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Monday, June 1, 2009

Writing "Old Flame" stories

This blog post is adapted from one of the articles I have available on my website. It’s about writing “old flame” stories. Both my new book, The Confessions of a Duchess, and the e-book prequel The Secrets of a Courtesan, are old flame stories in their different ways, from which you can probably gather that I’m keen on writing them! (And I love reading them too). There’s something very seductive about the idea of unfinished business and what might have been, of characters learning to love and trust again. But old flame books are, in my experience, very difficult to write. Firstly you have to deal with the reason why your hero and heroine parted in the first place. If it was all down to a big misunderstanding and one blunt conversation will clear everything up, it’s hard to sustain the conflict convincingly for the whole of the book. Then there is the assumption that once everything is clear between the two of them they will fall in love again. Wrong. They need to find each other again, rediscover all the things they loved the first time and start to trust each other again. Such things take time.

Last year at a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival, I mentioned that Persuasion is my favourite of Jane Austen’s books. To my mind, it still has great relevance today. Many of us have to deal with the embarrassment of meeting an ex-lover, boyfriend or partner, and with the jealousy of seeing someone move on to another relationship. In my opinion, Persuasion is a master class in how to write an old flame story. There are no big misunderstandings keeping Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth apart. The cause of their estrangement was Anne’s refusal of Wentworth’s proposal of marriage when she was 19. It would be true to say that Anne has, in fact, brought most of her problems on herself. Even though she was in love with Wentworth, she allowed herself to be persuaded by her family and her close friend Lady Russell that the marriage was doomed. It was “indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success and not deserving any” because Frederick had no fortune and Lady Russell disapproved of his brilliance, confidence and headstrong nature. (He sounds like the perfect hero, doesn’t he!) So Anne turned Wentworth down and in the eight years that followed never met another man who could measure up to him.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Anne’s mistake, the reader is firmly on her side. She has paid a huge price for her choice in letting down her own standards by allowing worldly prudence to outweigh love. So now, of course, we are rooting for her to get back together with Wentworth and to live happily ever after.

When Anne and Wentworth meet again there is, naturally, some awkwardness between them. She observes that he admires Louisa Musgrove. He thinks she may be intending to marry her cousin (and her father’s heir) William Elliot. But the real emotional barrier between the two of them is the fact that Wentworth feels that Anne should have had the strength to resist the persuasion. He feels she gave him up too easily.

Yet despite that, the two are very aware of one another. A gleeful Mary comments to Anne: “Captain Wentworth was not very gallant by you, Anne… He said you were so altered he should not have known you again.” But gradually through a series of events that Jane Austen builds up with masterful skill, Wentworth starts to recognise Anne’s true worth and to value her again. There is a very telling moment at Lyme Regis when he notices William Elliot looking at her with admiration, and when Louisa Musgrove is injured Wentworth turns automatically to Anne’s calmness and competence in the emergency.

From that point the tables are brilliantly turned on Wentworth as he experiences the re-awakening of all his feelings for Anne whilst having to watch William Elliot courting her. And in order to balance the story it is Anne who finally brings Wentworth back to her side with her public discussion about love with Captain Harville and her avowal of constancy. “All the privilege I claim for my own sex… is that of loving longest… when hope is gone.”

Persuasion beautifully illustrates the way in which old flames can rekindle their love for one another. At the beginning of the story Anne still has regrets about losing Wentworth whilst he thinks he has moved on. Through a series of events Jane Austen brings them closer together and shows them rediscovering all the things that they admired in one another in the first place. They don’t suddenly fall into each other’s arms – their relationship develops slowly but tenderly until the final declaration.

Letter-writing is almost a lost art these days but the letter that Wentworth writes to Anne in order to declare his feelings for her is as ardent and moving and romantic now as anything more modern could ever be:
”I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago…”



Jan Jones said...

Oh yes, Nicola, that letter...

And the ending of Darcy's to Elizabeth.

JA really did letters awfully well. I suppose she spent so much time writing them herself that she was 'in the way' of it.

Jenna Dawlish said...

Hi Nicola,

What a great post. Persuasion is my fav JA novel too. (Nothing to do with the fact I live 15 mins from Lyme - honest!)

The novel is often described as her most mature and I agree. It has a sadness about - or is it a yearning? Anyway, I love it too and I love the way JA shows how all the other characters don't even notice or acknowledge that Wentworth and Anne once had a "thing" because they are all so self-centred. Only JA could do something like that.

You call them old-flame stories, but I love to call them "love lost and re-gained" stories. I've read a few others. Most recently one by Pamela Morsi called "Sealed with a Kiss" where the man dumps the woman and 8 years later appears again. Not as masterful as JA by any means, but it was well written and believable. A slow re-ignition of love as you describe.


Kristina said...

Great Blog (came over here after reading your facebook update) ... I enjoyed this post.

This statement made me chuckle:
"Many of us have to deal with the embarrassment of meeting an ex-lover, boyfriend or partner...."

I broke my cardinal rule about not dating anyone that I work with professionally. Big mistake. Only a few dates, but everytime we see each other now it's A-W-K-W-A-R-D. Great fodder for a story at some point though ...


Alison said...

I adore Persuasion.

I still write letters too, though I've never received any nearly as good as those ones!

Kate Hardy said...

Delicious post, Nicola, and you've almost tempted me into giving Austen another try - I too enjoy old fame stories.

Thing is - maybe I shouldn't confess it here - I'm not a fan of Austen. I was forced to study Mansfield Park in my first year at uni and LOATHED it.

The only one of hers that's ever grabbed me was Northanger Abbey (and I was, um, still a child when I read that. My taste for gothic started early - I went from that to Victoria Holt).

Maybe it's time I tried again.

*After* I've finished the current deadline...

Nicola Cornick said...

The letters in JA's books are wonderfully romantic, aren't they. I love the way she uses them to such good effect in situations dictated by the manners and behaviour of the times. These days Darcy would just walk up to Elizabeth and say: "You've got it all wrong!" I love JA's own letters as well - superbly waspish and tart and well-observed.

I agree there's a sadness about Persuasion, Jemma. I think it is a beautifully written book and yes, all those wonderfully drawn secondary characters who are so wrapped up in their own affairs!

Nicola Cornick said...

LOL Kristina! That's why JA is so relevant today! The perfect example!

Glad to hear that there are still some letter writers around, Alison! I write letters too but I'm conscious that I don't give them as much time and thought as maybe I used to do.

Kate, I totally understand how being force fed a book can ruin an author for you. Pity it was JA, though. And I find Mansfield Park very dreary. There - I've committed heresy as well now!

Linda Banche said...

Oh, yes, what a beautiful declaration. Sigh again.

Carol Townend said...

Hi Nicola,
Persuasion is my favourite JA too. Old flame stories are very compelling. And your post is particularly relevant at the mo since I am currently revising my novel and thinking about the inner conflicts which can keep people apart. And my characters, while not exactly old flames, do have a history which is getting in the way...
Thank you!