Hello everyone! I’m delighted to be doing my first post here and Austen Variation, and also for how supportive the whole JAFF community has been of our new site. A big thank-you to our readers and also to Susan, Abigail, and Grace for so ably getting the ball rolling!
After writing two satisfying P&P sequels (The Darcys of Pemberley, Return to Longbourn), I decided to broaden my horizons and move on to something different for my next Austenesque book, this time something related to my second-favorite Jane Austen novel: Persuasion (which will also be featured later this year in a major group writing project here at AV, btw!). Although Pride and Prejudice IS completely wonderful (and my first-favorite, like most people’s), the others are pretty awesome too. It would be a shame to miss out on them.
I’m just closing in on the last quarter of the book now, and it’s been a blast to write. Are you ready for a sneak peek? I’m not going to give you any set up (other than what the title provides), because I need to know if it will be clear to the reader what’s going on – both those who have read Persuasion and those who have not. That’s one reason I’m sharing this first chapter with you. The other reason is that I can’t wait! So without further adieu, here is…
The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen
wherein Jane Austen tells her own story of Youthful Error, Mature Love, and Second Chances
It is time.
I could not have done it even a few years ago. But now the pain – though never far from my mind – has eased to a familiar, settled presence that I can bear without distraction, and the memories are objects I can view with more tenderness than despair.
Sitting at my writing desk at our beloved Chawton cottage, I gaze out the window toward the path that leads to the front door. No one is there; no one ever is, at least not the one most fondly looked for. And yet looking has developed into a habit of longstanding duration, an unconscious exercise in futility over the twelve years since he went away.
Now the wars against the French are finally at an end, and still he does not come.
So, it is time to lay aside any lingering hopes I have secretly cherished in that regard. My fires are at last tolerably quenched, and I have reconciled myself to the prudence of never fanning the remaining embers ablaze again. Instead, I have determined to instill the warm essence of my recollections into a novel about youthful errors, mature love, and second chances – to write the story I would have preferred for myself, one which embodies all the early promise of the genuine article but a more felicitous conclusion than providence has seen fit to authorize.
I shall call my captain Frederick Wentworth, and his lady will be Anne Elliot.
My breath catches in my throat as I hold my pen, suspended over the sheet of pristine paper. This is the moment that both thrills and terrifies me, the moment before commencing a new novel when all things are possible but nothing has yet been accomplished. To begin is to risk everything – crushing defeat, utter failure or, worse still, mediocrity. However, not taking the risk is unthinkable. I have come through successfully before, but that hardly signifies. With each new work the familiar doubts and niggling questions resurface, chiefly these. Do I really possess whatever genius it takes to do it again? And if so, what is the best way to go about it?
With the hero, the heroine, and their early meetings, I am already well acquainted. Having their basis in life has given these things an early birth in my mind. I know all about how the two met, every detail of their falling in love, and in what cruel manner their happiness was cut short. And yet the tale will not end there – not with the regrets of the past, but rather by redeeming the promise of what might still lie ahead. First, however, it is my job to set the stage, to construct a world of persons and conditions that will give their story substance – a worthy backdrop against which Anne and her captain will act out their poignant play.
The lady’s family should bear scant resemblance to my own, I have already decided. At its head, I will situate a vain and rather foolish baronet instead of a sensible country parson. There is no need – nor any advantage – to mirroring the real circumstances, long gone by, too closely. Not that I fear discovery. Few indeed are those who know the particulars of my… my disappointment. That is what Mama persists in calling it, although “disappointment” seems such a singularly inadequate word for describing what transpired.
When I consider the pain and the peace of mind it cost me…
No. I must put such feelings to one side for the sake of the task I have set for myself. Moreover, despite what knowing him took from me, it gave me far more. It gave me a true knowledge of what it means to be in love and, therefore, the ability to translate that consummate wonder into my stories. Without it, where would I be? Experience is vital to a writer, and painful experience even more valuable. Or so I have heard it said. I pray it is true, that not one moment of anxiety or one shed tear has been wasted; that would be the greatest tragedy of all.
I shake off these contemplations, and my suspended pen at last touches paper. I begin the work with these words:
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somerset-shire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest parents; there any unwelcome sensation, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century – and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which…
A familiar creak of the door interrupts my progress, alerting me to someone’s approach.
“This is a new one, Mama,” I answer evenly.
“A new one! Good gracious, girl, will you never be satisfied? A little poetry now and again, such as I myself have written, would do you no harm, but I do not understand this obsession with the novel. How many will it take to get this fever out of your brain once and for all?”
“Writing novels is not an illness that need be recovered from. It is my work; it is what I do.”
“Yes, so you have told me. But all the same, I thank heaven no one much beyond the family knows of it. Though your father may not have objected, I cannot think it a perfectly fit occupation for a young lady. I never have. It is far too taxing on the mind and it will one day ruin your health completely; mark my words. You see how my own health has declined, and you are so thin that I sometimes worry you cannot be quite well either.”
“My constitution is perfectly sound, Mama as is yours. Besides, my earnings help to put food on our table,” I remind her.
“Nevertheless, I should have put an end to the business years ago, had I known the mischief to which it would lead. Sensible girls stop believing in fairy stories when they grow up, else how are they to marry ordinary men and be happy? That was always your problem, Jane: too high expectations. You had your chances – suitable men, any one of whom would have made you a very satisfactory husband – but nobody could measure up to Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, I suppose.”
Experience had taught me that arguing this reoccurring charge would be pointless. So I bite my tongue and wait for Mama to continue on her way and out of the room.
She is entirely wrong, of course, as to where the problem lies. Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy are not to blame, for it is against quite a different gentleman that every other I meet with is measured and found wanting. Although through subsequent revisions I have imbued each of my literary heroes with portions of his character, not one of them embodies the original completely. Perhaps Mr. Bingley best portrays my captain’s amiability, Darcy his essential integrity and aristocratic air, and Mr. Knightley his spirit of true nobility. Poor Colonel Brandon has the misfortune to share the same haunted expression of having witnessed first hand so much of the cruelty of which men are capable.
Each one of these sketches is an incomplete portrait, however; it is only in Captain Wentworth that all the true qualities will at last be united. In him I will duplicate what I remember from our early meetings and add the traits I have ascribed to the gentleman since. Whatever else, I must believe him on some level constant to me even now – in life or in death. God only knows if he has survived the war, but at least I have every reason to believe he long since forgave me my weakness at the critical moment. I could not bear it if he were alive in this world and still thinking ill of me. Or is it possible he no longer thinks of me in any way? Is that why I have never heard one word from him?
These are home questions – ones I will have to address eventually as the chapters of my book progress. For the moment, however, I intend to entertain myself with other, less perplexing personalities.
Anne Elliot’s family begins taking shape on the page before me. I write of a foolish father whose extravagance has sunk the family’s finances, a prudent mother who died far too young, an imperious older sister, and no brothers at all – everything my own family is not. Only Lady Russell bears a tolerable likeness to a person of my own circle. In her, I revive something of my former friend and mentor Madam Lefroy, now ten years gone and more.
So many of our friends have left us: my father, Madam Lefroy, Eliza, Anne, Elizabeth, and Fanny, as well Cassandra’s Mr. Fowle. Although gone from sight, they remain in my mind… and a few live again and forever on the page, thanks to my pen. It is one type of immortality, or is that presuming too much? Books come and go much like people, and it is not to be supposed that the modest literary efforts of a clergyman’s daughter will make much of a lasting impression on the world. Doubtless a hundred years from now, no one will remember a sea captain called Wentworth or have read his story.
And yet, I must try.
Continuing at my labor, I introduce William Walter Elliot, Esq., and name him heir presumptive to the Elliot estate of Kellynch. Surely, had the young man any manners at all, he ought to thank me for the gift of his one day being made a baronet, as he has clearly done nothing to earn the honor and much to disparage it. Still, it is for the current baronet that I reserve my greatest scorn and severest censure – for his absurd airs, for his monetary irresponsibility, and for his failure to value the one of his three daughters truly worth esteeming.
Elizabeth had succeeded, at sixteen, to all that was possible, of her mother’s rights and consequence; and being very handsome and very like himself, her influence had always been great, and they had gone on together most happily. His two other children were of very inferior value. Mary had acquired a little artificial importance, by becoming Mrs. Charles Musgrove, but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; – she was only Anne.
Poor Anne is consigned to the shadows – by loss of bloom and by neglect of her own family. She must bear her sorrows and their disregard a while longer, but not forever. Her true radiance will eclipse them all in the end; I will see to that.
The hours pass without my noticing, and soon my first chapter rests before me – complete if not yet perfected. It is a good day’s work, an excellent beginning, and I know I will enjoy pleasant dreams tonight. But will they be dreams of Captain Wentworth or of Captain Devereaux? In truth, it makes no difference, for to my mind they are one and the same.
So, what do you think? Did you understand the premise and what was going on? Did your familiarity (or unfamiliarity, as the case may be) with the novel Persuasion enhance / inhibit your enjoyment of the piece? My intention was to give you enough information to follow the action, and yet leave enough unsaid to keep you intrigued. That can be tricky. Did I succeed or could I do better somewhere? Your comments and suggestions (on these questions or any others) are very welcome. I want to make this the best book possible. Thank you!