There she sits, on my bookcase, strategically placed in front of my Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen collection. She stands, sealed in her plastic box, day after day, one arm slightly raised, her plastic pen and book neatly stored in their plastic niches in the plastic packaging. Sometimes I notice her, sometimes I forget to. Two Christmases ago, she was a gift from my brother, who doesn’t get Jane Austen on any level, but gets me well enough to know how much I love and revere her. I will admit, I’m not much into action figures, but my little Jane, in her pink and white dress, is like my little guardian angel of writing, quietly encouraging me when inspiration flags.
I found myself wondering what she would say if she could speak, and thus follows my imagined conversation with her:
Georgina: Miss Austen, do you ever get tired of being cooped up in that box, arm raised in perpetuity?
Jane: Not really. I’m a doll so my arm doesn’t get tired. Also, I like watching your world go by. You can’t imagine how much I’m learning about the 21st century. Also, I like being in company on your bookshelf with, not only my own dear novels, but the likes of William Shakespeare, George Eliot, the Brontes, Dickens, that American – Mark Twain, and other fine writers you have exhibited here.
Georgina: How do you know about writers that came after you?
Jane: Dearest, silly, Mrs. Young-Ellis, I live in all the writers that came after me, if they were at all touched or influenced by me.
Georgina: That makes sense. So, what do you think of our world?
Jane: Well, it took me some time to get used to all the clack-clacking your husband does, sitting there nearby at that thing I’ve heard you call a computer. Yet I’ve come to understand it is how you write in the modern day, share images, and communicate with the world at large. It is fascinating. I also watch you, across the room, seated with that small object in your lap, which I’ve come to learn is a smaller, more delicate, and I have to say, somewhat more feminine version of what your husband uses. I daresay, I like it very much.
Georgina: You would like it. If you could have had one to write on, think how many more novels you would have written! It saves an immense amount of time!
Jane: I can see that. You have been quite prolific in the mere ten years or so that you’ve been writing. Not as much as other authors, but…
Georgina: Yes, yes, I know. But wouldn’t you agree that prolificacy isn’t necessarily the goal?
Jane: I was about to say, before you interrupted, my dear, that the process of sitting down, carefully trimmed quill in hand, to write upon paper that came dearly to someone of my modest means, makes one consider every word carefully. I chose each and every word and phrase, knowing that, if it wasn’t the right one, I would have to cross it out, and once that’s done enough times the paper becomes a complete mess. Not only that, but the time and effort involved in writing draft after draft, not to mention the expense, means that much of the writing took place in my head before it went down on paper. I rather like to think that words are precious jewels, to be selected with great care, and reverently. No, I will take my quill and paper. You can have your computers, thank you.
Georgina: Somehow, I understand that. Still, I’m grateful for the tool.
Jane: (Bows her head in polite acquiescence.)
Georgina: What do you think of other things you see from your vantage point? You can see my kitchen, so you must watch us cook. Does it all seem amazing to you?
Jane: Again, while I am astonished with the speed with which you can prepare a meal or make a cup of tea, as well as the convenience of storing food in that large, cold box, and taking things out of packages ready to be consumed, once again, I maintain that, because it required such time and effort, food in my day was not to be taken for granted. Every item we ate was painstakingly grown, raised, and then prepared. Though, of course, I did not do my own cooking, I could appreciate how precious was each and every bite. Again, my charming Mrs. Young-Ellis, I would rather it all be done as it was when I was alive.
Georgina: You’re making me look at everything with fresh eyes. I grow a garden, you know, and I, of course, I realize that there is nothing like the satisfaction of growing food yourself.
Jane: I am most gratified to hear it. There you see? You do understand.
Georgina: Oh, Miss Austen! How I wish I could live in your world! To wear the clothes the ladies wore then, to dance at the balls, to ride in a carriage, to live in a mansion like Pemberley, to fall in love with a handsome and charming gentleman like Mr. Darcy!
Jane: Now, now, Mrs. Young-Ellis, there I must stop you. My novels are fantasies in a sense. My fantasies to be precise, as well as my satirical view of the world around me, which, you must see, being as devoted a reader of my work as you are, I found rather ridiculous. No, as a matter of fact, I did not much like my world. Our long skirts were always getting in the way of running and playing, things I loved to do until I was quite too old for it to be considered appropriate; carriages jostled one horribly; and big houses like Pemberley were very cold. Not only that, but loved ones died young and needlessly of diseases that you do not give a moment’s thought to. People, in particular, women, like me, were not free to pursue their own desires as you do now. I suffered much in choosing to be a writer. I could have married, you know. I had my opportunity; I could have had children, been wealthy and well-cared for. But if I had chosen that path, I might not have picked up a pen again. No, for me, being a writer meant sacrificing all else, with the exception of my own family, who, fortunately, understood me. Look at you, however. You are a woman who can dress as you please, as comfortably as you please, go out into the world, do whatever you want, come back, write, with avenues to sell your work that I never had. You are not a prisoner of convention and society’s expectations. And, while, your husband may not fit the description of a Mr. Darcy, he is also not constrained by the demands that society placed on someone of Mr. Darcy’s position. I see how you laugh together, how you talk about everything, how you both create, and love, and live just as you like. No, my dearest, do not wish to live in my world. I may prefer some aspects of it to yours, but in your world you are free. I was only free in my mind.
Georgina: (Chastened) I see your point.
Jane: And now, let me get back to my musings. You cannot imagine the stories I’ve written in my mind while I stand here and watch your world go by. They entertain me immensely. I have no need for others to read them. They are mine, and mine alone.
Georgina: (Dying a little inside) I wish I could hear them!
Jane: That is why you write. Because I no longer can put my stories down on paper, I need you to carry on for me. And I don’t mean the “fan fiction,” necessarily, though it is all very nice. I mean all of it. All the words that you and your writer friends share with the world. You are carrying on my legacy in all of it. Well done, my dear, well done.