News and Interviews

Paul Butler on Subverting Jane Austen & How We Define Love

Paul Butler

Jane Austen provided some of literature's most famous (and most beloved) happily ever afters, including in her first novel, Persuasion. But what happens after the curtain falls on those scenes? And what about the "ever after" part of "happily ever after"?

In The Widow's Fire (Inanna Publications), Paul Butler takes the final moments of Persuasion as the opening moments of his story, disrupting Austen's moral certainties and giving us an alternate vision of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. In particular, Butler gives agency and screentime to characters considering beneath the notice of the original aristocratic lead characters - servants, maids, and other workers. Subversive and intriguing, The Widow's Fire is a creative re-imagining of a classic tale. 

We're thrilled to have Paul on Open Book today to talk about The Widow's Fire. He tells us about finding his love for Jane Austen as an adolescent boy, how we define love by testing it in tough circumstances, and the essential quality of emotional honesty in great writing. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Paul Butler:

The Widow’s Fire explores the shadow side of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. I suspect this novel has been incubating for decades. I have admired Jane Austen’s novels from adolescence when, for all the usual macho reasons, it was an illicit pleasure. I loved the characters, situations and the humour. I liked the fact that huge issues – whether someone is essentially good or bad, whether they are in love or indifferent – revolve around intricate nuances of manners. But for the Austen fan who is politically progressive there is a paradox. On some level I wished the novels related to modern concepts of social justice and fairness. The romantic couplings which eventually occur always reinforce the idea that nobility of rank (and riches) correspond with deserving. This to me is a major glitch. Austen knows about people, about motivations, she knows so well what is funny and absurd in human nature, but we always end up with a book that asks us to leave society exactly how it is. 

I wanted to take an Austen novel and invoke the spirit of the Brontes, Byron, and Mary Shelley, those kinds of writers who liked to unleash lurid, gothic, and political forces. Persuasion is a lovely novel but when Austen draws her figurative camera away for the very last time and discretely alludes to the endless felicity to come, the reader has that panicky feeling: “is that it?” This need for more, and the instinct that romantic coupling is the beginning of the story, not its end, led me to pick this final closure as my starting point. There is a troubling character in the novel, Mrs. Smith, an old school friend of our heroine Anne Elliot. Mrs. Smith is an invalid living in relative poverty in Bath. We are told she is a “good” character, but it seems like mere assertion. She engages in a kind of gossipy subterfuge, and the modern reader doesn’t quite believe she’s as well intentioned as the author tells us she is. I decided this Mrs. Smith was the key to opening up the plot again. In The Widow’s Fire, she is a shadier character still, and is merely posing as an invalid. Here she commands a network of spies around Bath and takes control of the plot when she finds out something about Captain Wentworth, a secret too terrible to be named.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


The theme is our struggle to define love, and how we can only do this if things go disastrously wrong, if love is genuinely tested. I’m riffing on both Austen and on the Greek philosopher Plato, whose Symposium is an investigation into the nature of love. Austen does investigate romantic love in all her novels. In some – Emma and Pride and Prejudice romantic love is under the protagonist’s nose but she takes a while to see it, but in all cases, including Persuasion, love requires the protagonist to go through some kind of trial. With Austen’s novels, the story ends with an engagement. But what comes after? What troubles and revelations might test the perfect symmetry of an Austen resolution? Only after the first flush of romantic success are we forced to define love. 

I had the idea to create a new character, a former slave whimsically named Plato by his master as he has been educated in the classics. Although he is still a servant, quite invisible to the named characters in Persuasion, his education is a far more dynamic, living force than anyone else’s because, as an outsider, he has a far better perspective on the society he sees. Plato is our guide when it comes to theme and with Plato we go beyond “romantic” love and into love’s wider meanings.


Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


I knew the flavour I was after. I could see the novel as you see a colour or a painting, and I wanted something that would simultaneously be a tribute to Austen and a complete subversion of some aspects of her novels. If you can imagine Austen as revisited by a modern writer like Sarah Waters with sprinklings of the romantics and also the gothic writers of the mid 1800s, this is what I wanted and I think it’s pretty much what I ended up with. I was circling the project for years in my head but the actual writing was perhaps a year.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I don’t require any routines but I do find that dipping in daily is more productive than working flat out then stopping then repeating the cycle. I think a novel has to grow organically and this is best done by checking in on it every day and seeing what’s new, what might grow a little and what needs to be pruned.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I don’t tend to panic when I get stalled but I see this as part of the process. I try to remember my mind is working on it all the time even if the word count isn’t getting any larger.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books. 


I think as I get older I most value emotional honesty in novels. I remember reading Jude the Obscure when I was 17 or 18 and it’s a novel that has always remained in my mind as a template. Even with its flaws there is something horribly truthful about it. I always read everything Nick Hornby and Sarah Waters write as I think both of them — though very different kinds of writers — have that quality of emotional honesty. I think High Fidelity (Nick Hornby) spoke very insightfully about male emotional dysfunction and he was very funny about it, and I thought The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters) was a perfect novel right from the first image to the last. These authors understand motivations, particularly the degrees to which people change or can’t change.


What are you working on now?


I am working on a novel about the children of the “good” characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This second generation comes to doubt the official version recorded in the diaries of their elders (Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing). Did they really have to hunt down and kill a foreign nobleman they believed to have magic powers? Did they really have to stake poor Lucy Westenra? Or was there some secret they were all hiding about themselves? The appearance of a descendant of the count, at the same university as the Harkers’ daughter, brings an entirely new perspective on the story.


Paul Butler is the author of nine novels, the most recent of which is The Good Doctor (2014). His work has appeared on the judges' lists of Canada Reads, the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards shortlists, and he was on the Relit Longlist for three consecutive years. Between 2003 and 2008, he won the annual Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards four times and was subsequently invited to be first literary representative and then chair on the Arts and Letters committee. He currently lives and works in Lethbridge, Alberta.

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The Widow's Fire

The Widow’s Fire explores the shadow side of Jane Austen's final novel Persuasion, disrupting its happy ending and throwing moral certainties off balance. We join the action close to the moment when Austen draws away for the last time and discretely gives an overview of the oncoming marriage between heroine Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. This, it transpires in The Widow’s Fire, is merely the beginning of a journey. Soon dark undercurrents disturb the order and symmetry of Austen's world. The gothic flavor of the period, usually satirized by Austen, begins to assert itself. Characters far below the notice of Anne, a baronet’s daughter, have agendas of their own. Before long, we enter into the realm of scandal and blackmail. Anne Elliot must come to recognize the subversive power of those who have been hitherto invisible to her — servants, maids and attendants — before she can defend her fiancé from an accusation too dreadful to be named. Captain Wentworth himself must learn the skills of living on land; the code of honour and secrecy which has protected him on deck no longer applies on the streets of Bath.