In writing Dear Jane I have scratched an itch which has been bothering me since I first read Emma over forty years ago. Why would a clever and upright girl like Jane Fairfax have engaged herself, in secret to an unreliable fellow like Frank Churchill? That she would have suffered agonies of conscience is unarguable - indeed, she tells Mrs Weston she has had ‘no tranquil hour’ since she agreed to it. The levels of deceit and invention they would both have had to stoop to hardly bear contemplation. But I did contemplate them and, at last, found I could not leave the story unwritten.
In doing so I had to immerse myself in the world Jane Austen created for Emma Woodhouse and the inhabitants of Highbury. All writers of historical fiction immerse themselves in their chosen period and become familiar with its prominent personalities. I had to do the same, but my chosen world was Highbury and my subjects were the characters Jane Austen had created. To be absolutely sure of getting it right I went back thirty years, reconstructing them, their world and mine stone by stone into one cohesive whole. Mrs Bates of Highbury and The Other Miss Bates were the result, my training ground for Dear Jane.
Highbury’s geography is not minutely detailed in ‘Emma’. We know there is a village street with an inn called the Crown and shops, including a post office and the famous Ford’s Haberdashery. The Bates’s apartment is above one of these stores - accessed by a notoriously tricky stair - with sight of the Crown from its windows. There is a church with an adjacent vicarage. Hartfield - the Woodhouses’ mansion - lies about a mile from Donwell and half a mile from Randalls. The first thing I did was to map out my idea of the layout of the village so that I could picture the practicalities of the comings and goings of the Highbury folk.
I read and re-read Emma, getting to know the characters, their relationships to one another, their modes of speech, their funny little mannerisms. I put a different spin on some of them - this is my book, after all. Most of all I placed myself in the shoes of Jane and Frank, asking how, in their early experiences of bereavement, in their transplantation into the homes of strangers, in their upbringing as perpetual guests, they had become the people we meet in Emma.
In addition to working with what Miss Austen had provided I had to expand into areas she had not described. Indeed, that was my whole purpose in writing Dear Jane, to write the story which she had hinted at but left unwritten. For some of this task I had a clean canvas. We are told only the barest details of Jane and Frank’s childhoods, but enough for me to be able to use as a foundation for the story which emerges in Dear Jane. What a delight it was to picture Jane’s life in London with the Campbells, to expose her to culture and society that poor Highbury-bound Miss Woodhouse could only dream of! How awful could I make Frank’s life with Mrs Churchill - so dreadful that he would risk everything to enter into a secret engagement? Characters that Jane Austen had created but not developed were mine to play with; Mr and Mrs Churchill, Colonel and Mrs Campbell, the Dixons.
Jane Austen tells us nothing of Jane and Frank’s meeting in Weymouth, their romance is unexplored. But not by me. Oh what joy to introduce them on the sunny promenade and watch their mutual attraction - and mutual need - unfurl!
Having formed the characters I ventured forward into the precincts of Emma. Plot and character together had to meld into a flip-side novel but one which was faithful in every respect to the one Jane Austen had already provided. In Emma, Jane Austen creates opportunities for Jane and Frank to meet one another which she quite deliberately does not exploit; these dictated my scenes. For example, we know that, after meeting Emma for the first time at Hartfield, Frank goes off to pay a duty call to Jane Fairfax because, he says, ‘there was that degree of acquaintance in Weymouth’ which required it. It seems innocent enough until you find out what’s been going on behind the scenes. Of course, for my story, it was an encounter I couldn’t wait to write into existence. Again, after Mrs Cole’s dinner party, Frank contrives to be alone with Jane while Miss Bates and Mrs Weston fetch Miss Woodhouse. Old Mrs Bates, rather deaf and, conveniently, without her spectacles, serves as no very effective chaperone. What did they discuss? Would they have been flagrant enough, with the old lady snoozing in her chair, to exchange a kiss? And later, as Mrs Elton’s harrying and Frank’s continued procrastination begin to take their toll on Jane’s health, how would these pressures have erupted in the row the couple undoubtedly had on the Donwell Road on the day of the strawberry picking?
These scenes have been calling to me since I first read Emma. Whether I have done them justice, whether I have effectively explained the conundrum of Jane and Frank’s engagement, I leave it to the reader to decide.