Tuesday, July 16, 2019

How Jane Austen Found the Space to Write

From Women Writers:
The truth is I have written on the fly— in cafés and restrooms, on trains and planes, sometimes using improvised materials such as the backs of envelopes, theater programs, and once, when I got back to the car from a hike and realized I didn’t have the key or a piece of paper in my pocket, on a leaf. I will hasten to add, though, that while these moments have been fun and piquant, routine is my bread and butter. I like to write in the morning because that’s when my brain cells work best, at my desk with its view of trees and birds, wordless classical music on the radio, in a composition book, with a good fountain pen.

But do I need all that? Wouldn’t I still manage to write if I didn’t have the nice desk and the morning set aside? Wouldn’t it somehow magically get done? Over the years I’ve had to defend my working time from family, friends and co-workers who will one moment marvel at my productivity and the next look puzzled or hurt when I’m not free in the mornings or available for extra assignments. Isn’t writing something I can “just fit in”? What does a writer really need to write? 
Which brings me to Jane Austen. The famous picture of Jane Austen is of her craftily sneaking her writing time, scribbling in the corner of the parlor, hiding her pages when interrupted, and never shirking her housework. After her death, when the secret of her authorship was revealed to the world, her nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh wrote in his memoir of his aunt, “She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. 
She wrote upon small sheets of paper that could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming” (Worsley 316). 
What a card, that Aunt Jane! Notice the elaborate explanation for a piece of household duty going undone. Certainly, she wouldn’t have neglected any other household chore for the sake of getting some writing done, only to keep strangers from knowing she was engaged in such an unladylike pastime. On her death, her brother James eulogized her with a little poem that ended: “They saw her ready still to share/The labours of domestic care” (Worsley 403). 
The picture that emerges is of a woman who wrote in the margins of life, the message being that writing is something that can be fitted into the corners and somehow done while simultaneously cross-stitching a sampler and baking the daily bread. In fact, the tiny table Jane wrote on is literally in a corner. This is a particularly damaging message for women writers: Surely if Jane Austen could write six masterpieces of English literature while stewing a posset, you can write your novel in between commuting to work and putting your six-year-old to bed. (Read more.)

No comments: