But just a few moments ago, as I read about Jane's angst and her dreams, I thought of all of us writers, here at the conference, over two hundred years after Jane wrote her immortal novels. The years fall away as we see that her issues, doubts, and hopes are ours.
Read about Jane Austen’s writing life, from her point-of-view, as she struggles to be Just Jane. See how her struggles are our struggles… (FYI: her manuscript First Impressions became Pride & Prejudice.)
Just Jane (Chapter 4)
I have always written. My first attempts at novel writing—Catherine, Lesley Castle, and Lady Susan—are evidence of that. But none is quite right. The latter two works are a bit scandalous, with adultery, abandonment of children, and permissiveness beyond the ken of polite society. Years ago, when I read them aloud to the family, Father’s eyebrows rose. Yet he didn’t chastise me or tell me to stop. I thank him for being patient with me, for what good is a rector who cannot see the joke in sins and sinners?
I have also attempted a series of letters called Elinor and Marianne. I enjoy the differences between the two sisters. Perhaps I have shown that a disparity in character does not indicate a lack of character. . . .
We have always been a family of readers—my father’s library has over five hundred volumes, and I have access to them all. And though it’s not always considered delicate to admit it, we adore novels. Those of Fanny Burney, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding—to name three. And though I hold Fielding’s Tom Jones dear—for the fact that book inspired the dialogue between my Tom and me—my favourite is Richardson’s masterpiece, Sir Charles Grandison. It’s a massive book, populated by friends. If only I could discuss their failings and follies directly with the characters themselves.
If a book is well written, I always find it too short. The boldness in the craft that these authors possess inspires me to try my hand at it. Not that my busyness will ever amount to much.
I remember sitting in my father’s study once, reading while the boys played outside. I heard Henry in the hallway talking with Father, wanting me to come join them in a roll down the green hill behind the rectory. But Father stopped him, saying, “Leave your sister alone, she is enmeshed; she is gone from us.”
Henry (being Henry) said, “No, she is not; she is right there in your study. I saw her through the window.” Thankfully, Father held fast, protecting my privacy. His words held more than a kernel of truth. When I read a novel I’m not here. I’m transported to far-off places, my eyes unseeing of the words on the page, busy with a scene being played out in my mind’s eye, with my ears engaged, hearing the voices carry from the pen to the present. What a lovely place to be—not here.
I enjoy working in the sitting room I share with my sister, Cassandra (the blue paper on the walls here is such a balm), and she respects my time here, though, in truth, I don’t mind her presence. By her own volition she never intrudes. It’s I who occasionally request her participation. I relish her comments when I read to her a line or two out of doubt. She is very wise, and, seeing beyond what I have said, she has an ear for what I mean. I often read aloud to Mother and Father after evening tea and also accept their comments, though I admit, with less alacrity. ’Tis a distinction I fear implies too much. Mother usually asks for more description of place and costume: “But what colour is her dress, Jane?” And though I have attempted to write more of these details, it’s a forced addition that intrudes upon the words that beg to be released. Her request reminds me of a child pulling on a mother’s gown, wanting attention. Sometimes attention to the child’s needs is required, but at other times it’s best ignored.
And so, I ignore Mother’s wishes and do what I must do, and write how I must write. If a bubbling stream forces itself to become a torrent, surely disaster will follow. I am what I am, and though I’m still learning this measure and meter of words, I must be true to my nature, and yea, even my gift.
For it is a gift—from God, if I may be so bold. I say this not to imply great talent, but to indicate my awareness that I have received something beyond my own choosing. Although in essence I realize I can refuse this offering, I also sense that the prudent act, the one that begs to be tinged with sincere gratitude, requires me to do what I can with this gift and offer it back into the void from whence it came. Whether it will prosper and move along or disappear like morning fog, I don’t know. I should not care. For the gift is not truly mine to hold, but mine to use and return. To someone’s benefit. I hope.
My musings have delayed my task for the day. I must acknowledge that I have finished that which I started nine months ago. I stack the pages and align the edges. So many hours. So many thoughts—some used and many discarded. But here it sits. First Impressions, the story of the Bennet family, which was inspired by my dear Tom’s own familial condition. The two oldest Bennet sisters: Jane and Elizabeth, their names taken from my own name and Cassandra’s middle name. If someone asks if I used us as the inspiration for our namesakes, I will have to tell them no. If anything, Cassandra gives the most to Jane’s character, and I to Lizzy’s. But even then, they are not us. Not completely. And never purely. But they are two sisters, dear to each other and different from each other. In that we share a connection.
I’m reluctant to be done, for I have long lived with Lizzy and her sisters, with Mr. Darcy, and even the duplicitous Wickham. I have invested and divested in them as much as I have in my own Austen family. I’m wont to say adieu to them, as I would to those with whom I share blood ties.
I set my hand upon the pages and let a breath go in and out. It’s hard to let go, yet it’s a necessity in the birth of any child. I tie a string around the pages, adjusting its bow. A pretty package all in all.
There is a knock on the door. “Come in.”
Father opens the door, a letter in hand. “’Tis a letter from Henry, addressed to you.”
I nod and reach for it.
Father sees the pages. “You have finished?”
“Will you read the end to us tonight?”
“If you would like.”
He gives me a chastising look. “Of course we would like. It’s a good work, Jane. A fine accomplishment.”
“I’m happy the family is pleased with it.”
He strokes his chin, his eyes on the neat pile of pages. “Actually, I know of a man in the publishing business and I was thinking—”
My words don’t align with my thoughts. “No, Father. It’s not good enough for that.”
“Nonsense. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” He turns toward the door. “Tomorrow I will write a proper letter of introduction. Then I will send it to this man, Thomas Cadell.”
“He will not publish it.”
Father points a finger, then flicks it toward the end of my nose. “We shall see.”
Once again I place a hand upon the pages that are mine, all mine. Until now? Until someone beyond the family reads the words? I shiver at the thought with dread—
And yes, excitement.
I hold on to hope. And a letter.
The letter Father wrote to the publishers in London—Cadell and Davies—is quite . . . direct. He allowed me to copy it before it was sent:
I have in my possession a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. About the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina. As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort should make its first appearance under a respectable name I apply to you. Shall be much obliged therefore if you will inform me whether you chuse to be concerned in it; what will be the expense of publishing at the Author’s risk; & what you will advance for the Property of it, if on perusal it is approved of?
Should your answer give me encouragement I will send you the work.
I am, Sirs, Yr. obt. hble Servt: Geo Austen
In many ways it’s an awkward letter, and if I would have had the chance to edit it . . .
I shove away such presumption. He is my father. He deals with businessmen every day. What do I know regarding the form of such correspondence?
I know that I care deeply about its outcome.
Although I’m careful not to make anyone else aware, I pore over the letter daily—actually, many times a day. I pull it out of my writing desk and imagine Mr. Cadell reading it and being intrigued, pulling a fresh piece of paper close. He dips quill to ink and writes, Sir. We would be happy to peruse such a manuscript. Please send post-haste. We have been searching for just such a novel and will surely publish it—at our expense.
I laugh at the presumption. Yet what good are dreams if they are grounded in logic and probability?
The letter also brings me great pride, for to know that Father thinks well of the story, enough to bother his day by writing a letter and by offering to have it published “at the Author’s risk” . . . I’m very blessed.
I hear Mother talking to Cook below. I have been alone in my daydreams long enough. There is work to do. Life does go on. With or without a published book by Jane Austen.
Tilly brings in the post, along with a gust of the November chill. I meet her near the door, eager to retrieve it. There is a letter from Aunt Leigh-Perrot in Bath, a letter from Edward, and . . .
My heart stops.
On top of the pile of three is a letter addressed to Cadell and Davies. From my father. Across the front is boldly written: Declined by Return of Post.
I turn it over. Father’s seal is broken and resealed.
They read the letter.
They returned it.
They don’t want my manuscript.
I have been rejected.
Father comes into the foyer, a book in hand. He sees me. “Ah. Letters.” He extends a hand.
I hesitate. For it’s not just I who have been rejected. All Father’s hard work, writing the letter on my behalf, believing in me . . . oddly, I feel I have failed him.
I give him the three, keeping the rejection on top. He deserves to see it.
He reads the front, turns it over, then reads the front again. “Declined?”
“They read it but—”
His voice rises. “Declined?”
I take the offending letter away, moving it behind my back. Out of sight. “It was a great risk, Father. I’m too great a risk. For who will take seriously anything penned by a parson’s daughter living in Hampshire? I have no standing, no right, no—”
I point to Edward’s letter, which graces the top of the pile. “Go. Read what your son has to say.”
He nods and turns away, then back to me. “I’m sorry, Jane. It’s a good story.”
“You tried, Father. I will always remember that.” I kiss his cheek.
He goes back to his study.
I remove the letter from behind my back and stare at it. My silly imaginings of Cadell writing a far different response evaporate. I need to take the words I have just spoken with such false bravery to Father and hold them as truth: Who am I to expect a publisher to care about my work? I’m no one, beyond obscure, never to be known beyond the tight boundaries of tiny Steventon.
Who am I to expect more? Want more? Dream of more?
I retreat to my sitting room and close the door. I open the trunk that holds the evidence of my folly—my follies. Manuscripts written strictly for the amusement of my family. And myself. For I do enjoy the writing process. I do enjoy creating another place and time, populating it with people who could be as outrageous, vainglorious, courageous, or victorious as I will them to be. Through my writing I capture a smidgen of control—if not in my own life, in the lives of my characters. Their happiness, success, justice, or demise depends on me.
If only I had as much control over my own fate. My mind wanders to thoughts of Tom. . . . If only he would come home from his law studies and take me away from all this. Rescue me.
But alas, such happy endings happen only in novels.
Novels that will never be published.
I look down on the stacks of paper, so neatly tied. Hours and hours, days and days of my life . . .
I slip Father’s letter under the bow of First Impressions. The word Declined peeks back at me, teasing me.
I close the lid of the trunk.
The lid of my dreams.