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Article: To the Editor: Researching and dating Austen

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Creative Writing

To the Editor: Researching and dating Austen

In this letter to our editor, author Gillian Mather shares some of her research process around dating the events of Pride and Prejudice. 

I am in the middle of writing a Pride and Prejudice prequel covering the six months before the novel begins. Therefore I was interested to read your Newsletter item dated 5th August stating that P&P (if I may so abbreviate it) was originally completed in 1797 though it was not published until 1813.
Before I began writing my book, I researched the setting of P&P. There is precious little background in the book enabling one to date it accurately. One of my sources was to read a version of P&P with an excellent introduction by a US academic, Carol Howard, which described the original writing of 1797 under the title ‘First Impressions’.
I also read Death Comes To Pemberley by P. D. James. The Prologue refers to Mrs Bennet being the mother of four married daughters by the end of 1799. This is intended to include Mary who, in P.D. James’s novel, had married the rector of the parish adjacent to Highmarten, the residence of Jane and Mr Bingley after their marriage. Mary’s marriage was said in the Prologue to have taken place within two years of Jane’s marriage.
Counting back two years, this would place Jane’s marriage at about the end of 1797, which would mean that P&P began in September 1796 as P&P ran from about Michaelmas one year, through the winter and then to about the end of the following year.
However, that is P.D. James’s version of the order of events. So far, I have written my prequel as taking place from April to September 1797, though it is possible I may revise the year.
Of course, Jane Austen may have tweaked the book later after completing the draft of First Impressions. It would have been very tempting for an author to have brought some particulars up to date in the light of later events. For example, P&P has the militia de-camping to Brighton. Research, though, suggests that the town wasn’t called Brighton until the early 19thcentury, before which it was called Brighthelmston.

Gillian Mather was a practising solicitor until she retired in March 2020. She writes mainly contemporary mystery/crime/romantic fiction. She has penned fourteen books to date self-published on Amazon Kindle, six of which are novellas in a cosy crime series. Some of her novels are also available on Apple, Kobo, Nook and other platforms. Her P&P prequel is her first serious attempt at an historical novel.
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