In spite of the fact that my name alone appears on the cover, The Man Who Loved Jane Austen was, in truth, very much a collaboration with my late husband F. Michael O’Rourke. Kelly, my step-daughter called us an awesome team and we were, in all respects; our life together was a true collaboration. Many projects came out of that collaboration among them two feature films, a few television pilots and several books including Christmas at Sea Pines Cottage, The Maidenstone Lighthouse and, of course, The Man Who Loved Jane Austen.
The road to The Man Who Loved Jane Austen was rather circuitous and, I’m afraid, not particularly romantic even though Mike called it the ultimate valentine because it was brought to life by the love we had for each other.
Technically, I suppose that road began when I was fifteen years old and read Pride and Prejudice, enjoying it thoroughly. One Sunday afternoon a very disappointing film version of it was on television. Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier were much too old to be playing the 20 year old Elizabeth and the 28 year old Darcy but changing the story was entirely unacceptable to my youthful psyche (and my adult psyche). It was my first taste of what Hollywood can and often does do to novels. After that I watched every version of the story but never found one worthy of the book. Then in 1995, as all of you know, the ultimate P&P was produced. A&E along with the BBC did the Andrew Davies/Simon Langton/Sue Britwistle mini-series, staring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. FINALLY a wonderful portrayal of the classic novel.
Moving on to late 1999, the health department recommended that Mike and I vacate our home because of toxic mold, requiring us to leave most of our belongings in the contaminated house. After a few months in a hotel it felt like we never talked or thought about anything but the mold and the pending law suit; our life had seemingly come to a screeching halt. In an attempt to, at the very least, not think about it all the time, we sat down and watched the six hour Pride and Prejudice; in its entirety. It worked; we stopped obsessing about the house and, in fact, the marathon inspired me to read all of Jane Austen’s books.
For some reason I had never noticed that there is a theme in all her writings, maybe it was because I’d never read them one after the other but this time I did and found that she made every heroine strong, relatively independent and quite intelligent; not completely unusual in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries however, what made Austen different was not the strong women but the men who loved them for that strength. It made me want to know more about her, why in an era where women were basically chattel did she feel free enough to write such stories. After delving into her life by reading several biographies, I came to believe she wrote Elizabeth Bennet and the others, in large part, because her father and brothers were fairly opened minded and that along with their support and strong belief in her talent was at the center of her success.
Another thing that struck me, particularly in Pride and Prejudice was Darcy’s ability to look at himself, be dissatisfied and make a concerted effort to reverse his attitudes because as he said after Elizabeth accepts his second proposal, “You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.” To me Darcy felt more like a modern man than a Regency aristocrat.
When Mike suggested that we start a new project by resurrecting a time travel story I had started some time before, I countered that rather than write about a twenty-first century woman who goes into the future we write about a twenty-first century man who falls back into the England of 1810 and becomes Jane Austen’s muse and perhaps one of the most quixotic heroes ever written; Fitzwilliam Darcy.
We considered many scenarios before settling on Darcy being the wealthy owner of a two hundred year old Virginia horse breeding estate, Pemberley Farms. The back story we created for his ancestors, was touched on when Eliza is presented to the guests at Darcy’s Rose Ball.
I know that many people consider love stories better if they end unhappily, if not tragically (A Walk to Remember; Message in a Bottle; The Way We Were; The Bridges of Madison County) but I prefer a happy ending, therefore a modern woman had to be able to compete with Jane Austen. New York artist Eliza Knight does just that.
We discussed making Eliza a poor, struggling artist then decided that we didn’t want it to be a ‘Cinderella’ story; you know, rich guy falls for poor girl and they live happily ever after. So she became a relatively successful artist of fantasy drawings that are used on greeting cards, stationary as well as prints. That success allows her to buy an antique vanity and it is behind the vanity’s mirror that she discovers letters to and from Jane Austen and Fitzwilliam Darcy, triggering the story.
After completing the manuscript, we type-set, printed and hand bound copies to give as gifts to family and friends. It was received with spirited enthusiasm and Mike and I were proud of our nice little story. Then my world crashed, in November 2001, two weeks before his sixtieth birthday Mike died suddenly; we hadn’t gotten out of the house soon enough.
The Man Who Loved Jane Austen was published in 2006. The publisher didn’t want two names on the cover and preferred the one be mine since I would be doing the promotion. I regret not insisting that Mike’s name be used on the cover as a tribute to him. But regret serves no useful purpose and at least his work is being enjoyed by people all over the world.
Taking into consideration that no journal or diary kept by Jane Austen has survived, I started what was going to be a fun little project, to create a journal that would be Jane’s point of view of the events of Spring 1810 when she met Darcy. At the end of one journal entry she is wondering what Mr. Darcy is doing at that moment, suddenly I was writing the sequel to The Man Who Loved Jane Austen.
Besides who was I to try and write as if I was Jane Austen? Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen is no longer a journal but it does reacquaint readers with 21st century American horseman Fitzwilliam Darcy and his influence on the English novelist and her writings; at the same time delving into the complex nature of the man who became the embodiment of one of the most romantic characters in English literature.
The blossoming romance between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Eliza Knight, the modern-day woman who gave Darcy the letters proving that he did make a trip through time and met Jane Austen, is juxtaposed with Jane’s life as she copes with the subtle celebrity of being the ‘Lady’ who wrote Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
Unfortunately the publisher of The Man Who Loved Jane Austen chose not to read Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen. However in celebration of the coming 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice (January 1813-2013), Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen will be released as an eBook later this year.
Austenticity.com, the website where Eliza first discovers that Fitzwilliam Darcy is real (even if she doesn’t believe it at first) is now also real. I’ve owned the domain since we wrote the book and have now created ‘the everything Austen’ site. Come, visit and spend a bit of time with the inimitable and beloved author.