December 03, 2019

Jennieke Cohen

What would Jane Austen do?
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Jennieke Cohen’s debut YA novel, Dangerous Alliance, is a delightful Austen-inspired Regency romp. When Lady Victoria Aston finds herself in swift need of a husband, she enters the London social season armed only with her wits and the examples set by Austen’s heroines. We asked Cohen to dish about Austenalia, Regency research and whether she thinks dating has changed all that much since the ball at Netherfield.

Your heroine, Victoria, has a deep affection for the work of Jane Austen. She turns to Austen’s novels in pivotal moments of the story for inspiration and advice about what she should do or how she should approach a situation. I have to make a confession: I’ve never read a Jane Austen novel (though I’ve seen a number of film and TV adaptations). Which Austen novel would you recommend to someone who finishes Dangerous Alliance and wants to pick one up, and why?
I personally think Pride and Prejudice is a perfect first foray into Austen. Elizabeth Bennet, her family, Mr. Darcy and all the antagonists jump off the page; the plot is entertaining and doesn’t meander; and the language feels slightly easier to get a handle on. I also really find Northanger Abbey enormously entertaining—Dangerous Alliance is the antithesis of Northanger’s plot in many ways—and it’s a much quicker read than many of Austen’s novels, but I’m not sure if it’s the best to start readers on unless they have some knowledge of the time period. Of course, if people have read Dangerous Alliance first, I hope they’ll come away with enough of an understanding that Northanger will end up being something they can appreciate, too!

I was struck by how well you captured the strict rules of decorum for social interactions between men and women during this period—the need for escorts, the way every glance and phrase could be so loaded with significance and so on. Do you think “courtship” has changed in the two centuries since Dangerous Alliance, or have old rules just been exchanged for new ones?
In many respects, dating has changed significantly in many Western cultures—though, of course, there are still many societies throughout the world today where the type of courtship that existed in England 200 years ago is still essentially in effect. But even in the secular, mainstream world I live in and grew up in, dating in high school can be very much like what I’ve detailed in the book. As a teenager, though you may have more freedom than you did as a child, you generally can’t go wherever you want, whenever you want. You often have a chaperone present (e.g., parents, siblings, teachers, friends), whether you want one or not. When you’re that age, you can certainly feel like every look or tiny thing a person says to you is imbued with meaning (whether the other person meant anything or not). So in many ways, things haven’t changed all that much!

I personally think Pride and Prejudice is a perfect first foray into Austen.

This book seems like it required quite a bit of research. You capture and incorporate not only large, important elements from the time (the legality of divorce, issues of class and economics) but also details of daily life (the food! the clothes! the music! the horses!). Will you geek out on your research process for a bit?
Luckily, there are abundant sources about Georgian England and the Regency period (when King George III went mad and the government named his son, Prince George, the regent or acting king). Oddly though, the generally accepted view about life in the Regency era and a lot of the information on the internet stem from novels written in the 20th century. For example, the myth exists that a woman was permanently stuck in an awful marriage, and this makes up a good many plots of Regency-set novels. When I first started writing Dangerous Alliance, I was told by many Regency writers in no uncertain terms that divorce was virtually unheard of and I should rework my concept. So I went looking for ways I could accurately make it happen. I started with secondary sources written by well-respected historians and found one who had catalogued numerous extant court documents about real divorce cases in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It felt a bit like kismet when I found it! Not only did divorce happen in many different ways, it happened far more often than I’d expected. I set about trying to portray the process accurately but not with so much detail that it slowed down the narrative. I also traveled to England to visit the places I’ve described in the book (those that still exist anyway!) because I do think it’s nearly impossible to portray a place’s unique atmosphere unless you’ve experienced it. Generally, I consulted primary sources whenever I wanted a detail to enhance the world, and yes, I’ve cooked some Regency recipes, played and sung some of Jane Austen’s favorite musical pieces, strolled through Solothurn’s oldest hotel and cantered on a horse through the New Forest. Sometimes I honestly think research is the best part of writing a book!

The book contains two very rich sibling relationships, between Victoria and her sister, Althea, and between Victoria’s childhood friend Tom and his brother, Charles. What roles do Althea and Charles play in their siblings’ lives, and how do they influence the journeys Victoria and Tom take in this story?
I firmly believe that siblings play huge roles in any person’s life—whether for better or worse, or even somewhere in between. Althea is very much Vicky’s role model. When Althea returns home as the victim of domestic violence, the fact that she can’t discuss what she went through or how she got there is something Vicky can’t understand. All Vicky knows is that she wants justice for Althea, but to get Althea a divorce and protect their home, the family realizes that Vicky has to get married and somehow avoid an equal cad in the process. Since Althea is scared and resentful, Vicky must make decisions without her older sister’s input, which, to a large degree, factors into Vicky growing up and coming into her own.

Tom’s brother, Charles, is also bitter about having been left to handle his parents alone when their father sent Tom away. As a result, when Tom returns after their father’s death, Charles feels he has little incentive to help Tom. This also means that Tom has to learn how to operate on his own in a society he doesn’t completely understand, which in turn leads him to rely on his old friendship with Vicky more than he would have.

Parents play important (though very different) roles in both Victoria’s and Tom’s lives, which stands somewhat in contrast to many YA novels. I was especially intrigued by the frank relationship between Victoria and her parents. Would this relationship have been typical for the period? Can you talk about the choices you made in crafting the relationship?
I don’t know if I can speak to how typical Vicky’s relationship with her parents would have been back then, as these types of familial details aren’t always recorded. From the primary sources I’ve read, I think Vicky’s family would probably have been unique. I do believe there were plenty of instances in which parents gave their daughters as much free reign to act as they liked, just as some parents do today. The Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility and the Bertram girls in Mansfield Park are more or less indulged and left to their own devices. Do any of them talk to their parents as frankly as Vicky does? I would argue that Marianne Dashwood is similarly communicative. For me, it was important for Vicky to have a healthy relationship with her parents because, although there are plenty of bad teenager/parent relationships in this world, there are also so many good ones, and these are less typically portrayed in YA fiction.

I’ve cooked some Regency recipes, played and sung some of Jane Austen’s favorite musical pieces, strolled through Solothurn’s oldest hotel and cantered on a horse through the New Forest. Sometimes I honestly think research is the best part of writing a book!

The specter of abuse haunts this book. Your tone stays light, but the emotional and physical abuse committed by characters in Victoria’s and Tom’s lives shape their circumstances at the novel’s beginning and their paths over the course of the book. Was this something you set out to include as you began writing? What kind of work did you do to incorporate it into the story?
It was something I wanted to include because it happened a lot then, and it happens a lot now. I have both friends and relatives who have lived through domestic violence and come out the other side. I’m heartened that in this post-#MeToo time, some of the stigma around talking about assault of all types has broken down to a degree. The truth is that abuse can derail people’s lives in so many ways, and like any societal disease, people need to be educated at a young age about the warning signs and what to do if you find yourself in a bad situation.

At the beginning of the novel, Victoria is tasked with finding a suitable husband by the end of the London social season. Over the course of the story, she considers quite a few options, some with considerable appeal to her and to readers. Without giving away any spoilers, did Victoria’s story always end the way it does now?
Though some of the details about certain characters have changed from draft to draft, I have to admit that Vicky’s story (in regards to her “options”) did always end the way it does now. For me, it was always the most satisfying way to go.

As Victoria accepts a number of social invitations in the interest of getting to know her potential suitors better, she goes on what we might now characterize as some astonishingly bad dates. They are, frankly, cringe-inducing to read—but all in such unique ways! Talk about your inspirations for those dates. Are any of them drawn from personal experience or borrowed from the experiences of friends?
Ha! I’m so glad they read as cringe-inducing as I’d hoped. I spent a good amount of time brainstorming ideas for blind dates that I would find awful. I tried to pick the ones that would translate well to the 1800s and not be so innately serious that I couldn’t inject some humor into the interactions. I think everyone has encountered someone with habits they find revolting, which is never great—but it’s got to be worse when it’s someone they’re set up with!

Victoria and Jane Austen are, briefly, contemporaries. If Victoria could have met Miss Austen and asked her a question about her work, what do you think she’d ask? What would you ask?
Vicky would probably ask why Fanny Price, the protagonist of Mansfield Park, rarely takes any action in her own story. The historian and fan in me would like to ask Jane Austen which of her characters were based on real people she knew, and if she had a soft spot for the charming, faithless Henry Crawford. Based on how she wrote him, that’s something I’ve always wondered about.

Armed with all the knowledge you gained while writing Dangerous Alliance (and, let’s say, a comfortable socioeconomic standing for the period), how do you think you would fare during a London Regency Season?
I think I’d do pretty well, actually. I might be somewhat shy at first, but I’d get better once I made some acquaintances. Plus, under the right circumstances, I can dance a mean minuet!


Author photo by Elizabeth Adams.

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Dangerous Alliance

Dangerous Alliance

By Jennieke Cohen
ISBN 9780062857309

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