A few months before my first novel with a major publisher came out, I was having lunch with three other writers, two of whom had written historical novels. Melanie Benjamin is the author of Alice I Have Been and The Aviator’s Wife and Erika Robuck is the author of Call Me Zelda and Hemingway’s Girl. My book, The Bookman’s Tale, like books by Melanie and Erika, features historical figures as characters—particularly William Shakespeare. Not surprisingly we fell into a conversation about writing real people as characters in works of fiction.
I found quickly that we were in agreement about one thing—while research is extremely important, we didn’t want to know too much about our subjects. That was never going to be a problem with Shakespeare, about whom we know so little, but my next book was focusing on Jane Austen and would feature her as a major character and I had to agree about the danger in over-researching as a novelist.
It’s important to understand the difference between the roles a historical figure plays in a non-fiction work and in a novel. If I were writing a biography of Jane Austen I would want to know everything about her. I would leave no source unread, especially primary sources like letters and diaries, in my attempt to understand who she was and to communicate her personality to my readers. However, in First Impressions, I am not writing about the historical Jane Austen. Not exactly.
I am creating a character named Jane Austen who lived and worked in the same time and place as the historical Jane Austen. She has a lot in common with that real person, but ultimately I have to remember that she is not real—she is a character in a novel and her thoughts, words, and actions have to fit the world of that novel.
So, in writing Jane Austen I set about to discover only facts about her life, and not too many of those. I wanted to know where she lived and when. I wanted to know when she wrote, revised, and published her novels. I wanted to know the names of her family members and a little something about her relationships with them. But the rest was for me to invent as a novelist, especially Jane’s personality.
To create my Jane I looked not to her biographies, but to her novels. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey would all feature prominently in my novel First Impressions, so I began by rereading those three books. From there I worked backwards. What kind of woman, I asked myself, would write works like these in a time like the late eighteenth century? My answer is, I hope, apparent in every scene in which Jane appears. I saw her as intelligent, witty, energetic, quick on her feet, a little irreverent, and quietly revolutionary.
I still don’t know what Jane Austen was really like. None of will ever know what it was like to spend an afternoon in her presence. But to her fictional friend Richard Mansfield, the fictional Jane was a delight, and I like to believe that the real Jane Austen was as well.