A Life of Her Own will be available soon on Amazon both as a Kindle e-book and a 325-page paperback. Check back soon for release information.
As a child in the early nineteenth century, one of Margaret Dashwood’s favorite pastimes was to sit with her father, poring over Piranesi’s engravings of the ancient ruins of Pompeii. The drama and pathos of the city’s destruction by a volcano kindled in her a passion for what we now call archaeology, and the pair’s ambition was to travel to Italy together. Her father’s untimely death deprived 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, she receives an unexpected inheritance. Despite her family’s insistence that she keep it as a marriage portion, she embarks upon her Grand Tour of Europe with a small party of ladies – 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 the tale of 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.
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.
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 visit 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 years intersect with what author Richard Holmes calls “The Age of Wonder,” also described as the “Romantic Age of Science” because of its significance for numerous writers: Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelly, John Keats, William Cowper, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fanny Burney, William Cowper, and others.
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.
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 grounded me in the role that science plays in Margaret’s passion for science.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 (1804). That is also where I encountered two 0f 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 used lower case on their covers.
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.
These comments from prepublication readers have thrilled me.
When Margaret Dashwood is introduced, seemingly as an afterthought in the last sentence of Sense and Sensibility's opening chapter, Austen tells us, "She did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life." Margaret stays at home to look after her mother, enabling everyone else's story but her own. Now, in this beautifully wrought and compelling novel, Wendy Zomparelli rescues Margaret from the margins and gives the youngest sister her own narrative, her own sense, her own sensibility. Those who know Austen will be captivated by Margaret Dashwood's adventuresome afterlife; those who don't will be enthralled by this wondrous novel in its own right. A Life of Her Own offers up all the pleasures of 19th-century fiction in elegant, eloquent prose. We live and love with Margaret and are transported: literally, to Italy and beyond; spiritually, to an access of the heart.
Margaret Dashwood has waited two centuries to make her full literary debut, and it is her good fortune that Wendy Zomparelli is the author to breathe life into this minor Jane Austen character from Sense and Sensibility. In Zomparelli’s capable hands, Margaret – the plain but pleasant youngest Dashwood sister of whom little was expected – springs to life as a plucky 19th century gentlewoman with uncommon curiosity and unbounded ambitions. Zomparelli channels Austen’s cadences and dialog without flaw yet, with the benefit of hindsight, can wink at society’s conventions. She fills in the blanks of Margaret’s character so colorfully and fully that, despite the novel’s satisfying ending, you are sad to see it end. No prior reading of the Austen oeuvre is required to enjoy this excursion into the economic strictures of Georgian England and a frenetic Grand Tour of Italy. A Life of Her Own will appeal to both Janeites and the uninitiated – and especially to anyone who, like Margaret, has ever been underestimated. Zomparelli infuses her writing with subtle wit and delightful historical morsels. The result stands on its own as a memorable portrait of a winsome protagonist as she navigates a world stacked against a woman of independent spirit.
More drawn to nature than needlework, young Margaret Dashwood stymies the expectations of her more domesticated sisters in early nineteenth-century England. In A Life of Her Own, Margaret leaps into the foreground from a mention in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as a three-dimensional character well ahead of her time. With a passion for seeing the ruins of Pompeii, with maps and compass, books, pen, paper and indefatigable curiosity, Margaret sets out on a journey that brings her joy, danger, great wisdom . . . and love.
In A Life of Her Own, Wendy Zomparelli has created a book worthy of the Austen canon – elegant, imaginative, and rich with lingering insight. Margaret Dashwood comes to life as a curious, intelligent, and adventurous observer of the world around her – and we accompany her with delight as she dreams of a life beyond domesticity and drawing rooms. She studies geology, discovers fossils, travels through France and survives unexpected danger in the mountains around Pompeii. How wonderful to encounter a woman of “resourcefulness, strength, and courage” in a story that truly lifts the spirits!
A Life of Her Own is enormously satisfactory for an Austen reader such as I. But I can safely say that this novel would delight all sorts of readers. Margaret Dashwood, the protagonist of the story, is a feisty young woman with no hopes of fitting into how women were educated, or how they imagined their futures and lives. The novel leads us through her various journeys to find and be who she is. We see her growth, follow her thinking through what she ought to do, feel her weighing options, succeeding, and failing. Wendy Zomparelli has us cheering along with Margaret or grieving and raging with her. The novel’s language and world-building are superb – we learn so much about the 1820s, everything from science, religion, politics, households, work, how people lived their everyday lives, their hopes and dreams and constraints. And Ms. Zomparelli gets the language of that time spot on. You really get a sense that you are reading a novel not just written about the nineteenth century but actually written for that period – yet easily accessible to readers today. For me, the language, the grammar, the images, the rooms, the smells, the streets had to be just right – and they are. Even more than this, A Life of Her Own is chockablock with multiple mysteries, lots of mayhem, tons of family, and intellectual and political intrigue. I had to read it slowly at first – I treated it like a delicious chocolate bar, eating just a piece a day. But I finally succumbed and had to take to my sofa, give everything up and fall into it until I finished. You won’t put it down.