“Jane Austen and Me” (by Judith Cutler)

Judith Cutler is the author of seven long-running and highly acclaimed series of mystery novels and stories, several of which have historical settings. Her most recent books available in the U.S. are Drawing the Line, starring Lina Townend, apprenticed antiques dealer, and Cheating the Hangman, featuring Parson Tobias Campion. Both novels (published by Allison & Busby) are from series that include short stories for EQMM. We have two new Cutler stories scheduled for upcoming issues. Here, the U.K. author shares some thoughts about writing through a look at the life of a literary genius.—Janet Hutchings

To my shame, although I read all the Jane Austen novels when I was still in my teens, it’s taken me till I’m seventy to make my first pilgrimage to Chawton.

What moved me the most in the famous cottage in a tiny Hampshire village?

The tiny table she used as a desk?

Her father’s bookcase, still holding some of the books she would have read as a young person?

The topaz cross her brother gave her, reminding us of the amber cross William gave his beloved Fanny?

All of these made the heart constrict. But the things that I lingered by longest, in a mixture of admiration, amusement, and fury, were examples of her handiwork. What was one of the greatest English novelists doing, wasting her time making stoles or lace collars or a patchwork quilt?

Jane Austen was being a conventional woman of her period, that’s what. For good and for bad. In many, many ways, for bad.

Take her childhood. Unlike many girls, she actually went to school, but her education ceased at the time when a young mind is at its most receptive. Her family wouldn’t have stopped a son’s schooling at the age of ten. At least Jane Austen’s education didn’t stop then—though Love and Freindship suggests she didn’t master the i before e except after c spelling rule—because she read her way through her father’s apparently uncensored extensive library, the remains of which are still housed in his bookshelf. So although she might not have learned of the ways of the world first hand, there is little in Clarissa left to the imagination. History; religion; philosophy: they must all have been there, because we can see their influence in her own writing. There was her own History of England—not exactly Simon Schama, but more fun. She wrote elegant but clearly heartfelt prayers. And her own characters were advised to undertake “improving reading” to console them and sustain them in times of difficulty, like Captain Benwick’s in Persuasion. But then, to fund her family’s sudden exodus from her beloved Steventon Rectory to lodgings in Bath, most of the books disappeared, sold to strangers.

Bath, you’ll recall, was the elegant spa town beloved of hypochondriacs to which Jane Austen was taken, willy-nilly, when her father chose to retire. There was no family discussion—you can imagine the arguments would have been lively. Just a parental decision, prompting Jane to faint with shock. Had Mr. Austen survived, the move might have been beneficial, in the world’s eyes at least. The Austen sisters might have moved in society, made friends and even found rich husbands—the ultimate goal for a woman of that period. But he died very soon after the move. He left his family impoverished and without a man to give them respectability they could go nowhere, taste none of the delights—theatre, balls, assemblies—that were dancing tantalisingly just out of reach.

Money and respectability: You could not live without them.

Not if you were a woman. Because there was no respectable occupation, apart from being a governess, that a woman could undertake. At Steventon, as a girl, like Catherine Morland, Jane Austen probably played baseball and cricket; as a young woman, she walked for miles about the neighbourhood, probably, like Lizzie Bennett, causing scandal by being unchaperoned. As a spinster in her thirties—as one of four women living in the Chawton cottage—she would have been unwilling to risk gossip, so when she was not writing, she had to occupy herself with traditionally feminine skills. The women weren’t exactly cooped up together—the building is more spacious than today’s notion of a cottage. But they couldn’t afford to live in anything approaching the style of her brother Edward, who allowed them the cottage rent free. Yes, we walked up to his pad, Chawton House, now The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing. Despite its rather plain exterior, inside it’s just the sort of place any family would love to live in, with elegance where the cottage has respectability, and space where the cottage has cosy corners.

I wonder if Jane ever felt understandably bitter. There’s plenty of evidence in her novels after all that she really did not like people with a bob on themselves—people who think that having money and land makes them superior, even if they don’t have the brains, manners or morals to match.

Meanwhile, of course, she was beginning to be a professional writer, publishing novels as a Lady. She wrote not at an executive desk but at a tiny, tiny twelve-sided table, ready to cover her work when a creaking door warned her that visitors were approaching. Her treasured writing slope isn’t on show, but you can find that at the British Library. No ergonomic office chair for her, but a rush-seated one meant for the dining table.

So if writing wasn’t the sort of thing the neighbours could know about, how could she officially pass the time? Music was a vital accomplishment for a young woman, preferably played on the harp, and failing that, the piano. We know Jane Austen was an accomplished pianist, practising before breakfast each day, and there in the corner of the dining room is a Clementi square piano—not her own, sadly, but at least one of the same period. We know that while Cassandra was skilled in watercolours, another necessary skill, there seems to be no record of her sister attempting them. However, she was an amazing needlewoman—not just respectable white work to be distributed to the local deserving poor, but exquisite lace. Some of her lace joins two pieces of muslin to form an enviable evening stole; the best piece is a detachable lace collar. Did she spend hours and valuable eyesight on work like this for pleasure? Or because she couldn’t afford to buy it? Perhaps a mixture of the two. And remember every stitch set after dark would be done in dim candlelight, not in bright light with a magnifying glass or spotlight to help.

And then there’s the patchwork quilt. Technically speaking, since while the piece is backed, it has no wadding, it’s not a quilt, but a coverlet. Mrs. Austen, Jane, and Cassandra all worked on it. Together? How did they divide the tasks? Did one cut, another sew, and the third read aloud while they worked? We know that at one point Cassandra was asked to collect ‘peices [sic—that i before e problem!] for the Patchwork.’ Altogether they used 64 different fabrics, cut into dozens of diamonds and rhomboids of various sizes. There’s a big central panel showing a basket of flowers, and landscapes and flowers in more diamonds round the edges. Quilters will be able to give an expert assessment; all I can do is marvel at the hours Jane Austen spent on it: by hand, remember—sewing machines were inventions of the future. Was she plotting the next novel as she worked? Working out a piece of dialogue? Wondering if the names she’d chosen fitted a character—Mrs. Elton, for instance? Did she worry about the financial deal her brother was making for Sense and Sensibility? Did she break off from time to time to jot down an idea, cursing when she got ink on her fingers?

Suddenly, as I looked at it, I realised that we had something in common, the great genius of the written word and me, a journeywoman mid-lister. I too have to do mundane, prosaic things: preparing supper, mowing the lawn, giving my teddy bear a new fur coat. Actually, I need to. Nonthinking activities give my head down-time, so the creative part of my brain can get to work without any interference. The Austen quilt was probably a vital part of her brain’s re-creation—the hyphen is deliberate! But while my teddy looks very fine, even he will admit that he is not, like the quilt, a work of art, any more than any of my novels would hold a candle to one of hers.

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