Gala Evening at Chawton House 12th June 2012

Report by Celia Livesey

More than 70 members and guests attended the final meeting of the inaugural year of the Hampshire Writers’ Society and the Annual General Meeting at Chawton House Study Centre. The reception, which started with a picnic in the Old Kitchen at 6 pm, was followed by complimentary strawberries and cream. A fantastic turnout!

Members then enjoyed a tour of the House, hosted by Director, Stephen Lawrence, and Lindsay Ashford, author and Deputy Head of PR. Mr Lawrence began his tour in the Library and explained some of the history. An Elizabethan manor house, Chawton was once home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. Now it is a library with a unique collection of books focusing on women’s writing in English from 1600 to 1830. Some of the older books are stored in an air-conditioned basement. Other highlights included the Dining room, Tapestry Gallery Staircase and the Great Hall. An interesting human touch that intrigued me, were the ‘witch marks’ scratched on the Tudor panelling by the fireplace to ward off evil spirits that might fly down the chimney. I’m glad I didn’t live back then!

There was a buzz of excitement as everyone packed into The Great Hall for the AGM. The Director, Barbara Large, welcomed everyone and outlined all the successes of this inaugural year of the HWS. Special guests of the HWS throughout the year were mentioned, Professor Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, Mark Courtice, Director, The Theatre Royal, Winchester, Stephen Boyce, Advisor on the Arts to Winchester City Council and the recent Mayor of Winchester, Councillor Lipscomb. The Treasurer was then called upon to give his report, followed by other members of the committee. Ant Ridgway called for a vote of thanks for Barbara Large for all her hard work. The meeting closed at 20:15.

Book Cover - Mysterious Death of Miss Austen Lindsay AshfordLindsay began by telling the group how she got started as a writer. Her first novels,Frozen, The Killer Inside, Strange Blood, and Death Studies were based on real life experiences. Lindsay had the group literally gasping with horror and sympathy as she recounted true stories gleaned by going out with the local vice squad. One woman, an addict, filthy, drunken and tragic, had been brought to that terrible state because her child had been beaten to death by her pimp.Barbara Large then invited Lindsay Ashford to reveal how living at Chawton House has influenced her to switch from contemporary crime fiction to historical fiction involving real figures from the past in her book The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.

There was silence as Lindsay read an extract from her book. It conjured a lurid picture in the mind – a prostitute coerced into giving freebees to a policeman in his car. The bad breath in her face, the mess! It was squalid, gritty – too real to be comfortable. Yet, initially Lindsay got lots of rejections. She went on an Arvon Foundation Course for Crime Writing, and two years later she moved to Wales. There she met Janet Thomas, Hunno Press, who was looking for short stories. Lindsay ended up writing a novel in six weeks for Ottakers, which was subsumed byWaterstones.

In 2008 she moved to the Chawton Estate, and became absorbed by the place. Going through Jane Austen’s manuscripts, Lindsay found a letter Jane had written to her friend, Fanny Knight. Alarm bells rang as details in the letter suggested arsenic poisoning. A lock of Jane’s hair, donated to the Trust, proved to contain traces of arsenic. This prompted the germ of an idea for Lindsay’s novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.

Lindsay realised that to write this story her novel had to become more character-driven.Previous books had been plot-driven. The character of Fanny Knight, a governess, needed to be explored. She was neither part of the aristocracy nor part of those people who worked below-stairs. What would friendship and love cause one woman to do for another? What was it like to be that alone as a governess, and to find that your only friend, Jane, had died? Lindsay wondered how she would find her Historical Voice!

In conclusion, Lindsay said ‘Whatever problems you encounter, believe in yourself and never give up. Accept constructive criticism and persevere’.

Gary Farnell thanked Lindsay for her talk and took questions from the floor.

Q ‘What should you do if an editor asks you to rewrite?’

A ‘Editors do know the pitfalls; don’t question instead: rewrite. Sometimes you must distance yourself from your work.’

Q ‘What do you mean by character-driven?’

A ‘A strong character. I had to learn because I was plot-driven. Know the background of your characters. Character is everything.’

Q ‘Is writing in the 1st person restricting?’

A ‘Yes. There’s more freedom using the 3rd person.’

Q ‘Were you intimidated by Jane Austen’s language?’

A ‘I didn’t try to write in Jane Austen’s style. I used my own voice.’

Q ‘Did you alter your view of men after you had spoken with the prostitutes?’

A ‘I thought it was only a certain sort of man who wanted dangerous sex. And I was surprised that many men would pay more, despite the risk they were taking.’

Q ‘Arsenic was used in face powder. Could Jane Austen have poisoned herself?’

A ‘That is a possibility. Jane had rheumatism and may have used Fowler’s Solution, which contained arsenic. Arsenic was also in wallpaper and sweets.’

Q ‘Where does your future lie, now, Crime or historical novels?’

A ‘I would like to do both. But publishers like to ‘brand’ you. Some authors use a different name. But it becomes difficult if you have to deliver one novel a year.’

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