What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? Those readers who have only read Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (Jane Austen’s England in the US) are often surprised to learn that I’m also a naval historian (Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans and Jack Tar). I also worked as a field archaeologist for many years, unearthing prehistoric settlements, an Iron Age hillfort, Roman villas, medieval castles and much more.
What inspired you to write this book? We both grew up in Jane Austen territory – Lesley in Hampshire and myself on the borders of Berkshire and Hampshire. Jane Austen has always been a familiar figure, but while researching our naval books, we were intrigued to discover that two of her brothers were Royal Navy officers, which drew us back to her fiction. Jack Tar tells the story of life at sea in Nelson’s navy, and we thought it would be fascinating to research life on land in the same era, against the background of Jane Austen.
What was the best thing about writing this book? The research was at the heart of the book – chasing clues, unearthing new evidence and piecing together disparate pieces of information to create a wider picture of everyday life. It’s like archaeology, as you never know what may be unearthed.
How did you divide up the work with Lesley? Once we had worked out the basic structure of the book, we each picked our favourite chapters and to our surprise, there was no conflict. Any research relating to each other’s chapters was passed across, with constant discussion. Once the chapters were complete, we read everything and were not afraid to be critical. The chapters then began to be altered, as some were split, others moved about, and more research added here and there. By the end of the process, we could barely remember who had written what, as it was very much a collaborative piece of work. We feel very lucky that we are able to work so closely.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? There are far too many things to mention, and I could go on at length, but it was particularly thrilling to make Austen-related discoveries, such as the chimney sweep boy who became stuck in a flue in the same house that Jane Austen’s brother Henry leased a few years later and which she found delightful. Had the chimneys been sorted out by then or was their chimney sweeping still perilous?
What do you love most about this period in England? It’s old enough to be a strange land, but modern enough to have plenty of written sources, from published books to surviving letters and other documents. To add to the pleasure, many places still survive that are well worth visiting.
What would you most like to ask Jane Austen? Jane Austen left no diary, and although her letters are fascinating, fewer than 200 survive. She must have penned thousands, but most were destroyed after her death by her sister Cassandra and other relatives. I really want to ask her why they needed to be destroyed. What had she written that her relatives couldn’t bear to fall in the wrong hands?
Which 5 people would you like to have over for dinner? The first one is Jane Austen, so as to ask her lots of supplementary questions. For instance, does she know of any likely hiding places of other letters and diaries? How was her unfinished Sanditon going to develop? And did she really like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park? The other four guests could include her brother Francis, to ask him about life in the Royal Navy and having a famous sister. I might also include Aaron Thomas, a seaman whose acerbic and often hilarious diaries we use in Jack Tar. He would surely reveal a great deal of gossip about the Royal Navy. Then I would invite the clergyman William Holland, whose equally acerbic and revealing diaries we use in Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England. Finally, I would invite one of my ancestors, perhaps a great- or great-great-grandparent, to throw some light on my own family history.
What else would you like to write a book about? All sorts of things, but authors tend to be superstitious and never reveal their ideas until a book contract is signed.
What are you working on next? See the above answer! Actually, we had intended at the start of the new year to sit down and start on a new book proposal to submit to our publisher, but instead we’ve been renovating our office, and it’s taken far longer than expected. News about our previous books, talks and future books can be found on our website Adkins History and our Adkins History Blog. We also send out quarterly newsletters to anyone who wishes to subscribe.
Read my review of ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ here.