Friday 4 February 2022

Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation by Alice McVeigh - Guest Post

Today I’m really pleased to be welcoming author Alice McVeigh back to the blog with her new book, Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation. Now who is Harriet? Well, it’s Harriet Smith from Austen’s Emma! It’s lovely to be able to feature something based on Emma as there is so little out there. Alice has visited here before with an Austen-inspired book, Susan (which is a book about Lady Susan, from Austen’s juvenilia).

This book has an interesting premise, which Alice has written us a guest post about. Let’s look at the blurb and then I’ll hand over to Alice for her guest post and giveaway!

Book cover: Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation by Alice McVeigh
Book Description

Emma, a privileged young heiress, decides to mentor Harriet Smith, a pretty boarding-school pupil, and to matchmake her as eligibly as she can… But how is she to guess that Harriet has a secret?

Meanwhile, the brilliant, penniless Jane Fairfax consents to a clandestine engagement with Frank Churchill – though not daring to confess, even to him, that she is being relentlessly pursued by her best friend’s husband.

Harriet sidelines Emma herself in favour of the ingenious Harriet and the fascinating Jane Fairfax. It is Emma – but an Emma with a surprisingly believable twist in its tail.

Guest Post from Alice McVeigh, author of Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation - Harriet Smith, Heroine (?!)

“Harriet Smith boldly catapults herself into the delicate world of high society in yet another masterfully penned homage by Alice McVeigh. Swirling rumors, sardonic asides and complex romantic geometry make for a saucy read, but there are also profound commentaries on gender roles, friendship and heartbreak laced within the prose… McVeigh delivers a remarkably engaging tale of love, loss, and learning from one’s mistakes, skilfully capturing the essence of Austen’s world, but adding fresh dimensions.” 

                                                                  (Self-Publishing Review 7 Feb. 2022)

I will never forget – I was fairly young and absolutely terrified – meeting my publisher, at Orion Publishing, for the very first time.

I was writing contemporary novels back then, but I’d never actually sold one to any publisher before. Thoroughly overawed, I must have changed my outfit at least six times before catching the train to London, but my heart still sank when introduced to  the poised, slim and elegant Ms de Courcy in her Italian shoes and designer suit.

We shook hands. She graciously mentioned having enjoyed my novel.

I stammered out my thanks. There was a longish silence. Ms de Courcy then observed that she’d always found orchestras fascinating.

I agreed, adding that working in them could be a bit of a trial. (My novel was music-based, as I was a professional cellist. Longish story.)

There followed another silence, which seemed to last around a year and a half. Then Ms de Courcy – probably thinking that, of all the novelists she’d ever met, I must be the dumbest – inquired, “So, who’s your favourite writer, Alice?”

A no-brainer!

I said, “Jane Austen.”

After that, everything was easy. We spent the next 45 minutes arguing very enjoyably about why I preferred Emma even to Pride and Prejudice, whether Catherine Moreland could possibly wind up being quick enough for Henry Tilney, and whether Bingley’s inaction could possibly be justified, and everything was absolutely fine.

So, as Ms de Courcy asked me on that memorable afternoon: Why do I love Jane Austen’s Emma so much?

First, because of Knightley. Knightley is my fav. Austen hero. (Here I scuttle into the next room while every Babblings of a Bookworm reader screams, yells, and throws pots and pans at me.)

Sorry/not sorry!

Yes, I know all about how Darcy matures and changes but – follow me like a lizard here – Knightley doesn’t have to!!!! Knightley is mature already, not to mention thoughtful, honest, genuine, and caring. He’s generous and appreciative even to his tenants and his servants! And yes, he does lecture Emma on Box Hill but – let’s face it – Emma was well out of order.

Secondly, the plot of Emma is so deliciously complicated! Like some bizarrely believable musical, we have three women and three men, with almost all of the women considering – or believed to be considering – teaming up with almost all of the men, and vice-versa.

Yes, it is interesting whether Elizabeth will eventually yield to Darcy, but just how far Knightley’s passionate admiration of Jane Fairfax might take him, and whether Emma was ever seriously in love with Frank Churchill, is even more intriguing.

Thirdly, the pacing of Austen’s Emma is absolute perfection. It is mind-blowingly long – the longest Austen novel by miles – but it just flies by. In fact, the only drawback to Emma that I’ve ever spotted is the dimness of little Harriet Smith.

Which was why I decided to fix it.

My second decision was that she could share the task of narration with Jane Fairfax.

Many scholars agree with me in thinking it likely that Austen felt a little defensive about Jane Fairfax – as well she might, because she risked overshadowing even Emma herself. Jane Fairfax was every bit as attractive, much more talented, and hugely more mysterious than Emma Woodhouse. Which is probably why there are all those “missing scenes” in the book, including (a) Frank and Jane’s courtship, (b) the whole Weymouth bit, (c) the boating accident – all of which I include in Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation.

To be fair, loads of other Jane Fairfax admirers have also written their own imaginings of these scenes. Writers have been inspired to write about Jane Fairfax for over a hundred years!! – that’s how fascinating she is. Today, of course, there are Jane Fairfax diaries, Jane Fairfax spin-offs and Jane Fairfax sequels.

But Harriet Smith is still ignored. No one that I know of – except for me – has ever showcased Harriet.

Perhaps this is because it’s tough to get excited about a dumbish blonde. Who wants to feature a heroine who can’t solve a simple riddle? Some people – Mr Knightley himself being one of them – have even wondered whether Robert Martin couldn’t have done rather better than to fall for Harriet. But… what if Harriet wasn’t really naïve and foolish? What if Harriet was only pretending?

Once I’d had this thought, I couldn’t get rid of it.

What if Harriet had been smart enough to act stupid? What if Harriet had been astute enough to realise that what Emma wanted wasn’t another Miss Taylor/Mrs Weston but some sweet, unpretending, unchallenging young admirer? What if Harriet had decided to fake being empty-headed, instead?

That was the genesis of Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation. That Harriet, instead of being capable of confusing mermaids with sharks, was rather sharp, rather clever, and even a little manipulative.

I honestly can’t think this kind of situation was rare in the early 1800s, when a woman’s fate could rest around her third finger. I’d be willing to bet that plenty of Emma-like heiresses were duped by intelligent Harriets, flattering the heiresses into mentoring them, angling to snag a gentleman for a husband.

From this surmise, the decision to having chapters alternately narrated by a sharpened-up Harriet and the glorious Miss Fairfax, was only a step.

And luckily, their authorial voices are very different. While Jane Fairfax’s is intense and romantic in the 19th-century style – Harriet can be sardonic and even sarcastic.

Here’s a sample of Harriet:

After this, the carriages were called for, and I learned that Emma had persuaded Frank Churchill to join the Box Hill expedition the following day. Given Mr Woodhouse’s inability to endure his own society – a view with which I sympathised – Mrs Weston was to entertain him at Hartfield, while I was to join Emma in their carriage. The Eltons were to convey Jane Fairfax, the gentlemen were to ride on horseback – and to Box Hill we were to go.

And here is a sample of Jane:

‘I, Jane Fairfax, my book.’ I inscribed this on a little pile of bound papers when I was ten, and very ill-writ it was, as well. Our governess was dismissive. ‘We are all I’s,’ she observed, rather acidly. ‘Not only you, Miss Jane.’

I took the book back and hid it before she could destroy it, for she could be quite a vicious creature. Of course, she was also quite correct, but it was to be my diary all the same.  

If you read it, I really hope you like it!

Alice (McVeigh)

PS Link to Harriet:

PPS Connect with Alice on social media:

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OOH! This is such a twist on the character of Harriet! I haven't read the scenario before, but I can see Jane Fairfax trying to escape unwelcome attention from Mr Dixon. The thought that the seemingly Emma-worshipping Harriet could be calculating in her artlessness is a new one on me, though!

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Author Bio

Alice McVeigh, a London-based ghost writer, also writes Kirkus-starred speculative fiction as Spaulding Taylor.  When brash and youthful, she was published more than once by Orion (Hachette) in contemporary fiction. She has been a life member of the Jane Austen Society since her 21st birthday, and knows most of her works by heart.

Buy Links

Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation is available to buy now in Paperback and Kindle. Alice's previous book, Susan is available in audio, so hopefully this one might turn up on audio in the future.

Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CA • Add to Goodreads shelf

Giveaway time!

Alice is very kindly offering to give away a copy of Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation (either paperback or ebook) to one of you! To enter, just leave a comment on this blog post by the end of the day worldwide on Friday 11 February.

Note about comments:  If you have any problems adding your comment please contact me and I will add your comment for you :)

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  1. Hello Ceri and Alice :-) - The book sounds awesome, congratulation! Do not enter me in the giveaway, I just bought the book and looking forward to reading it!

    1. I love the premise for this book too! There are so few Emma books.

  2. Lori: thanks so much!!! Very gratefully, Alice

  3. I haven't heard of that theory before of Harriet! This is most intriguing. I also shall not throw any pots for your love of Mr Knightley. I prefer Darcy, but I like Knightley and Colonel Brandon because they do not have to make the changes in character. Thank you for sharing a bit about the novel.

    1. I don't think it's really a theory - certainly not one Austen thought of, or we'd have had clever hints of it in EMMA. Just a wild imagining of mine.

    2. Do you know, I wonder whether my love for Mr Knightley is tempered with the knowledge that I would need a hero to improve because *I* need to improve.

  4. If the novel is from Harriet and Jane Fairfax's perspective, shouldn't Jane's name be included in the title as well? Why not Harriet and Jane? This is just a thought I have.

    1. Its a clever thought, and some other clever people have thought it. My reasons for (only) Harriet: (1) it's unique. Almost no one has ever featured Harriet, while authors have been writing Jane Fairfax's diaries for over a century. (b) I fell in love with the painting of Harriet. (c) The title with subtitle just looked too long.

      But you're still right. To be fair to Jane Fairfax, the pair are absolutely equal here (I have rather sunk Emma for the purpose...) Thanks for writing!!


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