Big news, big news! Rose Servitova is here (well, you know the way, sort of, virtually, here) and she is brilliant. But hang on, let me start at the beginning.
For me, Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice has been the cause of Delight and Despair as I have spent a lifetime searching for anything to match it. I’m thrilled to have discovered a real gem which I think shall sit quite happily alongside my battered and worn Austen collection.
The Longbourn Letters, by Rose Servitova, is a collection of the correspondence between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins over a period of seven years including the events of Pride and Prejudice. The gentlemen exchange as much commentary on gardening affairs as they do on family exploits with particular attention paid to Mr. Bennet’s miraculous and prize-winning blackcurrants.
Mr. Bennet frequently resorts to a bolstering measure of port, or cognac, or fine wine (as available) before tackling correspondence with the indefatigable Mr Collins and his letters, while polite and jovial, seem to primarily serve as a method of keeping his cousin at arm’s length.
‘May I caution you, sir, not to trouble yourself with rushing to our sides.’
Nevertheless, Mr. Collins is a deal more bearable in writing than in person and Mr. Bennet grows to appreciate Collins’ candour and naïveté.
‘I must confess, I would not give up our correspondence for all the geese in the land, or for all the port either, for that matter, although the sacrifice be greater.’
The Longbourn Letters convinced me completely. It was a joy to become better acquainted with Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins and to witness the rather moving relationship which develops between them. I willingly admit to shedding a tear and fear I may have been overheard snorting with laughter in a most unladylike manner.
Rose Servitova, it turns out, is a funny and charming woman, an Irish woman at that, and an excellent correspondent. I have greatly enjoyed a rapid-fire exchange of emails with her over the last couple of weeks and now, by the magic of the internet, here she is to chat with me about her book.
Rose, how and when did you first come to read Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice in particular?
I first came across Jane Austen’s works at my grandmother’s house. She kept all the classics, happy, happy days.
If you were to describe yourself as one of the Bennet girls, which would you be?
Mary Bennet – would you believe? I see her as a spiritual and deep individual, who does not conform to what’s expected of her by society. In my version of her, she is nature-loving and likes lots of alone time. I see her as being as witty as Mr Bennet but as she does not use it in the same beguiling way that Lizzy does, it is not seen as ‘charm’ or as an attractive, effeminate wit but as something quite out of place in a society where she should not be smarter than the men in her company.
Yours is an epistolary novel. Are you, in real life, a writer of letters?
I certainly did write hundreds of letters in my lifetime but only send emails now – rarely letters. I await a ‘beam-me-up Scotty’ machine. Then the fun will begin!
Jane Austen included lots of letters in her novels. Do you think people sometimes reveal more in a letter than they might in conversation?
When emotions are hard to deal with, it may be easier to express in word rather than in person. On the other hand, there’s the risk of misconstruing a message and I have often had to send a clarifying correspondence because I saw that unintentional mischief was afoot.
The book opens with the discovery of a box of letters long hidden behind the shelves of Longbourn’s library. Would you agree that many of us who grew up reading Austen are more than half convinced that Pride and Prejudice really happened?
You would be surprised if I told you how many people asked me about the letters I discovered, so convinced they were by the prologue. They knew I had written a piece of fiction but they were convinced, somehow, that these letters were real, including their discovery. It made me laugh. I do think that The Longbourn Letters is more ‘real’ and convincing in that sense than the original Pride & Prejudice because there’s no pandering to a plot or a romantic storyline, there is just an unfolding of a relationship, that will catch you unawares. It is only at the end that you really see how far they’ve come, though the humour and shenanigans keep the reader engaged throughout.
Did Jane Austen’s plot figure more as a constraint or as a support to your novel?
Excellent question!! It has been noticed by some reviewers, very cunningly, that the novel really takes off once the plot of Pride & Prejudice comes to an end in the middle of the second chapter of The Longbourn Letters….and they would be right. It was a great scaffolding to help me along at first and I never had any intention of deviating from Austen’s genius, but once I was freed from the storyline of Pride & Prejudice I could allow Mr Collins and Mr Bennet the freedom to get on with things themselves…and they did not disappoint.
Mr. Bennet is one of Austen’s wittiest characters while poor Mr. Collins is all but witless. Why did you think their relationship could develop beyond the demands of duty?
To me it was as obvious as Darcy and Elizabeth. Mr Collins and Mr Bennet were made for each other and I have no doubt that when writing, Austen was aware of how much their contrasting with each other showed the other one up. While avoiding the company of Mr Collins, Mr Bennet confessed that he relished his letters. Due to inheritance, marriage to a neighbour and Lady Catherine’s nephew becoming Mr Bennet’s son-in-law, they were destined to see and hear more from each other over time and not less. I had to learn what those letters contained, how they maintained correspondence over the years and did they change any for being in each other’s lives.
I’ve long believed that there is a special bond between cousins, even those whose characters seem incompatible. It seems to me that your book touches on that bond. Would you agree?
Absolutely! Some of my closest friends are my cousins. There is a bond – a pulling together that happens as a result of being cousins that is very special, especially if you spent time together in your youth. It’s a Famous-Five type relationship.
You seem to have channelled the voices of Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Did that come easily? Did you find yourself writing regency style texts and emails to family and friends?
Haha! It amazed me how easy it was for me to get inside their heads. It says a lot about the author, in my opinion – an ability to have a dry sense of humour and be as ‘thick as a ditch’ at the same time. The letters were a good way to go because once one was written, I knew immediately how the other would respond. I also found it so easy to write ‘regency’ as you refer to it. Perhaps my internal dialogue is reminiscent of the late 18th century.
I finished your book with damp cheeks and a wobbly chin. Were you sad to reach the end of their correspondence? Are you tempted to further explore Austen’s characters?
Thank you for that, I still cry and laugh at certain parts (and I know what each letter contains). No, there was no sadness. It felt complete. In fact, one person in the industry recommended I add an extra 30,000 words and publishers might be interested. I said ‘no’, it was perfect as it was and I don’t care about word counts and watering down plots to get extra pages. It was about my two men and their tale had been told and was just right. Life is like that. Things don’t always go on, they finish when they finish. I am tempted to explore more Austen characters but will they ever be as light and easy to write as The Longbourn Letters– I doubt it but I will give it a go.
I was chuffed to discover that Austen’s first love was Irish. Tell me a little about Tom leFroy.
It was certainly a romance-of-sorts that had the potential to develop into something but his relations, seeing that ‘danger’ was afoot, separated them. He was the eldest of eleven children, whom he was obliged to support and so he was expected to ‘marry well’ and climb to the top of his career in law. This he did do.
Limerick has good cause then to join in the celebration of Jane Austen’s bicentenary. Tell me about the events you have planned.
They cover screen, theatre, fashion, music, dance, architecture and talks/workshops from July to December 2017. To name but a few, at this early stage, I can confirm that director Whit Stillman will be joining us for a screening of Love and Friendship with Q&A afterwards. The amazing Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, Limerick woman and costume designer on Becoming Jane, Love and Friendship, Brideshead Revisited and many more, will be joining us. The Irish World Acadamy of Music & Dance collaborate with Sound Heritage Ireland to see music of the era come to life again in one of the Georgian manors in the region, the one-woman comedy Promise & Promiscuity is coming to theatres, a whole host of speakers and historical costumers are presenting at a number of incredibly popular afternoon tea events held at the wonderful Georgian hotel, No 1 Pery Square. There is more but please check this link for individual event details and for a full programme when finalised www.facebook.com/janeausten200limerick .
You can discover more about Rose and her book at these links:
Here’s a sweet little video clip summarising The Longbourn Letters.
I’m very grateful to Rose for taking the time to chat and for allowing me to delight once more in the delights of Longbourn.