel travel in the footsteps of Percy Bysshe Shelley?
Five main ones. (I don’t quite know why five-- but the number did coincide with my childhood passion for Enid Blyton’s Five Adventurers. I used one cover as an illustration in my book!)
Fran is the centre of the novel: a little eccentric, certainly prickly, very caring and capable. She’s had a contented rural childhood and knows about gardening and wildflowers; she copes easily with solitude. She shares a few of my memories and feels haunted—sometimes burdened -- by Jane Austen.
Annie is her good friend, a Cambridge Fellow, from a well-off Jewish background. Raised in London, she’s contemptuous of English rural nostalgia—and of Jane Austen whom she associates with it. Her childhood was less happy than Fran’s and she’s resentful of a famous overbearing father.
Rachel, an American teacher of creative writing temporarily teaching in Cambridge. Unknown to her friends, she's an acclaimed author of short fiction. Rachel is fascinated by the visionary poetry and tumultuous life of Shelley, who, it turns out, is the subject of research for
Thomas, an ex-student of Annie’s, now a lecturer in a London college. Though spending much time researching in Cambridge.
Tamsin, a young, mixed-race woman, has become Annie’s colleague, teaching global and post-colonial studies—much more fashionable areas than Annie’s 18th century. My four other characters are fascinated by Tamsin’s assured and easy manner, her beauty, and her command of social media.
The five come together in different groupings to follow Shelley in Wales and Venice, during which time they becomes aware of differences in age, temperament, and understanding of life. Relationships are forged and dissolved.
In your book Jane Austen is Fran’s fantasy friend, her literary companion. That’s an inventive way to make her drop her pearls of wisdom or ironic remarks here and there in the narration. Is that an autobiographical feature? I mean, do Austen and her wisdom accompany you in your everyday life?
The book’s autobiographical only in its use of a few memories and my rather randomly chosen photographs! After so much reading and editing of Jane Austen, I know her novels reasonably well and can sometimes think of an appropriate quotation. But the closeness to Jane Austen which I gave Fran isn’t mine. I often wish I’d internalized her in my late teens before making my life mistakes, but it’s a little late now!
What would Jane Austen say of P.B. Shelley’s radical ideals and adventurous life?
Can you imagine Jane Austen and P. B. Shelley sipping tea together and conversing on common ground? What would that be?
Yes, I can! They’d be civil and, like well-bred people of the genteel class to which they both belonged, they’d have avoided politics—as even the Tilneys do with young Catherine Morland when they fall silent on Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey. Shelley and Austen would have talked politely on superficialities. Perhaps like Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, when the conversation threatened to become inelegant, one of them would have observed that ‘it rained very hard’. In my book, I tried to capture the extreme differences in vision, but also something of the social similarities of Austen and Shelley.
Jane Austen travelled very little and very close, Shelley travelled a lot and lived abroad. How different does that make their work and their outlook on life?
Both Jane Austen and Shelley were great readers, but Shelley had the added benefit of a classical education and his knowledge of Latin and Greek is probably as influential on his poetry as his experiences abroad. No doubt Jane Austen would have welcomed a grand tour such as her wealthy brother Edward enjoyed but she could listen to tales told by her sailor brothers of India and the West Indies—and read of distant places. England was enough for her imagination and art. Her Emma would like to see the sea but is largely contented in her small patch of Surrey. This rootedness is a quality that fascinates my character, Fran.
As to travelling, living near Rome I’ve visited Shelley’s burial place and the Keats & Shelley’s Memorial House in Rome several times. Have you ever been there? And have you visited the places in Wales and northern Italy you describe in your book?
Yes indeed. A wonderful place. I love Rome and I took a photograph of the Shelley's little son in the Protestant cemetery there. It's reproduced in the novel.
I’ve spent my life in many countries, including the US for 15 years, but in my novel I took my characters to the 3 places I know best—and for which I have photos on my phone! Mid Wales, Venice and Cambridge.
To read about Mary and P.B. Shelley’s tragic losses was so touching, if not upsetting. They don’t come out as very responsible parents from the pages of your novel, do they? The same can be said for Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron.
Shelley was sadly careless of children, as young people often are. We must remember how very young they all were—teenagers or just out of their teens. Young Mary and Claire became mothers without preparation or family backing. Both, however, keenly felt the pull and demands of motherhood and tried to act for the best. Until perhaps the 1960s-70s opinion was widespread that a woman’s first obligation was to her husband-- children, though important, were subservient to this. Mary put Shelley’s interests over her children’s—and resented him for it. Initially Claire believed status was more important than mother-love and came to regret it. Like Shelley, Byron was careless of the children he fathered, but he was more conventional as well as cynical about society. Although he appears cruel in his dealings with Claire and their child, he thought he was rescuing his daughter from the chaotic Shelley menage by sending her to a convent to be brought up as an Italian lady.
Literary tourism has become more and more popular in the latest years. What kind of experience is that? Does it help relate to an author’s work more and understand it better?
I thoroughly enjoy it as I enjoy visiting all old houses, especially modest ones, but I notice other people being more moved by contact with places and artefacts of great authors than I am. So many literary sites have had a heritage makeover: I like a nicely labelled shrine and a good tearoom as much as anyone—and always seek out such places--but I don’t get closer to the author (or artist) by being there. Even the Chawton House Museum and Chawton House I enjoy mainly as beautiful places, lovely buildings and gardens. I visit whenever I can-- but I get closest to Jane Austen through her words. Fran takes Jane Austen around with her and has more or less released her from her Hampshire moorings—though, as I’ve mentioned, she’s very much aware of Austen’s rootedness in Southern England.
Quoting from your book: “What courage old age requires!” Can we find that courage reading Austen, Shelley or classic literature in general?
Well, Jane Austen dying at 41 and Shelley at 29 are not a great deal of use! I think some robust advice can be gained by reading philosophers like Marcus Aurelius or essayists like Montaigne. But to me imaginative literature doesn’t make the fact of death any easier or prepare me for the inevitable decaying of the body that usually precedes it. It simply takes me out of myself for a while and puts me for an enjoyable time elsewhere. And that’s a wonderful thing!
How do Fran and her friends cope with aging and the idea of mortality?
I guess I made them cope in the only way possible, by thinking about it sometimes, dreading it, facing it, even perhaps preparing for it, but mostly taking their minds off it through new adventures, new experiences, even new relationships.
Fran doesn’t always agree with Jane Austen though she considers her works “sacred books”. What about this reproach: “You haven’t always made my life better here … with your caution, civility and repression, your maddening romantic endings?” Is that something you’d also blame Jane Austen for?
Not really! Fran is, as so often, being a bit perverse. I enjoy the romantic endings, which we can take on so many levels. Everybody likes a love story that ends happily, and Austen’s novels seem always do that –it’s a large part of their appeal. That said, they are so far from saccharine that some readers find them more ominous and downbeat than romantic, and for me Jane Austen is more ironist than romance writer. There’s genuine happiness at the ends of her novels-- along with all the niggles of real life that will ruffle the relationships: not quite enough money or land, learning more of other people, including the husbands.
Fran’s irritations with Jane Austen are sometimes deflected irritations at herself and at the class-bound culture of England.
Who would you recommend your book to? Who is your target audience?
Of course, I hope that anyone who picks up the book will like it—and that many people will pick it up or see it online! But this is a lot to ask when so many fine novels are being published and vying for attention. I hope mine will appeal to those who are a bit bookish, love Jane Austen, and wonder about trying out new ways of living and working, alone or in company—at whatever age.
I’d have so many more questions, but I’ll pick up one final quick one. A tip from your book or your personal experience on how to grow old?
Goodness, I couldn’t presume! I have no idea how to grow old and there’s no moral imperative to do it in a particular way. I know only that it’s inevitable, we all hear the ticking clock. With decent health, enough money and a few friends, old age is quite pleasant: you’re over some of the worst aspects of youth! However, without them, it can be pretty ghastly. Best find something to preoccupy the mind: like a good book! I’m falling into repetition—which neither Jane Austen nor Fran would approve!
Well, that’s all then. Thank you very much, Janet, for taking the time to answer all my questions about your upcoming novel. It was a real pleasure and honour to read it in advance!
Thanks for these questions. They have made me think of Jane Austen & Shelley in the Garden in an interestingly different way!