Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Stillwater - 55 (Afterword)

So many of you have written to me with guesses about the source for Stillwater that it almost seems anti-climactic to have a big reveal, but here it is:

My battered copy of Mansfield Park. I bought one of those cheapo print-on-demand versions because I knew I was going to destroy the book during this process, and I was right. You can see all my notes and markers sticking out -- or some of them anyway, because Diana got a hold of it at one time and pulled about a quarter of them out before I could stop her.
The genesis of this project was rather odd. I was considering a prospective Shakespeare reading with friends, and I was reflecting that it could be even more fun it instead of just reading it, we were to act it out. I wanted to get into it, to stage a scene and talk about motivation and really get into it, and in the midst of all this blue-skying I thought, Yes, but do I really want to play a love scene with someone other than my husband? Not just theoretically, but do I want to actually be in someone else's arms, pressed up against someone else's body, acting like I love him?  I was surprised by how intensely uncomfortable I was with the idea. I'd been a theater major. I've kissed guys onstage (far less exciting than it sounds), I love acting. But this wasn't a formal project with a director and the safety of a theater. It was a party with friends, probably with a lot of alcohol flowing, and I just didn't like it. And then I realized: Oh my gosh, it's just like Mansfield Park! 

I'd read Mansfield before and had not thought that much about it. That's hardly unique; it's the least-popular Austen novel, and certainly one of the least-loved. And the theater interlude is one of the whipping-horses of the book. Oh, those prigs, afraid of doing a play! Wow, times have changed! But people haven't changed. Morality doesn't change. And I realized, as clearly as I should have the first time I'd read the book, that the problem with the theater in Mansfield Park is not primarily the social matter of making a big set out of Sir Thomas Bertram's house while he was in Antigua. The problem is the dicey boundaries it allows, the real physical and emotional repercussions of putting oneself in intimate dramatic situations without the safety of real theatrical oversight and direction, especially when two people are simply looking for a social excuse to get physical.

As I reconsidered Mansfield Park in the light of my own theater concerns, I began to see that it was not as bounded in the past as it's accused of being. I read it again and focused on the moral questions, and I was struck by how intensely modern they were, under their very period trappings. And then I started to wonder: what are the universal elements of the book? Could this story be told now? And the answer, to the best of my abilities, is Stillwater.

Some things were obvious right away. Fanny Price is the quintessential introvert. Mansfield Park needed to be some kind of establishment that could support itself and had a lot of history behind it, so a southern plantation was ideal. (Plus, my mom is from Baton Rouge, so I spent many summers in Louisiana and Mississippi.) `I worked out a few points in my mind, and then I consulted the only person (as I thought then) who liked Mansfield Park: the polymath Brandon Watson, the only person I'd ever heard defending Fanny Price. Brandon's contributions are too numerous to mention, but much of Rene Arceneaux's academic brilliance is directly traceable to Brandon's excellent suggestions and advice.

As an interesting bit of arcana, here's my initial email laying out the scope of the project:

We're all NaNoWriMo here: Brendan is running his now, and I'm doing some advance planning on my November project. I'd like to solicit your good opinion and advice, because what I'm thinking about is doing a story based on Mansfield Park, to see if it's possible to make the characters and situations intelligible and sympathetic to a modern audience. The idea came to me in a dream (or in that half-waking state which is more convenient to call a dream, anyway), and I think I have some of the major obstacles worked out, but I need to bounce ideas off of people who know the story well and can see the right kind of modern parallels to characters and action. Brendan and I have been talking it through as he listens through the book on his commute but we need some fresh insight. 
What I am NOT looking to do is write fan fiction, or a blow-for-blow retelling in which every event in the book is laboriously translated or paralleled. Rather, I want to explore what is universal in a story that does not have a lot of obvious modern resonance. I also don't intend to announce that I'm using Mansfield as a springboard. I want to see who knows the story well enough to pick up on what I'm doing. It's too bad to spoil it for you, because we knew that you would figure it out quickly, but I have to have counsel, so you're the sacrificial reader here. 
What kicked me off was the famous theater incident. It seems like such a relic, something that works in the context of Austin but is silly today -- who has moral qualms about putting on a show, right? But I think that it can be made very vivid, and the moral dangers very clear, by examining the seduction that is enabled by the physical and emotional ambiguity of acting without the clear boundaries of a stage or a director, especially when two people who are attracted to each other (Henry and Maria) suddenly have the liberty of the script to express themselves combined with the tension of their interactions being "just acting!"
It seems key to keep the large independent house dynamic. I'm thinking of setting my story in an old plantation house in the Deep South, partly because it's one of the few American milieus that can provide same old money setting, and partly because I think I have enough of a feel for the South to write it convincingly (and with the least research). I don't have a definite timeframe, but it's more modern rather than less; I don't really care to get into the racial politics that a historical setting necessitates. I like a plantation because running it is still big business but there's a strong historic and romantic and financial connotation that an old family farm just doesn't have. The heat of summer in the south is also a nice corollary to winter in England. 
In this world, Fanny doesn't particularly have to be a niece. Right now I'm thinking that she is the daughter of a former caretaker of the estate and is of Cajun background. She's not on the same standing as the wealthy plantation family and obviously doesn't have a hereditary share in the money, but she's not exactly second-class either. I want to give her one of those beautiful French names that are so common in Louisiana, then trim it down to a nickname as diminutive and childish as "Fanny", but I can't find just the right fit, though I've got several contenders. I'm imagining her family living now in a shotgun house in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, spilling out of rooms and living loudly. Her father is ex-military, a big tattooed Cajun guy who sits on his porch drinking or heads down to the bar for a beer and a po'boy -- just the sort of man calculated to intimidate Fanny. 
Fanny is an extreme introvert, that's obvious; and nothing is more popular right now than to be an introvert. I'm hoping that with some sensitive writing it should be very easy to make her character an appealing one to the readers. She holds a position of some ambiguity in the family: she's not staff, she's not a relative, but she's been in the house so long that she has standing of a sort.  One of the challenges I'm facing is that Fanny, as written by Austen, does not change over the course of the story. She's the constant, in fact, and the action swirls around her. That's fine for Jane and the early novel, but for a modern novel it won't do, and so I'm thinking hard about Fanny's character arc, and how I can structure my story to give her the right kind of change while still staying true to Fanny. 
A lot of this will be bound up in how the other characters are presented, and how the plot develops. The Crawfords are very interesting, and are coming nicely into view for me. I think that Henry Crawford is an artiste, a true talent who only needs to take on projects every so often to keep the money rolling in. Documentary film-making and landscape design are both careers that fit with Henry, and indeed, he could do both (film-making instincts might help with the theater incident, and landscape design stems from his help with Mr. Rushworth). He and Mary run with a fast, artsy set, which makes them glamorous and exciting, and also gives a nice contrast to the big house and Fanny's mores. There's not a huge modern parallel to the pressure on Fanny to marry Henry, but I do see some tendencies in his pursuit of her despite her repeated refusals that change these scenes from sexy to disturbing. This could be doubly so if what's going on is not that Henry is asking Fanny to marry him, but is, say, offering her a job with his production company, with undertones of seduction that only she is aware of. It's not the thing now to push someone so strongly into marriage as Sir Thomas does with Fanny, but I think the same attitude would be very understandable to modern readers if Fanny, who lives on the beneficence of others, is refusing what is clearly a lucrative and attractive position, especially when people are fighting so hard now to find good jobs. 
I picture Henry and Mary as being related not to an admiral but to some extremely well-known and prestigious scholar, on the level of Peter Singer or Louis Gates -- somebody with a great deal of influence, but not known for his moral propensities. This comes into play for William -- military careers are not based on preferment anymore, but academic careers can be, and if William, a promising young fellow with no connections, can be thrown in with Uncle Crawford, whose recommendation alone is enough to push through a book proposal or put a resume on the top of the stack, he is made. (This is also why Maria's elopement with Henry can elicit such publicity even in this wired age: nephew of celebrated academic runs off with newly-married wealthy southern belle!) 
Edmund is still a bit of a puzzle to me. Picking up on the irreligious Mary's attitude toward him and his general elevated moral character, I see him as an ex-seminarian who has come home to work for the family concern. In what capacity I'm not clear -- I don't know how far I need to mirror the book in Mary's distain for the clergy, since being a clergyman then was more of a career than a vocation. Ideas I'm playing with include having him take a necessary but uninteresting role in the family business, such as accountant, which might be seen as a waste of talent to Mary's artsy sensibilities, or having him be a teacher at one of the local schools. He has some of Fanny's introversion -- one of the closest fits for his character as presented in the book was the model of the stoic cowboy -- a man of fairly few words. I dunno about that yet, though. 
I'm also in the throes of picking out the major and minor plot points and figuring out how tightly woven they are to the basic story, and what I need to preserve, toss, or alter.
This note is approaching book length itself, but I hope you'll be inspired to help up hash out a story that will be a good novel as well as an interesting exercise. 
Cheers, Cat

I cannot enough give enough credit to Brandon as Philosophy of Austen expert, story doctor and consultant, and researcher extraordinaire (he went and read Lovers' Vows, the play in Mansfield!). He probably could have written this himself, but I got to the idea first, so ha ha.

Of course I must thank Brendan, Darwin himself, who listened to me talk about this thing endlessly, and who helped shape the story at every turn. Often when I was stuck, I would ask him, "What would Chris Dalton say? or Ian? or Richard?" and he'd start monologuing. (The bit where Chris talks about how he memorizes his lines was a direct transcription of a hysterical performance.) And Brendan worked out Stillwater's business model for me, helped me clarify motivations and character traits, read almost every section over and made the most invaluable suggestions, brought me coffee and bourbon, and helped me with everything short of the actual writing. He also ran the house every night for two years (we'll just count all the pregnancy-related house-running he did in my writing tally) and handled innumerable irritations so I could stare at the computer night after night. I love you, my dear.

My children will always remember when Mom was writing a novel and would let them watch movies all the time. This is what being a homeschooling family is all about. I could never have written this (not in two years, anyway) if I'd had to get up at a time every morning and have lunches ready and take people to school. The kids got used to morning computer time because Mommy was up until 3 AM writing again, and to be honest, they probably wish I'd start another novel so we could live that way all the time. But I love them, so I'm going to make them do some schoolwork instead so they'll one day be well-rounded adults who write novels and neglect their own children.

Sarah Emsley's book Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues and Joyce Tarpley's Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park were the kinds of books I was looking for before I started this project. Even reading them halfway through the writing was a great help and encouragement. I've been wanting to recommend Sarah Emsley's series An Invitation to Mansfield Park, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of its publication, but was waiting until now so I wouldn't tip my hand; I'm looking forward to commenting more there now that I'm out of the throes of composition.

Thanks to my aunt, Mary Orens, master seamstress, who gave me detailed instructions on how to do that zipper thing I described, and to Julia O'Connell, who told me where in Brooklyn someone like Alys would live, and to everyone on Facebook who gave me advice on driving a manual (which I still have never done), and to my mom for her Southern inspiration, and my dad and his 4 AM texts whenever a new post went up, and to the community of Mansfield Park lovers who came out of the woodwork to tell me they'd gotten it, and how much they loved MP. I had no idea but I'm so glad. And thanks to the people who told me they were waiting to read Mansfield Park until I'd finished with Stillwater. Welcome to the original, my friends. Sorry I made you wait so long.

And I've been dying to discuss this for two years, so if you have any questions about why I made Stillwater choices, please ask! Although it wasn't my goal to match Austen point for point, I often found that I could pull in even the most minor throwaway details. The ending of Mansfield Park is famous denounced as unsatisfying; I tried my best to keep the emotional logic of Stillwater intact in the last section, but I dug into Austen for language and structure and clues to help justify my choices, there and throughout. In certain places I diverged from the book's timeline or plot in order to maintain the internal integrity of Stillwater as a novel, but I always attempted to keep to the spirit of the story.

And here's the completed index to the whole novel.

If you've been reading along, please leave a comment! I am planning to clean up the manuscript and submit it, and I'd love to know how big an audience the initial publication here had. Your support and encouragement has been invaluable to me.

-- Cat Hodge

I keep thinking of things to add: Stillwater was based on Belle Grove planation, near White Castle, LA. Belle Grove was the largest house on the river, but a decline in sugar led to a decline in the house, and it sat empty from 1925 to 1952, when it was destroyed by fire. The American Historic Buildings Survey took a number of photographs of the house in the 1930s, when it sat abandoned and decaying; they're exceptionally haunting, and are easy to find on a Google Images search. Belle Grove was just three miles down the river from Nottoway, which we toured last May.


dawn said...

Hi Cat! It was wonderful talking with you yesterday and I enjoyed this post which covered a lot of the same ground. Looking forward to reading!

Anonymous said...

I think you've done a brilliant job, possibly needing a couple minor tweaks. (This is related to why I think the ending has been so unsuccessful, not only for modern audiences, but also in Austen's time: she stopped showing us the story at the crucial juncture, probably for reasons of delicacy, and lets the narrative voice tell us what happened. It makes Crawford's backslide convenient, and E. and F.'s falling in love seem at best a rebound, as if Mary C's ghost is going to exist between them all their married life. She needed to show those two crucial changes, Crawford's stupid, idle decision, and Edmund's change of heart.

Patrice said...

De-lurking to say how much I've loved Stillwater! Melly has given me fresh appreciation for old Fanny Price, and I've looked forward to seeing how you'd translate plot points from the original. Thanks for sticking with it!

Barb said...

Loved it! I have been reading since the beginning and was an early guesser of the source material.
I think you have done a superb job and hope you can get it published.

I need to go back and read Mansfield Park again now!

Kate said...

The last two parts are still sitting on my Kindle waiting for me to have an idle hour, but I have really enjoyed your crafting of this story. I think I had guessed it was Mansfield Park fairly early, and I'm looking forward to rereading MP after I finish Stillwater so I can compare the two.

Thanks for sticking it out and finishing it--and do consider publishing! I went on a kick reading Austen inspired and Austen related Kindle novels a couple years back, and this was much better executed than most.

And the setting was fantastic. I spent some time at Laura Plantation while we lived in Louisiana, so that was what I envisioned when reading the Stillwater scenes...having some familiarity with the setting made it come especially alive. :-)

mrsdarwin said...

Sartorias, I think you're right about Austen being delicate, but I also think that the main drama of the story is about Fanny holding constant in the face of many severe tests. By the last chapter of the book, she has prevailed -- there's nothing in the wrap-up to challenge her constancy any more, since the obstacle between her and Edmund has finally been cleared away at a practical level. So, although I fully agree that the emotional resolution is quite lacking, there is an internal consistency there.

I've never found myself as thrown out by HC's backsliding, mainly because that backsliding didn't seem out of character for him yet. But the E/F wrap-up is very frustrating, and is Austen tweaking her readers in a way that is, I think, ungenerous of her.

I would welcome any further feedback from you, either here or in email if you prefer.

Jenny said...

Maybe you addressed this back in the beginning, but I was in the throes of morning sickness then so I don't remember. Where did Melly and Rene get their moral center? There is nothing in their family of origin that would indicate they would have any developed sense of morality and yet they do. Why?

Laura Staum said...

It's been a pleasure reading along! Thanks for sharing it with us.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Thank you for sharing the story of the genesis of Stillwater. I love seeing how it all came together. And the relevance of the play was definitely one of the first big hooks for me. I loved watching that play out.

Anonymous said...

I was also an early guesser (probably because of a lifelong Austen obsession), and I was really impressed with the modern resonance of the plot and characters. So well done!

Em said...

I'm a long-term lurker (going on 7+ years now?) just popping in to say how much I really enjoyed this series. I definitely considered MP to be the least interesting of Austen's novels until I read this adaptation. About halfway through your project I sat down and re-read the original with fresher eyes, and consequently more enjoyment. I must say that I still prefer Melly to Fanny, though; she taught me to love her predecessor, and for that I'm very grateful.

Congratulations on your successful completion of Stillwater! You can be sure that I will purchase a copy should it ever be published.

Maria Johnson said...

I loved it! And yes, I'll plunk down cashy money once you get it in a dead-tree edition (or on Kindle--I'd do that, too.) I've never read MP, but it's going into my stack now.

I haunted your blog hoping for a new chapter. When I found one, I saved that tab for last, enjoying it like the cherry in a hot fudge sundae. Great work!

mandamum said...

I love reading your blog generally, but the novels are some of my favorite posts :) And this one was lovely. I would buy a dead-tree edition or Kindle, too. This behind-the-scenes was really interesting.


Emily J. said...

Congratulations! [applause]

Brandon said...

One thing that impressed me from the beginning, and is impressing me again as I re-read it, is the craftsmanship -- there is a lot of attention and thought that has already gone into many of the details, even before overall revision. And in writing as in every other art, the care put into it is what really ends up making the difference.

entropy said...

I love this behind-the-scenes post as much as I loved the story.

Amber said...

Ah, I was idly thinking Austen, but I didn't dig into it enough to pin down Mansfield Park. I've only read that one once, about eight years ago, when I decided to read through the Austen I hadn't read yet. Now I want to read it again! I really enjoyed this - and I think I'll have to read through yours again too. My memory of the beginning parts have faded a bit... I'm sure I'll find it even more enjoyable to read altogether instead of in installments!

Thanks for sharing the back-story.

Heather said...

Hi Mrs. Darwin! I don't comment much, but I've enjoyed this story from the start. I guessed the source material pretty early, but it is really fun to read the whole back-story like this!

I want to re-read the whole thing now, and maybe I can give some constructive criticism after that. I definitely think it is worth publishing! When you first mentioned that possibility, I thought of the book Dear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine Reay. It is a modern re-telling of Daddy Long-Legs, but with perhaps a slightly older target audience. It was a fun book, published by Thomas Nelson. Here's the amazon info:

Maybe they'd be interested in putting your book out too! I enjoyed your modern retelling better than hers! )

Jules said...

Another long-time lurker here; sorry to be anonymous for so long, but thank you for the hours (and years) of entertainment from this novel! I've never read MP before, but now - hooray! - I have an excuse. But most of all I just want to applaud your heroic perseverance with this novel and its long hours. It has certainly paid off!

Ellen Willson said...

I just read the whole thing in three days with my husband sighing over the picture of me on my phone reading at every possible minute. I was amazed to see the days rolling forward with every installment. 2 years is a long commitment. I like that you changed Richard's character a little and made him less severe toward melly. I was worried about how you would effect the return home without making Richard look like a huge jerk. Sending melly to college was a way to make the separation from stillwater seem benevolent. I love austen rewrites and yours is so well done

Banshee said...

I think you'd be a fool to submit this for publication and make nothing but a few royalties (if they accept you, and after long periods of waiting), when you could self-publish and keep all the potential bucks for yourself.

Of course, there will be tax consequences either way. And of course self-publishing means thinking about covers and blurbs.

Finicky Cat said...

Another devoted reader here! Looks like I missed leaving a note on this post the first time. I trust that there were many like me - and that your total fan base far exceeds twenty-one!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you'll see this comment because this post is from two years ago, but I just wanted to tell you how much this story has impacted me. I've never read Mansfield Park (though I've read a few other Jane Austen novels) but now I probably will. That's not why I'm writing this comment, however. Neither is the fact that the story just kept getting better as it went along until everything tied together (though I guess that has to be credited to Jane Austen), nor the way the ending felt so satisfying, with descriptions of the moral developement of the characters and everything. It's rare to find a book where everything feels so right at the end, and not in a unrealistic happily-ever-after way either. However, I should get to the point.
The one thing that had a profound, unexpected impact on me was the scene where Malcolm is upset and Melly makes the choice not to take advantage of the situation by comforting him. Up til now, if I had been in her position, it probably never would have even ocurred to me to do what she did. That scene has helped me see what I never saw completely clearly before, that it's wrong to take advantage of an emotionally vulnerable friend to start a relationship with him. Now, if I'm ever put into such a situation, I'll know what I should do. This scene was such a beautiful counterpart to what the world would have Melly do. I don't know if this was your idea or Jane Austen's, but either way, if you're reading this, thank you, thank you, thank you. Your work has not been in vain.
- a fellow Steubie :)

mrsdarwin said...

Thanks, Anon! I'd have to go back to Mansfield to see what happened at that point -- my memory is that Fanny was just happy enough that things were over between Edmund and Mary Crawford that she didn't need anything else. Edmund narrates to Fanny the whole encounter with Mary, and that's the dramatic content of the scene, whereas I chose to show Malcolm and Alys directly, so that I needed a different dramatic arc for the Malcolm/Melly scene -- hence, her conflict over whether she can make Malcolm "hers" at that moment.

I appreciate your comments, even two years later. Thanks for reading!