Interview with Dr. Jan Fergus, Jane Austen Scholar

An Interview with the Author

Dr. Jan Fergus, long-time Jane Austen scholar at Lehigh University, recently interviewed Hazel Holt about the process of writing My Dear Charlotte.  We excerpt part of the interview here:

Jan Fergus: How did you get the idea for My Dear Charlotte?

Hazel Holt: When I decided that I’d like to write a mystery novel set in the Regency, period the obvious thing to do was immerse myself in the letters of Jane Austen. As you always do, once you start reading them, you just go on and on. And as I did so, a wild thought struck me. While there’s no way I’d be presumptuous enough to attempt any sort of pastiche of the novels, I thought – holding my breath – that since they are such wonderfully informal, chatty letters, I might just manage to create a sort of facsimile of her world if I wrote my novel in the form of letters, inserting extracts of Austen’s where they would fit in with the story – the perfect, authentic background.

I didn’t plan anything, but simply plunged in and started to write. It was all such fun: whenever I needed to describe an event – a ball, a social evening, a visit to the theatre, whatever – it was all there. And such wonderful descriptions of clothes and food and all sorts of domestic detail – total riches! I’ve never enjoyed writing anything so much. It was total pleasure.

I was so fortunate to have a Jane Austen expert to keep an eye (a very beady eye) on every page I wrote to check it for authenticity. Often a page would be returned with a stern comment that the word or phrase I’d used was not authentic (“Georgette Heyer, not J.A.”) or that something was not in period. I’m so grateful for this rigorous examination because it means that there is less chance of my having let down the purity of the originals.

Because Jane Austen, in her letters, wrote as she spoke, having a conversation with the recipient (and of course there was no one with whom she would be more relaxed than she was with Cassandra), there is no form or structure to them as such: the words flow as they do in real life. This makes it easier to catch the flavour, the mood, and the voice and easier to make the attempt to reproduce it.

I’m fully aware that what I’ve done may be condemned by some as an unwarrantable liberty, but it was, I assure you, done with love. And I do hope that anyone who reads My Dear Charlotte will be sent straight back to the letters themselves to discover again the delights they contain.

Jan Fergus: It turns out that the “Cassandra Austen” character in the novel, Charlotte, is a bit of a hypochondriac in the novel. And, amazingly, so is Cassandra, as I discovered by reading some of her letters written more than 14 years after her sister Jane Austen died. You did not know these letters of Cassandra. How were you able to figure out, from the published letters alone, that Cassandra was one of those always ailing people and make Charlotte that way?

Hazel Holt: The letters are full of references to illnesses of all kinds and of varying severity. Of course, in a small community where nothing much happens, the two staple subjects for conversation (or letter writing) are (still) the weather and people’s ill health. And the latter is usually more dramatic, so it is mentioned more often.

Because there were so many tempting bits in the letters, I couldn’t resist using them, and it seemed natural to make Charlotte someone who is “careful” of her health. And, of course, in Bath there is an embarras de richesse of that sort of material about all the “invalids” there.

But, just in the general course of everyday life, even small things like Mrs. Austen’s cold (cured with Steele’s lavender water, if I remember rightly) or Martha’s earache are considered worth reporting. I was amused to see that Mrs Austen’s “oppression in her head,” mentioned by Mrs Crowe (“the sensation of a peck loaf resting on my head”), cured with calomel, was very similar to Queen Victoria writing about feeling as if an elephant was standing on her head—which she blamed on barometric pressure (so presumably no cure !)

I don’t know if all these references in the letters to Cassandra meant that Cassandra herself was especially concerned with her own health, or if they were simply the general exchange of information on a subject they were all interested in!