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.
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.
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.
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.
Anyone who has wondered about the elusive younger sister of Sense and Sensibility's Elinor and Marianne Dashwood will be enthralled by this brilliantly imagined story. Margaret, whose education was sorely neglected after the death of their father, is a natural questioner. She likes "to write a little every day" (37) and aspires to be "an adventuress" (9) – until her mother advises her to use a different term for her ambitions. She is also inspired by a book her father shared with her about Pompeii and later nurtured by a familiar mentor who believes in her abilities.
After a disaster reveals Margaret's strength of character, her imagination and determination grow, encouraged by an ever-supportive Mrs. Jennings. After some years of self-directed education In London, Margaret's curiosity about the ancient world is given free rein by an unexpected windfall. We glimpse Elinor and Marianne as they express their fears about their youngest sister's proposed trip to France and Italy. In spite of their misgivings and society's disapproval, Margaret embarks on a series of adventures, culminating in a cascade of events that could leave even fans of gothic novels giddy.
The plot might be audacious in parts, but the story and character development feel remarkably authentic. Many details of the history and culture of the time enliven the text. We accompany Margaret as she marvels at the newly installed Elgin Marbles (Parthenon Sculptures) in the British Museum. We thrill with her as she submits an article to a well-known periodical of the time.
The book also prolongs the page life of certain favorite characters, such as Edward Ferrars and Mrs. Jennings, and even the not-so-beloved but charismatic Willoughby. If, as Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh tells us in his Memoir of Jane Austen, the author liked to think and talk about the subsequent lives of her characters, she would surely have been engrossed by the portrayal we get here.
In her first novel after a long career as an editor and journalist, Zomparelli reveals deep knowledge and love of Austen's characters and period. Many readers will eagerly await her next book.
This review was published in June 2023 in the quarterly new new magazine of the Jane Austen Society of North American.
Review by Diana Reynolds Roome
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.
I received this book as a gift from my husband, who shares my delight in Jane Austen's work. Now I'm pressing it on him--and you. READ IT!! It's smart, funny, thought-provoking, well researched, and a compelling read that kept me up way too late, finishing it. Margaret Dashwood takes on life as a woman of "good family" in 19th century England with smarts and spunk. The other characters are also well-drawn, interesting, often droll. Backstory is deftly handled, and the narrative voice is spot-on. (Voices, really: the story is sprinkled with a few short letters & other writings that move the story along nicely & add a little meta-textual zing.) Plus, you get to travel to Georgian London, Paris, and...beyond. Great fun! Never heard of Jane Austen? No problem: read this book for itself. Prefer the gothic work of Ann Radcliffe? Jump right in. You're gonna love it.
This book is flat out marvelous. Somehow Zomparelli has managed to make her superb writing "period" but never in the least antique. The reviewer who said the book succeeds in world-building knows whereof they speak; the places, habitations, artifacts, clothes, mores, books, music, art, etc. are evoked with dizzying richness. The quoted writings of the protagonist Margaret are tours de force of Margaret's and Zomparelli's alike. The book had me laughing in spots, misting up in even more of them. The plot is complex clever, and richly peopled with beautifully drawn characters. I reel a little at the thought of the planning, research, imagination, time, and talent that went into the making of such a book--an achievement not just reminiscent of, but worthy of, Austen herself.
I thoroughly enjoyed "A Life of Her Own". It was tender, poignant, amusing, uplifting and inspiring. I loved the characters. Margaret was especially admirable, though many of the others were as well. The dialogue between the characters really brought the story to life and there were so many pearls of wisdom buried within it. I loved the richness of the descriptions too, especially of places and scenery - at times it was like reading poetry. I found it to be an easy read and a most enjoyable one!
I absolutely loved this book. The writing, research, character development and the depth and breath of the story were superb. The author obviously knows London, Paris, Florence, Venice and Pompeii and took me along on the journey with its protagonist and other delightful characters. So often in novels, character development is lacking and the story is as flat as cardboard. In Miss Zomparelli’s historical novel, every element comes to life. Of late I’ve been griping about all the books whose the authors seem to have run out of steam near the end and the book quickly wraps up when (IMHO) there should have been many more steps toward a conclusion. Not so in “A Life of Her Own.” Every detail, every turn of events leads to conclusions (and in this case, surprising ones!) Margaret Dashwood was an over-achiever long before her time - a wily, intelligent, independent feminist in an era when women were to be seen but not heard and never to be in public without male escorts or women older themselves (and presumably wiser.) The author’s extensive research was evident throughout the book and I learned a lot as I read it! If you enjoy historical novels and are a Jane Austen fan, you’ll admire Miss Zomparelli’s writing, storytelling and wit. I highly recommend “A Life of Her Own.”
I was pleasantly surprised to find a unique story. Margaret's strong character keeps you wanting more. Wonderful history woven into this enjoyable journey of finding one's life.
I have read this book twice now. It is one of these few books that I felt worth the time. The author writes a about a present day theme (being true to oneself) in the much-beloved style of Jane Austen. I have two granddaughters who I will definitely encourage to read this book when they are a little older. This is a deeply researched and beautifully written novel that convincingly captures Margaret's time and place and her thirst for knowledge.
I love historical fiction and A Life of Her Own held my interest til the end. Thank you Wendy Zomparelli
Sense and Sensibility as seen through Margaret's eyes. She was intelligent, adventurous, caring, selfless, courageous and a great friend. I laughed and cried. What a wonderful story.
Zomparelli's book is a very well-written, with many passages that you will want to mark and save. It is also a well-plotted novel that is true to the historical time period. The author re-tells Austen's story from the perspective of a minor character, the youngest Dashwood sister Margaret. Using Austen's story line for the first quarter of the book, Zomparelli deftly carries the story well beyond Austen's original. The plot is well-imagined and compelling--I had a hard time putting the book down. If you own only one adaptation of Jane Austen, this is the book to buy!
This book will appeal particularly to Jane Austen fans familiar with Sense and Sensibility, but anyone who enjoys reading about the early 19th century in England and Europe will find much to enjoy. The author does a great job of blending of fact and fiction.
This is a hefty book and well worth the reading, despite my quibbles with certain aspects. For readers who want a wider view of European life during the Regency and aftermath, it is a rich narrative; and Zomparelli’s Margaret makes for an enlivening companion throughout.
A Life of Her Own is a beautiful work that maintains the simplicity and charm of Jane Austen's novels. I felt the same warmth and comfort while reading this novel, only a true Jane Austen fan writer can accomplish that. Firstly, I applaud for bringing out the strong and elegant Margaret Dashwood into light who was shadowed by her sisters (Elinor and Marianne) in Sense and Sensibility. Sense and Sensibility is my least favourite Jane Austen novel (mostly because of Marianne) but I loved every bit of Wendy’s adaptation from the novel in A Life of Her Own. Wendy was successful in transforming a naughty child from Sense and Sensibility who’s easily forgotten into this very powerful character who dispenses a true sense of independence and courage in women. I have read other adaptation works written from the perspective of some weakly represented characters in great classics but never read anything written and constructed this well. It has a strong plot worth exploring and an elegant style of narration. I am always blown away by beautiful analogies in a novel and this has many such swoon-worthy analogies starting from very the beginning: “The chestnut tree outside her window had, overnight, festooned itself with white blossoms, as if dressed for its wedding, and pearly sky promised to turn blue as soon as the sun might warm it.”