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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Canon, Fanon, and History | guest post from Melanie!

Today’s guest post comes from Melanie Rachel, author of Courage Rises, Courage Requires. Click through to read her thoughts on “fanon,” which might be my new favorite word, and an excerpt of her upcoming book, Drawing Mr Darcy. Then make sure to stop back by later today for your chance to win a copy of one of her books!

There are already many blog posts about canon versus fanon, particularly in Pride and Prejudice. We know, for example, that Colonel Fitzwilliam doesn’t actually have a first name in canon, and that if he did, it wouldn’t be Richard. Jane Austen was not precisely fond of the name. Caroline Bingley does not wear orange as her signature color in canon, nor is she so far lost to propriety that she would trap Mr. Darcy in a dark room and try to create a compromise. Mrs. Bennet is “of mean understanding” in canon but she is not intentionally mean. And while I might be required to dodge a few tomatoes on this one—Fitzwilliam Darcy isn’t shy. He’s tired of being chased for his fortune. At the same time, he is very aware of his station in life and the expectations that come with it. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a snob, because I personally don’t think his behavior is something he’s really considered—when it is thrown in his face by Elizabeth Bennet (and he stops being angry about that), he doesn’t like what he sees, and he makes the necessary changes.

The what-if I’m currently working on in Drawing Mr. Darcy was taken from Jane Austen’s life. Her third brother, Edward Austen, was adopted by wealthy relatives who were childless. He changed his name to Knight to inherit, and it was Edward who offered Jane, Cassandra, and Mrs. Austen a home on his estate. So, I thought . . . What if Elizabeth Bennet was likewise adopted by her great-aunt and uncle? If she left home as a girl, what would she be like when she returned? How would it affect everyone in the book?

However, I also wanted to stay relatively close to canon while I did so—to see how those characters might change yet remain recognizable. I began with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.

It occurred to me that we never know why Longbourn’s income is about 2000£ a year nor whether it has always been that much.
When I did a little research for the kinds of crops being grown in Hertfordshire at the time of our story (and earlier) using the Board of Agriculture’s agricultural surveys (they did one for each county/region over a period of years) I learned that the soil grew mostly grains, that corn in England is what Americans call wheat, and then ran into some comments about the poor yields of 1783 and 1784—and Mr. Bennet’s background began to take shape.

You see, in 1783, there was a terrific volcanic eruption in Iceland, not unlike the one in 2010 that suspended all air traffic from Europe for a time. It caused untold hardship in Iceland, but it also changed the climate hundreds of miles away. Unlike in 2010, there was little warning for those living in England that a sulfuric cloud was headed for their island. The initial eruption happened on June 8th and by June 23rd, “Gilbert White, a clergyman in Hampshire, noted that the vegetation was yellow and appeared” as if it had been “‘scorched with frost.’” This calamity wasn’t connected to the eruption in Iceland until August.

What was seen as a “dry fog” was felt the most in the east of England but affected the entire country. It killed large numbers of livestock and contributed to a sharp increase in mortality rates. Some researchers believe that between the smoke and ash, the climate change, and the devastation of the food supply, the eruption might have been responsible for nearly 20,000 deaths in England alone.

This is just one of the many research rabbit holes I have traversed in building the foundation for Drawing Mr. Darcy. The excerpt that uses this little piece of history is below. I hope you enjoy it!
Drawing Mr. Darcy, coming this fall from Melanie Rachel:

Spring, 1801

     “It shall not be Jane,” Mrs. Bennet declared. “And the other girls are too young, Mr. Bennet.”

    Thomas Bennet sighed, the missive from his aunt dangling limply between his fingers. He was not a dependable correspondent, but when Aunt Olivia’s elegant script appeared on one of his letters, it did not languish.  Olivia was the youngest of his father’s six siblings and the last remaining member of that generation. Duty alone explained his unusual attentiveness, but she had further earned her claim on his heart.

    The terrible summer and relentless winter of ’83 and ‘84 had been devastating; Old Mr. Bennet had nearly emptied the estate’s coffers to withstand it and had died unexpectedly less than a year later. Thomas had at last cleared the remaining debts and made some small investments in sheep and new fertilizers and equipment, but it had taken a very gracious subsidy on the part of his aunt to achieve it. She had called it a belated wedding gift and haughtily rejected his offer of repayment, softening only to ask, at first, for frequent news about the estate where she had grown up, and later, for stories about his family.

    Thomas was deeply grateful for her assistance in saving Longbourn, but he had to face other hard facts if he intended to keep it solvent. His father, though a good man, had not managed the estate well during his tenure, and it had taken the better part of the last fifteen years to regain lost ground and improve its prospects. Barley and wheat grew relatively well and they had some success with other grains. He was working steadily to increase Longbourn’s flock of Southdowns; to do much else was presently beyond his means. He was grateful to be in a stable financial position at last, but Thomas Bennet was tired.

    “Mrs. Bennet,” he said patiently, “You of all people should see the benefit of such an arrangement.” He placed the letter on the table next to the settee and lowered himself carefully to the seat beside her. “We have been very fortunate in our daughters, Fanny,” he told her quietly. “You have had very few troubles in childbirth, and our girls are stout and healthy.” He took her hand and covered it with both of his own. “But we must think to the future. I am older than you, and we have no heir.”

    The entail. It always came up between them, silent and dark and looming. Fanny turned a crumpled face to his, and her misery tore at his heart. “You are not to blame, my dear,” he reassured her. It had been bitter, but he had come to believe that it was God’s will. It was still possible, of course, that Fanny might again fall with child, but it had been four years since Lydia was born. After a child nearly every other year for so long, he had to concede that their family might be complete.

    “We must face facts.” His voice grew firm, determined. “Longbourn’s income is increasing a little every year. We can perhaps hope for two thousand pounds per annum or a bit more in the end, but it will take another few years to achieve it.” He stared straight ahead, his hands clasped together. “Jane is already twelve, and your portion is not large, certainly not sufficient to support you and five young girls.” Not if they are to marry within their station. “We’ve done well, Fanny, with what we were given. But it seems unlikely we will be able to put aside more for their dowries than already exists. Olivia is offering us a respectable fortune for each girl.” Four thousand apiece, Fanny. I could never save such a sum. He felt a twinge of grief for Phillip and Olivia, who had saved so much money for the children who never came.

    “It is not fair, Thomas,” Fanny complained. “You have worked so hard . . .”

    Thomas closed his eyes, frustrated, but retained his wife’s hand. Though they had hoped, had prayed for a son, he was enamored of each of his very different daughters, and they adored their papa. Kitty and Lydia still wandered into his bookroom a few times a week, demanding he read to them. There were few things in life as lovely, Thomas believed, as a little girl’s head curled trustingly against your shoulder. Perfect acceptance. Perfect love. It was something he deeply treasured, as their financial worries continued to drive him and his wife apart. Fanny had begun to say that there was no reason to save, as everything was to go to his cousin anyway. No matter how many times Thomas explained what was included in the entail and what was not, that while her income would be restricted she would not be destitute, it was a constant battle to keep her spending under control. Frankly, he was losing the heart for it. He enjoyed his books and a bit of port from time to time. He had no wish to curtail his own spending there. She had suffered alongside him for thirteen years. How could he deny her the trifles she desired when most of them were for the girls?

    Fanny had never been an intellectual sort of woman, but she had been more sensible once. Thomas had given up the notion of marrying a gentlewoman, for who would have him with his estate so distressed? Fanny was a beautiful young woman with a father who had done well in trade, they got on well enough, and she came with four thousand pounds, the interest on which would be of some help to him. His first purpose, of course, was to marry, to have a boy who would help him break the entail. In the romantic days of their early marriage, Thomas and Fanny had stayed up late at night in their bed, making grand plans to sell some of the land, to invest in the rest, to increase the value of the estate overall, to create dowries for any girls and hand the estate over to their first-born son in excellent condition. For more than two hundred years, a Bennet had been master at Longbourn, and in his youthful pride, he had assumed this would always be the case. Now, Thomas thought resignedly, the line would end with him.

    Parting with any of his girls would be difficult. However, Aunt Olivia had quite literally saved his inheritance, rescuing them all from genteel poverty. While he had never traveled to her husband’s estate near Sheffield, her financial position was clearly comfortable. Olivia and her husband Phillip were growing older; he could not in good conscience deny their request for company. What she was asking was neither heartless nor unexpected, in fact his aunt clearly meant it as a kindness. Thomas lifted his wife’s hand to his lips and gave it a gentle kiss. “Although I expect to live for many years, I would not wish to leave any of you without resources when I die.”

    “It will not be Jane,” Mrs. Bennet repeated plaintively. “And the other girls are too young.”

    Their discussion was interrupted by suddenly raised voices in the front hall, and Thomas rose from his seat to investigate. On his way from the room he retrieved Olivia’s letter and tucked it into his jacket pocket. Fanny remained, crying softly into her handkerchief as he closed the door behind him.

    As he approached the front of the house, he suppressed a chuckle. Lizzy, his second-oldest daughter, clad in a light-yellow gown, was trying to move inside. Hill, their faithful retainer, would not allow her to pass. Thomas felt his heart lighten as he watched them dance, the dark-haired, brown-eyed girl feinting right, then left, soft taps from her sturdy little half-boots sounding on the marble mixing with the gentle swish of muslin. Hill deftly matched every move.

    “Please, Mr. Hill?” she pleaded winningly. “Papa will know what he is!”

    “You may neither bring that thing inside nor muddy the floors, Miss Lizzy,” Mr. Hill responded evenly. “Your mother would not like it.”

    Elizabeth bit her bottom lip and considered that a moment before tilting her head coquettishly to one side and saying, simply, “Pleeeease?”

    Mr. Hill shook his head, nary a white hair out of place. Thomas Bennet remained still, imagining his faithful retainer valiantly suppressing a smile. He was not as practiced at such things, and as he watched his daughter, a faint smile lingered upon his lips.

    “Papa!” Lizzy called eagerly as she spied him and bounced up and down on her toes. At her call, Hill moved aside, and Thomas took in the entire picture. The spring sunlight lit the doorway behind her. Elizabeth’s bonnet was missing. Her dark-chocolate ringlets shone with coppery highlights, but they were half askew. The ruffled hem of her skirt was soiled with dirty water and dripping on the floor, yet she smiled widely, revealing a small set of straight white teeth. Thomas Bennet was certain he had never seen anything more charming. She directed her eyes to her boots and then up to his own appraising gaze, a warm expression of hope on her face. It fell a little when he shook his head once, indicating she should remain where she was, but she recovered quickly.

    “Look!” Elizabeth cried, “Isn’t he beautiful?” She turned an unwilling, dark, long-bodied creature over in her palm to display its orange belly, holding her hands up so he could see. “What is it?”

    Thomas moved his eyes from his daughter to the wriggling amphibian. “Lissotriton vulgaris, my dear. A smooth newt. Rather common in these parts, but stunning, no?”

    “A smooth newt,” Lizzy repeated, entranced with both the word and the animal. “Lissot vulgar?”

    Thomas felt his smile stretch into one that matched his child’s. “Lissotriton vulgaris.”  Lizzy repeated it correctly, nodding solemnly and whispering it to herself several times. One thin finger carefully stroked the orange skin before she turned him over.

    “Now,” Thomas said firmly, “does a newt live in a house?”

    Lizzy again lifted her wide, dark eyes to his, and this time she appeared abashed. He noticed, as he always did, her thick, black lashes, the flecks of gold illuminating her irises. She had his mother’s eyes. Lizzy’s sisters all took after their own mother, blonde and blue-eyed like the Gardiners, but apart from her Wilmot eyes, Elizabeth was a Bennet through and through.

    Without another word, she slipped back outside, and Thomas knew she was returning her new friend to the exact place from which she had taken him. Despite her impetuous nature, Elizabeth was a good girl. Kind. Compassionate. He nodded at Hill, silently thanking the man for standing guard. Fanny would have given the girl a scolding out of all proportion to the crime of dripping a little water on the floor. The thought elicited a sigh. His wife was worried and unhappy, and though she loved all her girls, she did not understand Elizabeth’s exuberant curiosity. The more Lizzy’s behavior deviated from quiet Jane’s, the more critical Fanny became. Hill exited the room in search of a maid to clean the small muddy puddle on the threshold, and Thomas moved down the hall to his book room, hands clasped behind his back, head down, further considering his aunt’s request.

    Fanny was correct that Mary, Catherine, and Lydia were too young to leave the family. Lydia was not yet five. Jane, at twelve, was old enough, but most comfortable at home and in familiar surroundings; she would be miserable away from Longbourn. Though Thomas had not seen his aunt in many years, he knew enough from her letters to judge that gentle Jane, while level-headed and bright, would wilt in the presence of Olivia’s keen intelligence and sharp speech. Elizabeth was the Bennet daughter most like him. She was quickly becoming his favorite, and that posed a problem of its own. He should not have favorites among his girls. Heaven help Elizabeth should Fanny ever discover such a thing.

    Lizzy was a lively sprite among her more sedate sisters. She had a sense of adventure and a glib tongue of her own, not to mention a wit that begged for the more formal education Olivia had promised. She would be ten soon. Not too young. He stood at the door to his bookroom for a moment and heard Fanny begin to fuss about the mess in the entry. He nodded to himself. Very well. Lizzy it will be.

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  1. I like that 'fanon' term, too.

    That is fascinating how Melanie worked out the plot and the details through piecing Edward's life and the Austen family situation with the farming issues that estates had back in that time.

    Loved the excerpt and can't wait to read the whole story.

  2. I love fanon and I find it amusing how sometimes it becomes so entangled with canon that I forget which is which. I like the premise of Elizabeth being adopted by wealthy great aunt and uncle, I look forward to discovering how this changes the story.

  3. I love discovering how your rabbit trail led to a great background idea for a story! It's fun to see stories come to life that way.

    I do think it's funny, but frustrating, when people will give a book a bad review on Amazon for not following "fanon," like complaining that Colonel Fitzwilliam's name is supposed to be Richard, or the like.

  4. Without fanon there would be no books.
    If I was Jane I would be really annoyed that I was not going

  5. This has been one of my favourite stories to follow on AHA. Mel managed to drag me from 'lurkdom' to comment on the story - wicked, wicked author. I say nothing she doesn't already know. I've chastised her publicly before *wink* and she refuses to give up her secrets! If you are not a member of AHA, then wait for publication and BUY THIS BOOK!!! <--I've used my monthly allotment of exclamation marks for this.
    Good luck, Mel and I look forward to the rest of this story, as you well know ;)

  6. Thanks, everyone! Anyone who writes these stories knows exactly what I'm talking about with the research rabbit holes. I've spent hours on something that only shows up briefly, and sometimes ends up cut from the final draft. But the research is part of the fun!

    Fanon is great (I read probably a hundred JAFF books and stories before I wrote my own)--I love being a part of this community. It's just that I try to keep canon and fanon straight in my head as a writer--and it's not always easy! I love the Richard name, though, the best, as I think Jane Austen herself would have something wickedly witty to say on the subject.

  7. Interesting post. I love hearing about these research rabbit holes!

  8. I found the research interesting and the excerpt very compelling. Thank you for sharing.

  9. The only volcanic eruption which Janeites tend to talk about is the year without summer in 1816. Thank you for adding my knowledge, Melanie. Your new novel sounds wonderful and the cover is beautiful.

  10. I learn so much from other writers' "rabbit holes" so I thought I'd add one of mine, lol. Thanks, everyone--the manuscript has been sent to my editor, so I am hoping for a mid-October release. Fingers crossed!


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