Excuse me as I begin this post by veering away, just briefly, from the rhelm of Austen and into that of one of my other passions. We will return to subject of primary interest in just a moment, I promise.
Classical mythology tells us of nine Muses: the goddesses of inspiration. There’s Thalia, the muse of comedy. Melpomene’s province is tragedy, one of the most important contributions the Ancient Greeks made to world culture (think Oedipus). Terpsichore is the muse of dance. Clio inspires history, so we have her to thank for the laments of Catherine Moreland on this subject. Astronomers warrant a muse: Urania. Calliope is the muse to the epic poets, like that guy Homer. Euterpe is the muse of lyric poets, which were traditionally accompanied by an instrument and sung, while Erato handles the love poetry. Polyhymnia, appropriately, inspires hymns. Anyone missing? To whom can a poor novelist turn?
The novel really is a modern art form. Prose have existed from time immemorial, they just weren’t considered the venue for great literary works (sorry Plato). The novel as we know it was a relatively recent invention in Jane Austen’s time. In Western literature, Don Quixote, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe vie for the honor of being the “first” novel. By that point no one was adding new muses to the lineup.
I feel like I bounce around between these ladies. One moment I’m seeking help from Thalia or Melpomene, the next it’s Clio whose assistance I need. Obviously, I’m being ridiculous. Whose spirit do I really invoke when I hit a wall? Jane Austen’s, of course! A muse for the modern age. In fact, I was rather explicit about this at the beginning of my first novel, First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride & Prejudice. I give you my highly tongue-in-cheek “Apology” (and yes, it’s a socratic reference):
It is well acknowledged that every author determined to continue, elaborate on, or simply meddle with Jane Austen’s novels must be highly tempted to include a pithy universal truth, in the manner of the lady herself, which establishes the theme of the story. It’s almost like a religious ritual, an epic invocation: we call for the great authoress to inspire (and forgive) the games we play with her texts. After all, this is hallowed ground on which we tread. So may I ask you, Miss Austen, to please excuse what I am about to do to your tale of Elizabeth and Darcy? I offer this story in homage to your sense of playfulness, not in some mistaken belief that my pen could ever duplicate yours. You gave each character his or her original essence and to them I will endeavor to be true. I promise to try to not antagonize your delicate sensibilities with the vulgarity of our modern age though I must assume, in spite of my best intentions, that something here will offend. How can it not? The real question is, Jane, do I have your permission to proceed anyway? If only the dead could speak! Perhaps then I would not commit the following atrocity.
And atrocious it was! I offended MANY people with First Impressions, but those who got it laughed. It was a good lesson in how you need to write from your heart without worrying about what others say. No one can please everyone at once, and when a muse calls it is best to follow wherever she may lead. Of course I had Austen’s permission to tamper! She never would have inspired me to do so otherwise, right?
My most recent atrocity is entitled Being Mrs. Bennet. The idea came to me several years ago, but I just wrote the rough draft on my blog last year, and now I am working out the kinks in a second draft, posting at A Happy Assembly. The book is quickly approaching the end, and Darcy and Elizabeth are only just now encountering each other for the first time. Even Lizzy didn’t make her first appearance until a quarter of the way in. The premise is unusual: a rabid Janeite is in a car accident and wakes up to discover herself in the body of Mrs. Bennet. The story has largely written itself, as all of mine do. I am not an author to make notes and outlines. I just start writing and follow my muse. I said I was being ridiculous earlier, but Clio really has been a huge help with this novel, assisting me to reconstruct what a 19th century environment would feel like to a 21st century woman. Thalia has also been enormously useful (at least I think so – the book is intended to be comic), as has Malpomene. I did not know how deep and moving the story would become until she showed me the depth of the emotional complications the scenario presented to each character. But now I have Darcy and Lizzy together at last, at the inn at Lambton, and I need Austen. No one else will do, and she has abandoned me. Oh, I know she’ll be back. She always returns. In the meantime, I’m stuck with a tongue tied hero and heroine. What will they say to each other? I have no idea.
Might this post serve as an offering, my dear Jane? In return, will you not grant me the guidance of your priceless wit? Just for a few more hours?
As I sit and wait humbly for her guidance, I might as well engage in a tad of shameless self-promotion. This is still a rough draft, but please enjoy this excerpt from Being Mrs. Bennet. Let me know if you think Thalia came through for me.
“Mama? Are you alright?” questioned the first voice again. Alison focused all her will power on making her eyes open despite the crushing light and focus on a teenage girl dressed like a Masterpiece Theater character. The bulbous shadow was her enormous bonnet.
“Don’t try to sit up, ma’am,” a male voice, far less refined, emanated from a new figure, leaning over her from behind the girl. “Johnny’s on his way for help.” It was easy for Alison to oblige. She closed her eyes again, and in what seemed no more than a moment was roused by a screeching sound.
“Oh! My dear Mrs. Bennet! How could such a thing come to pass?” Alison had only a second to recall her predicament before she felt strong arms begin to inch their way beneath her.
“T’was a rut in the road, Lady Lucas! Weren’t there yesterday, and I’d swear on that!” She felt herself carefully raised.
“Never mind, lad. Better ride to Longbourn and inform Mr. Bennet. Carriage accidents happen all the time. It is no great mystery, my dear!” Carriage accident? Alison wondered how she might possibly have been injured by a carriage? On the beltway? Nothing seemed to make any sense, but she assumed that was due to the lump on her head.
Eyes still closed, Alison felt herself gingerly laid against a leather bench, her head supported by a lavender scented lap. She sighed with relief and prepared to fall back to sleep, listening to a voice whisper, “It is but a short drive to Lucas Lodge, Mama. This will not take but a moment.”
I’ll take it, she thought, and drifted off, only to be lurched back into consciousness a moment later when the contraption conveying her began to move. “What the hell!” she cried, sitting up quickly, only to be forced to cradle her head again while the world spun, jostled, and jolted, all at once.
“Mama!” cried one scandalized lady while the other two giggled.
Before another word could be spoken, the dratted vehicle slammed to a halt, nearly knocking Alison off her precarious seat and onto the floor, but six ready arms grabbed at her in support.
“Thank you,” she said gratefully, in a voice nothing like her own, and the world suddenly came into focus. She looked around at the black box in which she sat with three oddly garbed strangers who kept calling her “Mama” in a lilting, staccato manner, and wondered if she had lost her mind. She soon knew she had.
One wall of the box disappeared in a shocking bolt of light, and a voice called out from it: “Ah! Mrs. Bennet! You look more yourself already. Let me help you down!” A hand reached out for her, like something out of a Korean horror film, soon followed by the bulbous nose and ruddy complexion of the most unfortunate looking man she had ever beheld. There was nothing else to do but scream.
The girls looked at her in surprise, while the man’s yellow smile fell with concern. “No, not quite yourself yet, I see. No worries! We shall have you restored in a moment. The lads will carry you onto the sofa.” He indicated to two dirty looking boys, the smell of whom she perceived the moment her eyes spotted them.
“I think I can walk now, thank you,” she said shakily. With relief, she was allowed to step outside on her own.
“It was a carriage!” she wondered aloud, looking about her in amazement. She stood upon a gravel driveway before a solidly Georgian house: perfectly balanced, and but for the lack of a sunroom on one side almost identical to the house in which she had grown up. Many of the houses in her neighborhood were of the same design, together presenting an impressive spectacle of suburban affluence, but they were set on one to two acre plots, not surrounded by such unabated land as this place. Nor did the chemically treated lawns of her youth ever sport sheep grazing upon them, only an occasional garden statue, never to be fazed by Chemlawn. She turned around to see her three traveling companions scurrying out of the honest to goodness carriage – drawn by two horses, no less! She had only once been in a carriage before: a tourist trap in Central Park. The ladies before her each wore an empire-waist muslin dress and bonnet. She looked down at her own clothes and noticed with amazement the yards of brocade she sported. As with the smell of those filthy teenage boys, who were smiling at the young ladies, it took the observance of her eyes for her body to notice that the item poking her under her ribs must be a corset.
“Let us get you inside, Mrs. Bennet,” said the horrible man, taking her arm, from which she recoiled, and leading her into the house. At least he didn’t smell of the stables. She looked behind her to see one of the girls laughing at something one of the boys said and shuddered. No good can come of that flirtation, her motherly instincts warned, and she took a moment to be grateful her girls knew better.
She was made comfortable on the sofa, or at least as much so as possible on such a hard, unforgiving piece of furniture. The ugly man was sent by the screeching lady – his wife, Alison presumed – to get a cold compress. She thanked the lady for the thought, especially that which banished the man.
“My dear Mrs. Bennet! I do hope you do not suffer any long-term trauma from this day’s work! It is a wonder you and the girls were not killed, not a quarter mile from Lucas Lodge! Do drink a glass of wine. I am sure it must help you!”
Alison accepted the proffered glass and sipped before saying in the strange voice, “I think there has to be some mistake. Do you know where my husband and daughters are?”
“Your girls will be in at any moment, and Mr. Bennet is at Longbourn, of course! He has been sent for: never fear on that score. I shall also drop a quick note to Mrs. Phillips, shall I? She will want to know what has befallen you. It is too bad my Maria is not at home to entertain the Misses Bennet. We look forward to the return of our girls from Hunsford, do we not, dear?”
Alison was on the verge of protesting that she did not know any of the names her hostess mentioned, when a glimmer of recognition kindled in her brain, quickly growing into a maelstrom. One of the girls now reappearance, dropping a quick curtsy before burying her nose in a book. From the outside, one of the others could be hear emitting a squeal of girlish laughter. Longbourn, Bennet, Lucas Lodge … “Lady Lucas?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes?” the lady readily replied, looking at her expectantly
Dear god! Alison thought. I really have gone mad. I think I’m Mrs. Bennet! The shock was enough to make her feel lightheaded again. It might be one thing to travel back in time – though the shock must still take some adjustment – but how is it possible for a person to be transported into a book? Ridiculous! Impossible! She must be insane.
It was upon drawing this conclusion that the two remaining young ladies burst into the room, stumbling upon each other and giggling. The tallest – perfectly raven curls bouncing, rosy cheeks aglow, and a devious sparkle in her eye – honed in upon Alison and announced in bold tones, “You shall never guess, Mama! Sir William’s groom has a litter of puppies in the stables. May we go look at them? James says I might choose one to take home, if I don’t care for getting my skirts dirty, which I don’t a jot.”
My god! It’s Lydia! Alison recognized her youngest’s namesake with abject horror. Real or not, it seemed the most oblivious hoyden in 19th century literature was her own responsibility. “Oh! My head!” she exclaimed and closed her eyes.
Clearly, she was reaping the ultimate punishment for having so stupidly insisted on naming all the girls after the Bennet family. Her mind had come unhinged, and reality and fantasy had intermingled in a perfect Gordian Knot. How was one to act when they did not even understand what was happening about them?
But Alison was not one to succumb to circumstances. Real or not, the weight of responsibility for Lydia Bennet descended upon her like an anvil on a coyote. She reopened her eyes, ready to confront five and a half plus feet of empowered teenager, just itching to do something stupid.
Thanks for reading!