What secrets lie at the heart of Jane Austen's teenage journal?
When Caroline Heath is taken to Bath in 1975, she little expects to find the gothic adventure she craves, let alone discover Jane Austen’s secret teenage journal, or how it’s possible to live in someone else’s body. Yet, she’s soon caught up in a whirlwind of fantastic events - travels through time, a love story or three, and even the odd sinister murder - or so she thinks. Recovering from illness and haunted by visions of Jane and her sister Cassandra in the past, Caroline discovers history revealing far more than she ever expected.
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
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
|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.’
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've loved writing Searching for Mr Tilney and I hope you'll enjoy reading it too - here's Chapter Two.
Having survived shopping, which wasn’t at all the trial I was expecting and turned out to be fun, I’m now writing this in my new bedroom. I’d thought when we first got here that I might as well be Catherine Morland because the houses haven’t changed since Jane Austen’s time, and stepping inside the hallway and the reception rooms on the first floor you might be forgiven for thinking you’d gone back in time. It’s very Georgian, furnished with tourists in mind, and scented with the magical fragrance of a house that’s only ever known brimming flower bowls of milky narcissus and heady lilac in spring or spires of delphiniums and plump roses in summer. It’s full of the sights and smells of life lived luxuriously - elegant Chippendale furniture, watered silk on the walls, embroidered cushion covers on satin sofas in the drawing room, and giltwood pier glasses set between the windows.
The scent of fragrant wood smoke, wax candles, and Christmas tangerines linger in the air and the smells in my bedroom are equally delicious - Patchouli by Houbigant on the dressing table, a porcelain pomander in the wardrobe, and crisp clean sheets on my bed, sweetly aromatic with the scent of lemon verbena. I have my own washbasin in a closed off compartment behind a door with an illuminated mirror, and glass shelves either side where my wash-bag now sits, looking scruffy and out of place. The tablet of soap in a shell dish is the scent of dark, damp woods planted with lilies of the valley, and the towels pure white, soft and fluffy. My room, unlike the rest of the house, is Deco-inspired with the walls papered in deep mulberry with silver geometric patterns, starbursts and jagged edges. There’s even some mirrored furniture from the 1930s, a glass vase full of peacock feathers, and a feather boa trained round the gloriously gothic iron bedstead, which looks as if it’s come straight from Dracula’s castle. It’s just a dream!
Anyway, I must write down how I got on. Ellen, as she now insists I call her, was not only overwhelmingly generous, but very kind, and I feel ashamed to think how much I’d dreaded the idea of shopping with her. We walked up to Jolly’s department store on Milsom Street, and she took me to the boutique section, after all. There were so many dresses I liked and Ellen said I could choose any three. I picked out a romantic Laura Ashley style dress in green needlecord, one in purple velvet with a wrap-over skirt, and then Ellen said I must have a dress for a formal evening.
‘Try on this maxi-dress,’ she said, taking a silk crêpe de chine dress, the colour of rose petals, from the rack.
I knew it must cost a small fortune and bit my lip, but Ellen wouldn’t hear of me finding something less expensive.
‘I know your mother would want you to have a nice dress to wear in the evening,’ she said, ‘and it really would be my treat to see you in it. Indulge me, just this once. There might be a dance before Christmas, and you could wear it to a disco, if you wanted.’
It was beautiful, but I’d never been to a formal dance, and I couldn’t imagine wearing it anywhere else. I’d never learned ballroom dancing, though Dad used to let me stand on his feet when he waltzed me round the room. When I tried the dress on, the silk felt exquisite next to my skin, and I loved the halter neck straps. I stood in front of the dressing room mirror, and couldn’t believe quite how sophisticated I looked, especially when I pulled up my hair.
‘The rose brings out the blue in your eyes,’ said Ellen. ‘You’ve got beautiful eyes, like a china doll.’
I felt very satisfied with that compliment; feeling that it must be true if Ellen, with all her sharp comments, said so.
I had to choose a pair of shoes too, and it was Ellen who picked out the pink suede platforms. The assistant, laden with clothes, bustled off to the counter to pack it all in tissue paper and the kind of designer boxes I’d only ever dreamed about. When the assistant said, ‘What a lucky girl to have such a kind mother,’ Ellen seemed to glow with pride, and I decided I’d probably not considered how hard it must be for Ellen to see my mum and me, and all the lovely times we have together. So, I didn’t correct her, and just said I was very lucky indeed. Ellen looked a little misty-eyed, took my hand and squeezed it, and then suggested tea at the Pump Rooms.
It was a cold and damp November afternoon, and the light was beginning to fade as we pushed open the revolving door. The room seemed to steam with the freezing air brought in on coats and gloves, and everyone inside seemed excited to be there, talking at the tops of their voices, glad to have found a seat in the warm. I sat down, fascinated by the hustle and bustle. I’d only ever seen a glimpse inside before, and never been for tea. The scene couldn’t be much changed from the one Jane Austen might have known, I thought, and looking at all the faces, I fancied I could see several resemblances of the characters Jane loved to write about. There was Isabella Thorpe, a young lady with an eye for the young men who was tossing her hair over her shoulder and staring at a man on an adjacent table until she gained his attention. Even the arrogant looking man sitting beside her looked just as I imagined her brother, John Thorpe. I saw his slicked back hair, his leather driving gloves, and an ostentatious key ring informing the world he owned a luxury car. I spotted Mrs Allen in a fur coat not too dissimilar to Ellen’s, and Mr Allen sitting opposite her, a plaster cast on his leg, rather than a bandaged gouty leg. But, try as I might I couldn’t see Henry Tilney, which was a real disappointment. I’ve always had a problem with Henry - I’m blinded by love, I suppose, but I can’t see his face. I can visualise so much - his wavy hair brushing the top of his starched white shirt, an arched brow, and a quizzical smile, but there isn’t a complete picture. His coat of sober black presents no problems, the covert strength hiding beneath the satin waistcoat, and the breeches smoothed tautly over his thighs are as clear as if I’ve always known him … intimately … but his face continues to elude me.
At that precise daydreaming moment, the silhouette of a young man’s profile fell in shadow on the white tablecloth. It startled me, not least because there was something quite diabolical in the pointed beard, and the way his hair was styled, which made me think of two horns until I looked up and saw that my imagination had run away, as usual. A young waiter was asking for our order. Ellen gave precise instructions while I stared, at his goat-like beard, curling moustache, and the wavy hair, stuck up here and there in unruly tufts. I’m not a fan of either beards or moustaches, and I couldn’t help thinking he should get a razor. I think he must have caught me staring because his hand went up to his chin, and he stroked the dark hair thoughtfully.
‘Which would you prefer, Caroline … Earl Grey or Darjeeling?’ Ellen was asking.
‘Oh, Earl Grey, please,’ I said, aware that the young man was staring at me. I looked up, and caught his glance. He smiled in a friendly way, and I felt myself blush.
‘Is this your first time in Bath?’ he asked, and I saw Ellen smile as she looked from him to me and back again.
‘No,’ I said, and was going to leave it at that, but I knew Ellen would think me rude if I didn’t answer more politely. ‘I’ve been to Bath once before, but this is my first time at the Pump Rooms for tea.’
‘An excellent choice, though I would say that, of course. The sandwiches are delicious, and the cakes guaranteed to add inches where you don’t want them, though I’m sure you ladies don’t need to worry about that. Let me know what you think of the chocolate éclairs … they’re my favourite.’
He left then with our order, and I stared down at my place, fiddling nervously with my cutlery, determined not to look at his retreating back. Ellen was still watching me, and I knew what she was thinking.
‘What a very charming young man,’ she said looking at me intently, ‘and quite handsome too, though perhaps a little too beatnik for my tastes.’
‘He’d be better looking if he brushed that unruly mop on the top of his head … or had a shave,’ I said, suppressing the urge not to giggle at Ellen’s comments.
‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘I don’t know why men like growing facial hair so much. I’m sure if they were kissed with wire wool every morning, they would stop it, immediately.’
|Pump Room tea, Bath|
I laughed, especially when I thought about Roger’s bushy beard, and before we’d both stopped giggling the waiter was back with a tray of teapots and china. I watched him take Ellen’s napkin and flick it out with a flourish before placing it on her knee, and then waited in dread for him to do the same to me. He seemed to bend right over until I was staring at his ear and the sideburns that melded into his beard. He straightened, and I caught his fragrance, a hint of Bergamot, but sharper than the scent of the tea that he proceeded to pour into delicate china teacups.
‘Would you like me to pour the milk?’ he asked.
Ellen declined his offer, and said we should prefer to do it ourselves.
‘Have you been here long?’ he said, placing the jug before her.
‘We’ve just arrived this morning,’ said Ellen, pouring a spot of milk into her tea, ‘and as you see, we’ve been shopping already.’
‘Ah yes, ladies love shopping in Bath, and there’s lots to be done before Christmas. Have you got much planned while you’re here?’
‘We haven’t made exact plans yet, but I’m sure I shall be doing a lot of shopping,’ Ellen replied, beaming up at him.
‘I meant have you many activities planned … are you going to the Christmas ball, for instance?’
He was looking at me now, and I had no idea of the answer.
‘I shall certainly see about tickets,’ Ellen said, ‘and I’m sure Caroline would love to go dancing.’
‘Well, everybody in Bath will be there … it’s always a very grand affair … black tie and ball gowns, and lots of people jigging about who don’t know how to do the old dances. Though none of that matters, there are dances for everybody, and they all jump up to do “the twist” after a few drinks.’
‘Oh, Caroline, doesn’t that sound wonderful? And it would give you a chance to wear your new frock.’
I smiled weakly, thinking that my idea of fun was very far removed from the kind of ball he was describing, and wished the young man would hurry up and go and get our food. I think he sensed what I was thinking and left us, not before he’d winked and grinned at me.
‘He looks a bit like that Swedish singer, only not as filled out, don’t you think?’ Ellen said. ‘You know, the one from Abba … is it Björn?’
‘I thought it was Benny who had the beard,’ I said, thinking that the conversation was becoming completely surreal. I wasn’t an Abba fan, and the comparison was hardly flattering.
‘Well, whichever one, I do think our waiter looks a bit like him, even if his hair and eyes are not quite the right colour. He looks hippyish, but very ‘with it’, I daresay.’
Fortunately I didn’t need to reply to these observations, as the bearded one reappeared with a tiered glass stand filled with sandwiches, scones and cake.
‘There’s lots to do in Bath besides dancing,’ he continued, putting a plate before me. ‘Do you like the theatre or cinema?’
‘Yes, I like both,’ I said, then instantly regretted answering so positively, and for an awful moment thought he might suggest taking me. All I could think about was sitting next to him in the dark with that devilish beard scratching my face as he attempted to kiss me.
‘There’s a horror film on at the Little Theatre,’ he went on, ‘I’m going with my friends next weekend.’
I was sure my sigh of relief was not only audible, but also very visual, though I didn’t care. I kept my eyes on my plate, and when I looked up he’d finally gone.
‘I think he’s rather sweet on you,’ said Ellen, ‘not that I’d encourage you to go out with him. I’m not sure your mother would approve of you going around Bath with a waiter.’
‘I don’t think my mother cares about things like that,’ I said, knowing Ellen would probably be shocked. ‘But, have no fear, he’s not my type, and I’m sure if I was his, he’d have asked me on the spot. He’s just that sort of guy.’
Ellen didn’t say any more. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was, and soon we’d eaten everything. The éclairs were delicious, just as he’d said they’d be, and I was almost disappointed that I couldn’t tell him. Another waiter came to clear our table, and when Ellen asked where our bearded friend had gone, he said he’d finished his shift and left to go home.
Something strange happened in the night, and I don’t quite know what to think about it. We had an uneventful evening after a light supper left on a tray by Mrs Partridge who will be coming in every day to do the cooking and cleaning - though I really wasn’t hungry after the enormous tea we’d eaten. I was feeling tired after such a busy day, and so went off to bed early. I read my ancient copy of Northanger Abbey for a chapter or two until I felt I was dozing off, and managed to put out the light before settling down under the covers.
I’m not sure if it was a noise that woke me or the strange dream I was having about being chased down an alley by a bearded man, but I woke with a start, instantly wide awake. I lay in the dark for a moment or two thinking I might nod off again, but I just tossed and turned before deciding I might settle down better after a visit to the bathroom. Though I tried not to make a sound, the old cistern made such an angry roar as the water flushed, I thought I must have woken the whole household. I crept along in the dark, feeling my way back along the walls because I thought putting the light on would certainly wake the Applebys, though I could hear them both snoring quite loudly in their beds as I passed their room. It was when I opened the door to my bedroom that I was completely surprised, and even now as I write it down, I can’t quite believe it.
I was shocked, firstly, by the fact that it was broad daylight and sunny instead of being night time and pitch black, though it didn’t look like my room at all. Thinking about it now, the windows looking out onto Pulteney Street appeared to be just the same, but there was a large four poster bed dominating the space, hung with curtains - I remember how light and airy they looked, palest ivory with sprigs of flowers, swaying slightly in the breeze coming through the open window - very feminine. A pile of leather-bound books looked carelessly flung over the unmade bed, as if they were all being read at once, ribbon bookmarks dividing the pages, some left open. There was a dressing table draped in the same fabric, which had an oval mahogany mirror on a stand with drawers, and was swathed in beautiful lace. I saw several silver-topped crystal boxes winking in the sunshine, a decorated fan, and two porcelain boxes painted with roses - open, as if in use. A chair was covered entirely with clothes tumbling to the floor, and a chest of drawers under the window had all of its drawers pulled out with pretty accessories falling out of them - what looked to be several sheer shawls or veils, pale pink stockings, and petticoats in the sheerest silk I ever saw. It looked like a scene from a Georgian museum, only more realistically displayed - I’d never seen anything look so authentic.
And then the door, which normally houses my little basin opened as I stared, and through it walked a girl who looked about fourteen. Dressed in her underclothes, a white shift almost to the floor, she looked just like pictures I’ve seen in history of costume books. She had a lively look about her, and when she noticed I was standing there, she looked straight at me with her bright, hazel eyes, and said, ‘Have you come to help me dress?’
Chapter ThreeIt was just a second or two, but I was so surprised that I shut the door again before I’d even begun to register what on earth was happening. I was in such a state of shock my first thought was that I must have opened the wrong door, so I traced my steps back to the bathroom in the dark, managing to stub my toe in the process before daring to put on the landing light. I was feeling spooked by the whole experience, though to be perfectly honest, it was very disappointingly lacking in scariness. When I got back to my room I opened the door, hesitatingly, but as in all the best frightening tales the vision was gone.
I’ve decided I saw a snapshot in time, as anyone living in an old house might see, though I really feel it was more than that. The girl, the room and all the objects were real and solid - not a wisp of ethereal ghostliness or ectoplasm, yet a part of me still can’t quite believe it. Had I been dreaming?
One thing I did investigate immediately was the room next to mine. It’s a very small bedroom with just space for a narrow bed and a small wardrobe, and I wondered if it might perhaps have been a dressing room at one time. Whoever I’d intruded upon was just as untidy as me, I thought, and it made me like her instantly. And, unlike a dream that usually fades on waking, I couldn’t stop thinking about her or wondering how my seeing her had been possible. Her face was extraordinarily vivid in my mind, with her flushed cheeks, and lips curving like a mischievous cherub into a pink smile. I distinctly saw the dark tendrils of hair curling on her forehead, and her forthright gaze, arresting eyes like topaz jewels. It was exciting to think that the possibility of ghosts were real, even if they were very ordinary, quite unlike Cathy wandering alone through the dead of night in Wuthering Heights.
Since writing the above, I’ve spent another day shopping with Ellen and had another quiet evening in with very little news or happenings to report. Though I’ve not seen or experienced any further strange visions I still can’t get it out of my head that what I saw was not a dream.
Before I went to bed last night Ellen said we’d be busy again today, and that we’ll be out for most of it. I suspect there’ll be more shopping involved, and I must admit I don’t relish the idea of traipsing round the shops buying more Christmas presents. What I’d really like to do is stay in, to see if I can enter that magical world once more. If it was my imagination playing tricks on me I shall be very sorry, but I shall never know if I have to go out all day.
I can smell breakfast, and my watch tells me it’s time to go down. I’m wearing the green needlecord dress today, which makes me feel very “Jane Austen” with its empire line and flower motifs. Perhaps Henry Tilney will be waiting for me in the breakfast parlour!
Breakfast was delicious, though if Mrs Partridge is going to feed us bacon and egg every morning, I think it will be no time at all until my new clothes will be feeling tight.
‘You need to keep up your strength, Caroline,’ said Ellen. ‘Your mother will never forgive me if you go home looking scrawny and under-fed.’
That’s not very likely, I thought, on a diet of cream teas and fried bread, but I know Ellen means well.
I was just enjoying the last delicious mouthful of fried egg when there was a knock at the front door. I always think the sound of a door knocker holds so much promise of excitement, and immediately thought of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility waiting for Mr Willoughby. But, there was no dashing suitor at the door or Colonel Brandon, only the postman with a delivery for me - a most mysterious parcel. It was huge, and I couldn’t begin to think what was inside. When I opened it up I found the most beautiful writing box. It had a mahogany writing slope, was lined with green baize, and complete with glass bottles for ink, a penknife, two stubby looking quills, a pair of old spectacles, and several stumps of sealing wax.
There was also a letter.
How are you, my darling? I hope you’re settling in and that the Bath air is working wonders - I trust all is going well!
I meant to give you the enclosed before you left, but in my usual muddle-headed way forgot all about it. Anyway, I found it while I was tidying up in one of the attic rooms a couple of weeks ago, and I thought you might like somewhere special to write and keep your journal while you’re in Bath. I’m not quite sure who owned it - there were several ancestors who might have had a writing slope, but I thought you might find it fun to try your hand at using a quill pen.
They made these boxes to withstand all sorts of conditions - for travelling, of course, and many of them accompanied soldiers to war and back again. It has drop-down handles for ease of carrying, and a side drawer, which opens when a brass pin inside is released - there’s also a reading stand and a working lock and key.
Do you think Jane Austen must have written a journal too, like her heroine Catherine Morland when she went to Bath? You will, I know, remember the passage in Northanger where that charming rascal Henry Tilney quizzes her about it, saying she was bound to mention him in it. I wonder if Jane met such a young man herself and wrote about him in her diary.
Well, my darling, I must stop writing so I can get this off in the post - have a marvellous time and enjoy yourself!
Much love always,
Ellen and Roger seemed as excited as I was to see the box, and when we’d discovered how to pull out the brass pin inside, the drawer was released, and it sprang open. Disappointingly, there were no secret letters or journals inside, but we examined all the bottles and quills before Ellen suggested I try using one for a bit of fun. On a piece of cream card I tried my best to write as I’d seen Jane Austen’s letters addressed: Caroline Heath, Flat 5, 44, Fitzroy Street, London, W1. I stopped to admire my handiwork; the flat I lived in during term time seemed a lifetime away. My friends who lodged with me had been so kind when I fell ill, trying not to tell me too many exciting details about all the fun they were having while I was stuck in bed. When would I be able to return?
‘You must miss art school,’ said Ellen looking concerned. I think she guessed what I was thinking.
‘I do, but I’d much rather be here with you.’ I really meant it, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else now, and thought how kind she was to have brought me to Bath.
Ellen smiled. ‘Why don’t you go and find a place for your new writing box in your bedroom,’ she said. ‘We’ll go out after lunch if you still feel like it, but the morning is yours to do just as you wish.’
I couldn’t wait, and ran upstairs as quickly as the heavy box would allow, tucking it under my arm before turning the stiff door knob. It wouldn’t give, so I put the box down, twisted the knob once more, pushing against the door with my shoulder and practically falling into the room when it opened unexpectedly easily. It felt almost as if someone on the other side were playing a trick, holding the door fast before pulling it open suddenly. It made me think about the girl I’d seen in the middle of the night until I told myself I was being silly.
Underneath the middle window there was an ancient desk with a lamp set on it, which I decided would make a suitable place for my writing box, and if I moved the chair placed beneath the adjacent window I could sit there, write my journal, and stare out of the window for inspiration. Feeling very pleased with the new arrangement, I opened up the box, and laid my journal on the slope.
There was a wonderful view down Pulteney Street, and if it hadn’t been for the cars roaring past down below I could quite have fancied myself in another time as I looked out on the golden stone houses, standing to attention like soldiers in their best uniforms. I decided to make a few lists in the back of my journal first. Being away from home was helping me think about the work I had to do without as much panic as when I was there, and I wrote down a list of everything I hoped to achieve over the Christmas holidays when I got back home. I even did a few preliminary sketches, though I didn’t want to use up all the pages of my journal for sketching. Thinking of Christmas meant I ought to think about buying presents of my own, and so the next list consisted of ideas of what to buy for Mum and my friends. Then, because I was feeling so positive I made a list of future goals though one or two were bordering on being over ambitious, and I decided optimism is all very well, but short term goals were probably the best, and wouldn’t lead to biting disappointment. I was enjoying myself so much, lost in my own world, and so glad to be feeling some creative energy again that time seemed to be slipping away very quickly. I’d just got time to do a few sketches, and pulled out the sketchpad from my case that I’d thought wouldn’t see the light of day. The writing slope was just the right angle for drawing, and I sharpened my pencil in readiness.
The sun, a glowing ball of winter pearl had come out from a bank of cloud and was shining so strongly into my eyes and on to the paper that it was blinding, making it impossible to see. The old shutters on the windows were folded back, but it looked as if they were stuck fast, encrusted with at least a hundred years or more of white paint. I tried them anyway, and one half unfolded with a bit of persuasion, but it still wasn’t enough to stop the light from piercing my eyes. It looked as if a little bit of paint was acting like glue, and suddenly remembering the little penknife in the writing box, I fetched it out. I only wanted to scrape away what shouldn’t have been there anyway, and told myself I wasn’t doing any harm, but as I chipped away at the hardened paint I could see it wasn’t going to give way easily. At last I was making some progress, and fitting my fingers down between the spaces I’d created, I got some purchase on the shutter door and pulled hard. It made such a noise as the paint finally gave way, splintering in shards when it moved, I thought for a horrible moment that I’d damaged it. Suddenly the shutter swung forward with a resigned creak. There was a lot of dust and dirt, which fell all over the windowsill and drifted to the floor making an awful mess, but it was free at last. And so was something else that had fallen from the deep recess behind. It looked like a cross between a giant butterfly’s cocoon and a spider’s nest, darkest grey and furry with what looked like two hundred years’ worth of cobwebs wrapped round it, and all I could do was stare at it to begin with. I didn’t want to touch it at first, but it didn’t look as if it were alive with tiny creatures, and when I poked it gently the dust balls enrobing it simply rolled away until the object underneath was revealed.
A knock at the door made me jump out of my skin, and Ellen’s voice rang out, piercing my dream-like state.
‘Lunch will be ready in five minutes,’ she called, ‘Mrs Partridge has made some soup which should warm us up before we head out into the cold.’
I said I’d be down straight away, though I was finding it hard to concentrate on anything but the little parcel I was now unravelling in my hands, and wished I could stay longer to examine it. Wrapped in silk that was rotting away in places I discovered a leather-bound notebook inside. Turning the fragile paper pages very carefully it became immediately clear I’d found a journal, and a very old one at that, with a year date on every page for 1788, written in a very neat hand. The writing was so small and so hard to decipher I could only just read the first sentence of the first entry.
We are arrived at my uncle’s house, and it is quite as grand as I imagined! Though I couldn’t wait to read more I closed the diary reluctantly, wrapping it up again and putting it away carefully inside the drawer of my writing box. It would need considerably more time to study it, and all my powers of concentration to read the tiny script, and right now I needed to tidy up before Mrs Partridge or Ellen discovered the mess I’d made. I rinsed my flannel under the hot water in the basin, and did my best to tidy up, wiping down the recesses where the shutters had been stuck with paint, never seeing light for what must have been a very long time. Folding them back, I decided they looked pretty much as they had done before I’d forced them open, and resolved not to mention what I’d done or tell them about my exciting find until I had a chance to examine it further. I raked a comb through my hair, pulled on a cardigan to help keep me warm, and ran downstairs.
‘We shall be out for the rest of the afternoon,’ said Ellen, as Mrs Partridge ladled out warming tomato soup into our bowls, ‘And then Roger has booked an early supper at a dear French restaurant we both love. Do tell Caroline our thrilling plans for the evening, Roger. He is wonderful, you know.’
Roger put down the newspaper he was reading for a moment. ‘We’re off to the theatre.’
‘Oh, that is exciting,’ I said, ‘I love a play.’
‘It’s Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol,’ he went on, ‘I know you like a ghost story, and Ellen said you’d like the Victorian fashions too.’
‘Yes, I’m very interested in costume design; I shall look forward to it, thank you, Roger,’ I said, thinking I might cope better with the idea of an afternoon’s shopping now such an evening lay ahead.
So, I really am glad about being in Bath with the Applebys, and I’m feeling very spoiled. I will write to Mum this evening after we’ve been to the theatre, and thank her for the writing slope. I can’t wait to tell her everything … except about the ghost, of course. In fact, I think it best if I keep that little episode all to myself - even now I can’t help thinking it was some strange kind of dream induced by being half asleep. I wondered when I came back upstairs to fetch my scarf whether I’d see her again, though I had a feeling I’d just find my room, which I did, and the thought occurred that it was likely a one-off occasion and I might never see her again.