Janet Todd is the author of Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden, a new novel with pictures. Her other books include the novel Don't You Know There's a War On?. A former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, she is based in Cambridge, UK.
Q: In your acknowledgments for Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden, you write, "Denied coffee and croissants in the library and bookshop cafes, in the March 2020 Lockdown I turned to writing a novel using only what I had to hand: memories, photos and leftover bits from earlier projects." How did your novel emerge from those "leftover bits"?
A: Rather haphazardly! I got to thinking of the biography I wrote of Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Fanny, remembering how much, when I came to describe her death, I wanted to go on with the lives of the remaining women revolving round the poet Shelley.
My latest editing work has been with Jane Austen, now uppermost in my mind, and I wondered what she would have made of Shelley’s domestic life and airy social vision.
I was writing at a time almost of house-arrest and was not adding photos of flowers and people to my mobile phone stock. So, I looked through old ones and some, for no particular reason, struck me.
Q: How do the photos and art complement the text? How did you decide on their placement?
A: It was a bit random, but I hope that, like people who decide to set up house from different backgrounds and with different temperaments, they grow together and seem a fit.
Q: What impact did it have on you to be writing during a lockdown? Did it affect your writing process or even your writing style?
A: Apart from not being able to travel outside the area, lockdown was not a whole lot different from my usual life of reading, writing and gardening. Probably talking to fewer people meant more talking to myself, hence this novel is more conversation than my earlier ones.
Also--possibly I and my characters are more addicted to comfort food than we would have been at other times! I have included a picture of a Chelsea bun.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: Enjoyment I hope! And for those who talk to authors in their head, a realization that they are not alone. Perhaps too they might relate to the more serious emerging themes of solitude and persistent memory.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In the past I have written four large-scale conventional biographies.
The recent fashion for autofiction and the stress on the personal in academic work are fascinating. I am now imagining a (female) character trying to write the life of a (male) artist of the 18th century, finding her own life repeatedly skewing both character and tale.
For most of my career I have written on women, but my first book was on the poet John Clare. Both Clare and my artist are concerned with nature and the land and with the eco topics that have come to worry us in our post-industrial world. (Not sure yet if it will result in a book…)
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: No. I have already revealed too much of myself!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janet Todd.