What if? We ask ourselves this question all the time. When you’re a writer it’s what you do. When you’re also an actress, it’s an occupational hazard.
By a Lady was inspired by an autobiographical incident. Some years ago I was cast as Jane Austen in The Novelist, a two-character romantic drama penned by that most prolific of twentieth-century novelists, Howard Fast. In the final year of her life Jane meets a dashing sea captain just as she’s beginning to write Persuasion. It’s a beautifully moving play and the opportunity to portray Jane Austen was a dream come true. My costumes and accessories were so accurate and designer Raffaele Castaldo’s parlor felt so realistic that every time I stepped onstage I wondered what if I ended up back in Austen’s era once I exited into the wings.
I was not a writer at the time I performed in The Novelist. But it was one of the most enriching experiences of my stage career and stayed with me long after the final curtain. Several months later, when I began to write, thewhat if premise that had sparked my imagination during the run of The Novelistdeveloped into a novel originally titled Sense and Sensuality. It was historical fiction, but also deemed a “paranormal” because of the time travel element of the story. And several scenes were set in present-day New York. Editors praised it, but admitted they didn’t know how to market such a hybrid. So they rejected it. Finally, in 2006, seven years since I wrote the first words, and many revisions later, the novel was published as By a Lady: Being the Adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen’s England.
This rollicking adventure owes as much of a literary debt of homage to the work of Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe as it does to Jane Austen-who is a character in the novel, and whose dialogue is nearly 100% verbatim Jane-gems of wisdom and wry and witty observation culled from her novels, juvenilia and correspondence!