My latest novel, The House in the Hollow, is set during the Regency era, over the course of the Napoleonic War. This time-period is the setting of Jane Austen’s novels but my book is not related to hers other than that I have attempted to emulate some of her erudition of dialogue, as being appropriate to the age.
I was about a third of the way through writing it when a furore blew up in the Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) community—as everywhere else—about the issue of diversity.
I had become involved with Austenesque writers and readers because of my Highbury Trilogy, which is inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma. I had used the JAFF community to promote my books and to connect with other writers who are inspired to continue, vary or just re-visit Jane Austen’s stories. I’d had it in my mind to explore the hinted-at backstory of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill since I first read Emma when I was at school, forty-odd years ago. I was amazed to find how many Jane Austen variations there were and how many writers, like me, had attempted to capture something of her wit and elegance.
What the majority of these books have in common, however, is their lack of diversity. It might be argued that Jane Austen’s books lacked it too; apart from Miss Lambe in Sanditon there are no characters specifically identified as BAME. My own Highbury Trilogy is no different although there is, in a throw-away line, a suggestion that newcomers to Highbury might be, “Mulattoes, children of a West Indian plantation owner, come to England for the first time.”
With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign, in common with people in every sector of our world, JAFF writers began to ask themselves whether this lack of diversity was in fact a fair and true reflection of the Regency era in Britain and whether, regardless of what seems to be the case in Jane Austen’s novels, we ought to try and show a much broader, more inclusive range of race and colour—and, for that matter, disability, age and sexual orientation—in our work. For me, a brilliant article by JAFF writer Bella Breen suggested to me that the overwhelmingly white population we see in TV and film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels is far from being historically accurate. In the light of her informative and challenging article and after my own research into the question I reviewed my WIP (work in progress). I had no desire to jump on any bandwagons, nor to simply tick a box labelled ‘diversity’. If I was going to be more inclusive it had to be natural, seamless and realistic. As it happened The House in the Hollow has at its centre a gentleman whose wealth stems from his involvement with the East India Company and who has spent much of his youth in Bengal. This provided a natural and ready-made opportunity for me to introduce some Indian characters which I took advantage of, although with some trepidation: one would not wish to patronise, misrepresent, disrespect or—worse of all—be accused of tokenism. Later I also created a valet who is a person of colour to be the romantic interest for one of my secondary characters. It seemed to me to be a completely plausible situation.
What I hope I’ve produced is a story with historically accurate diversity; believable characters whose ethnicity is secondary to their impact on the plot and their interactions with others.
How successful have I been? You must be the judge.
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