A few years ago, I stumbled across Limerick writer Rose Servitova’s debut novel The Longbourn Letters. It was an imagining of the correspondence between Pride and Prejudice’s most eccentric gentlemen, Mr Bennet and Mr Collins. As a fervent Jane Austen fan, I was curious but trepidatious, having read various poor pastiches over the years. But I was hugely impressed with how true to the source material the book was, and reviewed it here. In my opinion, Rose perfectly captured the wry humour and astute observations typical of Jane Austen’s work.
Since then, she has written completions of Austen’s two unfinished works – The Watsons in 2019, and now Sanditon. I spoke to Rose about how A Season at Sandition took shape in the midst of the pandemic, her writing life in general and (asking all the tough questions here) who gets her vote – brooding Mr Darcy or steady Mr Knightley?
Thanks for agreeing to talk to me, Rose. I suppose my first question has to be what made you decide to complete Jane Austen’s unfinished work Sanditon?
Having completed Austen’s other unfinished novel, The Watsons, I was asked in several interviews if I would consider finishing Sanditon. At first, I said no, but I was curious as to how I might have finished it and so eventually I did. I’m quite happy with the result and feedback from Austen fans.
Were there any clues available as to her plans for the novel, from correspondence for example? Or did you stick to your own interpretation?
They say she discussed the novel with one of her nieces, but nothing was recorded. All we know is that Jane Austen had called it The Brothers while she was writing it. It was her family, after her death, who decided to call it Sanditon. But in my opinion, there was a strong clue in Austen’s own title and, therefore, I do focus on the relationship between the Parker brothers as one theme. However, for the rest I went with what I felt would have been Austen’s intentions, themes, style and plot. I cannot know where she would have gone with it, but based on all her other novels there are indications, and I decided to remain loyal rather than go off on a tangent.
As well as A Season at Sanditon, you have also written a completion of Austen’s The Watsons, and wrote The Longbourn Letters, imagining the correspondence between Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Bennet and Mr Collins, which is really wonderful. What has the response been from diehard Austen fans?
I put out A Season at Sanditon in quite a low-key manner as I was more nervous about the reaction to this novel than to the others. The reason why is because of the huge fanbase for the TV series (which is nothing like my completion) and I was afraid they wanted more of what they saw on the screen. But I underestimated the true love and enjoyment Austen fans have for her words and her characters, and their ability to revisit her work and imagine it in a new and fresh way.
How big a part does research play in your writing, both of Austen and the period?
Research is important to me, but it never feels like work when it comes to Austen as I tend to read books about that time and era anyhow. I still read interesting social history articles almost every day that show up on my Twitter timeline, and read Austen biographies when they come out. I have a pretty good sense about the era, but definitely look up something if I am not sure.
And how did you go about tackling your first draft(s)? Do you usually plot or see where the characters take you? Were there times when A Season at Sanditon seemed beyond you?
It was such a messy draft and the whole thing turned out to be very messy, with the pandemic going on at the time. I was working full-time as frontline staff so I put it aside for months at a time. I really did not think I would finish it and had started work on another novel, but eventually I sat down and it untangled for me. The final challenge was making my protagonists more three-dimensional and letting them take me with them. Once I’d nailed that, it was a much smoother ride.
Where do you like to write? Is your writing environment important to you?
Yes, during the creative stage my writing environment is important and so too is my mental environment. I won’t even sit down (at my tiny desk) if I’m not in the right frame of mind. For me, that means I cannot write on the days when I am working or days when I have to take care of my parents or go somewhere with my kids. So weeks can go by and I haven’t written a thing. Then I get annoyed and frustrated. Generally, since I went part-time last year, I can sit down for a few hours one or two days a week for a few hours when my kids are at school.
Once I’ve got a messy draft together, I find I need time away from distractions to get the hard work done. Usually, at some stage while writing a novel, I will go away for a couple of nights to put shape on it. Then when I get home, I can edit in a more relaxed way. Editing is something I can do anywhere at any time so a café environment is fine. I can pick it up and tip away at it, but writing the actual book can be frustrating when I don’t get a good run of it. I’m like a car that back-fires – I write in fits and starts.
Austen’s characters move in a pretty rarefied atmosphere of balls and drawing rooms. And yet her appeal is universal. Do you have any theories as to why that is?
I suppose nothing changes. People still want to meet and fall in love. Other people like to watch on, gossip and judge. A ball where your dance card is filling up with eligible partners is not too unlike speed-dating or Tinder (you get a few minutes to check them out and see if you like each other). And socializing and gossiping in drawing rooms is not so different from dinner parties of today, chatting on WhatsApp or giving an opinion on Twitter. As Mr Bennet said in Pride and Prejudice, “’For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn? ‘”
Top five books, if you please.
These change all the time – The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan.
Think fast: Darcy or Knightley?
And finally, what are you currently working on?
I am about to get back to that novel I started when I threw Sanditon aside. I’ve very little put to paper, but it’s taking up plenty of space inside me so I know it’s going to be a novel. It’s about a servant girl who works in ‘The Big House’ in 1930s Ireland and her relationship with the girl of the house. It explores religion, class and relationships. The research for this will be more intense and it’s an area I’m less well read up on, even though it occurs in my own country.
Incidentally, a few weeks ago my brother discovered that my great-grandfather’s parents both died in the workhouse and, while I wasn’t surprised, it did sadden me and make me feel that there’s so much of our past that we would prefer not to dwell on. I think it will be good for me to see where this novel takes me.
Rose Servitova lives in Co Limerick with her husband and two children. Her first novel, The Longbourn Letters, imagined the correspondence between Mr Bennet and Mr Collins during and after the narrative span of Pride and Prejudice. Her second novel, The Watsons, is a completion of Jane Austen’s unfinished work.
A Season at Sanditon is published by Wooster Publishing and is available in paperback from The Book Depository, and in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Signed copies are available from TheBookShop.ie, Dubray Books, Banner Books and The Nenagh Bookshop.
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[…] And then there was Rose Servitova, whose third novel is a completion of Jane Austen’s unfinished work Sanditon. A Season at Sanditon is Rose’s third visit to Austenland, having previously written a completion of The Watsons, as well as imagining the correspondence between Pride and Prejudice gentlemen Mr Bennet and Mr Collins in The Longbourn Letters. I can happily report that Rose stays true to Austen’s dry, witty style, which is also evident in our conversation here. […]