Q. How about we start off with you telling us a little bit about yourself. When and where did you first encounter Jane Austen?
I’m a longtime writer and editor, working in the realms of both children’s books and books for adults. Not that I have a favorite either way, but there’s no doubt that I’m thoroughly steeped in the literary experience of childhood — I write children’s books, I edit children’s books, and I continue to read children’s books for the pure pleasure of it. Still love Pippi Longstocking, The Perilous Gard, 101 Dalmatians, for example; still adore pretty much anything by Louisa May Alcott, Susan Coolidge, Betsy Byars, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Maira Kalman . . .
As for Jane Austen, I didn’t particularly care for her books while in high school or college, and in my first novel, Higher Education (published while I was in my twenties), I blush to admit that my protagonist makes a rude remark about her.
My appreciation — and deeper understanding — came slowly. I began rereading Austen’s novels in my thirties, and it was then that I got hooked. Her wit, irony, and elegant writing just knocked my socks off. And a few years ago I happened upon Claire Tomalin’s biography — so beautifully written, and so sensitive in its approach, that it sparked a binge-read of Austen biographies which ultimately became the research for Young Jane Austen, my eighth book, which is written for adults.
Q. That’s so interesting that your first encounter with Jane Austen wasn’t a favorable one! But how wonderful that your second encounter produced such a lasting admiration and appreciation! Your new release is a biography of Jane Austen early years, focusing on her birth through age 12. What inspired you to write about this time period?
In sharp contrast to Tomalin’s biography, some other biographers present a considerably less nuanced view of Jane’s childhood. Some pass along sentimental Austen family lore about a uniformly happy, untroubled time, which struck me at a minimum as being improbable, if not outright fatuous propaganda. Other biographers don’t seem particularly interested in her early years, as if keen to get quickly on to more well-known territory.
It was this curious divergence that really sparked my interest. It set me wondering . . .
For example, although Jane’s family was lively, literate, and keenly interested in the world around them, they also struggled with significant financial issues before and throughout Jane’s life. That’s a stressful situation for sure. And children — particularly sensitive ones, as Jane no doubt was — have an awareness, often a painfully clear one, of things like this.
Another example has to do with three separate exiles from home before she was twelve. Like her other siblings before her, Jane was “farmed out” to a village family when she was a baby, returning home about a year and a half later. We know this is a crucial time in a person’s emotional and intellectual development; what might have been the impact on young Jane? And how might it have felt to have seen sent away to a faraway school at the age of seven, and to have nearly died from a severe illness? And, finally, she was sent away, to a different school, when she was nine, returning about a year later. That’s a significant amount of upheaval for a child.
These issues and events, and others that I touch on in Young Jane Austen, clearly signify — to me, at least — that Jane’s childhood had its share of nuance, and then some!
Q. Very true! Those issues and events that can definitely shape a person’s behaviors and beliefs. I imagine her separation from home and ongoing financial woes impacted Jane Austen in both her life and her writing. With all the research you did, I’m sure you learned plenty about Jane Austen’s youth that you didn’t know before. What do you suppose Jane Austen loved most about her childhood? What do you suppose was her greatest challenge?
That’s a great question about what Jane might have loved most about her childhood. It’s precisely the kind of inquiry that makes us Austen admirers gnash our teeth over all the discarded, lost, or destroyed letters which might have provided a more concrete sense of this, and so many other aspects of her life.
Perhaps because my focus in Young Jane Austen has to do with Jane’s creative development, it feels natural for me to say that books and reading had to have been such a seminal thing for her as a child. Wonder and delight, education, information, refuge, entertainment, a shared experience with her family . . . These are some of the terms I’d use to encompass it all, and certainly many of Austen’s biographers have done so as well.
In this regard, I found David Keirsey’s personality-typing book, Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, to be very insightful, especially in his description of the “Idealist” personality: it seems to dovetail in many ways with what we know about Austen, particularly in her affinity for books and her gifts as a wordsmith, both enthusiasms she clearly manifested as a child.
“It may seem strange,” Keirsey says, “to describe Idealist children as ‘romantic,’ but they certainly are romantic in the sense that, as they look for their unique qualities, they are apt to identify with characters in stories. When very young, [they] usually enjoy being read stories which are beyond their own reading capabilities, but which fire their imagination. Fairy tales and children’s stories . . . are all real for the Idealist child to a degree not shared by other types.” He goes on to say that these children love “stories that have happy endings, with heroes winning, and even villains having a change of heart in the end. Such happily-ever-after stories capture Idealist kids from the very beginning and never let go of them, however much their hopes and dreams are defied by reality.”
Which leads me to your question about Jane’s greatest challenge. That is also, of course, a matter of speculation. But I do wonder if, as a child, she realized one of the most serious personal consequences of her family’s money struggles was that it made her chances of getting married considerably less likely. Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is quite open about her concerns and fears, and it’s easy to imagine she would have been freely expressing them all the girls’ lives. Perhaps Mrs. Austen was as frank with her two daughters.
Q. What insightful answers! I can easily see and understand the theory of Jane Austen being an idealist child, deriving comfort and inspiration from tales of happily ever after, and love and goodness conquering all. And given how money is an underlying and prevalent theme in all her novels, it makes sense that it was a subject often canvassed at home. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience writing Young Jane Austen? Do you have a favorite part? What was your biggest challenge with this work?
My favorite part about the creation of Young Jane Austen actually preceded the writing. It was the “Aha!” moment which occurred as I was voraciously making my way through all those different biographies, as mentioned above. Even as I was registering the various interpretive stances, sorting through them, assessing them, trying to grasp as many factual details as I could, what emerged from all this, well, input was a powerful sense that there was a true narrative to those first twelve years: a fascinating story of a young writer’s development, with a definitive sense of a beginning, middle, and end, and one that was chockablock full of connections to Jane’s life and work as an adolescent and adult.
The narrative section of Young Jane Austen begins with, of course, Jane’s birth, and includes some context about her family and the little village of Steventon. It concludes just as Jane takes up her pen to begin writing her wonderful and hilarious juvenilia. And in between are the significant events of her young life.
My biggest challenge? I’d say it was the classic researcher’s dilemma. You could just go on, and on, and on, reading, exploring, cross-checking . . . I find Jane Austen’s life and work so intriguing that if I’d gone down that path, Young Jane Austen would never have been written! There was just a point where I had to stop; a point where I felt I had enough material, sufficient understanding, to at least propose an answer my initial question: How did young Jane Austen develop into a writer?
And I was keen — am keen! — to share this vision, this tantalizing possibility, with others. So, like Jane, I took pen to paper (or, rather, fingers to keyboard). And there you have it!
Q. What do you love most about Jane Austen’s novels?
Her profound understanding of human nature.
Q. If you were to meet Jane Austen, what would you like to hear her say?
“I think your book does a very nice job of capturing the essence of my childhood.”
This excerpted interview appears with the kind permission of Austenesque Reviews, where it was originally published.