In 2013, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s iconic novel, Pride and Prejudice. After two centuries, we still can’t get enough of Austen’s “own darling child.” Much has been written about its timeless themes, its characters, and the love story at its heart. What I have discovered is that experiencing the novel is unique to each reader. For those of us who read it over and over, it has become something treasured, a part of ourselves, so personal and intimate that it is difficult to share it with other people. It is something to turn to when the world seems unforgiving and unwelcoming.
One of the great scenes in the book occurs when Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle are visiting Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy. Months earlier, Elizabeth has turned down his proposal of marriage. She consented to visit Pemberley only because they’ve been assured that the family is not at home. So imagine her surprise, and the delight of Austen’s readers, when the two suddenly encounter each other for the first time since the fateful night Elizabeth rejected him. No, his shirt isn’t wet, he didn’t dive into the pond to cool his ardor—that’s only in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of the book—but he’s suddenly and unexpectedly present. And to our further delight, he is completely flustered when he encounters Elizabeth. He struggles to find the right words and then repeats himself. After a few minutes, we realize that he has changed in some fundamental and profound way.
Even if Elizabeth can’t see it yet, we, the reader, can, and it is this change that leads to the great wellspring of joy we feel from our reading of this novel. When I thought of writing an Austen-inspired sequel, it was that joyousness that I wanted to capture. I wasn’t interested in re-writing Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s story. How could it be more perfect? Rather, I wanted to extend the story with a different sister at its heart.
I settled on Mary Bennet, the discontented and perhaps misunderstood middle sister, as a character I could work with. She’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t she? Mary’s presence does not loom large in the novel. She has only minimal scenes, and sometimes she’s present only because another character happens to mention her. Mary is more irritating than funny; more foolish than wise; more unlikeable than sympathetic. And perhaps it was for these very reasons that she stood out as a likely choice for an Austen sequel. Mary had the most potential to transform herself and take a new direction.
What most defines Mary? I believe it is her isolation. Wedged between two pairs of sisters, each of whom are the other’s best friend and closest confidante, she becomes the odd woman out. Left to her own devices, she often acts outside the norm, which not only makes her an outcast within her own family, but also in society.
The essential nature of stories is that characters who inhabit them change. Pride and Prejudice is a textbook example. Elizabeth, too quick to judge, is forced to reconsider all she knows about Mr. Darcy—and Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy, to win Elizabeth, must reexamine his disdainful treatment of friends and acquaintances and his derisive opinions about them. Only then can they each open themselves to the attraction and love they have for each other.
To belong, to find her place, Mary must change as well. To do so means examining herself in uncomfortable ways. When a possible suitor enters the picture, this complicates her new life and thrusts her back into self-doubt. She must also break from the dismal future her family has planned for her. Mary’s own pursuits, then, are as much a part of the story as a lover’s pursuit of her.
What’s the highlight of my day? Usually it’s that first cup of coffee, and if I’m lucky, a beautiful sunrise peeking over the roof of the theater just across the street. I live in the city now, having left the burbs behind a few years ago.
Somehow, with hard work and a little luck, I’ve found a third career as a writer. I was a librarian first, then a teacher, and now a writer. I love the sound of that! In the summer of 2012, my debut novel, Kissing Shakespeare, was published by Delacorte Press. It’s a time-travel romance for teens. In the fall of 2013, my second novel will be published by William Morrow. It’s a Pride and Prejudice sequel about the socially awkward middle Bennet sister, Mary. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, I hope you’ll watch for it.
No matter how positive I am something I’ve written is worthwhile, I’m never really sure. And even reaching the point where I’m so damned positive I’m not quite sure takes time and requires negotiating numerous detours and obstacles, many of my own devising (though I’d happily blame someone else if I thought I could get away with it).
During the faltering early stages of a project I often find it necessary to fabricate a belief in what I’m doing, or in its potential. I do this both while I’m working and while I’m considering the possibility of attempting to think about the theoretical eventual prospect of, perhaps, working—two states that are indistinguishable in both appearance and yield. Without this feigned belief I would never finish anything. I feed this belief by binge-snacking and deluding myself. I sustain it by drinking.
And yet there are moments during the process when I feel genuine confidence, when I know it’s working. Unfortunately these moments are transient and not to be relied upon to rush in when I’m considering a glass shard sandwich on lye.
When the first draft is complete and it’s time to revise and edit, I slide into a bipolar state, vacillating wildly between confident enthusiasm and demoralizing doubt, occasionally stopping at random locations in between to catch my breath and howl into the mocking silence. This can last a couple lifetimes and is cause for heavy medication and random acts of violence. A piercing pain shoots from my eyes to my kneecaps. I’m inordinately gassy. Teeth rattle and drop onto my lap. They don’t look familiar.
Finally, months or years later, when I am convinced my work is done, when I view it as an entity rather than a work in progress or mere potential, my feelings about it crystallize and petrify. Life is wonderful. Birdies sing Lithuanian lullabies.
Well, that’s what should happen (without those damned birdies). Unfortunately this is how it really works:
For a day or two I might think it’s pretty good, and I’m relieved that it’s done (though for a while, when I sit down to consume a 17-pound bag of chips and slip into a coma, part of me will sense that something is missing), but buried deep in the murky but fertile recesses of my brain is a seed of doubt. What if it’s not an entity, a thing, a complete work? What if it really isn’t … anything. Perhaps, think I, it is shit. Ahoy! Look, over there: It is shit! It’s not even good shit. It’s bad shit. Very, very bad shit. “Bad shit,” I chastise my computer screen. I’m ashamed. It’s not too late to get a regular job, as … as … as a sack of poo! Or a congressperson! Or I could just quietly succumb after an appropriate period of suffering.
But then, a week or two later, stubborn and desperate, I summon the courage to read it again, and I think, Whoa, this is one heck of a good book! And once again I’m strapped to the bipolar seesaw, waiting for that final painful landing, the one where my nibbly bits will launch from my undercarriage into my stomach before shooting out of my mouth and into the atmosphere, where they’ll write my shame in puffy letters across a clear blue sky. This, mind you, is a best-case scenario.
I believe it’s impossible to see your own work clearly, free of the set of filters only the work’s creator—familiar to the point of irrational contempt with every word, every sentence, every turn of the plot—would have, so that the experience of reading it is permanently tainted, rendering you dull-witted and brain-tied. You simply can’t know if what you believe is there will be visible to anyone else. At least I can’t. I can only know how I feel, what I believe and hope I expressed, what I think is funny or tragic or touching or vile. But if no one else finds in my work what I believe is there, isn’t it a failure? Don’t I deserve to die?
Recently I came to believe that my novel Ways of Leaving was a good book, maybe better than good, certainly one worthy of publication. I reached the point, even before anyone else had read or commented on it, where I “knew” it was funny, sad, touching, painful, perhaps illuminating or life-affirming. I was absolutely positive it was a complete and valuable work. But I still wasn’t really sure.
It was only after receiving several wonderful and, to my mind, insightful reviews from people who owed me nothing, who knew nothing about me and probably didn’t care to, that I felt myself drifting toward really, really sure. Their words, read and then reread, convinced me that what I believed was there, what I knew was there, was actually there. They enabled me to me see that my novel was an entity, a funny, sad, complete, emotionally complex work of … well, let’s not get carried away.
But what a strange and wonderful feeling that was!
And how I fear I’ll never feel it again.
It might be easier to suck.
Grant Jarrett grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania and currently lives in Manhattan, where he works as a writer, musician, and songwriter. He has written for magazines including FOW and Triathlon, and is the author of More Towels, a coming-of-age memoir about life on the road. He is an avid cyclist and a reasonably competent flosser. Ways of Leaving is his first novel.