Archive | August 2013

Writing The Red Chrysanthemum

aTRCbookmark front    In September 2011, 200 years to the day that Fitzwilliam Darcy arrived at Netherfield (or so I told Meryton Press in my query letter) I checked out the first title of Jane Austen Fan Fiction I’d ever read, looking for some light summer reading. It happened to be What Would Mr. Darcy Do? by Abigail Reynolds. It begins as Darcy approaches the inn in Lambton, and he is in hopeful spirits because Elizabeth has smiled at him. Reynolds’ contention is, Darcy is about to pluck up his courage and ask Elizabeth if he may court her. As in Pride and Prejudice, he finds her reading Jane’s letter with the awful news about Lydia. But he does declare himself, and Elizabeth’s response is affirmative.

   After reading much more JAFF, I started asking questions myself. And, I began enjoying Pride and Prejudice variations told from Darcy’s point of view, or mixing his with Elizabeth’s, which of course strays from Jane Austen’s style. I watched, again and again, the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series. Suddenly my vague musings had voices. In returning to the original novel, I found two things wanting: more details of the official engagement (yes, Aunt Philips annoyed them…but what else?), and a satisfactory answer to why Darcy visited Lambton on that fateful morning. I started a long story—probably novel length, the words have not been counted—Longbourn to London, detailing the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy, from about five days after the accepted proposal to the end of their first week of married life, spent at their London home. Knowing the stars of the 1995 mini-series shared a brief affair during the filming inspired (fueled) portions of the book. It is for adult readers, and is posted in its entirety in the stories forum at the Meryton Literary Society’s “A Happy Assembly” website.

    Early in “L to L” as I call it, Elizabeth asks Darcy the question I wanted Jane Austen to answer: why did Darcy go to Lambton when he knew he would see Elizabeth in the evening? As the Darcy in my story spoke, another Darcy asked, “What-if?” What if, when Darcy got to Lambton, Elizabeth was indeed reading a letter from Jane, full of happy, if trifling, news? There we start The Red Chrysanthemum. Elizabeth and the Gardiners stay their full ten days in Lambton. The dinner at Pemberley takes place; Elizabeth gets the chance to speak to Bingley about Jane, and gets to know Georgiana. Banter over dinner blossoms into a floral conversation aided and abetted by dear Mrs. Reynolds, who plays a larger role in this telling. But the original Pride and Prejudice is the template, so the letter from Longbourn arrives at Pemberley (Why not to the inn in Lambton? That would be telling!), and Jane Austen’s original story lures us back.

The Red Chrysanthemum is also a story for adult readers as the details of the wedding night are what one might expect of such characters as Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. They are love, they are in love, and for this modern reader (and author), such a profound love needs fruition.

For those who know my garden writing, but have never read Pride and Prejudice, please let me suggest, at the very least, you watch the 1995 BBC mini-series (rent it from your library, Netflix has it now, or buy it on Amazon), before reading The Red Chrysanthemum. The luminous Jennifer Ehle won a BAFTA for her perfect interpretation of Elizabeth Bennet. Colin Firth, quite famously, embodies Darcy. The screenplay by Andrew Davies is remarkable for its enthusiastic restraint. The whole of it may embolden you to read Jane Austen’s original. I hope so.

Rosa ‘Slater’s Crimson China’


The rose ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ is the model for Darcy’s open rose in his nosegay for Elizabeth. It is our “cover girl” rose, if you will, the inspiration for Janet Taylor’s lovely back cover of The Red Chrysanthemum. This is a rose with a great story, and it is still in cultivation over 200 years after its debut. It is certainly a rose Lady Anne Darcy would have had in her garden at Pemberley.

Remember, the earliest European rose species were not truly red. Deep burgundy, brilliant pink, even cerise, yes, but true red, no. The species that gave us genes for the vibrant red roses we grow today came from Chinese species and hybrids (the Chinese were hybridizing roses centuries before the Europeans made any planned crosses). What made the Chinese bloodlines even more remarkable was that they also had the capacity to rebloom throughout the growing season, a characteristic called remontancy, missing from European or even Near East species.

The earliest of these Chinese hybrids, arriving in Europe in 1781, was a repeating pink shrub now known as ‘Parson’s Pink China’. It was followed in 1792 by a red form, which came into England via the British East India Company, and was known as Rosa sempervirens (literally, always flowering), the Bengal Rose, and finally as ‘Slater’s Crimson China’, because a Mr. Slater was the first to sell it. A yellow and another pink rose followed just a few years later, and these four roses became collectively known as “the four China studs”. Well, you put the word “stud” with a rose name, and honestly, only one Austen romantic hero springs to mind.

When it comes to the China studs, ‘Slater’s Crimson’ may be the studliest of them all. It was most likely this rose that was the sperm donor for a group known as the Portland roses (still great roses to grow if you can find them), providing the repeat-blooming genetics that made the Portland line so popular. And, obviously, it was truly red. The Portlands in turn were bred with other roses of Oriental origin to produce the Hybrid Perpetuals, these were bred with the Tea group, and shazaam! we have our modern Hybrid Teas. Lift the sheets, so to speak, of any modern red rose, and you are likely to find ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ blinking at you, and telling you to turn out the lights so it can get back to business!

From Peter Beales’ book Roses (Henry Holt Company, 1992), here are the specifics of ‘Slater’s Crimson China’: a 3 x 3 foot shrub, well branched with dark green foliage; sparse, broad, flattish thorns; flowers semi-double [meaning more than 5 petals but less than 40-lb], crimson to red in color with random occasional streaks of white. Needs full sun, best against a warm wall. Continuous blooming, and a good choice for growing in pots.

Just about every characteristic of ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ made it the perfect rose for Darcy to select to say, “I still love you”. This is the traditional meaning of an open rose, implying a lasting mature love, where an opening bud might imply affection in its infancy. Red has always invoked love. Since the action of this story mainly takes place in late July, I had to find a rose easily available in 1812, and capable of blooming all summer. Most of the old garden roses of European origin would have been long finished by the first of July, let alone the 25th! That ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ also happens to be an acknowledged stud, well, it’s just a very happy accident.


Writing: it’s like planting a garden


When my husband and I were looking at houses to buy—over 21 years ago!—he was a little distressed when at each property our realtor showed us, I would immediately start envisioning the garden I might plant there. I had to explain to him  this was an irrepressible involuntary response to seeing what was often a blank space, and no “bonding” was implied. Until I had a garden of my own, this was just an exercise I seemed to need to go through to see if I could make a garden at whatever lot we were looking at.

My introduction to reading, and then writing, Jane Austen Fan Fiction was very much the same. The first title I read was What Would Mr. Darcy Do? by Abigail Reynolds. It planted seeds by answering  questions I always had about various facets of Pride and Prejudice, with the biggest, healthiest sprout of curiosity being: why did Darcy visit Elizabeth in Lambton on that fateful Friday morning, when he knew he would be seeing her that evening? Sure, sure…we all think we know the answer, but Ms. Reynolds gave us her version, and set me thinking about what my own conjectures might be, and well, the rest, as they say, is history.

So, each new book of P & P variations  I read became like those dozens of potential gardens I saw. What would I edit (pruning)? Were there too many introduced characters (weeding)? How did Darcy and Elizabeth progress in their understanding of each other (nourishing the soil)? Where there unbelievable elements (trying to grow tropical flowers in Portland)? Was there fulfilling physical intimacy between them (why plant a garden then cut off all the flowers just before they bloom!)?

Like settling into my own garden, when I began to write I was like a champagne cork shot out of a bottle. Big bold flowers, roses, phlox, clematis, peonies—sex!—everywhere, but perhaps that first story didn’t have the thoughtfulness, the structure, if you will, a good garden needs to give multi-season interest, and give the eyes an occasional place to rest without excessive stimulation.

Now we come to The Red Chrysanthemum, to be published in September 2013 by Meryton Press. Gardens continue to evolve and improve, just like writers. A garden is never finished, and most writers will tell you that no book is either…one can wordsmith one’s phrasing forever. But at some point, for better or worse, we feel the urge to share our gardens, invite friends and family, perhaps other gardeners, to see what has been created. The time arrives to engage in a conversation about how the garden came about, and where it is going. When TRC was nearly complete, I knew I felt about it the way I felt about my garden, nervously ready to share (letter of query = sending the invitations), ask for advice (editing = pruning, weeding, deleting unpleasing plants and adding better ones), and invite everyone to read it (publish it = hang out the sign “Garden Open Today”).

Welcome to my garden!