My Life with Jane Austen’s Face
by Janet Todd
Ok, I didn’t read her as a child. I pretended I had—unintentionally! I didn’t come from a bookish family and wasn’t pointed towards the classics at a young age. Instead, I stayed firmly with comics, Enid Blyton and boys’ own adventures. So, when for a boarding-school entrance exam taken just before my eleventh birthday, I was asked if I had read Jane Austen, ‘Yes’ I said brightly, ‘I have.’
What I had actually read was a Comic Classics version of Jane Eyre and then wonderfully muddled novel and different author. In one comic frame was a memorable image of the first Mrs. Rochester standing wild eyed over the bed of the second, the virtuous Jane. Fortunately, Jane Austen can’t have featured on the entrance exam—or the school I was headed towards was so eager for fee-paying students it didn’t matter. Once there, I must have been forced to read Pride and Prejudice but I don’t remember the occasion. I certainly went on associating Jane Austen with the face of Brontë’s Bertha.
Over long academic years of teaching and researching early women writers, I came to my adult taste for Austen’s novels. To me she is very much an author for grown-ups. I marvel at women who declare they read and loved her at the age of 7 or 8, but I’m not among them. Yet, I see that she might have been a good guide and model to the young adult just emerging into independent life. Pity I missed out there.
Some years back, when I was undergoing cancer treatment and making a great fuss about it, I started hearing from Jane Austen. For example, when I was pitying myself for my low spirits and failing body, I remembered her great word for the admirable mind and body: ‘elasticity’. That’s exactly what I wanted then. Still do.
I also tried to buck myself up by thinking of moments from her fiction, not her best but memorable ones. When for example I saw images of my unkempt self and felt like crying over them, I recalled the passage from Persuasion where bulky Mrs Musgrove is shedding real tears for her worthless dead son. It is an unbecoming conjunction, and her fat sighings simply raise colluding curls of handsome lips from hero and heroine. And the moral: good taste simply can’t accommodate the sight. That’s sardonic Jane Austen: it stopped my tears.
Another bit that floated into my panicking mind just then was the story she wrote aged 12 or so, called The Beautiful Cassandra. The heroine walks out of her mother’s millinery shop, steals, hits, scoffs, ignores people and refuses to pay for a hackney cab; when she returns home to her loving mother, she hugs her and remarks, ‘That was a day well spent.’ So, I said to myself, did Jane Austen –or Cassandra –give up, whatever was happening, or turn her face to the wall? She did not. Nothing sick there.
In my academic life I wrote critical books on Jane Austen and then became the general editor of the Cambridge edition of her complete works. I read her again and again, footnoted the texts and teased out words in manuscripts that had been overwritten and sometimes scribbled out. I didn’t feel her present, however, and there were times when I wished I’d been editing someone who was less of a global celebrity and involved fewer competitive scholars—I had had more fun with Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn, both wonderful writers but not household names and fridge magnets. But, though tricky, it was an enjoyable enterprise.
So, to the pandemic and lockdown.
It was the first and sternest shutting down in England—in March of 2020. My usual days of working a bit at home and a little in the library and scoffing a croissant or scone with a friend in a bookshop café, were curtailed. I was left to my own devices. I turned to writing a novel, my favourite post-academic pastime. This became Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden. Having given away my library of books at the last house-move, to hand I had only memories, photos, and leftover bits from earlier projects to give to the new fiction.
Then in stepped my main character—and it really felt like this! Prickly, eccentric Fran is not much like me, closer to what I would like to have been or would like a friend to be. She has had a contented rural childhood and knows about wildflowers and gardens, copes well with solitude, is a carer, a giver rather than a taker. But she shares a few of my memories. Even more than me, she feels haunted by Jane Austen.
And the Shelley of the title? The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, almost contemporary with Jane Austen and dying even younger, at 29—she was 41. In 2007 I published a biography called Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle. (Fanny was the sister of the future Mary Shelley.) This ended with Fanny’s suicide in 1816. I have always felt I had unfinished business with P.B. Shelley, who did not play an heroic part in this story of death and emotional carelessness. I felt I was due to meet him again.
There are of course those who adore the poet and find him a visionary guide to politics and life. I have given a little of this enthusiasm to two of my characters, who between them describe pursuing Shelley through moments in his life. Since in their quest they travel with Fran, it was inevitable that in time, or rather my time, Jane Austen and Shelley should meet– in a garden.
While writing this novel, I imagined my character seeing the face of Jane Austen, not as Bertha Mason this time or as the prettified image of her the later family favoured—but in the slightly sour portrait made by her sister Cassandra. Here is Fran, just arriving in Wales with her friends in search of young Shelley. At first she worries that Jane Austen has not have come with her:
Fran surveys herself in the mottled mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door. Who are you? she says. The mirror image smirks.
Though eccentric, the action improves on her habit of staring at Cassandra’s crude sketch so fixedly that the aslant eyes swivel to catch hers. That really is naughty.
She grins, sensing that, despite her doubts, Jane Austen has come…What are men to rocks and mountains? says Lizzie Bennet, heading for the barren Lake District. She’s waylaid by the romantic plot, some strategy – and that luck. But she might have gone.
Do you go to a place or does the place come to you?
Jane Austen’s busy climbing into the wardrobe ignoring its mirrored door. There are moments when Fran is defiantly angry with the Author and her free indirect manner. Such an easy way to watch others deceive themselves. For now, she simply feels deflated by this quick removal.
Until she thinks: Jane Austen, the Witch in the Wardrobe.
About the Author:
Janet Todd (Jane Austen’s Sanditon, Don’t You Know There’s a War On?, Radiation Diaries, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life, A Man of Genius), novelist, biographer and internationally renowned Jane Austen scholar, is a former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. her new novel Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden: A Novel with Pictures will be published in September 2011.
Now a full-time writer and literary critic, she is an Emerita Professor at the University of Aberdeen and an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. Born in Wales, she grew up in Britain, Bermuda and Ceylon/Sri Lanka and has worked at universities in Ghana, Puerto Rico, India, the US (Douglass College, Rutgers, Florida) Scotland (Glasgow, Aberdeen) and England (Cambridge, UEA). She lives in Cambridge, England and Venice, Italy.