By Karen Holt
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen lovers want as much of her stories as they can get! Over the past decade, there’s been a veritable explosion of paraliterature that extends or re-explores Austen’s works – especially Pride & Prejudice. Very few, however, have been as warmly and successfully embraced by fans as Pamela Aidan’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. In an exclusive interview with JaneAusten.nl, Aidan talks about the trilogy and her new novella Young Master Darcy: Lessons In Honour.
Could you tell us a bit about Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman’s origins?
It actually began as a small writing exercise I set for myself on the Republic of Pemberley website in late 1997. I thought it could be very interesting to show the first proposal scene from Darcy’s point of view – what was he thinking and feeling at that moment? I got so much positive feedback, I decided to try to tell the whole story from his perspective. I had no absolutely no idea it would stretch into three books! It was just an experiment to see if I was capable of writing a sustained narrative – and if people would want to read what I wrote. For about a year I posted the earliest chapters at the Republic of Pemberley and Derbyshire Writers Guild. Then, I decided to start my own website, Austenesque, to showcase the story. I had no idea how to build a site, but found a book at a garage sale with enough bare-bones information that I could figure it out. I included a visitor counter, and was just amazed to see thousands of hits coming in from all over the world! That’s when I first thought, “Hmm… could there be a way of publishing this?” Being a librarian, I know publishing can be a very long-term proposition. But then I came across Lightning Source, a company offering print-on-demand, which at that time was very new. I suddenly realized that I could do it myself! I’d just gotten married, and my husband is a technical writer, so he could do the formatting. We set up our own publishing company, Wytherngate Press, and one of my Austenesque readers, who is a professional book jacket designer volunteered to do the covers for free! “Anything I can do”, she said, “to help get them in print!”. So we were off to the races!
Now the trilogy is being sold by Simon & Schuster – an international publishing giant! How did that come about?
An Assembly Such As This came out in 2003. We advertised on the website, and the orders just poured in! After that, we released Duty & Desire, and I was working on These Three Remain in 2005 when I got the call from Simon & Schuster saying they were interested in taking on the whole series. I was absolutely astonished. I didn’t know what to do, or how to negotiate with these kind of people. In a small-publisher’s handbook I found the name of a lawyer who specializes in publishing deals. He couldn’t believe it either. “Are you telling me they just came to you out of the blue with this offer?” So I guess it was rather unique. There was one main thing I wanted to included in the contract: that Wytherngate Press would have the rights to publish and sell the last book for a couple of months before we took the series out of print and handed it over to Simon & Schuster. And they agreed. By the time that moment came, we had sold almost 70,000 books. The advance Simon &Schuster offered was based on the calculation that they themselves would be able to sell 150,000 books. About a year ago I started getting royalties – so we must be well on the way to 300,000 sold by now! What’s more, the trilogy has been published in Spanish and Italian translations in 2008, which is very exciting. We’ve not heard of rights being sold for any other language at this time but, who knows?
When a publishing house takes on a title, they’re always given to in-house editors for fine-tuning. Did they make many changes to your original versions?
They did assign editors, but very little was changed. One thing they did want me to do when they were reviewing the first two books was to tone down Dy Brougham. I had to say no. They didn’t realize it at that time, but he had a very significant role to play in book three. I couldn’t let him be diminished in any way.
And now we have Young Master Darcy: A Lesson in Honour. But it’s quite short – a ‘novella’ rather than a novel – just a bit longer than 100 pages. Why is that?
It has to do with my Simon & Schuster contract. Our agreement stipulates that they have first option on any new novel. But as I said earlier, publishing can be a very long-term proposition. And it has been such a long time since I last had something published – I was itching to get something out quickly! Because Young Master Darcy is under the ‘standard’ novel length, I could release it via Wytherngate Press without it having to go through the slow process of the publisher deciding whether they want it, or having to find a home for it elsewhere. The novella only covers two weeks – although very pivotal ones – In thirteen-year-old Darcy’s life. It’s out there now, and we’ll see how it does. But I do have a continuation of the rest of the story ready in outline. If the sales are good and a publisher wants to go with it, I can. Otherwise, I might continue releasing it in the novella format on my own. I would very much like to continue the story about how Darcy, who is really a very decent person, came to be such a ‘proud, disagreeable man’. It would bring the circle round.
Young Master Darcy begins when Darcy is 13. Why did you pick that particular moment in his life to start the story?
I picked it because this is a very pivotal age for him. That’s when sons of good families were sent away from their home and their parents for the very first time to go to school – and that was usually Eton. The book starts with Darcy returning to London after his first term, before the family goes to Pemberley for Christmas. His father would really start recognizing him around now as a young gentleman – not a child anymore, and would be taking a more active and serious hand in his upbringing. This would also be the age, according to Austen, when his mother dies. If we’re going to look at what makes him the kind of man he becomes, these are all very significant factors and events at this moment in his life that can influence that.
In the blurb, the book is described as: ‘The story of how Fitzwilliam Darcy became the man who found Elizabeth Bennett “not handsome enough to tempt me”. In the original P&P, he tries to explain this to Elizabeth after his second, successful proposal. That he was taught what was right, but not to correct his temper. That he was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Did you add other factors that help create his shell of arrogant reserve?
In my version, it all more comes down to what happens during this significant, pivotal point in his life. Background and characters had to be established, and I felt it needed to be a bit more sympathetic to Darcy than the way he confesses and explains his shortcomings later. We do have him interacting with Wickham, and get a feel for the hole in his life that his mother’s death is going to leave. He also has his first brush with young love. Enough for his father to make it extremely clear where the boundaries of love are allowed to fall if you are a Darcy of Pemberley.
In this book, you had to go into completely uncharted waters without Austen’s established storyline to guide you – just like in Duty & Desire, the second book in the trilogy which takes place during the ‘hidden months’ (as far as Darcy is concerned) of Pride & Prejudice. For you as a writer, what were the key differences in the experience of supplementing Austen’s storyline and creating brand new ones?
It’s very interesting. When supplementing Austen’s storyline, the task is to interpret Darcy’s frame of mind. We have his words, his actions. The challenge is to examine these and come up with consistent, reasonable reasons why he did this or that – the causes and influences behind them. Whereas when you’re creating, the challenge is, do I know Darcy well enough to predict what he’ll do in new circumstances, with characters not only new to the reader but to him as well? By the time I was done with These Three Remain, I felt pretty sure I knew him inside out. I’d lived with him almost seven years – I almost felt like his mom – and could figure out which way he would jump in a given situation. Now, of course, I had to backtrack even further into the how and why of what we know about Darcy. And before I can hint at such things, I had to become even more familiar with the time period. What was a boy’s education like for someone in his social standing? What would Eton have been like? How is it to live on an estate and grow up in that kind of atmosphere? The era is fascinating, and it’s extremely important to get the social aspects right. I was already quite familiar with them having read almost every Georgette Heyer there is. But I had to do a lot of other background reading too.
So, considering the time frame A Lesson in Honour is set in, I guess we don’t see anything of his valet Fletcher or his old University friend Dy Brougham – two brilliant new characters you created for the trilogy.
No, I’m afraid not. But depending on how far along I end up taking this story, it’s very possible we could have some scenes of Darcy at Cambridge. If it comes to that, then Dy will definitely show up. I think that would be a LOT of fun to write!
In Duty & Desire, you were able to show us Darcy in completely new places. Not only London and Pemberley, but also visiting friends at a country home. Do you take him into any other completely new locations in Lessons in Honour?
No – the action is confined to London and Pemberley. He does, however, experience a level of society that he’s never been exposed to before in his life through his interaction with some village children who form a mummer’s troupe.
Oh – a mummer’s troupe? Is that related to the story about a childhood fight that Colonel Fitzwilliam amuses Georgiana with when the family is together for Christmas at the beginning of Duty & Desire?
Yes it is. To tell you the truth, the inspiration for A Lesson in Honour came from that very scene.
Originally, your plan was to have the trilogy end with Elizabeth and Darcy´s first Christmas together at Pemberley. Obviously, you changed your mind, as it concludes with the wedding. But I understand that another book about their married life is also still in the cards.
It very much is. I’ve been talking about it with a number of my writing friends to get a feel as to where I should take it. There are so many books out there now about Darcy & Elizabeth’s early married life, I just don’t feel the need to go there. What I am interested in though, is perhaps to skip ahead two years – to 1814 – for several reasons. The biggest one being I don’t want to rehash what other people have done. But there are also a bunch of very interesting things happening around then. Georgiana would be coming out that year. It’s also a point in time where England thinks it’s defeated Napoleon. So Dy would believe himself to finally be free of his Home Office obligations. I imagine that Richard – Colonel Fitzwilliam – would have seen real war action by now, and be coming back from the Continent – perhaps wounded. Then, within half a year, there’s Napoleon tacking back over the horizon again! That sounds to me like a lot of fodder for a very interesting book! I would be further along in developing it if I hadn’t decided to do Young Master Darcy. And don’t forget, I have a full-time job besides this! But if a publisher would want an 1814 book, that’s one of the things I could be bringing out next.
If you would be tempted to ‘fill in the blanks’ of any other Austen character – as you have with Darcy – who would it be, and why?
To tell you the truth, I don’t really have that temptation with any other Austen character. But if I was pressed to do so, I think it would be Henry Tilney because there is a really wide scope to work with: we know so little about him! What we do know is that he has this dark, rather cruel father, and a somewhat twisted older brother. But he is also a clergyman, who has this very loving relationship with his sister. All these factors together create a lot of questions that could be very interesting to answer. Tilney is someone I could tackle, because he is one of the few character who has a real mystery behind him.
There is a LOT of Austen paraliterature out there. What – in your opinion – separates the few golden stalks of wheat from the piles of chaff? And what are your personal favorites in Austen paraliterature?
Actually, I I haven’t read a whole lot of the other Austen paraliterature out there. I don’t want, inadvertently, to incorporate someone else’s creative ideas with my own. But what really separates what I have read is how true they are to the time period. They don’t have to approximate Austen’s syntax or style, as long as they don’t butcher it! What’s most important to me is that their characters stay true to the society Jane Austen was dealing with. Anything that takes them out of that ruins it. Books I’ve read that I thought were wonderful were Susan Kaye’s take on Frederick Wentworth, and Mercy’s Embrace, which took Elizabeth Elliott’s story further.
Austen – and you – suggest that Darcy is an eager reader. He has an amazing library at Pemberley, and – as we all know – appreciates women who improve their minds by extensive reading. If he’d had the chance to read all of Jane Austen’s novels himself, which would be his absolute favorite – and why?
Oh – that’s a hard question! There are a couple of them for which strong cases could be made. But I think, in the long run, it would probably be Persuasion, largely due to the strong male characters. Wentworth, Harville, Admiral Croft – I don’t think you come across such an admirable collection of men in any other of her books. But it may also be due to the fact that I give such a tip to the British Navy in my own books. My Mr. Darcy follows their activities eagerly, and almost hero worships Admiral Nelson. So any book that puts the men of the British Navy in such a good light would appeal to him. As well as the fact that certain characters have to recognize their faults and correct misunderstandings within the constraints of a somewhat complex society – just like he had to!
Have you ever been to Holland?
No, but I’d love to visit! I’ve only been in that part of Europe once, when I was briefly in Antwerp for just one night. But the whole area is dear to me. My grandmother came from Belgium, and I know the borders between there and Holland have always been very open. I’d love see more of both countries, to see the landscapes, cities and other places she might have seen.
What started out for you as a simple writing exercise more than a decade ago has grown into what is quite likely the best-selling Austen paraliterature ever. What about the experience has meant the most to you?
To this day, it still astonishes me how much the books speak to people, and how positively and strongly they react to them. I’ve had letters from people who are ill, or there was a death in the family, or other kinds of problems. And they write that reading the books through it all was such a great solace or just a great escape for them. That’s very humbling and a great privilege. I appreciate everyone who’s allowed me, through the books, into their lives – even if it’s simply for pure entertainment. It’s a trust I don’t take lightly! That’s one of the reasons I always love to receive letters. Not so much to get pats on the back, but to hear what delights readers, what they think works and what doesn’t so I can do it better. So if anyone reading this wants to email me, they’re more than welcome to. I’m always very happy to hear the opinions and impressions of fans.
Want to drop Pamela a line? You can do so at pamela dot aidan at gmail dot com.
Aidan’s author page at Wytherngate Press: http://wytherngatepress.com/pamela_aidan