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Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath by Thomas Rowlandson

Formal Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath  – Painting by Thomas Rowlandson from  Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

In 1811 King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place. On his father’s death in 1820, the Prince was crowned King George IV. Coincidentally, Jane Austen’s novels were all published during the Regency period, between 1811 and 1818 .

So popular and enduring is Austen as an author, and so frequently have her novels been adopted for the screen that the images she created have now come to define the Regency era. Yet there is a danger that we begin to accept fiction as fact, to confuse the lives of her heroines with her own life, to interpret the lives of the few, as being the same as the lives of the many. And in that process there is also the risk that we lose sight of her skill and imagination as a writer. She was without doubt a keen observer, but the settings and people she describes, come as much from her imagination as from what she saw or experienced.

Jane chose to set two of her novels, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in Bath. She lived in the city between 1801 and 1806 and it’s still possible to retrace her footsteps, to see some of what she saw. The pattern of roads is largely unchanged in the older part of the city. Many of the places she would have frequented are still there; The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. It is easy to imagine these places as she depicts them in her novels, yet it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. For example, in “Northanger Abbey” we read;

 “They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”

Yet Jane also records in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, on May 5th 1801, her own “first impression” of the city;

 “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Again in “Northanger Abbey” she describes a formal ball held in the Upper Assembly Rooms;

“The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégé, Mrs Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly.”

Yet her own experience was somewhat different, as she reports in letter to her sister on May 12th 1801;

“By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.

After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.”

They say you should write about what you know and Jane Austen certainly knew about people, but was her life really comparable to those of her heroines?  True, she attended dinner parties, suppers, formal balls and had some insight into high-society.  Yet that society was very stratified with rigid conventions and social etiquette. Those rules defined who was on a level with whom, and Jane was certainly not part of its upper echelons.  Though she was undoubtedly part of “Society” in truth she was fairly low down in the “pecking order.” Her Uncle and Aunt were wealthy and lived in the Paragon. They might have provided her with opportunities to glimpse their way of life, but they do not seem to have been over-generous to Jane or her family.

When Jane’s family moved to Bath they leased a house at 4, Sydney Place (now luxury apartments). It was a fine house in a good area, near the popular Sydney Gardens, but it was not a prestigious address in comparison with other parts of the city. And when the lease ended they moved to a house in Green Park Buildings. This was an area the family had dismissed when they first moved to the city and it’s easy to see why from Jane’s description;

“Our views on G. P. (Green Park) Buildings seem all at an end; the observation of the damps still remaining in the offices of an house which has been only vacated a week, with reports of discontented families and putrid fevers, has given the coup de grace. We have now nothing in view. When you arrive, we will at least have the pleasure of examining some of these putrefying houses again; they are so very desirable in size and situation, that there is some satisfaction in spending ten minutes within them.”

Before leaving Bath the Austen family also lived for a while in 25, Gay Street. (The Jane Austen Centre is nearby at 40 Gay Street). It was a “good address” but by then, after the death of Jane’s father, they were reduced to “taking rooms” as boarders, rather than occupying a house as owners or tenants. But by then the family were largely dependent on the charity of relatives.

It’s obvious too that Jane was well aware of the plight of the genteel poor. In “Persuasion” Sir Walter Elliot refers to Westgate Buildings as,

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations.”

Westgate Buildings was by no means the worst of streets but it was situated on the border of the Avon Street slum area.  My own novel Avon Street  has an opening scene in Westgate Buildings and explores the darker aspects of the City.

Opinion is divided on whether or not Jane Austen actually liked Bath, but she certainly knew how to use it as a setting. Jane Austen created an image of Regency life which still survives today. That is a testament to her imagination and skill as a writer.  She chose to depict a way of life in her novels that did not always reflect her own everyday experience. Indeed it was not representative of the lives of most, yet it pleased her readers then, and still pleases many more readers today.

Bath is a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the places Jane Austen visited are still there and remain largely unchanged – The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. And it is still possible to retrace her footsteps and imagine the City she depicts in her novels. But it’s also worth imagining what life was really like for a country girl of limited means in a bustling city, where appearance was everything.

Much of this piece was first hosted at the “Jane Austen’s World” Website on September 8th 2012.

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Many authors have produced their own sets of Writing Rules. The longer version (below) by Kurt Vonnegut is fairly well known and remains one of my favourites, though it was aimed more at short story writers than novelists. I think it’s a good guide because it is less prescriptive than many, yet in a way it is far more demanding.   Vonnegut’s “rules” look at writing predominantly from the reader’s perspective. The writer is simply fulfilling their side of a two-way contract between reader and writer; the book, a bridge between the two.

The Long Version

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut’s “rules” don’t seek to provide a guide to writing a bestseller or a book which will attract critical acclaim. Instead they emphasise the need for the writer to empathise with and respect their potential reader,  to acknowledge the work a reader has to do if the book is to work for them. He had in fact drawn up an earlier list which was even more succinct:-

The Short Version

1. Find a subject you care about

2. Do not ramble, though

3. Keep it simple

4. Have guts to cut

5. Sound like yourself

6. Say what you mean

7. Pity the readers

Like any good writer he opens and closes with his strongest messages and maintains a strong thread between the two.

The opening point relates to the true freedom of the writer as Vonnegut sees it. For him, freedom lies not in style, or the ability to write as you want, but in the choice of subject matter and how it is communicated.  And if the writer doesn’t care about their subject, why should the reader?

The final point though, to my mind has the greatest impact. Vonnegut explained it like this, “They (the readers) have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately…Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient writers, ever willing to simplify and clarify — whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”

Perhaps he should have added – or at least trying to.

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The demands a writer makes on a reader are quite incredible. Embarking on a new novel the reader is expected to suspend their own life, to ignore their surroundings, and to use their imagination to enter the writer’s imaginary world – and the world of the novel is constructed entirely of words.

Every sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, is entirely imaginary. Each emotion the reader feels is triggered (or not) by imagined experiences. Every character is a figment of the writer’s imagination. There are no actors, sound-track, special effects, atmospheric lighting, or carefully directed camera work to assist them, simply words arranged on a page. And the reader has to translate those words into moving pictures and see them from a new perspective, to empathise with the characters, to care about what might happen to them, and to react to what does.

Yet no two readers will see that imagined world in quite the same way. They will often see it differently than the writer intended, bringing their own perspectives and expectations and experiences to bear. And while it’s naturally exciting to see my book published,  I have also come to realise that the world of “Avon Street,” that I spent so long creating is no longer mine. Now the book is out there I have no say in how it should be read, or what people should think of my characters, or their stories, or my ability to convey them.

The use of plot, sub-plot, pace, characterisation, dialogue, settings, atmosphere, style, and use of language are all finalised now. They are set in print and cannot be changed. Whether I have got the balance is right is for the reader to judge. I just hope that those who read it, enjoy it; and that the world of “Avon Street”  and its inhabitants feels real, and stays with it’s readers, at least for a while.

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It hardly needs saying that many people do judge a book by its cover, particularly nowadays. But unless the author is well known, their book is likely to be marketed as belonging to a particular genre or category of fiction, rather than as an individual novel. As a consequence, the chances are that the cover will be very similar to lots of others in that particular genre.

So the potential reader turns to the back cover in search of recommendations. But again, unless the writer is an established name they are unlikely to attract reviews and recommendations from other well-known writers or the mainstream media.  And the blurb will often do little other than to confirm that the book fits neatly again with what is expected of the genre.

So the reader thumbs through the book to get an idea of whether they like the style of writing. Some readers even have a particular page number that they turn to and read. But however a reader chooses a book they will almost certainly read the opening line.

These are a dozen of my favourite opening lines of novels – Not only because they draw you in to reading the book, but also because they manage to give a strong flavour of what is to come. There are of course many more  – and long before Creative Writing Courses and the boom in Marketing and Promotion, the Great Writers of the past recognised the power of the opening line.

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  3. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
    -George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
  4. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
  5. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  6. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
  7. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  8. “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)
  9. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  10. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  11. “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  12. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

The opening line of my own novel, “Avon Street” is – “Thomas Hunt left his home in the early hours of that February morning in 1850 and made his way through the maze of Avon Street alleyways.” -perhaps not up there with greats, but I hope it draws some readers in and gives them a taste of what is to come.

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Painting by William Hardwick from Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Drownings in the River Avon were relatively common in Bath in the middle of the 19th Century. Many were accidental, or at least that’s what the Coroner’s Court often concluded. A substantial number though, were suicides. They were regularly reported as such in the local paper, but were rarely seen as newsworthy by the national press.

The people who had taken their own lives in the River Avon were for the most part un-newsworthy because they were usually poor. They were part of the nameless, faceless masses exploited by the Industrial Revolution, routinely marginalised and vilified in the press. Popular opinion was that they were lazy, ignorant and dirty; given to drinking too much, and begging, or they were itinerants, migrants without roots, who did not want to work and were content to live in squalor.

Yet it was in “The Times” newspaper archive that I first read of the incident that now forms the prologue to my book – an incident so tragic, abhorrent and pitiful that it was reported nationally. On Sunday 6th February 1850, in the early hours of the morning, Thomas Hunt drowned himself and his young daughter.  The Coroner’s Court determined that Hunt had taken his own life and found him guilty of the murder of his daughter.

I knew when I read the piece that I would include their story somewhere in my book. It seemed somehow to summarise the tragic lives of many who survived in the Avon Street area of Bath. It was the darkness and despair that existed at the heart of the city – the secret that was kept hidden behind the Georgian facades – the lie that lay behind the carefully contrived and protected image.

I had initially intended to use the incident as an anecdote somewhere in the book, perhaps brought up in conversation between the characters, but the story of Thomas Hunt and his daughter, would not leave me. Eventually it became a lynch pin, something that brought the characters together, or drove them apart. It played a big part in determining the plot and came to influence atmosphere and settings, as I tried to explore the two very different worlds that co-existed in the city.

There was nothing in the newspaper records to indicate that Thomas Hunt was in debt (as he is in my book) but debt and loan-sharks were a way of life for the working class at that time, as they are increasingly  now. Their story came almost to define what life must have been like for many of the residents of Avon Street and though prologues are unfashionable and may even put some people off reading a book, their story (or my interpretation of it) now forms the prologue of “Avon Street” – because that’s where it needs to be.

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In 1903 Britain was outraged by a  series of brutal attacks on horses, cattle and sheep  in Great Wyrley, near Birmingham. So frequent and sadistic were these night-time attacks that they were reported regularly in the national press.  Local people blamed a solicitor of “mixed race” by the name of George Edalji, claiming he organised the attacks as a part of ritualistic pagan worship ceremonies.

Edalji soon found himself at the centre of a “hate-mail” campaign. The police too began to receive anonymous letters pointing to him as the culprit and claiming that he was the leader of a  pagan sect. Early one morning  they mounted a raid on Edalji’s home and their suspicions were confirmed. In the house they found a damp coat and trousers each with a small blood stain on them. They also discovered horse-hairs on the coat and recovered a pair of muddy boots and four dirty razors with red staining.

The police arrested Edalji and he was quickly tried and found guilty at Stafford Assizes. He was  sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Yet despite his imprisonment, the animal attacks continued. A year after his trial a petition for his release, with over 10,000 signatures (including many lawyers) was sent to the Home Office. But the authorities would not relent and Edalji remained in prison until two years later. Then without explanation  he was suddenly released still carrying the stigma of  the “guilty” verdict.

Hearing of the case, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) decided to investigate and to re-examine the evidence. He found that:-

  • the blood-stains were too small in relation to the brutality of the attack,
  • the police notes taken at the time indicated that the coat was damp, yet the blood-stains were dried into the fabric and of some age
  •  the marks on the razors that were taken to be blood were simply rust, reflecting their age and lack of use
  • the horse-hairs on the coat were commonly used in stuffing furniture and could be expected to be found on most people’s clothing.

Conan Doyle had known from his meeting with Edalji that the man was innocent, just as Sherlock Holmes would have known. He used the same  observational and deductive skills as his fictional creation and it was plain to him immediately that Edalji had,

not only a high degree of myopia, but marked astigmatism.

With such bad eyesight Conan Doyle argued, how could Edalji on a moonless night have walked across miles of broken ground, climbed innumerable walls and found his way through gaps in hedges and walls to reach his prey.

Conan Doyle presented his evidence in “The Daily Telegraph” in January 1907. He traced the anonymous letters to a man called Robert Sharp and found enough evidence to publicly accuse him and his two brothers of the crimes.  One of the brothers immediately fled the country.

Under pressure of publicity, the Home Office agreed to review the case through  a three-man inquiry. One of  those men coincidentally, happened to be related to the Chief Constable who had undertaken the initial investigation.

Needless to say they upheld the original conclusion that Edalji was guilty and that the Sharp brothers were innocent. The Law Society though, exonerated Edalji and reinstated him as a solicitor and readers of “The Daily Telegraph” raised £300 for him to help with his legal costs – all on the basis of Conan Doyle’s investigation – which they trusted more than the judgement of the legal system.

Conan Doyle like his creation, Sherlock Holmes, believed in the primacy of hard evidence. He assessed that evidence dispassionately and objectively in the belief that everyone is innocent until proved guilty. The police and judicial system, on the other hand, had largely judged George Edalji long before he even came to trial, on the colour of his skin and local prejudice and rumour.

I think it’s fair to say that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived up to the example of his fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes, not only in terms of his methods, but also in his belief in justice.

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It’s finally arrived. I opened the parcel this morning, and there it was – my book – “Avon Street”  Seeing the cover, holding the book, thumbing the pages, it all felt suddenly real and I finally allowed myself to feel excited.

I had known for months that “Avon Street” was going to be published. After all, I had signed a contract, checked the proofs seen it for sale on Amazon, Waterstones, and the Guardian Bookshop. Yet still it hadn’t felt real, or at least I hadn’t allowed myself to get too excited. You see, there had been publishers before, contracts signed; it had even been listed on Amazon, yet in the past things had gone wrong at the last moment and the book never made it to the bookshops. It’s a difficult industry, publishing.

There were years before that too, when writing was confined to reports and studies; policy documents and business strategies. Writing a novel was just a dream then, but now it is a reality. The “effort” was always worthwhile, even before I thought I had a chance of being published. I love writing, whatever form it takes. Yet now, seeing my book sitting there on the table, I can’t resist the smile that keeps insisting on taking over my face.

I am no longer  Unpublished Writer, but a Published Author. To be honest it’s hard to take in, but all in all it feels great.

And to any Unpublished Writer who reads this, the two lessons I’ve learned are to keep trying and exploring publishing opportunities – but more importantly – Keep Enjoying Writing.

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