I've loved writing Searching for Mr Tilney and I hope you'll enjoy reading it too. Here's a peek at the Prologue and Chapter One - Chapter Two will be posted tomorrow!
Chelsea, London July 2017
There was the usual biographical notice written after Jane Austen’s death by her brother Henry, followed by the history of the publication. And then
there was a letter from Jane Austen written in 1809 that I hadn’t seen replicated before. Written to her publisher Richard Crosby who’d bought the manuscript in 1803 for ten pounds and not published it, Jane was accusing him of having lost what was later to become Northanger Abbey. The tone of the letter was curt, cross and coldly polite, but she was willing to supply him with another copy. There was a reply printed further down the page from Crosby who’d suggested, rather meanly, that if publication were sought elsewhere, he’d take proceedings to stop it, demanding she pay back the money he’d given her. This was all very interesting, but Jane’s letter was a mystery in more ways than one. She’d signed it at the bottom: I am Gentlemen, etc. etc. M. A. D., with an address for the post office at Southampton for a Mrs Ashton Dennis. I laughed out loud at that, which made one or two people turn round to stare at me for disturbing the church-like sanctity of the place, but I could see what she’d done. The initials of her pseudonym had been written so she could express just how she was feeling about the man who’d failed to publish her book. As the successful author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, she must have been feeling very “mad” that her dearest Catherine had been overlooked. Quite unexpectedly, and with chills to send my spine tingling, another memory surfaced as I read the familiar sounding name again - Mrs Ashton Dennis. It was forty-two years since I’d heard it, almost the same number of years Jane Austen had been when she’d tragically died, but the name was as well known to me as the person who’d hidden behind it. And then I knew, even if I had more questions to be answered than ever before, I’d been gifted the chance to see just what had happened all those years ago, confirming my suspicions that I’d been meant to discover the story lost in time. I’d never been back to the Bath townhouse where it all began. It felt wrong to be disturbing the past, stirring up the souls of those who’d once lived there, or resurrecting the dreams and visions that still held me, captivated and caught in the layers of time. When I got home it took me a while to find it, the diary I’d kept all those years ago, the memories
Chawton, Hampshire November 1975
|Jane Austen's House|
My mother is never happier than when she’s fussing round me, though thankfully her painting usually distracts her. Years ago her pictures were exhibited in galleries in London, but sadly her work’s no longer sought after, and commissions have been a bit thin on the ground lately. Being far too proud to tell people how little we have to live on, she continues to give her paintings as presents, while she waits for the next job to come in.
‘You look a bit peaky,’ she said, her brows knitting together. ‘You were looking so much better yesterday, but I see you’ve hardly touched your food.’
‘I’m just tired, that’s all,’ I replied, without telling her how helpless I was feeling.
‘Well, you’re getting your strength back slowly … in another fortnight you won’t remember how poorly you’ve been. What you need is a little holiday to put some roses back into those pale cheeks.’ I knew there wasn’t any spare money to send me away anywhere.
‘That’s a lovely idea, but I’m so worried I won’t be able to catch up on all the work I’ve missed. I don’t know how I’ll complete all the projects, there’s a whole collection to make for my final show.’ ‘You mustn’t worry; you can’t help being ill, and in any case, Doctor Grainger says you’re to avoid getting stressed. Now, can I change your library books? I’m going into Alton and can find you something a little more light-hearted, perhaps. Mary Shelley and the romantic poets are enough to fog anyone’s head. How about a nice romance?’
My mother didn’t wait for an answer. She took the pile of books from my bedside table, popped a kiss on my forehead, and left. Dressed in the voluminous overalls she wears to paint in, the comforting smell of oil paint enveloped me like a luxurious perfume. It’s the scent I most associate with her, and I’m sure is the reason I wanted to do art in the first place, though it’s always been fashion that’s my passion. Spending hours in bed means I’ve had time to pore over magazines with
I’d like to have the kind of relationship my parents had - they were always together, sharing every day and working side by side. Last year our lives were turned upside down when my father died, but I can’t write about him just yet, it’s too painful. I miss him more each day, and I do feel so very sorry for Mum. He was the love of her life.
All that writing must have worn me out because I dropped off mid-thought, and spilt ink all over the sheets in my sleep, simultaneously dribbling over a half opened packet of fruit Spangles, managing to glue three of them to my pillow case. Mum didn’t seem to notice when she came up, she was far too excited to tell me about her visitor. Her friend Ellen Appleby who lives at the bottom of the road in the large house on the corner, came for a cup of tea earlier and was full of her news.
‘Oh, I love Bath,’ I said, though I’ve only been once.
‘Yes, I knew you’d say that,’ said Mum, and then she suddenly stopped, and her mouth twitched like it does when she’s worried she’s going to say something to upset me.
‘What is it?’ I asked watching her face turn crimson. ‘There’s nothing wrong, is there?’
‘Not exactly,’ she said, ‘and I don’t suppose you’d have to go if you really didn’t want to, though it would be a little awkward going back on what I said.’
Since my father died, I’ve found it very hard to get annoyed with my mother, and looking at her sweet face I realised, whatever she’d done, it would be impossible to be cross with her.
‘Go on,’ I said, trying not to sound impatient.
‘Ellen thought you might like to go with them, and I said it was such a thoughtful, kind invitation, that it would do you the world of good, and you’d love the idea.’
It came out in a complete rush, which left me feeling stunned and not quite sure what to say. I know the Applebys quite well, but the idea of going away with them is something else entirely.
‘Oh, Mum,’ I whined, and then I felt ashamed when I saw her face crumple.
‘It’s just that I’d love to take you away,’ she said quietly, ‘but I can’t, not just now I’ve got a new commission, and it seemed the ideal opportunity.’
What she really meant was that she couldn’t afford to take me anywhere, and so I pushed back the covers and threw my arms round her slight form, told her that it had taken a moment, but I couldn’t think of anything I’d enjoy more than going to Bath with Ellen and Roger Appleby.
‘Yes, of course, I’d love to go. Who wouldn’t want to be driven down to Bath in a fabulous Jag, and stay in a smart hotel for a couple of days,’ I said, trying hard to think of all the positives.
‘They’re not staying in a hotel,’ she said, ‘and they’re going for six weeks until Christmas.’
I felt time slow down. This was worse than I feared - a whole six weeks! At least in a hotel, I might have found someone my own age to talk to or go out with.
Seeing her eyes were misting over, I tried my best to smile, and thinking of my beloved Northanger Abbey, I declared, ‘Well, if adventures will not befall me in my own village, then surely I must seek them abroad!’
It’s amazing how quickly time passes when you don’t want it to, but the day has come at last, and I’m waiting in the sitting room for the Applebys to come and collect me. Six weeks seems too long to be spent with people who are virtually strangers, even if Ellen keeps telling me she used to push my pram around the village and back again when I was a baby.
‘And such a fat little thing you were too, all dimples and double chins … what they used to call “bonny” in those days,’ she said. ‘Well, you’ve lost most of the puppy fat now, and having Glandular Fever has certainly helped. I could do with a dose of that myself … I’m on the egg and grapefruit diet now … have you tried it, Caroline?’
But, Roger is a nice man, even if he’s always telling awful jokes. He’s so kind, and doesn’t expect anything, like lots of conversation that involves being pumped for endless amounts of gossip, and he never mentions the past or makes backhanded compliments.
So, I think even the Queen might consider I look suitable for a trip to Bath. I hope Mum will be okay - we’ve not been apart for such a long time, and I will worry about her, even if I know she’s busy. She actually went to see a client this morning as if it was any normal day, which is probably better because if she were here we’d only cry all over one another as we say goodbye and end up embarrassing Ellen.
Ellen talks a lot, but I think she’s just trying to put me at my ease. ‘What would you like to do first, when we get there, Caroline?’ she said, craning round to look at me, a wide smile on her scarlet painted lips.
To tell the truth, I do like shopping, but I don’t do it very much - all my clothes are homemade, and there’s only ever enough money for the occasional book, or a magazine, and a bar of chocolate. I used to have a Saturday job in a dress shop, which helped pay for my art materials and fabrics, but I had to give in my notice when I became ill. Mum’s given me a little bit of money, though it’s got to last for the whole holiday, and I think I might need some of it to take Mr and Mrs Appleby out for a treat, as a sort of thank you for having me.
‘I like window shopping,’ I started to say, and then felt I must sound really silly, and added, ‘I love buying material to make a new dress, and a set of buttons can completely transform an old coat.’
‘I can see you like nice clothes, Caroline, and I always wanted a little girl to dress up. Would you let me take you shopping, my dear?’
What could I say? I know I should have felt instantly grateful, but all I could think was that she might want to choose my clothes for me, and then I knew for certain, I’d be clothed in the old-fashioned Crimplene frocks, beige slacks, and Kay shoes that she wears.
‘That’s very kind, but I shouldn’t want to put you to any trouble,’ I insisted.
‘I really don’t need anything, and I’ve brought lots with me.’
|Northanger Abbey - Philip Gough|
She turned and smiled indulgently, as if she was very sure I was just being polite, and then I told myself off for having unkind thoughts before silently sending up a prayer to the fashion gods to watch over me in my time of need. I must have dropped off to sleep for a while because we’re now halfway down the London Road, coming in to Bath. Mrs Appleby is chatting away to her husband while I feel a little bit like Catherine Morland, all eager delight, and my eyes taking everything in, here, there and everywhere. It’s just so good to be up and about, and I’m feeling much stronger. This feels almost like an adventure, and dare I say it, that thought makes me feel happy. Life is spread out before me, as broad and sweeping as Great Pulteney Street, and as splendid as its majestic townhouses.
I hope you'll join me for Chapter Two tomorrow!