Writing The Jane Austen Writers’ Club

10 Sep 2016

 

I had been following Jane Austen around long before I started work on The Jane Austen Writers’ Club.  Like so many people I first read one of Jane’s novels at school. It was Pride and Prejudice and I was 14 – the perfect age. The school was in Dorking or “the Town of D.---” as Jane Austen put it in The Watsons. It was a short walk from Box Hill, site of the disastrous picnic in Emma. I didn’t notice any Mr Darcys or Mr Knightleys in Form 4A, but there were plenty of girls like Catherine Morland, “in training for a heroine”.  Pride and Prejudice was one of the first novels for adults that I really fell in love with. It transported me from a world of boys who tortured wasps to Pemberley. I remember reading it in the garden of our house (which was in Reigate, not Dorking) in the company of a disreputable frog-killing ginger tom. I named him Ginger Wickham.

 

   I’m Jane Austen’s five times great niece. It is a nice thing to be, but no claim to fame. Jane Austen’s brothers had 33 children between them, so 200 years on there must be 1000s of Austen family descendants.  However, when I visited my great aunt in Winchester I loved looking at the little portraits of Jane’s sailor brothers, Francis (my father’s great great great grandfather) and Charles, and what turned out to be a rare depiction of  the Revd Mr George Austen that were hung around the fireplace. These portraits are now on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum so I can visit them there. My mum, Shena Mackay, is a writer too so I grew up thinking that being a writer was something quite normal. The clack of the typewriter keys was a soundtrack to my childhood. I loved that my mum wrote at the kitchen table. She still does.

 

    I went to university in Southampton and live in the city and teach creative writing at the University. There are still traces of the Southampton Jane Austen knew when she lived here before she finally settled at Chawton. The sea has been pushed back from where it once came up to the city walls so that she could see it from the garden she created with Francis’s family, Cassandra and her mother. She liked the city – there was and is much more to it than the stinking fish mentioned in Love and Freindship.

 

   From 2009 to 2010 I had the immense good fortune to be the Writer in Residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum - definitely the best job I’ve ever had. I reread all Jane’s works and her letters and had a wonderful year hanging out with the staff and volunteers, talking to visitors, running writing workshops, visiting schools, generally getting lost in Austen and working on my fifth novel. On Jane Austen’s 234th birthday, December 16th 2009, I was one of the first in the house. I remember opening the shutters in Jane’s bedroom and desperately hoping that I might catch a glimpse of her. I didn’t, but The Jane Austen Writers’ Club had its genesis during that year. Spending so much time where Jane Austen lived, where she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion and revised her three earlier novels, walking where she did and seeing the views from her windows was magical and inspiring. The Museum isn’t haunted, but staff, volunteers and visitors testify to its healing atmosphere. I’ve now run many writing workshops at the Museum and elsewhere, using Jane’s work and methods to inspire writers working in all genres. I’m so grateful to Jane Austen’s House Museum for the wonderful opportunities they’ve given me. I’m also really grateful to the writers who’ve been to the workshops, sharing their writing and ideas, and to the staff and volunteers who’ve helped, particularly Olive, Madelaine and Annalie. Thank you. The Jane Austen Writers’ Club grew from those workshops. Madelaine urged me to write it. It is dedicated to the staff, volunteers and trustees, past and present, of the Museum.

 

   I think of Jane Austen’s Chawton home and the Museum all the time. Writers need to find their mental Chawton Cottage, a place where there is tranquillity and space to work. My book is about finding that space and about Jane Austen’s methods and techniques. Many of the exercises in it were devised for the Chawton workshops. I hope readers and writers will enjoy it and find it as useful as I’ve found being at Jane Austen’s House Museum.

 

Rebecca Smith

 

Jane Austen's Writing Club is published by Bloomsbury on 20 September 2016. If you would like to order a copy from the Museum shop email ashleigh.stimpson@jahmusm.org.uk

 

You can read earlier blogposts by Rebecca from her time as Writer in Residence at Jane Austen's House Museum

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