There are no skunks in Jane Austen!! by C.D. Gerard

There are no skunks in Jane Austen!! by C.D. Gerard

Do you remember the film “A League of their Own,” when Tom Hanks said, “There is no crying in baseball?”

Well, there are no skunks in Jane Austen.

How have I come to this conclusion? Let me elaborate.

When I was writing my novella “Becoming Sir Thomas,” which is a sequel to “Mansfield Park,” I composed a scene where Susan Price, sister of Fanny Price, was taking a walk, and made a comment about wishing to avoid a skunk that she suspected was lurking in the bushes. I assumed this was a image most people would understand.  We certainly know about them here in Minnesota.  (For our readers outside the US, that is a state in the northern central part of the America.) When skunks give off their very distinct scent, I assumed everyone knows what to do, that is, turn in another direction to avoid a most unpleasant encounter.

After completing the first draft of this novella, I decided I wanted to get some feedback, so I sent the story to everyone on my Jane Austen email list. I invited everyone to give their honest opinion.  I got a few good suggestions.  But one stuck out, as the cliche says, like a sore thumb.  It was from a fan in the UK. She said:

“There are no skunks in England.”

Now, how could a place have no skunks?

I had to unravel this mystery. So I went to the most obvious and reliable choice for information to research, which of course is Wikipedia. It said the following:

“Not native wild skunks, no.  There are probably a few escaped ones kicking around since it’s legal to keep them as pets in the UK.  Doing so is a terrible idea, though, since a law passed in 2006 makes in illegal to remove their scent glands….Skunks are not native to Europe, there are no reported wild escapee colonies in the UK.”

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather.  Then again, why did I automatically assume skunks would be in the UK? Was it my own American arrogance that I assumed just because we had a something in the U.S that everybody had it everywhere else in the world?

I felt like an idiot.  But I learned my lesson.  Now when I include animals or plants in my JAFF, I make sure that they are indigenous to wherever I set the story.  I know our fans want as much authenticity as possible, and I try to respect that.  I admit I only have been in England once in my life, when I was a graduate student presenting a paper at Oxford (it was about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, once again, very American.)  I was only there 10 days.  I hope to return there some day for a longer duration, so I can see and learn even more about Austen’s native land, and the native land of so many other great authors.

In the meantime, I will keep Wikipedia and the internet close at hand for reference when writing a story based on a Jane Austen character that is set in her native land.  And if you read “Becoming Sir Thomas,” you will find no skunks.  There have firmly and permanent based themselves here in America, more than likely, just down the road here in rural Minnesota, where like Susan Price, we will all be avoiding them!!

Peace and good health to you all!! Stay safe!!

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July 17, 2020 4:50 PM

I didn’t know there are no skunks in England. Authors learn such fascinating tidbits in their research. 🙂

July 17, 2020 3:50 PM

I didn’t realize that either. Did you recast the animal in your scene?

Elaine Owen
July 14, 2020 9:56 PM

There may not be any skunks in England, but there sure are “stinkers”! Especially ones that wear red coats and go by the name of Wickham! 🙂 This was a funny post, thank you!

Colin Rowland
July 14, 2020 8:43 PM

I ran into much the same predicament in the book I am currently working on. I was building a chapter around a predatory animal threatening Darcy but, just on a whim, decided to research endemic wildlife in England. I was quite surprised to find out that by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were literally no remaining predators in England because they were hunted to extinction!

Diana Oaks
July 14, 2020 7:34 PM

I ran into a similar issue, but with a hummingbird sighting. I was lucky enough to have a beta reader who knew that hummingbirds aren’t native to England.

Jann Rowland
July 14, 2020 1:01 PM

Yup, I’ve run into that exact same issue! Skunks I never would have thought of.

July 14, 2020 12:14 PM

I think the reason that we sometimes get thrown on things like animals in England is because we have a tendency to think of England as being a lot like America. We speak the same language, early settlers were from England, etc. At least, I know that I would never expect to write about the same animals if I wrote a story that took place in India or Peru, but I would be far more likely to make such a mistake with England. (They do have hedgehogs, though, which I think more than makes up for not having skunks!)

July 14, 2020 2:46 PM
Reply to  Sarah

I agree. It is an easy assumption to make for that exact reason, because America’s origins are British. I’m much more aware of this now than when I wrote my first JAFF six years ago. And if I had to pick between a hedgehog and a skunk, the hedgehog would win hands down, simply because they don’t smell as bad!!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
July 14, 2020 8:21 AM

This is a funny post!lol I never thought about the fact there are no skunks in Jane Austen! or England!

July 14, 2020 11:41 AM
Reply to  cindie snyder

I also found out when I was writing the same story that there are no elephants in Antigua! By the time I was done with that story, I felt like I had gotten a degree in zoology!! Glad you like the post!!

Sharon Lathan
July 14, 2020 7:41 AM

This is such a funny post!! I had a similar experience regarding skunks, which is what made me laugh out loud.

I wrote a scene with Lizzy and a childhood friend trimming an arbor, the aftermath being both of them covered in white flower petals. She joked that her dark-haired friend looked like a skunk with his black hair tousled and flowers stuck on top. Someone actually wrote to me, delighted to point out that there ARE NO SKUNKS IN ENGLAND! Oh yes, she was quite upset! Of course, I rather smugly pointed out that the man was teasingly told he “looked” like a skunk, and that someone as well-read as Lizzy surely would know what a skunk looked like!

While my point was true, like you, Cyndee, I was shocked to learn from this critic that there were no skunks in England! LOL! I had no need to look it up for this scene, but could not say for sure that I would have thought to do so if writing a scene with an actual skunk. LOL!

Strange the things we do take for granted. Great post, and a great reminder. 🙂

July 14, 2020 11:37 AM
Reply to  Sharon Lathan

I’m glad you like the post. Sometimes in life when things are hard, you just gotta have a good laugh. But seriously, I do think sometimes us American JAFF writers are at a disadvantage. I’ve been accused by UK fans of writing dialogue in my stories that sounds “too American,” and that a British person would never used certain words. At first that baffled me, then again, there are differences. Live and learn I guess in the world of JAFF!!

Regina Jeffers
July 14, 2020 7:37 AM

I discovered something similar when I was writing “His American Heartsong.” I wrote this quite comical scene where the heroine, who tends to be a bit of a klutz, was sprayed by a skunk and fell into the lake, which actually happened to a friend of mind. Then, I thought, “Why have I never heard of a skunk in England before this time? I have read enough stories for it to have appeared.” Therefore, I went researching. No skunks! Sadly, the new scene was not half as light-hearted as the original one.

July 14, 2020 11:26 AM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

People have the mistaken notion that writing JAFF is easy because you are basing your story on something somebody else wrote. But JAFF fans have high expectations and want authors to get things right. Even with historical fiction, I think it’s a little easier to interject something that doesn’t quite fit perfectly into the period. Anyway, I thought people would enjoy my skunk faux pas. Sometimes when things get crazy in this life, you just gotta lighten up a little!!

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