Ava Farmer, a.k.a. Sandy Lerner, author of Second Impressions, a sequel to Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride & Prejudice, visited American University on March 27, 2013. Assistant professor Fiona Brideoake, and literature department chair, Jonathan Loesberg, moderated the evening’s Q&A. Farmer read from Second Impressions and then fielded questions from curious Austen fans. “37 dictionaries, and 26 years later, that’s what I came up with!” Farmer said. “Second Impressions started from just needing more Austen. I cried when I read all of it and there wasn’t anymore to read.”
Peter Starr, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at American University introduced Lerner. Lerner completed her four-year political science degree in just two years. In 1984 she cofounded CISCO Systems. She then left CISCO in 1990. In 1992, Lerner invested in the restoration of Chawton House, the home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, and, in 1995, she founded Urban Decay Cosmetics. In November of 2011, Second Impressions was published by Chawton House Press.
The original title for Pride & Prejudice was First Impressions, and in 1959 there was even a Broadway musical production of Pride & Prejudice called First Impressions. A patron asked Farmer if she was ever concerned about her work being scrutinized by critics who revere Austen. Farmer said, “No, I wasn’t daunted by critics. I was really driven by wanting nothing more than that wonderful world.” She said, “Everybody knows that Winston Churchill read Pride & Prejudice on D-Day, and it’s because of all of the good that is in that book.” Asked how she felt about taking possession of Austen’s famed characters, Farmer said, “I never felt like I owned them. They kind of used me in the sense that I knew very early on the basic parameters of the plot, and other than the ending, it pretty much stayed the same for 20 years.”
Farmer admitted that one of the most daunting pre-publication tasks was attending an annual Jane Austen meeting in Philadelphia in 2010. She said, “It was really like throwing myself to the wolves. I really valued their opinion, and they gave me excellent help.” Among other challenges was getting the manuscript published. Initially, Farmer said during the event, no one would touch it. From that challenge came the Chawton House Press, with Second Impressions as its first publication. Farmer said, “You just have to get out there and take your lumps. If you go into a group of people with specialized knowledge, you’re going to have your lumps. By in large people were very appreciative of the work that I had put in.”
I asked Farmer about whether or not Chawton House was an integral part of the long journey of Second Impressions. “It ended up being apart of it,” she said. She told me that that she had the idea to fill the place with all of the most important books written by women during the long eighteenth century–including the time that Austen was writing. “I decided to buy it because it was in Chawton–the village where Austen had written her novels–and it seemed like a great place for these women writers and their works… The Chawton House thing was a labor of labor. It really had nothing to do with the book. No one had ever looked at this female economy of writers that was established by Austen’s lifetime. I had the tools to do something about that, and I thought I ought to.”
In Second Impressions, Farmer gives the reader a fresh take on the Darcy family. They’re living and breathing, again; even characters from some of Austen’s other works like, Mr. Knightley from Emma, show up. She said, “I didn’t just go and get or return to characters for the simple effect of having more characters in the book. I needed a William Elliot, I needed a Sydney Parker; I needed the people that came in from the other novels. I needed them because I don’t think I could have written in any other characters as well as Austen had.”
Farmer said of her calculated return to the Austen dialect, “To me, if you were going to write a sequel the language had to be proper, there had to be a plot. It was necessary that I understand her world, to write about her world. If you didn’t have that understanding, then you didn’t belong writing about it.”
The only character Farmer felt like she had to manhandle was Elizabeth Darcy. “The one thing I’d say that felt like somewhat of an unnatural act was that I could not continue on having Mrs. Darcy be lazy.” There were several questions from audience members about the female characters in Austen’s novels. One patron asked whether or not Farmer thought the women characters had to prove their reason more than the male characters. Farmer stated, “Yes. And you see that in the dialogue. You see that time and time again. You don’t see it in Sense & Sensibility, because she has two women who are on equal playing field. It comes up with Mary, she’s the bookish one, but she’s wholly unreasonable. Austen seems to cut the men more slack, and they are more naturally the people rising to this age of reason, enlightenment.” However Farmer insisted that “Austen was doing a lot of things with those women that was considered progressive, she gave Anne Elliot her own carriate, which was totally unconventional. There’s a context that she pushed the envelope of her time that may not be so obvious to us now.”
Perhaps of considerable interest to a lot of audience members was Farmer’s choice to use a penname. Farmer owns an 800- acre farm in Upperville, Virginia. A VA Farmer: Ava Farmer. However, Farmer said that it was a mistake to go with a penname. She said that when she made the decision, “I wanted the book to be the book, and me to be me.” Despite that, what was clear to me that evening was the overwhelming curiosity of Austen fans, now Farmer fans, who were very grateful to Farmer for another impression.
K. Tyler Christensen
Photo courtesy of Business Weekly