The Bride of Northanger: A Jane Austen Variation,
by Diana Birchall
Interview with Deb Barnum at Jane Austen in Vermont, November 6, 2019
Dear Readers: Today, I welcome friend (and same-birthday Sagittarian!) Diana Birchall to discuss her new book The Bride of Northanger: A Jane Austen Variation. It is a charming read, a sequel to Austen’s Northanger Abbey (one of a select few), wherein we find Henry Tilney and his betrothed Catherine the evening before their nuptials – it is delightful to see them again, happy in their life at Woodston Parsonage, yet, as you will see, troubled by a number of very real Gothic goings-on – I won’t tell you anymore – just buy it and find out for yourself…!
[I use JAIV for my questions and “DIANA” for the answers, as DB are also my initials and could complicate matters!]
JAIV: Before we launch into a chat about your new book The Bride of Northanger, tell us something about yourself: How and when you discovered Jane Austen; other books you have written, etc.
DIANA: Hi Deb! Thanks for reading my book, and for coming up with such interesting questions. I will try my best to answer them all, “see if I don’t,” as Louisa May Alcott used to say. To start at the beginning, fifty years ago Jane Austen was not as universally popular as she is today; the only known movie was the 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier and Garson (in dead wrong period costuming), and fan fiction had not yet been invented. Austen was not encountered in school, even for a reading girl in New York City. I had a literary aunt (blessings on you, Miriam Finkelstein!) who recommended Austen, Bronte and Colette, and I adored Charlotte Bronte at 10, Colette at 15 (seeing myself as Claudine in Paris), but did not fall into Austen until age 20. I think the staid title of Pride and Prejudice put me off, but what a delicious revelation it was when I finally opened the covers and fell in!
My first attempt in writing in the Austenesque (long before the term came into existence) was in 1984 when I won a contest in Persuasions, the journal of JASNA, with a jolly Miss Bates monologue. At that exact moment I discovered how much I loved writing pastiche, and I have never stopped doing it since. I churned out sketches and skits, stories and semi-scholarly sundries. My “day job” was as a story analyst, reading novels and screenplays for Warner Bros, and I was also accumulating a formidable pile of my own unpublished novel manuscripts. The first really viable one of these was Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, which I wrote in 1992. Obviously I wasn’t the first person to write a Jane Austen sequel – as you know Jane Austen herself would playfully tell her family what happened to her characters, and nieces and others wrote various completions after her death. However, there were only a handful of these efforts over two centuries, and I believe the most recent had been Pemberley Shades by one Dorothy Bonavia-Hunt in 1949. So to write a Pride and Prejudice sequel was definitely an idea whose time had come. I was thrilled to find a New York literary agent who was very excited about this “gem,” and predicated a bidding war. Unfortunately, two other authors came up with similar ideas simultaneously, and when I read an item in the London Times in my Los Angeles boho coffeehouse that Emma Tennant was rushing out a P & P sequel, Pemberley, to “beat all the competition” (meaning Julia Barrett’s Presumption, and my debut offering), I lay down on the floor in despair and howled.
It got worse. With Tennant and Barrett established authors coming out with their sequels, no publisher was willing to publish “a third P & P sequel.” You heard that right. Three was too many, when there are hundreds today! My agent said “I don’t know what happened, but put it away and it will be published in a few years.” And it was. A small English press published Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, and eventually, after the Austen boom was well underway, Sourcebooks picked it up for national U.S. publication (2008). Meanwhile I pressed on. My first actual book acceptance was a scholarly biography of my grandmother, the first Asian American novelist (and Hollywood screenwriter), Onoto Watanna, for the University of Illinois Press (2001). This was very well received, nominated for an MLA Independent Scholar Award, and I found myself lecturing at universities across the country and Canada including Yale, Columbia, NYU, Vancouver and Montreal. I was so elated that simultaneously I wrote the first Jane Austen internet series, for the Janeites list, “In Defense of Mrs. Elton.” This was published by JASNA as the conference gift of the 1999 Colorado Springs AGM, with glorious illustrations by Juliet McMaster, and Sourcebooks later published my “Mrs. Elton in America” as well.
Since then I’ve written hundreds of Austenesque stories, and branched out into playwriting, co-writing two plays for JASNA AGMs with Syrie
Diana Birchall and Syrie James (SyrieJames.com)
James (“The Austen Assizes,” for the Brooklyn AGM of 2012 and “A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes in Mansfield Park” in Montreal in 2014) as well as two plays of my own, a “Mrs. Elton in Vancouver” one in 2007, and “You Are Passionate, Jane,” a dialogue in Heaven between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte (Jane is the literary guardian who decides which writers will enter and she is not fond of Bronte). This was performed at Chawton House Library in 2016, with Syrie as Jane and myself as Bronte, as well as at the Huntington Beach JASNA AGM in 2017 and several other performances. It was almost put on by the Morgan Library in New York, but I was disappointed!
After my retirement from Warner Bros my husband became ill and my life took a detour into caretaking; miribile dictu, he recovered, and words can’t express how rejoiced I have been to resume novel writing, and this year bring The Bride of Northanger “home” to the JASNA conference on Northanger Abbey in Williamsburg! It was the very place of all that I had most longed to be, signing my pretty book for so many friends old and new, and also was honored to speak on a panel on JASNA’s fabulous and friend-filled forty year history (“The Company of Clever, Well-Informed People,” with Conrad Harper, Juliet McMaster, and Mary Gaither Marshall).
JAIV: You are, of course, the true voice of Mrs. Elton – you have captured her to a T – so why her? Why not Miss Bates, or Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Bennet, or Mary Crawford?
DIANA: Well, I did do Miss Bates, see above, and played Mrs. Norris in the Montreal play (wearing a Gone With the Wind/Carol Burnett outfit of green baize curtains. Mrs. Bennet had a cat-fight with Lady Catherine in Syrie’s and my “Austen Assizes.” However, Mrs. Elton was first among my gallery of Austen grotesques, for I confess to a peculiar fascination with Jane Austen’s villains (note what happens to General Tilney in The Bride of Northanger). I suppose this is because people are drawn to very different things in Austen – some love the romance, others the style, the period – and my greatest love is for her amazing humor. To this day, after thousands (literally) of re-readings, I still find new humor and beauty in seemingly quiet turns of phrase that I never noticed before.
As for why Mrs. Elton particularly, I think it’s that she was an outsider, a transplant. As a New Yorker who found herself a fish out of water moving to Los Angeles, something in me could relate. Austen had always been my classroom in learning how to behave, but I was initially baffled by the response of Emma and the other Highbury denizens to the horrors of Mrs. Elton. To me, her behavior wasn’t horrible; what do you do when you’re a new bride in an unknown place? Why not invite people to form a musical society? I think it’s understandable that you might try to impress, when feeling new and insecure. But clearly Jane Austen didn’t think so, and I realized I had a lot to learn and had better delve harder into Emma and examine Mrs. Elton more carefully!
JAIV: You have many stories and non-fiction writings on your own blog and on the Jane Austen Variations blog [https://austenvariations.com/]. For your non-fiction, what is your favorite topic to research in the Regency Period? And which do you find the most difficult to achieve authenticity in your own fictional writings? As an example, you obviously have read about the dissolution of the monasteries for The Bride of Northanger.
DIANA: Hm, well, I don’t research anything in the Regency or any period for its own sake, only as how it relates to whatever story I’m writing. For instance, in a recent serial story I wrote about the Darcys going to Venice and meeting Lord Byron. It became imperative to learn a good deal about the continental travels of those days, and Byron’s Italian life and circumstances. I must say, never was research more fun! (Venice is probably my favorite place on earth, after England). And you are correct, I certainly did read about the dissolution of the monasteries for The Bride of Northanger. Your contributing writer and friend Tony Grant was a great inspiration in this direction, and I absolutely loved his wonderful piece on Netley Abbey. Imagine growing up near there, as he did! (John Constable’s painting of Netley is used on my book’s cover, you’ll notice). For most of my working life I visited England on my annual vacations, amounting to “as many trips as would always be called forty.” Yet I never, to my great regret, have visited Netley Abbey. I know now how it must have inspired Jane Austen, and it is my firm intention to visit it next trip!
[JAIV: You can read Tony Grant’s blog post on Netley Abbey via Jane Austen’s World here: http://general-southerner.blogspot.com/2018/01/netley-abbey-and-gothic.html – I had the privilege of visiting Netley with Tony a few years ago – it was a rainy overcast day, and I could well envision Jane Austen lurking about finding inspiration for her abbey at Northanger!]
DIANA: As for the other part of your question, achieving authenticity in my own fictional writings – as Jane Austen had Elizabeth Bennet say, “I must not decide on my own performance.” However, those thousands of re-readings have installed the novels pretty thoroughly in my head, and I slip into my Austenesque voice rather as Norma Jeane Baker switched on Marilyn in front of the cameras. Not, I hasten to add, with similar effect! I only mean that I make the transition with ease. Whether it really works or not, I have the fond illusion it does, which is necessary.
JAIV: Of the many sequels, continuations, variations, etc, Northanger Abbey has been sadly neglected; P&P takes the lead, but even Mansfield Park has its fair share of an afterlife. Why do you think this is? And, is this the main reason for choosing Northanger Abbey for your latest book?
DIANA: Northanger Abbey does get rather overlooked, but to me it has such charm, as we follow Catherine on her adventures into the world of Bath, her beguiling romantic encounters with Henry Tilney, and the Gothic amusements and literary commentary Jane Austen lays out for the reader. It may be the Gothic aspects, the parody of “horrid novels” make it seem like a one-trick pony compared with her more mature works, but I do love it and think it contains many pleasures and much wisdom. But its afterlife or lack of it has nothing to do with why I chose it for my latest book. I fell in love with it (rather belatedly) at the time of the last NA-themed JASNA conference (Portland, 2010), and always meant to write a novel about it. I did make a beginning and an outline, but life intervened, and it was only when I realized that the next NA AGM was coming up, I decided I’d better get cracking! So I did. Perhaps you are starting to get the idea of what role JASNA in general has played in my creative writing life!
JJ Feild as Henry Tilney, 2007
JAIV: Which leads us to: So why Henry Tilney? He has become a favorite of mine, but it took several readings to get past what first appears to boorish, condescending, and manipulative behavior (he is his father’s son after all!) – tell us YOUR history with Henry!
DIANA: Oh, I’ve always loved Henry, he’s pretty much my favorite Austen hero, yes, better even than Mr. Darcy. I love me a witty man, my husband Peter even identifies with him, and with Mr. Bennet too, a bit. I never saw Henry as boorish or manipulative, we’ll have to differ on that, and I think he got over his condescension as his respect for Catherine increased. I did question why such a clever man would fall for a girl who was a bit of a goose as Catherine was in NA, and so I set about to try to understand how this could happen. Jane Austen’s explanation, “his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought,” is not that satisfying. So I explored the father-son dynamic between General Tilney and Henry, writing about it in an essay for Sarah Emsley’s Northanger Abbey blog celebration, “The Ogre of Northanger Abbey” (https://sarahemsley.com/2018/06/11/general-tilney-the-ogre-of-northanger-abbey/). This helped me come to the conclusion that after being bullied by his dictatorial father all his life, the simple and pellucid Catherine was a balm to Henry: she represented the very opposite of his father’s qualities. As he said, “Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise,” to which his sister Eleanor answered with a smile, “Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in.”
JAIV: Can you give a short summary of the plot without giving too much away?
DIANA: Can try. The story opens the night before Henry and Catherine’s wedding, a year after the ending of Northanger Abbey. During the year of their engagement, they have corresponded, and under Henry’s tutelage Catherine, in growing from 17 to 18, has read some very wise books and has grown more nearly his equal, in fact she bids fair to mature into a remarkably sensible woman. Horrid stories are a thing of the past – until Henry reluctantly announces that there is a curse on the family of Northanger Abbey. If in the original novel Catherine found that a real life villain might do more damage than any Gothic imaginings, here she learns that Gothic horrors are not entirely things of the imagination after all!
JAIV: You DO capture Austen’s difficult language – is that from years of reading and writing about her and does it come easily, flowing from your pen? Or did you have much editing to get it just right?
DIANA: Thank you! Yes, certainly, decades of rereading and imitating Austen’s style and dialogue do give one a facility (as Mrs. Morland says about Catherine being a heedless housekeeper, there’s “Nothing like practice”). The characters start to talk to me and I write it down as they do – but that said, I then do several editing drafts. First draft is usually getting it all down, second draft I reread and see what it needs to make it work, final draft is polish, polish, polish.
HM Brock, NA, 1898
JAIV: Your epigraph is from Hamlet:
I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up they soul.”
This is a perfect introduction to your tale – it sounds like Henry teasing Catherine on the way to the Abbey which prompts her fantastical imaginings – but this is funny in NA, and foreshadows what happens when Catherine is finally settled at the Abbey. Your choice of this Shakespeare quote lends a serious, sinister, heavy hand take to your story, and indeed, we are immediately told of a long-in-effect Curse on the Tilney family (no more spoilers!) – so why this quote?
DIANA: Where the Gothic was imaginary, and parodied, in Northanger Abbey, it turned out to be much more alarmingly real in my novel! Catherine enters a dark world, a family with a dark history, for sure. Her maturing good sense makes her evolve into a true heroine, and her love and happy marriage with Henry gets them both through the worst of times. However, in spite of my loving Austen’s humor more than nearly any other quality of hers, and obediently trying to imitate it as often and as best I can, The Bride of Northanger is by no means entirely light and funny. Henry and Eleanor did have a truly Gothic childhood, thanks to that ogre father of theirs, and worse things happen because of this than merely Catherine being sent home alone. I have tried to investigate the nature of what really is a family curse, and how it might be dissipated. Heritage is what is handed down for generations – but sometimes an evil cycle needs to be broken.
JAIV: The problem with a Mystery tale is that we don’t want to present too many spoilers in an interview – yet many questions could be asked (your reading public wants to know!) why you deal with certain characters as you do – some get their just desserts we could say (without saying who!) Are you concerned with reactions to this? – it IS a bit shocking! Did you toy with other options for your ending, or was this clear from the get-go as how the story had to end?
DIANA: Oh, I know who and what you mean! It is a bit shocking, but by then I was well immersed in Gothic literature in which things like that are rife! And then my son Paul (he is the librarian on Catalina island, and another very funny Henry Tilneyesque man) had his influence, and it is a mischievous one…
Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe
JAIV: You include all the many tropes of the Gothic genre – you give us a REAL Gothic tale!: Fainting and Trembling Heroines, Poisonings and Mysterious Deaths, Scary Creatures in the night, Family Curses, Ghosts and Hauntings, Hidden Subterraneous Passages, Locked Doors, Secret Messages, Long-Locked Chests, Shimmering Candles, Spies and Political Ravings, and the like – but like Ann Radcliffe, all is eventually explained (well almost…). What other Gothic novels and authors have you read to prepare you for this? Have you read any of the Horrid Northanger Novels made famous by Isabella Thorpe?? Do you have a favorite?
DIANA: A very well put summation, Deb! Of course, the Horrid novels were exactly what I read for my research. You can’t do a Gothic plot without some familiarity. It’s not my favorite genre, nor really natural to me, but to my surprise I quite enjoyed some of them. Real page-turners, and I actually believe that my own writing benefited from a dose of page-turning, “what will happen next? My favorite was Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which just like Henry Tilney, I read “with my hair standing on end the whole time.”
I was also inspired by my good friend Janet Todd’s novel A Man of Genius. It’s an historical novel set in the 18th century, which no one knows better than she, and she uses Ann Radcliffe references brilliantly. My book is dedicated to Janet, friend and companion of many adventures, both real and literary.
JAIV: What do you think Jane Austen would say about your “meddling” with her story? [I do love that Catherine finally gets a proper sheaf of papers from a long-locked chest – so much better than a laundry list!]
DIANA: Well, as Jane Austen did continue talking about her characters to her family after publication, and indulged in a variety of writing discussions with her niece Anna, both playful and helpful, I don’t know that she’d have minded “meddling” 200 years after the fact, but hope she might have been pleased by the degree of admiration! (And thanks, it was fun imagining what those papers might be! Each generation might have told a different story.)
JAIV: One could make a reading list from all the authors you mention Catherine reading under the tutelage of Henry: Homer, Cowper, Crabbe, Scott, Wordsworth, Milton, Johnson, Maria Edgeworth, Darwin, Locke, etc! You have made her a wise woman and certainly an equal to Henry – has it bothered you that many readers take from NA that Henry will continue in their married life to tease and belittle Catherine for her innocence and lack of education?
DIANA: I don’t think I realized that some readers see it that way. Since he’s going to live with her for a long lifetime, is quite a bit older and more educated than she is, and is a man of good will, would it not be likelier that he would try to educate her than spend a lifetime belittling her? That’s the regrettable way Mr. Bennet dealt with his wife, but even at 17 Catherine is a far more sensible woman than Mrs. Bennet, with a great deal more potential!
JAIV: What would you most like your readers to take away from your Northanger story?
DIANA: Just to enjoy it, I hope; and perhaps reread Northanger Abbey, and think about Jane Austen!
JAIV: Why do you think that Jane Austen continues to be the “Darling” of academia as well as popular culture?
DIANA: Well, she is a genius, but at the same time a wholly accessible genius. You can read her and analyze her forever, but also enjoy her forever. She appeals to high minded analytical critics who find endless qualities in her to debate and speculate on, but she can also be thoroughly relished for a thumping good love story. She’s got it all. When I had read her works a few times over I looked around to see who could be the next fabulous author at whose feet I could worship and from whose mind and style I could learn for the rest of my life. There wasn’t one.
JAIV: Do you have a favorite Austen movie? Which do you think got it most right? Most wrong?
DIANA: No, I would by no means suspend any pleasure of others (as Mr. Darcy said) but I don’t watch the movies. Saw a few, but they kind of disturbed my own readings of Austen, so I just left it there.
JAIV: What is your writing process? Your best advice to aspiring writers?
DIANA: My writing process is so narrow and specialized (as I said in the AGM talk, “not six inches on ivory but two inches on foolscap”), I would not advise aspiring writers of anything. Could I say, “Spend the rest of your life reading Jane Austen and write pastiche about her?” Not really. Perhaps I might say, “Find something you really feel passionately about and write about it.” That might do.
JAIV: What are the five most important books in your Austen library?
DIANA: The Letters, that’s what I refer to most. Haven’t really consulted any others in years.
JAIV: I hate to point out mistakes that I find in reading – how one covers all the bases in their research I don’t know, but I have to comment on two:
– I know you are a committed Cat Person, so I understand that you may have not been paying full attention to Henry’s Dogs: you write: “Oh! How the little terrier puppies are grown!” (p 16) when Catherine arrives at Woodson after her marriage: but in NA when Catherine visits Henry’s parsonage for the first time, she finds the “friends of his solitude, a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers.” I forgive you this slip because of the Cat Thing…but if there is to be a sequel or the like, I’d like to see a Newfoundland in the plot somewhere!
Camilla, by Frances Burney, 5 vols. (abebooks)
– You write that Henry is reading Frances Burney’s Camilla to Catherine and her sister Sarah, and he comments that John Thorpe “would [not] have patience for three volumes entire.” (p 152). While most books during Austen’s time were published in 3-volumes, Camilla, like Burney’s Cecilia, were published in five volumes. I hate to quibble, but alas! the eyes of a bookseller had that jump off the page – please forgive me! (and someone else is bound to point it out…you will now be prepared for an answer!)
DIANA: Well, I don’t know that my Dog Mistake is all that bad – after all, there are terriers in NA, and (putting on a dark Gothic tone) who knows what became of the Newfoundland puppy? As for Camilla being in five volumes instead of three, I have perfect faith that no reader but yourself will know this fact, but as you say, if anyone does, I will be prepared! (Grin)
JAIV: The cover of The Bride of Northanger is wonderful, perfect (it looks like Felicity Jones of 2008 Northanger fame!) – this is I believe a real portrait but it is not credited anywhere. Can you tell us about it?
Corisande de Gramont, Countess of Tankerville – pastel on paper (wikipedia)
DIANA: Now, Deb, that IS a mistake. A real, true error, and I am heartily sorry for it. I should definitely have put an explanation of the cover painting in the book’s acknowledgements. I have written about it in several blogs, but a reader admiring the cover (and many people have been very taken with that painting already!) may not have seen those explanations. In short, the portrait is by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun [see Diana’s post on the artist here at English Historical Fiction Authors]. I was searching among her paintings for “my” Catherine, and I knew her the minute I saw her. The young lady subject was exactly Catherine’s age, eighteen when the portrait was made in 1800, though she was no naïve English girl. She was a French aristocrat, Corisande de Gramont (1783 – 1865). Corisande was a granddaughter of the Duchesse de Polignac, the favorite of Marie Antoinette, and she married Charles Augustus Bennet (you can’t make this stuff up!), 5th Earl of Tankerville, and settled in England. I added the painting of Netley Abbey by John Constable to the cover [see above], and it was designed and put together so beautifully by Rebecca Young, my book designer.
JAIV: Did you learn anything new at the JASNA AGM on Northanger Abbey just held in Williamsburg?
DIANA: Oh, yes! Professor Roger E. Moore of Vanderbilt University gave the most astonishing, mind-opening, revelatory plenary talk. “Northanger Before the Tilneys: Austen’s Abbey and the Religious Past” was so good that I promptly bought his book [Jane Austen and the Reformation]. Of course the subject was very in keeping with my novel, with monks and curses, depredations and “real solemn history.” Yet I noted that people who had no previous special interest in the subject were just as enthralled with Professor Moore’s talk as I was! It was one of the highlights of the conference for me – in addition to the excitement of being on that JASNA panel, the glorious fun of the author book signing, and my trip to Jamestown and the James River plantations. It really was a spectacular conference!
[I completely agree Diana – Professor Moore’s talk was riveting!]
JAIV: What’s up next??
DIANA: Doing a sequel to Little Women. It’s called Jo on the March.
JAIV: Sounds terrific (we should ALL be re-reading Little Women – a new movie is coming out on December 25!) – Anything else you want to share with your / my readers?
DIANA: Don’t you think, as Mr. Bennet told Mary, that I have delighted you long enough?
Thank you Diana! Very much appreciate your insights on your latest book – it is a terrific read, I have to say – I read it TWICE in order to come up with questions – lots to see there the second time around!
DIANA: Thank YOU, Deb!
About the Author:
Diana Birchall worked for many years at Warner Bros studios as a story analyst, reading novels to see if they would make movies. Reading manuscripts went side by side with a restorative and sanity-preserving life in Jane Austen studies and resulted in her writing Austenesque fiction both as homage and attempted investigation of the secrets of Jane Austen’s style. She is the author of In Defense of Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Elton in America, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, and the new The Bride of Northanger. She has written hundreds of Austenesque short stories and plays, as well as a biography of her novelist grandmother, and has lectured on her books and staged play readings at places as diverse as Hollywood, Brooklyn, Montreal, Chawton House Library, Alaska, and Yale.
You can visit Diana in all these places:
You can follow the blog tour, hosted by Austenprose, October 28 – November 15, 2019 – all the locations are listed here: https://austenprose.com/2019/10/18/the-teamtilney-blog-tour-of-the-bride-of-northanger-begins-on-october-28th/
You can buy The Bride of Northanger here:
c2019 Jane Austen in Vermont