Over several years, I have been working on a historical novel about an impoverished young gentlewoman in the early 19th century, who has dreamt all her life of travel and discovery. While working as a companion to an elderly lady, she receives an unexpected inheritance. Despite her family’s insistence that she keep it as a marriage portion, she decides to embark upon the 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 party into danger, she discovers that lofty goals and scientific advancements don’t thwart evil – but courage and determination can.
The heroine is Margaret Dashwood, youngest of the three sisters in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, in which she makes only minor appearances. While my novel details the later years of Austen’s characters, it is more than a sequel.
It is the story 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, the people with whom they were allowed to 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.
Among the dozens of sources I consulted are 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. A.H. Smith’s Lord Elgin and His Collection (1916) gave me insights for Margaret’s London encounter with the Parthenon marbles, which helps to kindle her passion for archaeology. All the books and publications mentioned in the novel are real, as are many characters – including Mary Anning, Dr. James Parkinson, and the brilliant archfiend Ciro Annichiarico.
Because of health issues in the family and the lifestyle changes necessitated by the coronavirus, my timetable for finishing the novel has collapsed. I’m slowly working through the final edits, and I will publish it as an e-book as soon as possible.