It has been a long while since I last posted an interview here, so I felt it was now time to do so again. This interview is with Harriet Smart who is, of course, another Jane Austen fan. She is also a writer and has published several books. To read more about them you can check out her website here.
I am not sure how old I (10 or so?) was but I do remember listening to a radio adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in the car with my parents and sister. It must have been a BBC4 classic serial, and we all got completely hooked. My parents, of course, knew the story backwards, but they must have got a buzz watching their girls get sucked into that world for the first time. It was so good we all sat in the car in driveway of our house until the episode ended.
I don’t think I actually read any of the novels until I was in my mid teens, and then I gobbled them up, just for the stories, without really knowing why it was so diverting. Only in the last year of school when we had Mansfield Park as a set text did I start to see that this was something extraordinary.
2. Do you have a favorite of her novels? And if so why that one?
Emma. Without a doubt.
What I love about it is the perfect recreation of a place and a community of individuals, with so much depth and subtlety. Everyone in it is so real, so nuanced, so recognizable as humans. There is masses of detail – you notice something fresh every time you read it – about the furniture, or the food, or the customs, but all so subtly done. The plot is a miracle – it works like a beautiful piece of clockwork – but you are scarcely aware of how clever it is. You are instead simply led through this world – in fact you are given a personal guided tour of this world – and at the end you never want to leave, it is so delightful. But at the same time as you are being exquisitely entertained, by barouche-landaus and Mr Weston’s good wine, and all that, you are also being given the most elegant morality lesson about how to live your life well, how to be good, if you like. And as if that isn’t enough it is the most fantastic love story.
If I had lots of money I would do the equivalent of the Gideon bible and leave a copy of Emma in every hotel room. On second thoughts, make that the complete works of Jane Austen, including the letters.
3. Out of her characters, is there a particular one/ones that you like more than the rest? And which character would you say you resemble most yourself?
Mr Knightley is my favourite Austen leading man by a long way. He is endearingly flawed in many respects and yet very admirable in others. I like his tetchiness and impatitience, as well as his energy and intelligence. He is very sexy in an understated way. There is nothing flashy about him, no laboured charm, but you just get the sense he would be huge fun to be with. Emma is a lucky woman.
I don’t see myself in any of the characters. Perhaps that is part of the appeal? I don’t want to spend time with myself. Possibly I have moments of Mrs Elton. You might want to ask my Caro Sposo about that.
4. Do you ever watch any of the screen adaptations? Do you have a favorite of them?
They are always very enjoyable, but you don’t get the same feeling you get from actually reading the books. (unlike the radio version I mentioned earlier) I thought Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility was wonderful though I never got very excited about the Firth/Ehle Pride and Prejudice. Is that heresy? I like Colin Firth as an actor, but I just didn’t get the hysteria the series generated. The most recent film version was better – Matthew Macfadyen was impressive as Darcy, and I did rather like Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennett, although Miss Knightley (any relation?) was a little too contemporary for me. Nobody ever seems to quite get Emma right. The most recent BBC one was very entertaining but it was a very liberal adaptation. Mr Knightley was far too young!
5. What do you think it is about Jane Austen’s books that makes them so immortal? Why have they stood the test of time so well and are now more popular than ever?
I think it is several things – the romance aspect is one of them, and the story telling. But the mostly it must be the characters who are all very appealing and memorable – even the annoying ones speak to us so clearly that they become lodged in the brain forever. Who can forget Mrs Norris or Miss Bates, or Mrs Elton?
6. Has “discovering” Jane Austen lead to anything else in your life?
I have certainly ‘read around’ the subject a great deal, which as been fun. I like the biographies, books about that period and milieu and also literary critics writing about Jane Austen. Nabokov has a essay on Mansfield Park which I love and there are also a couple of books, out of print, by Shelia Kaye Smith and G B Stearn, Talk of Jane Austen and More Talk of Jane Austen, of which I am very fond. They are not exactly literary criticism, more intelligent appreciation of Austen by two twentieth century English female novelists. Highly recommended!
I have hand-sewn a man’s linen shirt, which was quite a Jane Austen-y experience, though the impulse to do it was not connected directly with Jane Austen. I was writing the first in a series of historical crime novels set in 1841, and while doing the research kept reading all these references to women making shirts for their men folk. The experience of hand sewing was very revealing – it was oddly intellectually stimulating. That sort of hand sewing (long stretches felling seams, etc) gives you time to think in a way that using a sewing machine does not. So I can now imagine Austen plotting out the next sequence while she ran up a new chemise or whatever. My version looked quite fetching on my husband but it is not a perfect shirt by any means, so I shall attempt another one at some point. Gathering the sleeves into the neck band and fiddling about with the collar was the worst part.
7. If you had the chance to meet with Jane Austen and talk to her, what would you discuss or ask about?
I would ask her about Sanditon, and where she wanted to go with that. It is such a fascinating fragment, so different from her other work. It might be been extraordinary if she had finished it.
8. Do you have a favorite Jane Austen quote? Or just one that you really like?
“Invite him to dinner, Emma, and help him to the best of the fish and chicken, but leave him to chuse his own wife.“
9. You are a write yourself, could you briefly describe what your books are about?
I’ve written seven novels, and six of those were historical. However I have only set one novel in the Jane Austen period, Reckless Griselda, (now available as an ebook) It’s about the consequences of a one night stand in 1816, and owes rather more to Georgette Heyer than Jane Austen.
My historical crime novel, set in 1841, (coming out soon) does have a bit of an Austen homage about it in the shape of one of its hero, Major Vernon. He is an ex-army officer, and Chief Constable of the Northminster City Police, who has to solve a murder. His family background in the Northumbrian gentry and outlook on life is, I hope quite, Austenesque.
10. How did you end up as a writer?
I left university with a novel simmering in my head, got married and moved somewhere where there were only jobs as lambing assistants and casino croupiers (Dundee) so thought I had better write that novel instead. I did and it got published. It hasn’t been easy but I can’t actually see what else I could do.
11. And lastly, what other authors and books do you like?
George Eliot, Proust, Galsworthy, Emily Eden, Henry James, Gissing and recent discovery, Charlotte Younge. “The Clever Woman in the Family” is well worth hunting down.
Thank you very, very much!