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Searching for Mr Tilney - Sneak Peek - Chapter One!

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

 I found it in an old bookshop in Cambridge a few weeks ago, on a tour of the city. It was a hot day, and to step inside the cool book-lined walls of the crooked Tudor building was like finding heaven on earth. I’d become ever more obsessed as the years went by in my quest to find even the smallest detail of tangible proof for all that had happened to me as a young girl, and I’d scoured every relevant book I could find for any clues to support the insight I’d gained. Though the overwhelming guilt that I’d done nothing about my discovery had softened over the years, I could never decide if I’d been right to keep its knowledge hidden, and even now I felt it might have been wrong to collude in guarding such secrets. It was midsummer’s day when I found the rare copy of Northanger Abbey that contained a photo of the portrait, another precious book to add to my collection. I smiled when I saw the picture, and the familiar skipping of my heartbeat began, as the memories came flooding back. The girl with the green parasol gazed back at me with her enigmatic smile, seeming to acknowledge me as the keeper of her secrets, though perhaps I was being fanciful. The emotions of youthful longing with all its quivering expectation, came rushing to the surface like blood bruising pale skin, as I remembered every vivid picture, every haunted image. Yet, alongside the recollections of ghosts from the past and the excitement of being young with all its magical memories, it was impossible not to recall my uncertain fears and those other feelings that still surfaced from time to time, of guilt and shame. I’ve never been one for reading the preface of a book, and I don’t quite know why I did on that day, though I knew I wanted to linger, soaking up the atmosphere of the bookshop with its damp odours of ancient paper, leather, and dust. I turned the pages of the book, wondering how many people had held it in their hands and read the words like a spellbinding charm, bringing pleasure in every line.

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
tumbling from its pages along with the train tickets, theatre programmes, admission for the Assembly Rooms, and a pamphlet for the house on the Royal Crescent, not to mention the menu I’d taken as a souvenir from the Pump Rooms, where such a lot had happened. Going to Bath had been a turning point in my life, the most incredible journey I’d ever made, and able to glance back once more at my youthful self, I couldn’t wait to re-live it all over again.

Chapter One 
Chawton, Hampshire November 1975 

I’m lying in bed as I write, between sheets that feel scratchy with toast crumbs, under hairy blankets, a heavy candlewick counterpane, and a paisley eiderdown scattered with yellow and pink roses. I feel weighed down, but only just warm enough, and I can’t help feeling sorry for myself. Before I was ill and had to spend every day in bed it used to be a favourite place of refuge, but now it just feels like a prison. It’s raining again, and I’m watching the wind tossing the bony branches of the trees in the front garden, blowing the last withered leaves as far as the lawn of Jane Austen’s House, or at least that’s what I see in my imagination. In reality I can only just about see the tip of her cottage rooftop from my bedroom window, but I’m glad to know that my favourite author once slept and lived just around the corner from me. I like to think of her walking down the Winchester Road past our house that was built around the time she was born, long before she came to live in the village. Perhaps she stopped to glance in at the windows or even came to call on the people who lived here all those years
ago. Chawton is a very quiet village and I’m sure it can’t have been much different in Jane’s time. I can understand how she might have turned to writing letters and novels to fill the long days, perhaps scribbling her thoughts down in a journal, though I’ve never heard that she actually kept one. But, I’m almost certain she did - I don’t know a single friend who hasn’t kept a diary at some time in their life, and Jane hinted at the possibility of Catherine Morland writing one in Northanger Abbey. I’ve decided to start a diary because I’ve got nothing better to do, and I’ll go mad if I have to do another jigsaw on a tray that’s too small for a thousand pieces. I like the idea of putting down my thoughts, and I can’t seem to concentrate on doing much just yet. I enjoyed having my radio up here at first, but there’s a limit to the number of times you can hear the same records played over and over, and even if I love Space Oddity - every time it’s played now I wish I was also floating in a tin can somewhere in space, where I can’t hear it. I’ve re-read every book I own, I can’t really draw or paint in bed, and I’m just counting the days until I can get up and go back to art school. In many ways I’ve loved being at home again, being looked after, and watching the changing seasons in the countryside where time still seems to pass so much slower than in the city. But, I do miss London and my friends. It’s frustrating now I’m feeling so much better - Doctor Grainger says I’ll be able to get up next week - to be perfectly honest I think I could now, but Mum won’t let me, and they’ve said I can’t think about going back to my course until next term.
Jane Austen's House
Mum’s just been in to take my breakfast tray. ‘How are you feeling, Caroline?’ she said, her forehead wrinkled with worry lines.
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?’
Apart from my love of Jane Austen’s books I love any gothic novel, as well as Keats’s poetry, and the Brontë sisters - Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre being two of my favourite books. Is there a scene more horrid, as Jane Austen would say, than the one where Cathy’s frozen dead hand hangs on to Mr Lockwood’s arm with a pitiful cry demanding to be let in, or the episode where Jane Eyre is locked up with the fear of being haunted by Uncle Reed’s ghost in the red room? However, if I was on Desert Island Discs and forced to choose only one book it would have to be Northanger Abbey, which has everything I look for in a novel and, best of all, can be read by candlelight without being frightened that your hair will turn white. I always feel sorry for poor gullible Catherine who is really clueless, and I’ve been in love with Mr Tilney for as long as I can remember.
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
pictures of my favourite designers like Bill Gibb and Zandra Rhodes, even if trying to imagine being half as good as they are is an impossible dream. Money’s been tighter than ever, and I feel guilty that I haven’t got a proper job to help make life easier for us both, even if Mum insists I should concentrate on my degree. Oh, if only there was enough for a trip to Switzerland - I’d visit the Villa Diodati where Frankenstein was written, or go to Italy and find Keats’s grave in Rome. Or a gondola ride with Byron’s vampiric ghost might be nice, cruising down the foul-smelling canals of Venice before stopping off at Florian’s to sip coffee and glasses of Grappa. I have a picture in my mind - Byron swathed in black velvet, an arm draped along the curved back of the gondola seat, demonic good looks in a sort of unsmiling, but sexy way. I’m fascinated by dead personalities from the past. Clearly, Byron was very successful when it came to seduction. I can’t imagine meeting anyone like that - when I first went to art school I had high hopes of meeting a sort of Pre-Raphaelite type artist, dark hair flowing like a mane, flopping in an irresistible sweep over one beautifully dark eye fringed in long lashes, though I must quickly add the man of my dreams has two eyes. Anyway, the ones I know are all a bit disappointing - the most daring fashion items I’ve seen to date have been a
cheesecloth shirt, and a leather belt on a pair of bellbottom jeans. I was born ten years too late to be at art school with Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, those otherworldly creatures, both rather Byronic in their own way. Still, at least they give me something to fantasise about.
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.
‘So, Ellen and Roger are going to Bath,’ she said.
‘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.
‘They’re renting a house on Pulteney Street. It sounds lovely, even if it’s not quite Ellen’s preferred choice of the Royal Crescent. Oh, Caroline, are you sure you’d like to go?’
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.
I wasn’t sure what to wear - the older generation sometimes think jeans are a bit scruffy, and I thought even my jeans skirt and waistcoat might be a bit much for Ellen, so I’ve decided to wear one of my own dresses. Mum said I look lovely, but she’s very bohemian, and anything goes, as far as she’s concerned. I’ve settled for a midi-length dress I copied from one I saw in Biba last year, my favourite shop of all time. It has a deco pattern on a black background, very gothic with a high Victorian neck and billowing sleeves. I’m wearing stacked-heel boots, not my nine-inch heels with four-inch platforms, which I’m leaving behind or no doubt I will be the butt of Roger’s jokes.
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.

I’m now in the car with the back seat all to myself, and feeling quite like another person. Mrs Appleby has nodded off, which has given me a chance to pick up my pen again. It’s such a smart car, and has a wonderful smell of leather - I think I could get used to high living. We have a lovely house to live in and lots of beautiful antique furniture that Mum inherited, but we’re not used to spending money on things like cars and fur coats - Ellen is wearing her mink coat today, and she has matching mink-trimmed leather gloves. I don’t really approve of fur coats, but I know they cost the earth, and I suppose that’s what makes them so desirable for some people. There was a time when my family didn’t worry about money. My grandmother Violet was the last female of the family to have been born at Charlcombe Hall, our ancestral home. It sounds very grand, but it’s very hard to imagine, though my grandmother used to tell me stories about it when I was a little girl. Anyway, the house was sold long ago and my grandmother was brought up in a smaller manor house just outside Bath in the countryside. My mother was born there, and left when she married my father. He was the young curate in their village, and he had ambitions to go and help people in the poorest parts of London. They started off in the East End where my mother spent many fulfilling but unhappy years trying to improve the lives of those who knew nothing but grinding poverty. Her portrait paintings of the local families are very revealing, and though her subjects are always smiling, several have an indefinable air of sadness. Mum’s always said she could never reconcile the fact that her life and theirs were so
very different. In the end, my father was moved to Chawton, and we settled in the house my mother inherited from an aunt, instead of going to the modern rectory we were offered. Though my mother was happier, I think she felt guilty about leaving the people behind who loved and needed her. The house wasn’t in good repair, and my father spent what money he had on having it rewired, and the cracked paint sanded down and decorated, but whatever improvements were made haven’t ever entirely removed the stale, dusty smell of the ancient carpets or stopped the draughts from whistling down the corridors. To this day there’s an air of faded grandeur, especially in my mother’s bedroom where the finest furniture lives and where her best diamonds glimmer forlornly from tattered velvet, on a mahogany dressing table adorned with discoloured scent bottles and silver topped brushes. There’s an echo of another time in the mottled looking glass that sometimes captures a lost image from the past reflected in its murky surface, when an old sepia photograph of an ancestor, clothed in black silk, stares with lifeless eyes from a tarnished silver frame. I’ve grown up in beautiful, yet dilapidated surroundings
for most of my life, punctuated with flashes of wild modernity when Mum has come into a small legacy from a forgotten relative. Then the drawing room has glowed with new loose covers on the sofa in sensuous psychedelia, at odds with the walnut chiffonier and buttoned back chairs, and we’ve celebrated with a cocktail party. I remember my mother looking very sophisticated in black at one of these parties, the diamonds glittering in her ears as she handed out hors d’oeuvres - devils on horseback and mushroom vol-au-vents. My father always said she reminded him of Princess Grace of Monaco, and if not quite a princess in her youth, I think she’d known a different life before she fell in love with my dad. It’s easy to imagine her in a ball gown, a long train trailing across a red carpet - in my mind’s eye I see her stepping from a sleek car with white Gardenias scenting her hair, as young men bow and hold out their hands to fill hers with saucers of pink champagne or twirl her across a polished dance floor. I remember on one occasion actually having a party dress bought for me, a rare treat. It had a scarlet velvet bodice, layer upon layer of white organza with a ribbon sash, and I had black patent leather shoes. I think I was about eight years of age and I felt very grown-up when my father presented me with a jewelled brooch of a twirling ballerina to pin on my frock. I found it, recently, in my old treasure box wrapped in a silk handkerchief my aunt sent from her travels in Greece. It was strange, yet weirdly comforting to find what I’d considered to be precious mementos back then. Apart from the brooch, I discovered a cat’s collar belonging to my grandmother’s old black cat Boogie-Woogie, a glass bottle painted with Devon violets and still smelling cloyingly of the sweet scent, a Christmas postcard my grandpa had sent in the First World War, a heart-shaped trinket box encrusted with shells, and a faded box of Floral Cachous.

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.
 ‘Do you like shopping? I expect you do, all girls like shopping.’
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
‘Caroline, you don’t realise just what a treat it would be for me. Now, I know you’re a good girl, but I shan’t hear any more of your polite rebuttals, we will go shopping this very afternoon.’
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!