A Life of Her Own

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A Life of Her Own is now available on Amazon as both a Kindle e-book ($4.95) and a 400-page paperback ($14.95). The paperback is also being carried by New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, Va.

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About the Book

I love the novels written in the nineteenth century by such authors as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Emily Eden, Wilkie Collins, Mary Ann Evans (pen name George Eliot), Sheridan LeFanu, and the Brontë sisters.

The only problem with nineteenth-century novels is that nobody writes them anymore. So I decided to write one of my own.

The Story

Margaret Dashwood, an English child of the early nineteenth century, loves to sit beside her father, poring over Piranesi’s engravings of the ancient ruins of Pompeii. The drama and pathos of the city’s destruction by the volcano Vesuvius kindles in her a passion for what we now call archaeology, and the pair’s ambition is to travel to Italy together. Her father’s untimely death deprives her not only of a parent and their plans, but also of the income that would have made it possible for her to be formally educated and to travel.

Margaret refuses to let a lack of money ruin her dreams of visiting Pompeii and making discoveries of her own. To her family’s dismay she begins earning her own living as a companion to an elderly lady in London. Some years later, an unexpected inheritance gives her enough money to travel -- despite her family’s insistence that she keep it as a marriage portion.

What she lacks are male relatives to escort her, so she recruits a small party of ladies to go on their own – a daring project for an Englishwoman in the 1820s. When her ambition to join an archeological expedition leads her into danger, she discovers that lofty goals and scientific advancements cannot thwart evil – but that courage and determination can.

Margaret is the youngest of the three sisters in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, in which she makes only minor appearances. Austen’s book concludes when Margaret is about 13 years old. My novel continues the story of her life and adventures – but it is more than a sequel.

It is a meticulously researched historical novel about one woman’s attempt to overcome the constraints limiting the choices of pre-Victorian ladies – constraints upon the books they were permitted to read, the places they could go unescorted, and the people with whom they could associate. Margaret attempts to work within and around society’s norms to construct a life that brings her meaning and joy – the task with which we all contend.

The Inspiration

Jane Austen – or perhaps her inner ironic narrator – was quite dismissive of Margaret Dashwood. The older sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, are portrayed as having beauty and intelligence. Austen declared Margaret, the youngest, to be “a good-humored, well-disposed girl.” Yet her verdict was that Margaret “did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life.”

Why, we might wonder, did Austen create a character who seems an afterthought? One theory deems Margaret a signifier of the impoverishment of the bereaved Dashwood women: A family of three might do well enough on 500 pounds a year, but a fourth would tip the scales. Another is that Margaret’s existence makes it imperative that Mrs. Dashwood stays at home when her elder daughters are invited for a long stay in London – perhaps giving Austen room to create more drama in Marianne’s and Eleanor’s experiences there. We can’t know.

I’m indebted to Austen, not just for endowing me with exquisite books to read again and again, but also for leaving me the chance to bring a new life to one small, unimportant character, a life that presents new dimensions and opportunity. Her early adulthood intersects with the period author Richard Holmes writes about in The Age of Wonder. Because of its significance for numerous writers – Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelly, John Keats, William Cowper, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others – it is also known as the Romantic Age of Science.

Despite her lack of education, Margaret yearns to make some kind of contribution to the prolific scientific discoveries she sees in astronomy, chemistry, archaeology, geology, cosmology, and natural history. She seeks a new, fulfilling life beyond a husband and family:

A life of her own.

The Sources

Among the dozens of sources I consulted is Mariana Starke’s 845-page Travels on the Continent (1820), upon which Margaret relies for everything from her packing lists of medicines and spare carriage parts to the specific stages for each day’s travel. It is the earliest travel book I’ve encountered that uses a point system to direct tourists to the most important sights and artworks, gives prices for goods and services, and recommends specific lodgings.

A.H. Smith’s Lord Elgin and His Collection (1916) gave me insights for Margaret’s London encounter with the Parthenon marbles, which heightens her passion for archaeology.

Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder (2010) grounded me in the role that science plays in Margaret’s passion for discovery.

I’m grateful to The British Library for access to its rare book room, where I could turn the pages and study the drawings of fossils in Dr. James Parkinson’s Organic Remains of a Former World (3 vol., 1804-1811). That is also where I encountered two of the young Margaret’s favorite books: the Rev. John Trusler’s A compendium of useful knowledge, containing a concise explanation of every thing a young man ought to know . . .” (1794) and the anonymous The children’s cabinet: or, a key to natural history . . . (1798). Both were published with long titles in lower-case.

All the books and publications mentioned in the novel are real, as are many characters, including Mary Anning and Dr. James Parkinson. I’m not convinced that the newspaper accounts of the brilliant archfiend Ciro Annichiarico are true – but what a joy to have him cross paths with Margaret.

Finally, I’m deeply indebted to Jane Austen, not just for endowing me with exquisite books to read again and again, but also for the opportunity to bring a new life to one small, unimportant character.

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