In the summer of 1980, through a combination of chutzpah and luck, I snagged a job as a college lecturer on an American travel/study program in England. This sounds more impressive than it actually was. The course was a two-week adventure, far more “travel” than “study,” with no required reading or papers and an emphasis on field trips. I was only 24 at the time, barely out of college myself, but I had enthusiasm and pluck and a natural knack for leading tours, so in that sense—if not academically—I was qualified for the job. I mention this only to explain how it was that long ago, on a sunny morning in August, I herded a flock of Americans onto a rural English bus and through the green Hampshire countryside to Jane Austen’s cottage at Chawton.
“What’s surprising” I wrote in my journal back then, “is how genuinely unspoilt the village is. No gaudy gift shops full of tenuous Austen associations. Just a lovely lane of thatched cottages with the Austen ladies’ brick house on the corner.”
Clearly I had no inkling of the sort of cultural superstar Jane Austen was about to become. Only a decade later, wildly popular film and TV adaptations of several Austen novels would trigger a fever for All Things Jane that hasn’t broken yet. I never would have predicted back then the staggering range of Austen-themed tours now offered to star-struck travelers: the Pride and Prejudice guided tours (“We encourage you to wear period costume at least once”); the private Jane Austen tours by car ($540 per day, not including meals or hotels); the guided week-long rambles on foot through Jane Austen’s Hampshire (six nights at $4,195 per person, double occupancy), with a stop at the same Chawton cottage my students and I reached by bus.
And tours aren’t even the half of it. The modern obsession with Austen has spawned tea rooms and gift shops, cookbooks and jewelry, scented candles, waxwork figures, online quizzes, and fancy-dress balls. Nor must readers restrict themselves to the mere half-dozen novels actually penned by Jane Austen. Today there are sequels, prequels, horror spoofs, and mysteries based on her popular characters. There’s also a seemingly endless array of unrelated romance novels set in the Regency period—some of them steamy, some of them chaste, all of them featuring Empire waistlines, knee-high boots, and a duke.
I didn’t see it coming, any of it. I wouldn’t have guessed, that day on the bus, what an enormous business the romance of Regency England would become in the 21st century. And I would have laughed out loud at the thought that one day, 34 years down the road, I would be caught co-authoring a short bit of Regency period fluff—a sweet romance set in Brighton.
With Empire waists, boots, and a duke.
“Never say never,” my co-author says. (For the sake of discussion, let’s call her “Jane.”) It was about a year ago that Jane and I noticed something we couldn’t ignore about book sales. She and I had each recently published a debut novel, the kind that is well worth reading but not at all easy to pigeonhole. And a book that can’t be pigeonholed is extremely difficult to market. Sales of both her novel and mine, though respectable for new authors published by very small presses, had not reached bestseller territory.
At the same time, a particularly silly Regency romance was rocketing its way up the charts. The characters were cartoonish, the plot was as old as Moses, and the writing was—we’ll call it “slapdash.” No matter. The book sold like chocolates on Valentine’s Day. And then it sold even more.
“I swear, I could write one of those,” Jane said. “And it would be better than that one.”
“Fine,” I said. “Knock yourself out.”
I’m not quite sure when I became we. But the next thing I knew, we were writing a Regency romance together—2,000 miles and two time zones apart, without once meeting in person or even speaking by phone. We wrote it, and then we sold it. In a great stroke of luck it’s been released as an ebook just in time for the holidays. In case you need some light reading to go with your Christmas goose.
It is slight and short—novella length—with a very faint whiff of Jane Austen and a lot of fine Regency-era detail. One early reader pronounced it “Better than I expected,” and “Not that different, really, from watching Masterpiece Theater.”
High praise, indeed. We’ll take it.
If you want to picture Colin Firth as the duke’s brother, go right ahead.
POSTSCRIPT: Alas, as often happens in the volatile world of publishing, the enthusiastic but struggling publisher of The Duke’s Offer folded in the spring of 2015. Eventually Felicity Goforth may get around to self-publishing her Romance novella. Then again, there is real writing to be done. In the meantime, we still like the story of how of how the book came—however briefly—to life.
When she’s not writing as one-half of Felicity Goforth, Heather Lockman is the author of The Indian Shirt Story, a big-hearted Northwest novel available in both print and ebook formats from the usual online sources.