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Researching Willoughby's Return!

One of the things I enjoy about writing my Austen sequels is the research I have to do for each novel. I love to set each major scene giving clues to how places looked at the time, as well as considering sounds and smells! Jane Austen did not devote much of her writing to descriptions of places and scenes as she took it for granted that people would know what she was talking about, but I think it is important that I transport my reader back to the 1800’s especially if they know little about the era.

I have Marianne and Colonel Brandon go to London for the season. I read everything I could about shopping, amusements and entertainments of the time and it is very fortunate that so much of the part of London I was researching still exists even if some of the buildings have changed. Helping to transport me back in time was a map from 1803 that I downloaded from the internet. Off I went on the tube to stand in Oxford Street and Bond Street trying to imagine that the cars roaring by were carriages and that the sounds around me were different again.

I wanted to give an idea of how exciting it would be for Marianne’s sister, Margaret, to come to London for the first time. She is a young lady who has grown up in the relative quiet of the countryside:

Fascinated by everything she saw, marvelling at the shops on every side, Margaret exclaimed at all she witnessed. Watchmakers, silk stores, and silversmiths displayed their wares behind sparkling glass, illuminated by the amber glow of oil lamps. Exotic fruit and towering desserts in the fruiterers and confectioners formed a dazzling spectacle; pyramids of pineapples, figs, and grapes cascaded from porcelain epergne. Marchpane castles, rosewater creams, and fruited cake vied for attention on platters of every shape and size. And the crowds of people stretching across the wide pavements, the ladies gathered outside in admiration of the linen shops, draped with silks, chintzes, and muslins were a sight to behold; such fashionably dressed gentility as Margaret had never seen before… After the relative quiet of life in Devon and Dorset, she could not believe how noisy London was to her ears; not only the sound of rumbling carriages and carts, but the clatter of patterns on pavements and the distinctive cries of street sellers rang everywhere about.

I love writing descriptions of interiors. When Marianne and Colonel Brandon visit his sister, Lady Lawrence, at Whitwell, it gave me an opportunity to ‘paint’ the setting. We know from Sense and Sensibility that Brandon’s sister spent some time in France and I decided that her taste in design would have been influenced by her travels abroad.

The Brandons were shown into a large salon, filled with the most beautiful fittings and furniture. The style was French, the room ornate with gilded chairs, pier glasses, and chandeliers of the finest crystal. The silk-covered walls glowed with coral shades and iridescent hues of shell pink, further illuminating the room in flowing drapes at the floor-length windows, in the decorative ceiling, and in the Aubusson rug, which burgeoned with fat summer roses and green leaf garlands.

Lady Lawrence sat upon a velvet sofa, bolstered with pads and rolls, guarded by golden lion heads on either arm, which seemed ready to spring into life and leap out at anyone who might come to disturb her apparent idle repose. Despite the warmth of the day, she was covered to her waist by a heavy coverlet fringed with gold braid. She did not get up when they entered but excused herself, claiming that the damp of the day was responsible for her inability to stand.

Whilst writing Willoughby’s Return, I celebrated a special birthday and was lucky enough to spend a few days with my family in the house where Sense & Sensibility 1995 was filmed! It was great fun walking in the footsteps of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, seeing the spot where Willoughby pulled up in his curricle and where Colonel Brandon helped Marianne cut reeds in the estuary. It was such an enormous treat and great inspiration for my writing.

I had a wonderful time researching Willoughby’s Return. If you could go back in time and star in your own Austen fantasy, where would you like to go? Would you prefer experiencing a vast country house, a grand ball, or perhaps an evening at a Georgian circus like Astley’s?