Have you recovered yet from the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death a week ago? Although it was gratifying to see how many people and groups think enough of her to offer special tributes and commemorations, it was still a dark date on the calendar. Heart-wrenching, really. We were reminded all over again of the painful illness she suffered, of her tragic premature end in Winchester, of her family’s grief, of the years of promise she didn’t get a chance to live out, of the stories she never had time to write. So sad!
I was prepared to mourn over this anniversary, but then I decided I really didn’t need to. Why not? Although the official record says Jane Austen died July 18, 1817, I prefer to believe something else.
I am no different than any other fan. Which of us hasn’t, even this past week, wished Jane Austen had met with a better fate? She, who has given so much pleasure to countless thousands through her novels, surely deserved the same romance and happy ending she carefully crafted for all her heroines! For years, I wished I could do something about the injustice of it all, but what?
Hmm. The more I considered the question, the more excited I became. Perhaps there was something I could do for her after all. I couldn’t turn back the clock exactly, but I could use my super powers as a novelist to reinterpret the existing facts into a more felicitous outcome for Jane. And really, I had a lot of leeway to work with – gaps in the record, time unaccounted for, missing letters.
There was probably a lot more to Jane Austen’s story than is generally known, I decided.
First, since most authors draw heavily from people and situations in their own lives, it didn’t seem unreasonable to me that she might have had more real-life experience in the field of romance than the record suggests. Obviously not a married-her-sweetheart-at-twenty-and-lived-happily-ever-after kind of affair. But what about a bitter-sweet romance marked by grand passion, misfortune, and long separation? That would be a better fit. Perhaps something on the order of Persuasion.
Yes! What if Austen actually wrote her last, most poignant novel as a public homage to a very private romance with the man who was the one true love of her life? Soon I was off and running with what would become The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen.
I introduced her to the dashing Captain Devereaux, and they really hit it off. More romance for Jane: check! That’s great, but I still wasn’t content; I desperately wanted it ALL for her. Including the happy ending? How fabulous would that be?
So, that became my new (and audacious) goal – to find a plausible and more pleasing alternative outcome for Jane, something that would fit within the framework of what we know (or think we know) about her life. It would be tricky to pull off – a real challenge. For starters, why would the historical record be wrong? …unless Jane and/or her family had deliberately misled everyone about her fate. But why would they have decided to do that?
I was already well into the book when the answer came to me. Of course! It all made perfect sense! Then everything else fell into place too.
That’s why I no longer have to mourn over an early death for Jane Austen. Instead, I think of her plausible alternative. The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen is my gift to her – to her and to anybody else who prefers a believable fiction to the uncharitable slap of harsh reality. I think Jane would have approved. After all, she subscribed to happy endings too!
What do you think? Do you insist on realism, however bleak? Or would you, like me, prefer to believe Jane Austen met with a better fate? All it takes is a little imagination and a little suspension of disbelief in a good cause. Borrowing a line from Atonement by Ian McEwan…
I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end.