I'm not the sort of writer whose books are found stuffed into the seat pocket of every airplane. My sales are modest and my fame is derived more from the exploits of my sons than from any work I turn in during a given year. So it was a bit of a shock when a friend emailed the other day to tell me my name had come up. Her daughter likes those desktop calendars that offered a teaser-a-day: jokes about lawyers, inspirational quotations, gardening tips, yadda yadda. This one happened to be a Jeopardy! calendar. Question: "This author had the sense and sensibility to turn Jane Austen into a sleuth in a mystery series." I was the answer.
Is that weird, or what?
When I started writing about Jane, I thought I was talking to a certain audience: people (OK, mostly women) who cherished her novels and wanted to know a bit more about her. I've loved the Regency and Napoleonic France for a long time. I yearned to use a semblance of Austen language, and luxuriate in Jane's particular settings and obessions: Lyme Regis, Bath, all things Royal Navy and the occasional bout of London shopping. What I NEVER anticipated was that I'd writing, in large part, for readers who did not know her name.
This was a shock delivered repeatedly in unexpected ways. Somebody at a signing asked if Jane Austen had founded Hull House in Chicago. (Wrong era, wrong woman, wrong continent.) My son's preschool teacher (yes, teacher) asked if she'd written Jane Eyre. An acquaintance gave me a COPY of Jane Eyre, because she knew how much I loved to write about her....And then there was my bank teller, pausing in the act of processing my transaction, who said, "This Jane Austen you write about. She...lived?"
I've tried different aids to enlightenment. I mention Colin Firth as Darcy. Emma Thompson and her academy award for Sense and Sensibility. I've even invoked Keira Knightley for the benefit of a younger generation, although I loathe that version of P&P. And whenever a faintly snobbish sort of Janeite asks me pointedly why, with so much knowledge of Austen and the period under my belt, I haven't written a real book about Jane--meaning a nonfiction one--I patiently explain the lesson I've learned. My series of ten detective novels may have introduced more people to Austen's work than any historic monograph I could have written. I get no greater pleasure than hearing this oft-repeated phrase: "I actually went and read one of Austen's books after reading Jane and the..." whatever it might be.
Yes, Virginia, there IS a Jane Austen--and some of us wander through the world pretending there always will be.
I've asked my friend to save her daughter's calendar sheet for me. I think I might frame it. Or at least stick it on my refrigerator.
Happy Holidays, everyone!