Natasha Farrant Talks To Bookbag About First Discovering Jane Austen

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Natasha Farrant Talks To Bookbag About First Discovering Jane Austen

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Summary: We loved Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice and it was fascinating to listen to author Natasha Farrant tell us about how she first came to dicover Jane Austen.
Date: 12 September 2016

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When did you first discover Jane Austen?

It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot since writing Lydia, and the honest answer is, I don’t know.

I wish I could remember the moment I first discovered Jane Austen. That there had been a before and after, when suddenly I stumbled across a new passion that henceforth illuminated my life. But my discovery of Jane Austen’s books was a slow thing. I didn’t study her at school, I don’t remember anyone ever telling me about her. I didn’t even realise she was a big deal until a friend mentioned that she was studying her at university. And yet somehow, she was always there.

The first Austen book I read was Emma, at some point in my teens. I loved her – Emma herself, that is. I don’t believe I gave even a passing thought to the clever prose, or the boldness of creating of such an unreliable narrator. Biting satire of the middle classes and the use of free indirect speech passed me by. I read differently then, before I became a grown-up and a writer. My response now is more intellectual. As a teenager, I read only with the heart, and I can tell you that in my heart I recognized Emma as my own. Young, misguided, well-meaning, longing for fun, jealous of her independence, so certain of being right, so unaware that she is wrong and so much more vulnerable than she thinks. Now, I realise how much craft goes into creating such a complex character. At the time, I only knew that she felt just like me.

Sense and Sensibility came next, in my early twenties, prompting extreme compassion for poor Marianne, irritation with pious Eleanor (and how that changes with the years, too!). And then… Did I really not read Pride and Prejudice before seeing the BBC adaptation? If I did, any memory of it has been swept away. It wasn’t just the tender looks exchanged by Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, her piquant smile, his piercing gaze. They had me glued to my TV screen along with the rest of the nation, but it was Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennet and Julia Sawalha’s Lydia and David Bamber’s Mr Collins that were the revelation. Who knew Jane Austen was so funny. The series finished, I re-read the book and no, the humorous adaptation wasn’t an aberration. On the page, Austen was just as playful, and wicked, and somehow merciless. So often we read the classics as if their authors held the key to the meaning of life, when in fact their mission was to entertain. Oh, and sell copies. You know, to make money and, er, eat.

Not that Austen doesn’t have plenty to say about human nature – greed, and fear, and envy, and snobbery. Not that she doesn’t tell us volumes about the role of women in society, how precarious their lives were, how dependent. As part my research for LYDIA, I re-read five of the six novels (not Mansfield Park – I’m sorry, I can’t read Mansfield Park). On re-reading Sense and Sensibility recently, I was shocked that characters talk about money at least as much as they talk about love, where I remembered it as a romantic novel. On re-reading Emma, I realised how unique she is amongst Austen’s heroines not to have any money concerns – unlike every other female character in the book. The plot of all the novels turns on the single hard fact that women of a certain class, with no independent fortune and no man to support them, are in a precarious position indeed. And I began to suspect that Austen’s humour had an edge of anger to it too.

To love the works of Jane Austen is to understand that every time you read them, they will yield up something new (and yes, I really must re-read Mansfield Park). So no, there was no lightning-flash moment of discovery. My appreciation of her genius crept up on me slowly. But then this is the woman who ordered her sister to burn all their correspondence before she died. Sharp-tongued and lively as she was, she was also immensely discreet. Perhaps it’s entirely fitting then that the true genius of her work reveals itself gradually, one delicious reading after another.