My husband and I have been charged with the monumental task of going through my parents’ house and all their stuff. They’ve both moved on now (one to heaven and the other to assisted living), leaving all their worldly goods behind. As we have sorted through, we’ve found lots of things that should have been thrown out decades ago, but also an occasional treasure – something of true monetary or sentimental value. Often it’s something we didn’t know existed before.
Here’s one example: my grandmother’s diary from the year 1956.
My grandmother was not an easy person to get to know and she died when I was in my twenties, curtailing any possibility of deepening our relationship. But here was a new and unexpected opportunity. Through her diary, I could learn more about her. I could discover her thoughts and activities from a time long past, a time before I knew her. Her diary had been preserved, skipping over a generation and more than half a century before fortuitously falling into my hands.
It struck me at once that this was a perfect illustration (and validation) of the premise for the book I was working on at the time: The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen. The book represents Jane’s private journal. Like my grandmother’s diary, it was not known to exist before but has now come to light, generations later. In it she tells the secret behind the story of Persuasion, that in fact she wrote her last, most poignant novel as a reflection of events in her life, in homage to her secret romance with a sea captain of her own.
According to the story, she met Captain Philippe Devereaux when she was only twenty-two, and they fell rapidly and deeply in love, as she later wrote of their fictional counterparts – Anne and Captain Wentworth. Then, just as with that other pair, Jane and the gentleman were torn asunder, parted by the persuasion of others with years of painful separation passing before they would meet again.
Now I know that the official record says Jane Austen died at 41 having never experienced the kind of romance and happy ending she generously supplied for all her heroines. But consider this. Much of the pieced-together information about Austen’s life comes to us via family remembrances and the surviving letters Jane wrote herself. These sources are incomplete, open to interpretation, and potentially biased. It occurred to me that if Jane Austen, for whatever reason, wanted certain facts expunged from the record or carefully constructed falsehoods added, she would likely have found ready co-conspirators in her own family, especially in her sister Cassandra.
From what we know of their relationship, they were so close that Cassandra would likely have done anything for Jane. This is what she said of her:
…such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her…
Cassandra is a key figure in any biographical work about Jane Austen. She was the source of the story about Jane’s meeting the mysterious gentleman in Sidmouth – supposedly her one true love. She decided which of Jane’s letters to save for posterity and which ones to burn. Moreover, Cassandra is the filter through which we have received our information. What we are told about Jane, therefore, is in large part only what her beloved sister wanted us to know or believe, not necessarily the whole truth.
So is it conceivable Jane Austen’s life took a very different turn than we’ve been led to believe? I think so. I hope so! Working within a factual framework, I discovered it was entirely possible to construct a plausible alternate outcome for her – even a classic happy ending. Isn’t that what we all would have wanted for her?
I found no such surprising revelations in my grandmother’s diary, and I’m sure it was merely overlooked rather than deliberately hidden away. Not the case with Jane’s journal. It turns out there were very compelling reasons she could not reveal her story to her own generation… but neither could she bear that it should be lost forever. So she authored Persuasion to stand as a public testimony for all time and secreted away her private journal for residents of the future – for us – to unearth.
What do you think? Is it intriguing to consider that Jane Austen might have had a passionate, life-long romance, a secret alternate past? How would you have liked her story to end? Do you have a tale of a long-lost memento or diary to share?