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Jane Austen is such a presence in Fran's life that she seems to share her cottage and garden, becoming an imaginary friend.
Fran’s conversations with Jane Austen guide and chide her – but Fran is ready for change after years of teaching, reading and gardening. An encounter with a long-standing English friend, and an American writer, leads to new possibilities. Adrift, the three women bond through a love of books and a quest for the idealist poet Shelley at two pivotal moments of his life: in Wales and Venice. His otherworldly longing and yearning for utopian communities lead the women to interrogate their own past as well as motherhood, feminism, the resurgence of childhood memory in old age, the tensions and attractions between generations. Despite the appeal of solitude, the women open themselves social to ways of living - outside partnership and family. Jane Austen, as always, has plenty of comments to offer.
The novel is a (light) meditation on age, mortality, friendship, hope, and the excitement of change.
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|Publisher:||Global Book Sales|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.50(h) x (d)|
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Excerpt from the novel
“It is a truth universally…” begins Jane Austen.
“Shhh,” says Fran, finger on lips. “Not subtle. Money and sex. How many versions before you settled on that flirtatious, teasing opening?”
The amazing Agafia Lykova, reclusive and garrulous, lives alone in the wilderness of the Siberian Taiga. The last survivor of a family of Old Believers who fled Stalin’s persecutions in 1936, Agafia traps animals and grows potatoes. In a lean year, like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush she eats her leather shoes. Excluding the shoes, the diet’s good—in her ‘70s she retains her teeth, though filed down from cracking nuts. Now a world-famous hermit, she receives numerous letters and presents. The donated modern food may cause tooth decay. Fran smiles with Jane Austen over this account. “I know,” she says, “the material is so intense we should focus on trifles. Those shoes, the fan letters.“ Nothing is trifling in the life of the isolate, the miraculous Lykova. Nor in the life of Jane Austen. Both are celebrities.
“I am a fridge magnet and banknote,” remarks Jane Austen. “Miss Lykova, I believe, is on YouTube.”
Fran looks through her kitchen window. Bare trees and flat, sodden, sewage-coloured February fields below a greyish sky. If the sky came lower moist, cold and alive would it squash the mushroom-smelling earth, leave a slug-trail? I may have to learn to be with people before it’s too late, she thinks. “You’d be happier if you had work, observes Jane Austen. Your Agafia’s busy fishing, digging, praying. You need intricate sewing. Men don’t sew. Men have guns,” says Jane Austen (contrary to admiring views, she’s not always in universal touch), “they get up with the lark to shoot things. Remember Robinson Crusoe, his fingers always moving…”
Annie suspects Jane Austen of haunting her friend. Not quite, Fran would say if they discussed the matter. The woman’s there, often uninvited. Like a dream she ambles in, sits down and won’t leave despite batting eyelids. Or an intruder, settled where a shadow should be. Is Fran grateful? Dickens’s Mrs Blimber from Dombey and Son said, if she could have known Cicero, she’d have died contented. Fran sometimes resents her Author muttering in her ear. Mind’s ear, Annie might have said had the discussion occurred.
“The fact is you’re too isolated here now you’ve retired. You’ll get weird if you stay much longer. Well, weirder.”
“I know,” says Fran, unable to repress a smile. She’s pleased when someone analyses her. “Dr Johnson thought solitude and idleness roads to madness. Can’t do idleness,” grins Fran fingering the small screwdriver in the drooping front pocket of her jumpsuit. She stares at the drizzle doing pointillism on the small-paned windows, then swivels her eyes towards thin cracks in the bulging plaster round the nobbled wood frames. Mice scamper along private alleyways. To prevent Annie noticing, she speaks loudly, “I’m planning to write now I’ve time. Something oblique, a little personal.” A recounted life’s the thing, she thinks, heading boldly into what must be a short and always maybe future.
“Writing in solitude may be as mad as talking to yourself. Virginia Woolf’s room of her own was in a big family house. You’ll never have a writing group out here. You haven’t even joined a book club.” Fran avoids looking at Jane Austen, who, she guesses, smirks by the window. She hears the Author saying (for the umpteenth time) that she never wrote alone, someone was always at home to applaud a paragraph, laugh at a witticism. Women do not need rooms of their ownwe do not all live in Bloomsbury, she rumbles on. We were a big bustling family, extra young people about, father’s pupils, friends, relations. Just Mum, Dad and Me, sighs Fran. But we were content.
What, thinks Annie, can Fran write about? She has no fierceness about lost life. Those dear shapeless parents in their warm little bungalow? Then she recalls drowned Andrew.
“One can live alone without finding oneself lonely.”
“Naturally.” Annie winces at the pronoun. She’d been mocked as bourgeois and (paradoxically) an echo of that fossil Prince Charles for using it in a lecture. Now she forces herself into ungrammatical obscenity, while feeling the impatience of a convert.
“I don’t miss teaching,” says Fran. “It was just entertainment. But I wanted some swagger in my life.” Fran hesitates, “I guess I feel a bit of a failure.” She wishes she’d not had to work hard for everything. So much nicer to have it through luck.
Annie glances benignly at her friend. “Not a failure, you just chose a profession you were ill-equipped for.”
“You mean you’re competent and I’m not?”
“No, but I persevered at….’ Fran isn’t listening. She doesn’t want to hear Annie say again how little her efforts have been rewarded. Fran relishes her friend’s successes.
“You’ll be retired soon. A Senior Railcard takes you anywhere.” Old age is an equalizer, Fran means. It can, should they choose, be daisy-time together.
The Author sits in a nook alone. “I never fail,” she remarks. Fran stares towards the darkness. She knows what Jane Austen thinks of her quiet mastery, her magical tactile density. She also knows what she thinks of her author’s faux humility, those little pieces if ivory she claimed to be writing on with little effect. Really!
“There are readers who say my books repeat themselves,” continues Jane Austen; “pretty girl catches eligible man. Common romances. Not so. Only a jealous person understands real love, always one-sided. Fanny Price, my heroine with the undiverted heart.”
“You wrote she’d have taken another man, you betrayed her.”
“I am a realist. I deal in probabilities.”
“Pride and Prejudice: the girl who gets it all?”
“Things exactly as they are,” murmurs Jane Austen dreamily, “a crimson horse and blue guitar.” She pulls herself back to her time. One must earn pewter.
“You created weak Fanny Price to atone for Lizzie Bennet’s ludicrous luck and rudeness. Is it a virtue to be healthy?”
Copyright Janet Todd, 2021