"one other detail was remembered by Jane" [CROO]
Jennifer Petkus has added two equal cups of Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen, a teaspoon of P.G. Wodehouse, and even a dash of Douglas Adams to create a unique and entertaining pastiche in the Charlotte House affair series. I interviewed the author via email to see what inspired her to create an intriguing Victorian mash-up.
I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Your "A Charlotte House Affair" series blends Sherlock Holmes with the world of Jane Austen. How and why did you blend the two worlds together?
Jennifer Petkus (JP): I discovered Sherlock Holmes when I was about eight years old, so he and Watson are old friends, but I began reading Jane Austen in my fifties. I had avoided reading any Austen in high school or college, being fonder of science fiction and mysteries, but even had I read her then, I doubt I would have appreciated her.
I was so excited by Austen that I wanted to write something set in her time and with an appreciation of her language. Not surprisingly, however, there’s a whole industry of Jane Austen fan fiction with pastiches, continuations and alternate realities of her novels. Austen’s characters have been cast as detectives and Jane Austen herself has solved crimes. This is all very similar to the situation in the Sherlockian world, of course, and I realized it would be even more difficult to stand out in Austen-land.
It was an inadvertent remark while walking the dog with my husband that led to the crossover. I’ve always been fond of the phrase “my particular friend,” which I first encountered in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. It’s a phrase you’ll also find in Austen and other writing from the time. (To my knowledge, it only occurs once in the Canon, Mary Morstan referring to Major Sholto as a “very particular friend” of her father in The Sign of Four.)
I suddenly realized that Holmes is Watson’s very particular friend as well, and I appreciated the double meaning indicating Watson’s strong friendship and Holmes’s peculiar tendencies.
At the same time I was reading Emma, my favorite of Austen’s six novels. Emma Woodhouse is a beautiful young woman who is adored by her friends and family. She is devoted to her widowed, valetudinarian father and has decided she will never marry, probably because she worries what her removal would do to her father. Although she’s a very likable character (despite Austen’s description of her as a heroine no one will very much like), she believes that because of her station in life (her father is very rich) and a misguided belief in her own intuition, that she knows what is best for others. She acts as a matchmaker for her particular friend, Harriet Smith, the natural (illegitimate) daughter of some man who has paid for her to be educated in a private school for disadvantaged young women. (Austen’s description of Mrs. Goddard’s school is wonderful: “a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.”)
Unfortunately Emma’s matchmaking goes awry. It turns out she is no great detective in matters of the heart and constantly chooses the wrong suitor for Harriet, while also being blind to her own desires. She is, in fact, a sort of Sheer Luck Holmes, a clueless detective whose one early success leads her to believe she has a gift for uniting lovers.
So in Emma, I had a not so great detective and her particular friend, Harriet. It was not much of a leap for me to transform Emma Woodhouse into Charlotte House and Harriet Smith into Jane Woodsen.
|Our Mutual Friends is the second book in the "A Charlotte House Affair" series|
IHOSE: Your Holmes and Watson characters (House and Woodsen) are female. What made you decide to switch their genders? What surprised you about writing the Doyle characters as female protagonists?
JP: I suddenly realized that simply by making Emma into an actual detective in matters of the heart, that I had my version of Holmes and Watson. Charlotte House became a young woman who decided like Emma that she would never marry, but I had to give her a suitably romantic and tragic back-story to explain her resolve.
Charlotte is beautiful, rich and like Holmes has accumulated that specialist knowledge she requires. Like Emma, she remains close to her former governess. Mrs Fitzhugh actually lives with Charlotte and was her chaperone when Charlotte was about her investigations. As a single, young woman, Charlotte must always be above reproach.
Jane Woodsen is a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times. With her parents dead, Jane has chosen to live on her own and find work as a governess. A governess is one of the few employment options Jane has. She’s the daughter of a gentleman (her father owned land) and so would avoid work as a laborer. Her chances of an advantageous marriage are negligible as she has now dowry.
Unfortunately a governess is neither above nor below stairs. The family would treat her as a servant and the servants would not treat her as one of their own. Governesses were often very lonely figures in literature. Luckily Charlotte befriends Jane and takes her on as her protégé.
I found it surprisingly easy to make Sherlock Charlotte and John Jane, with the added advantage of an intimacy that we rarely glimpse between Holmes and Watson. For all their friendship, Holmes and Watson never call each other by their first names even though we know how devoted they are to one another. It’s really enjoyable to explore the Holmes-Watson dynamic and I drew from my female friends to create Charlotte, while I am the basis for Jane.
IHOSE: Your first book in the series, My Particular Friend, was similar to a collection of Holmes short stories. Your second book, Our Mutual Friends, is a novel with several interwoven plots. Did you set out to write two different types of books or did it just shift organically?
JP: It was a conscious decision to alternate. My Particular Friend is set in Bath, which in the late 18th and early 19th century was a marrage market, where wealthy parents would take their children to encounter a larger pool of prospective mates. So My Particular Friend focused on shorter stories so that I could establish Charlotte’s reputation as marriage counselor.
Our Mutual Friends is set in London and I decided that the stakes should be raised. The stories involve real intrigue and danger. I intentionally borrowed from The Hound of the Baskervilles the device of making Charlotte absent from much of the book, focusing on Jane’s burgeoning skills as a detective. It might be that I also drew from Elementary’s Joan Watson in this.
I also wanted to explore the idea my characters would have to resolve multiple mysteries. In the Canon, Holmes often has multiple cases but those secondary cases rarely affect the main plot. I liked the idea of my Watson concealing her own investigation from Charlotte.
IHOSE: While Doyle and Austen are the biggest inspirations for your series, I note that P.G. Wodehouse also sneaks in. Why did you incorporate Wodehouse? Are there any other authors I've missed?
JP: Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves share many similarities to Holmes and Watson, of course. Bertie is forever trying to help a friend for whom the laughing love god has ceased smiling and inevitably making a mess of things until the far wiser Jeeves rescues his master. Although every Jeeves and Wooster story is about making love conquer all, Jeeves’ primary goal is to keep his master unmarried, for when the new wife arrives, the old valet departs. So my Jeeves (Cheevers) makes a perfect foil for Charlotte.
Of course my other great inspiration for Our Mutual Friends is Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. As in Dickens’ story, I tried to make the Thames, water, rebirth and reinvention central elements. Like John Harmon in Our Mutual Friend, my Prince Nanaboo is born from the waters of the great river.
IHOSE: A question that I ask all Sherlockians: If you were stranded on a desert island with just one Sherlock Holmes story, which would it be and why?
JP: If I’m allowed a novel, it would be The Sign of Four. There is nothing to compare with that boat chase on the Thames with Tonga firing his poison arrow at his pursuers. If I am limited to the short stories, I would choose "The Six Napoleons" for that glimpse into Holmes’s vanity when he receives praise from Lestrade, although I am perhaps prejudiced by Jeremy Brett’s incredible performance in that scene.
|Author Jennifer Petkus between her two main inspirations for the "A Charlotte House Affair" series|
IHOSE: Any upcoming projects?
JP: I will eventually write the sequel to Our Mutual Friends, completing what’s essentially a trilogy, but my next Holmes/Austen story will be quite different. My Particular Friend and Our Mutual Friends drew inspiration from the characters created by Doyle and Austen, but never actually included those characters by name. My next story will find Holmes solving a case arising from the events immediately after the end of Emma, involving the death of Mrs. Elton. I don’t have a working title for the story, however.
IHOSE: Any final thoughts?
JP: Only that the reason I write is pure self-indulgence. I’m self-published and I really enjoy writing and designing the book. Dreaming up book covers, choosing typefaces and creating characters is the most fun. Actually promoting a book for me, however, is definitely one of the nine circles of hell, so I really appreciate this opportunity to talk about my book without pressure.
Jennifer Petkus divides her time creating websites for the dead, writing Jane Austen-themed mysteries, woodworking, aikido and building model starships. She has few credentials, having failed to graduate from the University of Texas with a journalism degree, but did manage to find employment at the Colorado Springs Sun newspaper as a cop reporter, copy editor and night city editor before the paper died in 1986. She lives in fear of getting a phone call from her dead Japanese mother. Her husband is the night editor at The Denver Post. Her best friend is a cop. She watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon live. You can find her books here.