That’s a question most authors of Jane Austen fan fiction don’t have to ponder. I think most people accept that Jane was a sane and sensible woman, but in my book, Jane, Actually, Jane’s sanity is something of a marvel because of the precepts and conditions of the world I created.
You can take a look at this page for the complete explanation of my world, but I’ll summarize here and mention that in my book, the dead can communicate with the living via the Internet. Those who died before the invention that made this possible, however, have spent their afterlives unable to communicate with either the living or the dead. They’ve essentially been doomed to a solitary non-existence, trapped in their own thoughts without the benefit of human companionship.
For Jane Austen, this means she’s been unable to talk to her friends, her family, her beloved sister, and after the deaths of those near to her, she was unable to talk to those generations who succeeded them. Further, she’s been unable to hear a spoken word in all that time or to taste or smell or feel anything.
I think any of you reading this would consider this a hellish punishment rather than the eternal reward most people expect or would desire. Some of my friends are aghast at the awfulness of the world I created, but I defend my decisions using the familiar dictum of tyrants and authors through the ages: Life isn’t necessarily fair. And that applies to the afterlife as well.
Of course a book about an insane Jane Austen would attract few readers (to be honest, a book about a dead Jane Austen who communicates via the Internet, also has attracted few readers), so I had to find some way to imagine a Jane who has preserved her sanity. I came up with the idea that in the first few decades of her afterlife, she was obsessed with the challenge of finishing Sanditon, the book she was writing after her death. It gave her a problem—an almost inconceivably difficult problem—to solve: how to write a book without the aid of pen and paper.
This is explained or referenced a few times in the book and I’ve explained it at my book readings, but what I’ve never mentioned until now is that I got the idea from an old Jimmy Stewart movie: Carbine Williams. This 1952 biopic is about the life of David Marshall Williams, who in the movie is portrayed as a North Carolina moonshiner who is blamed for the death of a federal agent. He goes to prison and endures brutal punishment, including solitary confinement. My memory is that Stewart was locked up in one of those tiny hot boxes left to bake in the sun, but I may be confusing that detail with another movie.
The main thing is that Stewart, as Williams, endures thirty days of this before he’s released. He spent far longer than any other prisoner in solitary and when he’s asked how he withstood the punishment for so long, he explains that in his mind, he took apart and put back together every gun with which he was familiar. Much of the beginning of the movie shows Williams’ rural upbringing and his expertise with firearms and that he was something of a backwoods tinkerer. He also conceives of a mechanism that in the movie at least, directly leads to the development of the M1 carbine, a lighter-weight cousin (truly they have nothing to do with one another) of the M1 Garand, the standard U.S. infantryman weapon of World War II.
The film made an impression on me when I saw it many, many years ago. It taught me the mind can be a powerful tool when a person is stripped of all else. You can imagine my surprise when I realized this movie about a North Caroline moonshiner in the 1930s provided the answer to preserving the sanity of my imaginary Jane Austen in the twenty-first century, almost two hundred years after her death in the English Regency.
Some of you, however, are not convinced, especially those of you reading this on your smart phone while simultaneously watching a movie on Netflix or Amazon. You probably can’t stand the thought of having nothing to do and the first one hundred and eighty five years of Jane’s afterlife sounds like the epitome of having nothing to do. I get frantic at the thought of eating alone at a restaurant without something to read, but some people get frantic at the thought of using a restroom without Wifi access. It’s almost inconceivable for many today that for much of humanity, there really wasn’t a lot to do.
I’m afraid it’s time to trot out “the past is a foreign country” quote again. It’s really quite difficult for a modern person to understand that for someone like Jane Austen, time meant something very different. I, for instance, quail at the thought of a car trip that takes more than thirty minutes and yet I can contemplate the thought of traveling several thousand miles and spending the better part of a day to visit England.
Jane, on the other hand, often took journeys that lasted several days and knew people who took overseas trips that weeks and months. She wrote books long hand on her little scraps of ivory and took about two years to do it (Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion). This is a feat I consider roughly analogous to performing one’s own appendectomy without anesthesia. I could not write were it not for the computer.
Jane also wrote letters and prayers and copied music by hand and possibly plays, or at least the parts that she or other family member would act in their performances at Steventon. She presumably memorized her parts and also the poetry of Cowper and Burns. She delighted her family by reading to them her own novels, which any teen of today would find mind numbingly tedious but which passed for entertainment in a time before texting, email and tweeting. Remember that Jane whiled away many an hour playing her cup and ball game and was proud of her accomplishment.
Memorization feats were still common in Jane’s time, although literacy and the printing press had made that less necessary. Still, I’m certain Jane could recite long passages when I’m hard pressed to recall the Gettysburg Address.
This was a time when people created their own entertainment, including sports, music and the all important business of dancing. Music also required a lot of effort, especially if you couldn’t play or afford an instrument. A lot of music had to exist solely in your head.
Authors are well suited to withstand the privations of the afterlife as I have defined it. If you’ve ever seen an author with that faraway look in their eyes, it often means they’re plotting. To help me fall asleep at night, I dream up plot lines for stories. When I ride my bike, I’m only half aware of the real world, which explains a lot of my accidents, but also some of my best plot lines. I think it perfectly natural that my Jane Austen would use her imagination to keep her sane.
None of this belittles my imaginary Jane’s accomplishment, however. It is still a wonder that she could have kept her sanity after all those years and indeed, many of the disembodied have simply given up on their spirit or have chosen to sit unmoving on a rock by a river thinking deep thoughts.
But an author, I think, always has a story to tell. And we all know the advice that an author should write what they know and have experienced. So imagine a Jane who has been observing the best and the worst of humanity for 200 years. Imagine the stories that she wants to tell. I think that’s why Jane Austen is not insane—in my book, I mean.