I have almost finished a new novel, a modern take on Persuasion. I’ve been saying I’m nearly finished for about a month now, and I keep not finishing. But perhaps the end, this time, is in sight.
Persuasion is probably my favourite of Jane Austen’s novels, although choosing a favourite is like choosing a favourite child. They’re ALL my favourite. Still, one thing I love about this particular novel is that we’re dealing with mature people who have seen a few things and experienced a bit of life, whether that’s across the ocean or just in the village.
Unlike Lizzy Bennet , Marianne Dashwood, or Catherine Morland, for example, all of whom are 20 or younger, Anne Elliot is 27. She’s known love and lost it, and now sees it coming back to taunt her in the form of Frederick Wentworth, who is busy flirting with someone else under Anne’s nose. Both Anne and Frederick have grown up a lot, and still have some growing to do, and when they reconnect, it is as equals in a way that so many of Austen’s other couples cannot do quite yet.
But while I love the story of Persuasion, it has been quite the task to bring into the present. Of course every interpretation or modernization of any Austen novel has its challenges, and we all make the adaptations we need to in order for our stories to work.
There were two big questions I had when I approached this novel. The first was how to explain Anne and Frederick’s split eight years before. I did not want my characters to be quite as young as Austen’s, but what, then, would separate two grown lovers who did not want to break up? What modern woman would just allow someone to convince her to leave the man she loved for no particular reason other than that he wasn’t good enough for her somehow?
I knew I wanted to set this story in the world of my other passion: music. Anne and Frederick are both musicians who were a couple while in grad school. In this story, they are separated by Anne’s mentor, Professor Russell, who convinces Anne to stay and finish her doctorate in music composition while Fred runs off to Europe to pursue a career as a conductor. Having been a grad student, the conflicting pressures of academic and personal fulfilment were not foreign to me. Both characters love each other, but feel they have to go their separate ways to reach their potential. But after eight years, do they think it was worth the cost?
The second question involved how best to involve some of the secondary characters, like Anne’s cousin Mr. Elliot. In a modern setting, Anne has so many more choices than waiting for some suitable person who happens to come knocking at her door, and there is no need to marry for family alliances. Further, what would Mr. Elliot’s interest be in Anne? What does she have that would make someone with an eye on bigger things pursue her?
Here I had to work out exactly what his back story was. I made this character, whom I renamed William Barnett, into an ambitious businessman who sees Anne as a means to an end. He is handsome and charming, but is he too good to be true? He has much more prominence in my story than Mr. Elliot had in Persuasion, and I hope his arc is satisfying for readers.
Did I succeed? That is something that only time and readers will tell. But it has been a great deal of fun trying.
Here is a small tidbit from this novel, which is tentatively titled Preludes. It is still very much in its work-in-progress stage, so please forgive any typos and goofs. I have no projected publication date, but the first draft is almost complete.
He was there. Sitting in the large armchair, one leg thrown casually across the opposite knee, laughing at something Jeremy had said. Anne stood just behind the doorway leading into the sitting room, wanting to see but not to be seen. “Give me a moment,” she had mouthed to Sophia, who shrugged and went to put Anne’s coat and purse away.
Fred, not on the screen, not some dissociated image that she could pretend was no more real than a television character, but there. In person. Larger than life. Anne’s heart pounded and she wiped her damp palms over her thighs. Oh God – had she stained her skirt? Her eyes flickered to the large mirror above the hall table. There was no colour in her face and the rich blue shirt she had chosen at home now made her look washed out, a black and white sketch in the midst of a rich oil painting. Even her lips, so carefully outlined and coloured in with lipstick, seemed wrong. And her low ponytail that looked so elegant and understated in her own bedroom now looked harsh and austere. Even her eyes seemed flat to her gaze. She was a shapeless, styleless mess. Not like him. Like Fred.
He had always dressed beautifully, and time had honed his style. He was wearing slim charcoal trousers and a light turtleneck that shimmered gently like woven silk and he looked very European. If she had not known him she would expect him to speak with an accent.
Italian, of course. His family was from somewhere near Florence and he had just come from a stint with one of Rome’s leading orchestras, and he spoke the language as fluently as if it were his native tongue. Which, of course, it was. But he had been born here, in Toronto, and went to school and university here, and was as comfortable in a big modern North American city as he was in an ancient and tradition-steeped city in Europe. He was a man of two worlds. Even if he deigned to speak to her, he had surely outgrown her now. Her name might be known around the world, but with every new level of fame, she felt her own world shrink. If she had gone with him, would she have expanded past her cocoon too? Would she have grown wings and learned to sip wine under a Parisian sky?
More memories. More regrets. She slammed the door.
“Anne, darling!” Jeremy glanced up and saw her. He rose from his seat to pull her into the room. “Come, come in. What are you standing there for? Come, you must meet… oh, but you know each other already, don’t you?”
Fred rose as Jeremy stepped out of the way, but his eyes were full of questions, not recognition. Oh God. He didn’t even recognize her. After all they had been to each other, and he didn’t even recognize her face. She tried to smile,to be friendly, and could tell the exact moment he realized who she was. Hadn’t they told him?
“Anne.” His voice was deeper than she recalled it, more sonorous than on videoconference. “How have you been?”
No comments about it being good to see her again, or whether he had missed her. Just a polite “how’dye do?” like any almost-strangers would ask.
“Well, thank you. Congratulations. The orchestra is lucky to have you.”
“And to you as well. You are famous. Your music is spectacular.”
Such polite nothings.
“You look… different. Your hair?”
“Oh. Yes. I find it easier to pull it back. I’m not twenty-three anymore.”
“No. Of course. None of us is.”
“Well, what a treat this is!” Sophia had entered the room, and she was in full-out hostess mode. Anne knew that tone of voice. “Have a seat, Anne, and let me get you something to drink before dinner is ready. Fred was just telling us about some of the places he saw today…”
From here, Anne allowed herself to fade into the background, letting the conversation flow around her like a stone in a stream. She was there; she was acknowledged. But the water continued on its relentless course despite her presence. Sophia was garrulous enough to continue a conversation unaided, and Fred was equal to her. With Jeremy’s sporadic interjections, there was no need whatsoever for her to utter a word, other than an occasional, “yes,” or, “of course.”
As for Fred himself, he seemed to be reveling in the spotlight. It was his milieu, after all. Unlike a composer, who completes her work in solitude, pouring our her soul to a sheet of lined paper or a computer screen, a conductor lived his art in public. One did not lead an orchestra in solitude; rather, every nuance and every emotion must be made grand and public, to be received and made apparent to all. How different they were, but how well they worked together.
At some unseen signal, they moved from the living room to the dining room. Sophia and Jeremy were both excellent cooks, and for tonight they had brought in their housekeeper’s daughter to serve and clean up. She was a university student studying urban design, and Anne had met her before and liked the girl. But for now, it allowed the four to dine uninterrupted by the need to get up and bring in the next course or refill the water jug.
“Are you here for good, Fred?” Sophia asked as she waited for her soup to cool. “Surely you still have commitments at your old gig in Rome.” She blew gently on the fragrant soup. Anne took a sip of her own: pear, squash, and the perfect amount of ginger, with a swirl of crème fraiche. She had never had a bad dish in the Croft home. She savoured the combination of flavours as Fred finished his own spoonful and answered.
“I need to be back at the end of June. This is the time of year when they usually bring in guest conductors anyway. I have a couple of engagements in Chicago, one in Montreal and one in Vancouver, and each of those will take me out of town for about a week. Then it’s back to Rome for the final concert of their season, but I’m making this my permanent address pretty much immediately. I’ll pack up when I’m in Rome in June, and hopefully I’ll be able to move into my own apartment here as soon as I’m back. I liked those two we saw again today – the one at St.Clair avenue and the one near High Park – so hopefully I’ll get a lease signed for one of them before I have to fly off to Chicago next week.”
“Where are you staying now?” Jeremy asked.
“My parents!” Fred chortled. “Yeah, I know. Thirty-four years old and living in my mother’s basement again. If I weren’t going to be dashing all over the continent for the next couple of months I would find something short-term, but for a week at a time, I can put up with it. Besides,” he mused, “I’ve missed them. I loved being in Europe. I loved being the star and the man of the hour and everything this amazing career has given me, but the spotlight gets tiring after a while. I miss hanging out with my dad in front of the TV to watch soccer, and I miss my mom feeding me tastes of her tomato sauce, and I miss just being me. I’m not going to slow down my career, but I’m ready to take another step in my life and find a home, somewhere I can stay and put down roots.”
“Looking to find someone and get married?” Jeremy teased.
Fred gave a great laugh. “I’m not going about it like a project or some mercenary venture, but the thought had crossed my mind. I want a family and a stable life. Find me the right woman,” he grinned, “who loves music and who can stand my traveling, and she can have me for a song, as long as she stays in key!”
His eyes did not even flicker towards Anne.