UPDATE: Here is a short video trailer about Carole’s debut novel, and the first in the Secrets of the Austen Midwives series.
by Sherry Moore
Today I’m interviewing my friend and fellow Janeite, Carole Penfield, who has just released Lucina’s Destiny, her second novel in the historical fiction series “Secrets of the Austen Midwives.”
We at JASNA PHX are thrilled to share in the excitement of the launch of Carole’s new book, which is the continuation of the family saga of the Dupres family. If you read book one, Midwife of Normandy, you will be familiar with midwife Clare, her son Jean-Pierre and daughter Lucina. Now you can read their adventures as they begin their new life in England.
Sherry: Before we talk about your book, can you explain how you came up with the inspiration for your planned series?
Carole: Sherry, first I would like to thank you for interviewing me. After I retired from practicing law, I decided to try my hand at writing and self-publishing a novel. Because I love rereading Jane Austen’s novels and letters, and many of the fan-fiction spinoffs, my first impulse was to join the fray and write a sequel to her novels. Lizzie’s Dizzy Dressmaker? Mr. Collins’ Beehive Disaster? Lucy Ferrars’ Fears?
I quickly set aside the idea of adding to the extensive collection of Regency romances on the market. I considered a fictional retelling of Jane Austen’s own life. What if she had married? Had become a detective? Time travelled into the future? Hmm, interesting ideas, but already well done by Stephanie Barron, Laurie Riegler, Collins Hemingway, and other talented authors. I wanted something unique, that hadn’t, to my knowledge, been done yet, a story involving Jane’s ancestral family.
Then I came across an article in Persuasions by Deirdre Le Faye, entitled “Three or Four Families”: Suggestions for New Directions in Biographical Research (V.30). Although aimed at future Austenian biographers, which I am not, Le Faye’s article gave me the inspiration I was seeking. She wrote “… so few of her [Jane’s] letters survived … unless and until more letters come to light from boxes in dusty attics, our next best source of information must be letters and other documents of those people who knew the Austens.
Who might have known the Austens personally and written about them?” Watching the PBS series, “Call the Midwife,” my imaginary idea was born (no pun intended). Since Biblical times, up to the advent of 20th century hospitals, midwives came to a woman’s home to deliver her babies. We know Jane Austen was born at home in Steventon. Was a midwife there to assist on that frigid December evening? Did this mysterious woman live nearby, keep a journal? What of the events occurring when Jane’s father was born? Her grandfather Austen? I kept delving further and further into past generations and found 17th and 18th century historical events to be fascinating backdrops for fictional stories.
In “Secrets of the Austen Midwives,” I have created a line of midwives, descendants of skilled women who passed their knowledge from generation to generation. In my books, they not only deliver Austen babies, but are fictional friends and neighbors. One can only imagine what they wrote in their journals and letters! When complete, this historical family saga will cover more than 100 years, starting with Clare Dupres, “famed” midwife who escapes from Normandy in an exciting, fast-paced adventure.
S: Tell us a little more about Lucina’s Destiny. Can it be read stand-alone, or should one read the first book beforehand?
C: Beginning their new life in England, Clare and her daughter Lucina move to the country market town of Tunbridge in Kent, where they are befriended by Elizabeth Weller Austen (Jane Austen’s real-life great- grandmother.) Clare expects Lucina to become a midwife, but Lucina does not share her mother’s enthusiasm for birthing babies. This second book is Lucina’s coming-of-age tale. The book description can be found on Amazon or on my website.
Lucina’s Destiny can be read as a stand-alone novel, but I suggest it would be more enjoyable to read Book One, Midwife of Normandy first, to become acquainted with the characters.
S:What sort of research did you do to write this novel?
C: This book is set during the latter part of the Stuart Era, 1685-1700. I did extensive research into this turbulent historical period. Everything from politics, religious conflicts, food, dress, education, medical treatments, architecture, criminal justice, class structures, and of course midwifery practices of that era. In 1688, unpopular King James II was driven from the English throne when his barren wife, supposedly beyond childbearing age, suspiciously gave birth to a healthy male heir. In addition to assisting Elizabeth Weller Austen during her confinements, my fictional characters become involved in the scandal of the royal birth in London.
I had to find out what everyday life would have been like in small country villages in England during those years. And to research what was actually known of Jane’s great-grandparents (not much). Study genealogical charts to recreate stories of their lives, integrated with those of my fictional characters.
For writing assistance, I turned to Jane Austen’s advice to her niece Anna: “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” Anna was encouraged “to focus her novel on relationships between her characters and a well-crafted backdrop of place.” I have attempted to do so in my books.
One fun thing I tried to do was to incorporate seamlessly phrases borrowed from Jane’s novels and letters into the fabric of the dialogue and narrative in my stories. What my editor called “an Easter Egg hunt for Austen fans.” How many of Jane’s famous and not-so-famous quotes can her fans spot? Here is a hint: there are at least 24 in Midwife of Normandy. And quite a few in Lucina’s Destiny.
S:Do you outline books ahead of time or are you more of a by-the-seat-of-your pants writer?
C: I would say I fit somewhere in the middle. I started with Jane Austen’s family tree, going back to her paternal great-grandparents. Then I outlined family trees for the fictional families in my novels, to ensure that their dates of birth, marriage and death would not conflict with the Austens. That being said, it is amazing how new characters, whom I never thought of, surprisingly appear as I write. They talk to me through the process writers call “emergence.” An example in this book is Rupert Walker, an optometrist who fits spectacles for the royal princess as well as Lucina’s Aunt Celia. Where did he come from? I don’t know. He wasn’t planned, just appeared when the plot needed him.
S:What is the most important thing about a book, in your opinion?
C: A good work of historical fiction should be an entertaining page-turner with well-developed characters, great dialogue and narrative, set against a backdrop of actual historical events. A compelling plot is more important to me than long descriptions of weather and landscape, although some brief descriptions of homes, vehicles, food, and apparel are necessary to put the reader into the appropriate historic era. I enjoy stories with twists, turns, and surprise endings. Both of my novels contain those, so I warn readers not to peek ahead.
S:How do you deal with writer’s block?
C: My supportive husband Perry encourages me to keep writing when I hit the wall. He spends many hours editing, proofing, and checking the etymology of my words to ensure historical accuracy. He also washes dishes and shops for groceries, to free up my time to go into the “zone” without interruptions. Over dinner, we discuss my fictional characters as if they were living, breathing people. Scary, isn’t it?
S:Thank you, Carole, for sharing your process with us, your readers. I, for one, am a fan of historical fiction, or as you put it, “historically-flavored fiction,” and am looking forward to learning the rest of the Secrets of the Austen Midwives.