Chapter 1

New York City

An offer from her publisher

A woman writer, especially one long dead, should think seriously before turning down any offer from a publisher, even if it be for completing a book that one had long ago abandoned. After all, the passage of time, circumstances and not least the loss of one’s body, affords a new perspective.

These thoughts compelled Jane to look again at her agent’s email conveying the offer from her publisher regarding The Watsons. They appeared quite interested that she complete her fragment of not quite 18,000 words, but in all honesty she had given it little thought over the years. She had re-read it since the advent of the AfterNet, of course, and she knew the general opinion of it, that she had abandoned it because it was “too close to home.”

She pondered the phrase. It was true that the death of her father and the decline of her family’s fortunes uncomfortably paralleled the plot, but her memory was that the book simply wasn’t going where she wanted. With herself, her mother and sister moving so frequently, the book simply was passed over, especially after she returned her attention to Elinor and Marianne.

Of course, there were still parts of The Watsons to recommend. Most readers seemed to enjoy Emma’s dance with—oh, what was the little boy’s name? Jane was forced to Google her own book and found the answer—Charles Blake!—at the Republic of Pemberley.

She was a little embarrassed at not being able to recall his name. No one will credit me if I can’t remember the names of my characters.

Jane was also leery of finishing the book because others had already attempted it, including her niece Catherine, taking rather more liberties than she ought.

I should say no, but if a year from now I am still unable to think of some new project, perhaps I might be desperate enough to attempt it.

She sighed, inaudibly of course, which was never really as satisfying. The cold fear that she still might be unable to write a year from now was too awful to comprehend.

Best to leave some options open, she thought, and composed a reply to her agent:

Dear Melody,

I thank you for conveying this offer from our publisher, but after careful consideration

She stopped and looked at what she’d written, deleted it and instead wrote:

Melody,

Thanks for the heads up about the offer, but I don’t think I want to revisit The Watsons right now. I keep saying I should write something that’s relevant today. However, I don’t want to say no, as I am sure you’d advise. Could you say that Sanditon has all my attention for the moment?

Jane

She hit send and hoped Melody would not be jarred by the tone of her reply, but now was as good a time as any to leave the Regency behind. Having spent nearly a decade online, her casual “speech” had evolved, but into what she could not say. Even before the AfterNet made it easy for her to read, she had absorbed what she could of the current idiom by looking over the shoulders of people reading books, magazines and newspapers. Not until the discovery of the afterlife, however, was it possible for her to employ any of what she had learned. And thus it was that her speech was a mixture of the here and now and the past and forgotten.

When she was appearing before the identity committee, she decided, and had been advised, not to retreat to the speech patterns of her corporeal existence—“It will just sound too precious,” Melody told her—but to adopt a more modern tone.

She had to avoid sounding too modern, however. Those anticipating conversation with Jane Austen would be confused if she employed the phrase “friends with benefits” or remarked on a “cringeworthy” performance on Strictly Come Dancing. So she must adopt a style that allowed her to speak with her natural—well, she must own up to it and call it sarcasm—but neither sound too modern nor too quaint. But with her very few close friends, such as Melody, she might relax her caution, although Jane already regretted the “heads up.”

For the moment, however, she did not regret rejecting the proposal. I must write something new, damn it! I don’t want to be the grande dame of English letters forever.

She looked around guiltily, both embarrassed and amused by her outburst, but of course no one in the Starbucks at 63rd and Broadway in Manhattan had heard her. After all, she had no body, no voice, no physical presence. She was just one of the—she looked at the counter on the AfterNet terminal—14 disembodied people online in the store. None of them knew the novelist Jane Austen shared the terminal with them and naturally none of the living customers were aware of her presence.

Nevertheless, she decided to leave, having spent the better part of two hours surfing the net. She also hoped to avoid Melody’s displeasure, but her agent knew her too well, having replied immediately.

From: MelodyKramer@JanetApplebaumLiterary.com

To: JaneAusten3@theAfterNet.net

Date: Jan. 6, 2011 09:31:11

Subject: RE: The Watsons

“Heads up?” Really? At least consider the offer. Now is not the time to rest on your laurels just because you’re the hot dead author of the month. After all, what if Hemingway proves his identity? Or a Bronte? Admittedly you’re one of the bigger fish out there, but still, what happens when God forbid Mark Twain pops up?

She laughed at Melody’s favourite bogeyman. She invoked Twain whenever she wanted to goad Jane into action. She could picture Melody shaping her hands into bear claws, her shorthand for Twain coming back from the grave to continue his character assassination of her.

As amusing as the image was, Jane had to take Melody’s advice seriously. The small, plump woman was undoubtedly her best friend and her champion. She had helped organize the search of Chawton House that had resulted in the proof of her identity. Jane knew she owed Melody far more than the 15 per cent an author owes an agent.

So it was that Jane composed another email:

Very well, Melody, you may amend our reply to say that I shall consider it, if you think that a better response. You do have my best interests in mind, as you constantly remind me.

Speaking of reminders, when do we meet with Mr Pembroke again? I had thought him determined to arrange our next meeting for today or tomorrow. Or have they decided not to publish Sanditon after all?

Jane

Her last sentence was a bit cruel and would worry Melody unnecessarily, but Jane decided that it would at the very least occupy her for a time. She hit send and quickly logged out, determined to leave before seeing another reply. She waited until she saw a customer leaving the store and then darted out behind.

She remained on the sidewalk, undecided what to do. She was at 63rd and Broadway through a concatenation of events involving a subway car she could not exit in time and then being distracted by the sight of a naked beggar, which consequently caused her to be struck by a lorry. That experience naturally confused her and then she entered a bus going north instead of south. Once she escaped the bus, she entered the Starbucks to compose herself, look at a map and, of course, surf the web.

Before receiving the email from her agent she had already determined that she should visit Central Park, the southern end of that vast, urban green space being only a short distance away. Standing outside the Starbucks, she decided to pursue that goal, thinking that a stroll in the park might restore her equanimity.

She crossed Broadway, this time giving close attention to the traffic, and proceeded along 63rd toward Central Park West. The human traffic on the sidewalk was also heavy at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning. She found herself dodging hurried New Yorkers intent on their business, talking on their phones and paying little attention to their fellow man. She did, however, see several young men loitering outside a store, paying close attention to their fellow women.

She paused to pay particular attention to a young woman, who despite the cold January weather wore only a cropped jeans jacket—she might almost call it a Spencer with its frog buttons—over a thin form-fitting knit top and low-slung jeans. As the young woman approached, the men offered their compliments. At least Jane assumed the young men were saying something complimentary; as she had lost her hearing upon her death, she had to presume upon her knowledge of the behaviour of young men in the 21st century. Unfortunately, despite her facility at reading lips, she could not discern their words, owing perhaps to the men being non-English speakers. The young woman tried to give the appearance of ignoring their comments, but the slight smile on her face betrayed her ready understanding.

O tempora, o mores, Jane thought. Or perhaps more aptly and less pretentiously, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Women displaying their bodies were nothing new to her. Even in the Regency, some women revealed far more than was modest, ostensibly concealed under a veil of muslin that, in fact, concealed little. And the compliments the men were uttering would undoubtedly have been familiar to the men of her time, although she hoped not to men of her acquaintance.

She continued on her journey and not for the first time she tried to imagine what her behaviour and appearance would be were she young and alive today—today, of course, being a constantly moving target. She would have hated the strictures of the Victorian age—what purpose does a bustle serve?—and would have delighted in the 1920s. But when she thought how she might have dressed during the 1960s … well, her first wish was to giggle and share the thought with her sister, which triggered the usual ache of no longer being able to share with Cassandra.

That ache brought her to a halt and she became aware that she had entered the park and was already strolling on one of the paths.

I really must limit my daydreaming, she told herself. I must exist in the now or I shall forever be trapped dreaming of the past.

She well knew the danger of losing herself, as she had the first few years of her afterlife. She tried to put nostalgia about Cassandra from her mind, but to no avail. She often worried whether her sister could endure the loneliness of the afterlife.

 If she has lost herself, perhaps the news of my identity or the publication of Sanditon will help her find her way back to sanity, but it does me no good to morbidly dwell on the past.

She thought this as she watched a nanny pushing a pram, followed by a middle-aged man with paunch, receding hairline and sweat-stained running gear, who barely managed to pass the young woman. He managed a smile at the attractive nanny nevertheless, who brilliantly returned his smile, which occasioned him to stumble. He only barely recovered his equilibrium and increased his speed to put some distance between himself and his embarrassment.

Especially as the here and now continues to prove worthy of amusement.

She continued on her path and reflected upon her last visit to Central Park shortly after the end of the Second World War. It was her only other trip to America, when she took advantage of the many military aircraft crossing the Atlantic. She recalled that where she now walked were planted numerous Victory Gardens: plots of lettuce and tomatoes and spinach in place of the beds of roses she saw today. It was a world away and a time away, when the jubilation of a world free from war swept through the city.

So much for my decision to think of the here and now. She thought perhaps she should address the idea of completing The Watsons—it was at least a pressing concern—and how she might make it differ from Catherine’s version, although The Younger Sister had not stood the test of time and was largely forgotten save for Austen scholars.

I could, however, follow Catherine’s lead and not feel beholden to my original text, as I was with Sanditon. There’s no reason I couldn’t add to the opening or even rewrite it. I really should re-read it.

That thought made her desirous of finding an AfterNet terminal and perhaps an e-book  copy by which she might refresh her memory. And she could check her email again to see if they were meeting with their publisher today. She pondered for a moment, trying to recall the map she had earlier studied and decided as she was already travelling north, she might find a terminal, comfortable chairs and pleasant surroundings at the New York Historical Society Library and it was to this location she propelled herself, in no particular hurry.

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