Another time and another place, but some lessons to learn that apply to me as a writer today.
Kinship of Writers
Jane’s home in Chawton was where she revised Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice for publication. Here she also wrote Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and part of another novel before becoming ill. After visiting Jane’s house in Chawton, I felt a kinship with her. She lived in the kind of home I would have loved (see below): several hundred years old, two stories, cozy fireplaces in every room, big flower and vegetable gardens, set on a cobblestone street lined with tiny shops and thatched-roof cottages.
Her writing desk (above) was tiny. I was struck by the contrast between her small desk, just big enough for her paper and ink well, and my two desks back home covered with computers, printers, books, notebooks, and assorted junk. Jane had no shelves of how-to writing books, no writing room of her own, no Internet or cell phone.
She wrote in the mornings, after breakfast, before helping her mother and sister with household tasks or visiting or entertaining numerous nieces and nephews. She put her writing first in her day, before it got taken over by friends or family or other obligations. There was a lesson for me!
She also wrote about what she knew and experienced–and what interested her–despite pressure from her publisher to write what would make more money. They wanted gothic and historical romances, not her “simple little stories” about her everyday village life and how several families affected each other. (Remember: although her books are historical to her present-day fans, she was writing contemporary fiction.) Her heroes and heroines who learned about their character flaws and overcame them–like Darcy’s pride and Lizzie’s tendency toward hasty judgments–were considered too tame for the reading public.
Write Your Passion
I loved reading Jane’s responses to the publisher’s pressure. Her replies (there were photocopies of her letters) basically said that she could only write what they wanted if she were literally starving, and even though historical romances might be more popular or profitable than her “domestic stories of country villages…I would hang myself before I could finish the first chapter…No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, though I may never succeed again.” Wouldn’t that same publisher be astounded today to see the thousands of fans who still flock to the Jane Austen walking tours in Bath, the Jane Austen Centre, and her home in Chawton, who buy her books and watch movies made of them? Isn’t there a lesson for all writers here?
Perhaps this is what Jane was thinking when she wrote (in Mansfield Park):
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”