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Lover of Austen wins top award

Holding honour: Susanne Notman displays her Gold Remi award for her screenplay

The WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival draws filmmakers from Italy to Canada to China.

Making her way across the floor to congratulate someone from England, Susanne Notman was surprised to hear them announce Bermuda.

Her screenplay, Our Own Particular Little Brother, won a Gold Remi award at the 51st annual festival.

“I knew that I was the only Bermudian there,” she said of the festival known for launching the careers of Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers and Ang Lee.

Part fact, part fiction, her script starts and ends on the Irrawaddy River in 1852.

It follows Royal Navy officer Charles Austen, who is dying of cholera in the Anglo-Burmese War, as he looks back on his life.

The brother of celebrated author Jane Austen sailed into the island in 1805 after he was given command of a Bermuda-built sloop, one of the first commissioned by the Admiralty to be built at Tynes Boatyard.

Mrs Notman discovered his story when she met one of his descendants, Francis Austen, in 1999. She then found plenty of information on his ship, HMS William, penned by Henry Wilkinson, who has written extensively on Bermuda’s maritime history.

“It was such an exciting story,” she said.

“I started researching more and found that he married Fanny Palmer, the daughter of Bermuda’s Attorney- General, here.”

Her version of the story includes privateer Hezekiah Frith and his second wife Harriet, although there is no record of her being in Bermuda, for a classic love triangle.

She picked details from “beautiful letters” found at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and from Charles’s diaries at the National Maritime Musem and his ship’s logs in the National Archives in Britain. She then threw in an imagined production of The Tempest.

Her version is rife with internal conflict. Charles’s hope to get another command at sea condemns him and Fanny to life on the guard ship instead of land.

“You have to divest yourself of all the facts,” Mrs Notman said.

“I’ve held the original Jane Austen letters in my hand at The British Library as well. They are so heart-warming and optimistic.

“When Jane was writing to her sister Cassandra, she referred to him as ‘our own particular little brother is doing very well in Bermuda’. He sort of comes into his own in Bermuda.

“There’s something about island life that makes you become your own person. When you’re away from family you just develop your own sense of personality and individuality and have more confidence.”

Mrs Notman moved to the island in 1971. Originally from Montreal, her early passion was to be an actress.

Parts of the “modern story” mirror her own. Fanny Palmer and Jane Austen are portrayed as free-spirited women who straddle the pulls of passion and duty.

“What I’ve tried to portray in Fanny is that she was this wonderful free spirit, even with her urge of wanting to put on The Tempest, which fell through because of the weather.

“She realised in the end her lot in life.”

Mrs Notman is developing the screenplay as a television series to make room for the story to grow.

She is grateful for the initial funding she received from the Bermuda Arts Council in 2007, for Nick Roddick, a film journalist “who has read every single draft”, and to BMDS writing initiatives to get her work off the ground.

This year, she received funding from the Department of Community & Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Legacy Fund.

“I’m extremely grateful because it gives a validation to my work by having this funding,” said the writer.

“It takes time. Here I am now in my eighth decade and things are really happening with it. Never give up. Even when you’re a grandmother, things happen.

“With this win I’ve been so lucky; things seem to be falling into place.”

She takes heart from the experience of an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter she met through the Bermuda International Film Festival.

“When Craig Borten was here a couple of years ago, he was talking about writing the Dallas Buyers Club. I asked him when he interviewed the protagonist. He said 18 years ago — the film had just gotten made.

“I say it to all potential writers, ‘Never give up. Persevere’.”