Thursday 2 March 2017

What would Jane Austen do? - by Gillian Polack

I have had no telephone for a fortnight. It’s probably a crossed line at an interchange and will take two seconds to fix, but changes in how they do things and how the overarching telecommunications people do things in Australia mean that I have no landline. There are reasons why the landline is there, and they’re important ones and so I’m irate. It’s easy to be irate. We’re used to being able to call for help or be called by others when they need us. Being alone in a time of need isn’t as accepted as it was historically. 

I’m going to unwind my stress by considering things historically. Let’s look at equivalencies and find out what some of the historical situations are that might equate with mine. 

The moment I do this I calm down and think “Thank goodness I live now and not then” for now I have options, with just one phone down. I have another phone and I have a computer and I have a neighbour who watches out for me. Except for the two days when my internet went down, too. I still had options.

Let me try this in Jane Austen’s day. In fact, let me try it with Jane Austen. She too, was single and dealt with health issues, after all. If she were modern, she’d be in a similar position to me.
I use the landline for:

1) Medical emergencies – it’s my reliable number for ambulance and the after hours doctor. Even if I have trouble holding things or can’t see straight (if I have a migraine, for instance) I can hold that phone. It’s not something I will need often at all but it’s the thing that could save my life.

2)  A number that doesn’t give away my privacy. Being semi-public can be an issue, especially at this time, for I am Jewish. I’ve been through the being targeted thing and do not want it again.

3)  A stable number over a long time and one that is in the phone book so that people can contact me even when they’ve lost touch.

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 So what would Jane Austen have done under each of these circumstances?

1) There were no telephones in Austen’s day. Even as a single woman, however, she was not alone in the way I am as a modern single. Servants didn’t create an extended family the way they had 150 years earlier – this was one of the strongest moments of the English class system – but they were there. So, where someone these days would ring my number to invite me out or to make sure I’m OK or to sort out a medical issue, Austen’s household would have carried messages for her. Most often, someone’s servant would knock on the door, give a message to someone in Jane’s household (posh households had more hierarchy, but Jane’s wasn’t that posh) and Jane would receive it.

What about the medical emergency? There were hospitals, but they were not like ours (and there were certainly no ambulances) and were not used in the same way. Even if there had been our kind of modern hospital in Jane’s time, she wouldn’t have had access to it everyday, for she lived in a small town. 

Horses were everything. Engines were new and amazing, for this was the time of the industrial revolution, but Jane lived a fair while before cars. Horses are wonderful animals a a gift to civilisation, but it takes time to get one out of the stable and to get it ready to go and to go someone where on the horse and… If the doctor was around the corner, it was probably faster to go on foot. Then the doctor would have come (unless he was out seeing someone else, in which case getting a message to him saying how life-threatening the problem was at Jane’s end  took time) for home visits were far, far more normal than they are in current Australia. They were more normal in my childhood than they are now, but that’s another story.

If Jane was urgently, dangerously ill, she could have died while the message was getting to the doctor that she needed help.

2) What about the privacy issue? We know what Jane actually did, and Jane handled it differently to me. 

I’m public. Or semi-public, at least. Writers these days are expected to be. Keeping that part of myself private for my own emotional well-being and safety is quite tricky.

It was tricky for Jane, too. She had an equivalent to my Jewishness and that was being female. No bomb threats, but she wouldn’t have known if she’d be acceptable in her social circles or town if she’d come out as a writer. How many of the people around her actually knew that she was the amazing author of several exceptionally popular volumes is an interesting question, but, alas, the answer doesn’t belong in this essay.

This means she had as much need to protect herself as I do. Some in some directions and none in others. It was a set of difficult choices and a tricky balancing act, just like it is for me.

How she handled it was severalfold. First of all, she published anonymously. Her name was attached to her work after she died, but not, as far as I know, during her lifetime. This meant she and those close to her had control over how far it was known that she was the writer.  This is exactly like my control over my home address.

The sort of publicity we do now wasn’t a thing then. Some authors were lionised (and Harriet Martineau has a wonderful description of this in her somewhat later Autobiography) but many authors did as Jane did, and their author selves were not visible. In fact, there were enough authors called “Anonymous” or “A Lady” that their bylines also often mentioned other work that they had written.

How far did Jane control her anonymity? I suspect quite far. I visited her house at Chawton and saw her writing desk, many years ago. Her current work was hidden under letters she was writing or under a blotter. She’d quietly put her work out of sight when visitors came.

This may not be just anonymity. There are other reasons for privacy. 

I work from home and visitors love picking up my papers and exclaiming over them or putting them in better order or making everything more tidy. There’s something really uncomfortable about a friend or family member reading through half-finished work and reacting to it in the same way they’d react to finished work. It’s like my work is a part of a museum: they know how to react to work at museums. If I were Jane and could simply slide my latest work into hiding, I would do this. Whether Jane hid her work to keep it private until it was in print or she hid it for other reasons, she was still controlling her privacy.

Jane would probably have set up her landline similarly to the way I have. That’s a comforting feeling. I shall eat fresh summer raspberries in honour of this.

Alas, the berries are all inside me and, in fact, it’s several days later and I’m finishing this essay in Armidale, an exceptionally pretty town in regional NSW. I’m at the desk of an Italian lecturer, and that’s yet another story for yet another time.

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We’re up to number three: how did Jane get in touch with people and keep in touch with people?

That’s more complicated.

She didn’t need a stable phone number, of course, for phones didn’t exist. She did, however, need a stable address. Her friends and family needed to know where to write and when she was usually available for them to call. At the heart of this lies a secure and long term address. Every time Jane moved, there was the danger of losing some friends from her life forever.

The upside of this is the upside of her hiding the novel-in-progress on her letter-writing table when someone dropped in. She probably had regular times when friends and family knew they could visit. As long as she stayed in a given place, or had family in another given place who could then tell other family and mutual friends “Jane moved, just last year. Here, let me write it down for you,” She was fine.

She would have moved in far more fixed circles than I do, and known those people exceedingly well. So what Jane would have done without a telephone helped her become the woman who could write those closely-observed novels about people who moved in a small, stable society and who had been observed particularly acutely.  

Jane Austen, with landline, would not have been our Jane at all. I have no idea what I’ll become when I get mine back.

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