JANE AUSTEN'S NIGHTMARE
Chawton, Wednesday 2 August 1815
An extraordinary adventure which I only just experienced proved to be so vivid and distressing-and yet ultimately so illuminating-that I feel I must record it in its entirety.
It was a gloomy, grey, frigid afternoon, and I found myself traversing a strangely quiet and deserted street in Bath. (Bath! It is indeed the most tiresome place in the world, a visit there surely akin to a descent into Hades.) A low fog hung in the air, dampening the pavements and obscuring the heights of the long rows of limestone townhouses on either side of me.
I wondered how I had come to be there, and why I was alone. Should I not be snug at home at Chawton Cottage? Where were all the residents of Bath-a city generally so filled with crowds, noise, and confusion? Where did I get the (very smart) pale blue muslin gown in which I was attired, and the grey wool cloak with its beautiful lace collar, both too handsome to be seen much less worn? As I shivered and wrapped my cloak more tightly about me, I observed a pretty young woman of about seventeen years of age emerge from the fog and venture in my direction. I could not prevent a little start of surprise, for the newcomer looked exactly like Marianne Dashwood-at least the Marianne that I had envisioned while writing Sense and Sensibility.
How wonderful it was, I thought, that a real-life woman and a complete stranger should so closely resemble the character whom I had created entirely in my mind! I was about to politely avert my gaze when, of a sudden, the young woman's eyes widened and she marched determinedly up to me.
"Miss Jane Austen, is it not?" exclaimed she, stopping directly before me.
"Yes," replied I, uncertain how it was possible that this young woman should be acquainted with me.
"Surely you recognise me!" persisted she in an impassioned tone.
"Should I? I am very sorry. I do not believe we have ever met."
"Of course we have! You created me. I am Marianne."
I was at a loss for words. Had I imbibed too much wine at dinner? Was this exchange simply another one of my imaginative flights of fancy? Or could it be that, by some remarkable twist of fate, it was truly occurring? Whatever the cause, I did not wish to appear rude. "Of course," said I, smiling as I extended my hand to her, "I did think you looked familiar. How lovely to make your acquaintance in person at last. How have you been?"
"Not well. Not well at all!" cried she with a vigorous shake of her curls as she ignored my proffered hand. "I have wanted to converse with you for such a long time, I am grateful to at last have the opportunity." Her eyes flashed as she demanded, "What could you have been thinking, Jane-I may call you Jane, may I not?-when you wrote all that about me?"
"When I wrote what?" responded I uncertainly.
"In every scene throughout that entire, horrid novel," answered Marianne, "you presented me as the most selfish and self-involved creature on the face of the earth. I was always waxing rhapsodic about poetry or dead leaves, harshly critiquing somebody or something, or crying my eyes out in the depths of despair! Could not you have given me even one scene where I might have behaved with equanimity?"
This verbal assault, so entirely unexpected and delivered with such depth of emotion, took me utterly aback. "I-I was simply attempting to make you different from your sister," explained I, my voice faltering, "to portray two opposite temperaments."
"By my example then, do you mean to imply that having passionate feelings is a great evil?" cried Marianne.
"No-not at all. My aim was to illustrate the injurious nature of wallowing in excessive emotion and the importance of self-restraint."
"If that is so, was it truly necessary to enforce such suffering upon me to get across your point? You made me look ridiculous and pathetic! You humiliated me at a party! You nearly had me die-literally die! And the most cruel offence of all, Jane: you broke my heart. You had me fall madly, passionately in love with a man who was akin to my second self, and then you deliberately and remorselessly snatched him away!" Marianne choked back a sob as she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief from her reticule. "All the other heroines in every one of your novels end up with the man they love, except me. You married me off to a man nearly twice my age! How could you do it?"
A paroxysm of guilt pierced through me with the speed of an arrow. Every word she spoke was true. Had I indeed sacrificed Marianne's happiness to convey a lesson? But no-no.
"I am sorry, Marianne," murmured I with sincere compassion. "I did indeed put you through a great many trials in my novel-but in the end, everything turns out well. I hope you and Colonel Brandon are very happy?"
"Colonel Brandon is the most loyal, amiable, and good-hearted of gentlemen," retorted Marianne testily. "He loves me, of that I am well aware, and I suppose I love him back. Every day I try to remind myself how fortunate I am to be his wife. But every day is just as quiet, spiritless, and dull as the last! We read. We take walks. We ride horses. We dine. He cleans his rifle and hunts. I do needle-work and play the pianoforte. Oh! Were it not for my mother's and sisters' visits, I think I should go mad! Where is the heart-pounding excitement I felt in every encounter with Willoughby? Am I never to feel that way again?"
"Marianne," answered I solemnly, "the excitement you describe might be thrilling for a moment, but it is not the preferred way to live. A marriage based on affection, respect, and companionship is a more desirable union, and will make you far happier."
"Happier? What do you know of happiness, Jane? Upon what do you base these assumptions? You, who have never married!"
Her brutal and tactless remarks made me gasp-yet I reminded myself that I had created her-I had made her what she was. "I base them upon my observations of other married couples. I could not in good conscience allow you to marry Willoughby. He was greedy, selfish, and fickle, and would have made you miserable. I thought you understood that at the end."
"You put words in my mouth to show what I had learned-but they were your words, Jane, not mine. I know the truth. I know why you stole my Willoughby away: it was because you could not have Mr. Ashford. You suffered, so you made certain that I suffered, as well!"
At the mention of Mr. Ashford's name, my heart seized and I let out a little gasp. Not a day passed that I did not think of Mr. Ashford. He was the one, true love of my life, but for good reason, I had told no one about our relationship-no one except Henry and my sister. How could Marianne know about him?
"It was most unfair of you, Jane! Most unfair!" Tears streamed down Marianne's cheeks now and she took a quivering breath. "Could not you have given me and Willoughby a second chance? You might have redeemed him at any time had you chosen to, but you did not. I declare, I will never forgive you!" With this last, heated remark, she turned and darted away.
"Marianne, come back!" cried I, running after her. "Have you forgotten Eliza, whom Willoughby seduced, disgraced, and abandoned? I saved you from Willoughby! He was one of the worst offenders I ever created! Colonel Brandon is worth a hundred Willoughbys! He is the true hero of the novel!"
But the fog enveloped Marianne's retreating form and she disappeared from my view.
I stopped, catching my breath, remorse and confusion coursing through me. If only she had given me more time to explain! But even if she had, how could I defend what I had done? Should I have redeemed Willoughby? I had barely the briefest interval, however, to contemplate these misgivings when, from a tea shop but a few yards ahead of me, emerged two young ladies deeply engaged in conversation.
I recognised them at once: it was Marianne's sister Elinor, walking arm in arm with Fanny Price. I was astounded. How was it possible that these two women from entirely different novels should be acquainted with each other? Moreover, what were they doing in Bath? They looked up, exchanged a brief, surprised glance, and hurried up to me.
"Good afternoon, Miss Austen," said Elinor with a graceful curtsey. "How lovely to see you."
"This is an extraordinary coincidence," murmured Fanny with a shy curtsey of her own. "Mrs. Ferrars and I were just talking about you."
"We only just met an hour ago," explained Elinor, nodding towards the establishment behind them, "and already we have become fast friends. We discovered that we have a great deal in common."
"You are indeed very much alike," agreed I with a smile, pleased by the notion of their new friendship. "I have dearly loved you both since the moment of your inception."
"You see?" said Fanny quietly, darting a meaningful look at her companion.
Elinor nodded gravely but remained silent.
A foreboding feeling came over me. "Is any thing the matter?" asked I.
"Not a thing," said Elinor.
"The weather is very cold and damp," observed Fanny, "do not you think?"
I knew them both too well to be taken in by the polite composure on their faces. "You need not keep any secrets from me. If there is something you wish to say, please speak freely."
"Well," said Fanny reluctantly, "we do not mean to complain. It is just that-" She could not go on.
"It is about our characters," interjected Elinor quickly.
"Your characters?" answered I. "But what is wrong with your characters? You are both excellent, intelligent women, with sincere and affectionate dispositions, strength of understanding, calmness of manner, and coolness of judgment."
"Precisely," stated Fanny.
"You made us too perfect," said Elinor.
"Too perfect?" cried I. "How can any one be too perfect?"
"I always behaved with the utmost of propriety," said Elinor, "no matter how difficult or oppressive the circumstance. At only nineteen years of age, I was required to be the model of patience, perseverance, and fortitude, obliged to keep my entire family financially and emotionally afloat, and to conceal my pain beneath a façade of complete composure, even when my heart was breaking."
"Yes, and you are admired for your strength of character, Elinor," insisted I.
"Admired perhaps, but not liked. No one likes a character who is flawless, Miss Austen."
"It was the same for me," remarked Fanny. "How I succeeded in maintaining even a modicum of self-respect in such a hostile, belittling, and unfeeling environment as Mansfield Park is purely due to God's grace and your pen. You made me sit timidly by while the man I loved chased after another woman, had me refuse a charming man who was almost entirely good, and would not even allow me to participate in a private play, insisting that it was indelicate and wrong! How I disliked myself! No one is fond of a shy, priggish, and passive character, Miss Austen. No one!"
"I am very fond of you," returned I emphatically. "Edmund likes you. He loves you."
"Only because you made him just as good and virtuous as I."
"The book has oft been praised for its morality and sound treatment of the clergy!" insisted I a little desperately.
"That may be so," said Fanny, "and please correct me if I am wrong, but your own mother finds me insipid, your niece Anna cannot bear me, and the reading public at large finds Edmund and I both annoying and as dull as dishwater."
To my mortification, I could not refute her statement.
"People love strong, outspoken characters," said Elinor, "who will not allow themselves to be trampled on by others-characters who have flaws but overcome them. Yet in our books, you imply that by being consistently patient, good, and silent, a woman can rise above difficult circumstances."
"Surely this message controverts everything you told us about life in that other book," said Fanny.
"What other book?" asked I.
"Why, the book that is everyone's favorite," answered Elinor with a tight little smile. She then said good-day, and after Fanny made a final comment about the weather, the pair linked arms, turned, and made their way down the damp, grey pavement.
My thoughts were in such a state of disarray that I hardly knew what to think or feel. I strode off in the opposite direction, crossing the road, when a carriage suddenly appeared out of the fog and nearly ran me down. It was some time before my heart returned to its natural pace. How long I walked on in this distracted manner along the nearly deserted streets I cannot say, but at length I passed the Abbey Church and found myself standing outside the Pump-room. A cacophony of voices issued from within, proof that not all the inhabitants of Bath had stayed at home.
As I was cold and thirsty, I hurried inside the Pump-room, where a crowd milled about in spacious elegance, and musicians in the west apse performed a pleasant air. A cursory glance revealed that I had no acquaintance there. Appreciative of the heat emanating from two large fireplaces, I made my way to the fountain, where I paid the attendant for a glass of water and drank it down. As I turned, I nearly collided with a handsome young man smartly dressed in the uniform of a naval officer, exactly like that of my brothers Frank and Charles.
"Forgive me," said he with a bow, before purchasing his own glass and moving on. The naval captain made a most arresting figure, and I wondered what lay behind the sad look in his eyes. My attention was soon diverted, however, by the sight of an attractive, fashionably dressed young woman who was intently studying all the passersby, as if seeking out some one in particular. She looked strangely familiar. All at once I knew why: it was Emma Woodhouse.
Emma! In my view, one of the most delightful creatures I had ever conceived! Upon catching sight of me, Emma started with recognition, a look that quickly turned to worry as she glided to my side.
"There you are! I have been looking every where for you, Miss Austen. Have the others found you?"
"Word has got out that you are in town. There are quite a few people who are-" (she hesitated) "-most anxious to speak with you."
Oh dear, I thought, my heart sinking. This could prove to be a most exhausting day. "Thank you. I will keep an eye out for the others, whoever they may be. But how is it that you are here, Emma? My book about you is only just completed. It has yet to be sold or published."