In writing Chapter 9 of the (very) rough draft of my novel, I have finally got to the part where Rachel and Liam meet Jane Austen. I wasn't exactly expecting it to happen exactly where it did; it just suddenly seemed, as I was writing, that it had to be. In a novel of 25 to 30 chapters (I'm guessing) the arrival of Miss Austen, ostensibly the subject of the book, might seem a little late at this point.
But if I set out to write this book in hopes of answering through fiction a question that is unknowable through more rational methods of inquiry -- namely, what was Jane Austen like? -- it was only at this point that I felt prepared to hazard a guess. I had to spend a lot of time working through other questions: what is it like to be in 1815 London? What is Henry Austen like? How do people eat and use the bathroom and shop for clothing and amuse themselves and think about things?
And more and more as I write I realize that Miss Austen is, after all, only the MacGuffin, the device that propels the plot, which is actually about...well, that would be telling.
What is Jane Austen like? Like other people, only more so. I think of what Virginia Woolf said about her:
Here was a woman about the year 18oo writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.
Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!
2 months ago