Inter-review with Helen Moffett about her novel Charlotte

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Helen Moffett
Publisher: Bonnier

ISBN: 9781785769108

I’ve always said that Jane Austen wrote the first “chick lit” novels. Her novels, which took their inspiration from the first female novelist in England, Fanny Burney, used gentle irony and wit to portray the domestic life of the 18th and early 19th century Englishwoman. (Virginia Woolf once said that Jane Austen should place flowers on Fanny Burney’s grave every day to acknowledge the debt she owed the novelist.) Whereas Burney’s novels, such as Evelina, were more melodramatic in tone, Austen used the lightest touch to illustrate the interior life of women who were destined by the stricture of 18th and 19th century society to exist on the edges of “important events”. Austen’s wry observations and attention to the minutiae of domestic life instilled in the reader a sense of calm familiarity and comfort that things would be alright in the end, especially when her spirited heroine always ended up with Mr Right in the end. This is the reason Austen’s novels, such as Pride and prejudice, especially, have been such favourites with readers for over 200 years.

South African author, editor, teacher and scholar Helen Moffett has brought Jane Austen’s gentle world back to vibrant life in her novel, Charlotte, which serves as a possible sequel to Pride and prejudice. The story of the unobtrusive Charlotte Lucas, one of Elizabeth Bennet’s closest friends in Pride and prejudice, had me weeping with delight as I learned how things turned out in the end for Charlotte, and even for Elizabeth Bennet. Charlotte is married off at the end of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel to the obsequious curate, Mr William Collins, and her future happiness seems somewhat compromised. Elizabeth Bennet herself is less than admiring of her friend’s stoic entry into a marriage of convenience.

Please could Helen Moffett write the ending to my life story? Listening to Helen’s delightful Charlotte as an audiobook had me weeping in delight as I learned how things turned out in the end for the unobtrusive Charlotte Lucas, one of Elizabeth Bennet’s closest friends in Pride and prejudice. When Charlotte is married off at the end of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel to the obsequious curate, Mr William Collins, her future happiness seems somewhat compromised. Helen starts the novel a number of years after Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins, and throws the reader/listener into the midst of the marital life in which Charlotte finds herself. Helen writes about the realities of 19th century life with honesty and unsentimental accuracy, and we begin to see a glimmer of the steel which underpins the prosaic Charlotte. Without giving away any spoilers: Charlotte finds herself faced with one of the harshest challenges to befall a mother, and – in the midst of sadness – she draws on inner depths which reveal her to be more than an equal for her spirited friend, Elizabeth Bennet. As the novel progresses, more of Austen’s original characters shake off their author’s pale shackles and breathe new life into their latest incarnations. One of my favourites is the anaemic Anne de Bourgh, who leaps from the confines of her origin story into one of the most charismatic characters in Charlotte. Lady Catherine lords it over everyone, as usual, but even she is impressed by the strong woman Charlotte grows into. This novel is a joy from start to finish, and Helen Moffett has captured the idiom and nuance of Jane Austen’s language and world, yet moved the characters into lives with far more agency than their predecessors. She has also injected an air of modern sensibilities into the hearts of the characters. Charlotte turns out to be quite a hottie, truth be told, and her life comes full circle when she is in a position to be a benefactor to many who were previously her social superiors. To use the cliché, it’s a feel-good story, and I loved every word. Over many years, I’ve read and reread Austen’s novels to restore my belief in a sense of order and justice in the world, and Helen Moffett recreates that same sense of well-being with her ending to her delicious novel. It’s the best medicine for COVID-19. I prescribe a copy for everyone today.

Your novel, Charlotte, is a sequel to Jane Austen’s much-beloved Pride and prejudice. In it, you focus on one of the minor characters, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennet’s closest friend. What drew you to the character of Charlotte and inspired you to envisage the way her life continued after the end of Pride and prejudice?

I’ve wanted to know how Charlotte’s life turned out ever since my P&P lecturer at university, Jeanne Heywood, pointed out that Charlotte honoured her side of the marital bargain by making a comfortable home for Mr Collins – that she didn’t sulk or flounce, but got on with the job of efficiently managing their home and trying to make him as respectable as possible. She’s also one of the very few characters in Austen whose married life we get a glimpse of after we’ve followed their courtship. I always thought Charlotte was resourceful, not venal or greedy; I always wanted to track her progress, and found myself hoping she had found contentment in the life she seized. And then I realised I could create all that for her – or try, at least.

Have you always been a fan of Jane Austen’s work? (This may have been covered in question 1.) Weren’t you afraid of the army of JA fans who are absolutely religious in their worship of their adored Jane? I know there are Jane Austen societies in America who quote her work and have fan clubs as well as expeditions to her childhood home in England. A lesser writer might have been afraid to incur their wrath by treading on the hallowed ground of JA’s work.

Yes, my parents gave me a copy of Persuasion for my tenth birthday, and I promptly fell in love with Captain Wentworth. (It was decades before I realised he needed a kick in the pants!) And then I fell for Austen herself. I’m sure there are going to be readers who are horrified at the liberties I’ve taken, but it helps that a vast amount of Austenia in the form of fanfic, sequels, spin-offs and so on already exists, so I was treading on hallowed but also very well-trodden ground. I’m busy reading Austenistan at the moment – a collection of short stories based on Austen’s novels, by writers from Pakistan – and it’s great fun and far more outrageous than anything I’ve conjured up. And apparently there’s a category of pornographic novellas based on Mr Darcy (this I did not research!). But, yes, I am braced for critique, even if some of it might have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

You have your doctorate, but I’ve wondered what your specialist subject is. I would guess it is English literature, as you are such a bibliophile and lover of literature? (I could always look it up online, but that wouldn’t be as interesting as reading your answer.)

Ha – I have a standard response to this question. I tell people I am South Africa’s foremost expert on Pre-Raphaelite poetry. This isn’t hard, as I am also South Africa’s only specialist in Pre-Raphaelite poetry! I did my PhD on the poetry of Christina Rossetti – a feminist and biographical analysis in which I looked at the unspoken rivalry between her and her brothers, particularly the more “famous” Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her brothers tried to control, frame, explain, edit and even censor her work within the context of the gender attitudes of Victorian Britain, and particularly the attitudes of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and philosophers (this was the era of “The angel in the house” – Coventry Patmore’s attempt to locate women ever more firmly in the home as some sort of moral emblem).

You continue Jane Austen’s story from her beloved Hertfordshire, and your depiction of the life and language of early 19th century England is pitch-perfect. Could you tell us about the research which went into the meat of this era in the novel?

I didn’t think of it as research at the time, but I read and reread every word Austen had ever written, as well as the leading biographies by David Cecil, Carol Shields, Claire Tomalin and more. It helped having read so much 19th century British fiction, poetry and history, something I’ve done since childhood. I’ve also always read fairly widely about the English landscape tradition and gardening. What really helped was doing a lot of “location research”: visiting as many Austen sites as I could manage and afford (this element of the research was faint-makingly expensive, but it was vital). I visited as many stately homes and gardens as I could manage, looking at many vistas Austen herself had admired. I don’t think I could have written the Pemberley chapters, for example, if I hadn’t been to Chatsworth (the estate on which Austen based Pemberley). I would write with photos of the garden and house open on my screen, and imagine Charlotte walking or sitting or working within those scenes.

You have achieved the goal of many South African writers: the adoration of British publishers who are promoting your work in the UK and beyond. How did this miracle happen?

I was extraordinarily lucky. First, I had that unicorn – a good British agent. I very tentatively offered him the manuscript of Charlotte (it’s not his usual sort of book), and he said he’d get back to me. Months passed, and then I had three responses – from three good UK publishers, all with excellent feedback. One said, “We’re interested if you think she’d be open to rewriting.” Another said, “We’d be interested if she’s willing to rewrite, and would she be able to chat over Skype?” We had that chat, and that’s how I found myself in the Bonnier stable, under a new imprint they’re launching for literary fiction and creative non-fiction – Manilla Press. I’ve worked long enough in publishing to know this just doesn’t happen, much less to debut novelists! So, yes, it was a miracle.

Even though the coronavirus put paid to the launch of Charlotte in Bath, one of Jane Austen’s most beloved places, you had a virtual launch with e-books and audiobooks being released online in April (am I right?). Although the disappointment of the real-life launch must be enormous, you’ve had excellent reviews and responses from readers, including myself, who have loved the novel. What is it about Jane Austen’s relatively sedate world which appeals to 21st century readers, do you think? 

Yes, in some ways, the pandemic ate my book: I was supposed to go on this glamorous tour to the UK in May, and instead I had to launch the book from self-isolation, taking selfies of myself wearing a bonnet fashioned from a lampshade. Safe to say I didn’t anticipate that! The answers to your last question are very long – I’ve given entire lectures on this topic. I think there’s something stabilising about the world Austen creates: at a safe distance located in a history that is long gone, but still familiar; and she achieves an incredibly satisfying balance between the “happy-ever-after” fairy tale, and creating characters and scenarios that are instantly and often painfully recognisable. She gives weight to some of the acute and mostly invisible trials of the human heart. One critic wrote that the emotional journey of four of her heroines encompasses that particularly exquisite agony of watching the man they love fall for, and court, another woman, all of which they have to bear silently and without anyone to confide in. That takes courage, and we’ve all been there, and yet it’s rarely written about or taken seriously. As for Pride and prejudice, I sometimes think its universal popularity lies in its particular twist on the fairy tale of Prince Charming: a man alters his conduct, indeed his entire personality, under the influence of love – without any hope of reward. In other words, Elizabeth makes Darcy a much better person, without even trying. That’s a pretty irresistible fantasy.

You inject the characters of the novel with modern sensibilities by giving them volition in a manner which may have been too much for Jane Austen during her time. I found it very satisfying to have the characters live out their less-than-sedate lives in a more modern way than JA allowed them to. Have you had any objection to the sometimes outrageous manner in which your characters behave from any Jane Austen stalwarts yet?

There have been a few. The brilliant writer and Austen fan, Petina Gappah, felt I had gone too far in redeeming Mr Collins, and we had an interesting debate about that: I felt I had had to do something about his character to give Charlotte herself a halfway decent life. We agreed that he was very young when he married (only 25 – he was younger than Charlotte), and that perhaps he was more pliable and therefore salvageable than might be first thought. Then, there was a hilarious Goodreads review by someone frothing at the mouth because I had dared allow Charlotte orgasms. Gasp! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Even though we see Charlotte’s story to the almost-end of her life, are you planning a sequel at all? Or is there any other character’s story you might be keen to envisage in the future? I do hope so, as I’m sure your readers will be very keen to continue the next journey. 

The sequel is in progress and is (so far) based on the life of Sarah, Charlotte’s oldest daughter. It’s set in Pre-Raphaelite times, because I had better put all that decorative but useless higher education to use. But all this is subject to change, because I’ve had another idea and want to play with that a little.

Lastly, you have edited work by almost all of the South African literati, and have written a number of books dealing with eco-friendly subjects. This is your first foray into fiction, right? How did you manage to overcome your super-critical editor’s eye to write freely enough to allow your story to breathe? Did you have to remove your editor’s hat for the initial writing, or were you able to circumvent that critical eye enough to allow your creative self to flourish?

I’ve written short stories before, but Charlotte is my first novel. You’re absolutely correct: it is impossible to write while wearing an editor’s hat. It’s taken me a very, very long time to be able to separate the two identities/processes. Writing is a profoundly different experience to editing, and I found it very hard just to leap in and splash around. If it weren’t for the faith my erotica co-authors, Paige Nick and Sarah Lotz, had in me, and their constant encouragement (for which read “relentless prodding”), I would never have persevered. In the end, I would write for an hour in the morning with absolutely no editing allowed, and then edit what I’d written earlier, last thing before going to bed. That helped me to keep the processes separate.

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    Estelle Neethling

    This is a delightful inter-interview. “Charlotte” is clearly a must-read. The discussion also provides in-depth information into the extraordinary amount of passion, hard work and research that goes into what is clearly an excellent novel.

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