When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal.
Miss Austen’s eyes flickered open. She was aware of soft pillows under her head, the fragrance of fresh linen tucked about her, the sputter of a crackling fire and the ticking of a clock. It was a moment before her eyes could focus and other senses quickened into life. The iron taste of blood in her mouth and a bitter tang of something she could not recognise made her long for water. All these sensations, scents and sounds were unfamiliar. Where was she?
‘She’s awake, Doctor Lyford!’
Jane turned her head to see a young man rushing to her side. He had a look of Doctor Lyford but this was not the physician she knew. This man was younger, slimmer and had a shock of thick, dark hair, which lay in damp, greasy curls on his forehead. He wore only a shirt tucked into outlandishly long breeches and with his sleeves rolled up like a working man, Jane was not altogether sure what she thought about him. He looked wild, his eyes flashing with a topaz light in their depths.
‘Miss Austen, can you hear me?’ The agitation in his voice was plain to hear.
‘I am not deaf you know, there is no need to raise your voice.’ Jane struggled to sit up.
‘You must not move. Here, drink this.’ The doctor placed a teapot with a long spout to her lips.
For a second Jane felt frightened and although dying to quench her thirst she felt so ill at ease in these strange surroundings. The taste in her mouth was disgusting. Was he poisoning her?
Aware that her lips, which were compressed firmly together, were not about to part, Doctor Lyford tried again. ‘Please drink, Miss Austen, it will do you good.’
Looking up at the young man, Jane’s expression softened. There was real anxiety in his eyes and she saw something else. In those brown eyes flecked with sage green and amber, she saw that he cared deeply. Jane did as she was told whilst taking the opportunity to look around her at the room that seemed filled with a plethora of furniture and furnishings. The walls were profuse with intricate patterns on a dark russet ground – roses spilled from elongated vases that dripped with swags of pearls. Carpets on the wooden floors swirled with sensuous curves of acanthus and exotic flora whilst floating in this sea of overblown elegance were tables, sofas and chairs be-decked with frills and furbelows. It was a strange land and Jane had never seen anything like it.
I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something – offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.
Jane smiled wryly at the recollection of penning those words. Published in 1815, her darling Emma (of whom she wrote that no one would like but herself) had been written in another time, another place. A hundred and ten years later, and having sold herself into the governess-trade, the irony was not lost on her.
Looking out of the window, she gripped the arm of her chair with both hands as if doing so would help slow down all sensations. The metal monster roared ahead belching thick clouds of hot, black smoke. Like a dragon consumed with fire, she thought, as its sleek body snaked through the countryside at an alarming speed.
She knew her companion, Dr Lyford was studying her face, and determined to look unconcerned by the sight of trees, fields and houses flying past her window, she released the grip on the arms of the chair, folded them in her lap and assumed an expression of nonchalance.
‘I know this is all terrifyingly new to you,’ he said, ‘but there is no quicker way to travel than by train.’
Having always found great amusement in watching people, she observed him searching for the right words, as he paused, and then saw him smile nervously instead. Jane knew she was expected to answer, to assure him that she was fine, but she was in a mischievous mood. Ever playful, she wanted to see what would happen if she remained silent, she wanted to imagine how the scene would play out. The pleasure of waiting for him to continue was coupled with the knowledge that she’d already guessed exactly what he would say.
‘It was the best I could do in the circumstances, and it will, at least, resolve the problems of employment on the one hand, and time for your writing on the other. Your sister left no other instructions … the money she’d put aside was never going to be enough, even taking into account the royalties and the interest you’d earned.’
‘Dr Lyford, I do not blame you, nor do I blame myself, or Cassandra. My sister knew my wishes plainly enough and carried them out to the best of her ability. I can never express my gratitude enough to you for the services you have rendered me. It was no small feat to make me healthy once more or bring me back from the dead, and I will ever be grateful.’
‘But, it can never have been your plan to become a governess to five girls on a country estate. Nor to have found yourself in a time that is completely unknown to you. A hundred years is a long time, Miss Austen, and a lot has changed. I fear that a month’s recovery and a few hastily read newspaper articles may not be enough to prepare you fully for life, let alone for the new role you will assume.’
‘Dr Lyford, if I can survive embalming, the subsequent resurrection and the effects of transdifferentiation, I will live to tell the tale, if you will forgive a little punning. I am quite the Turritopsis dohrnii, and if not for your great work on that immortal jellyfish, I would not be here today.’
In many ways, it had been a relief to discover that some things were not changed. She was not essentially altered. Her mind, her habits, and her delight in the absurdities of life, were exactly the same. In the four short weeks she’d been returned to life, this realisation was a source of comfort.
‘I wish there had been a greater opportunity to make some more notes, Miss Austen, a further study of the effects of the process. This is pioneering work, and I must be sure that there are no ill effects of which we may not yet be aware.’
‘I understand your concerns, doctor, but I am perfectly happy with myself and feel twenty years younger! What forty-one year old female would not be delighted to have the hand of time turned backward? You see, I am vain enough to tell you that I am enjoying the fact that I look quite twenty-one again.’
‘Every cell in your body is that of a young woman half your real age. And that is what I am concerned about and longing to research further. What will happen as you age? How lasting are the effects? There could be complications.’
‘Doctor Lyford, do not concern yourself. I’ve never felt better. I feel as if I am about to start a new adventure, even if the thought of five little girls is a disquieting one. More than anything, I will have the time to write all the novels I thought were to be denied to me, and I will endure anything to that end.’
The doctor knew it was useless to argue. He’d only known Miss Jane Austen a short time but that he had quickly learned. It simply was not possible to get the better of her.
‘But you must promise me that you will write or telephone if there is anything at all that does not seem right.’
Jane nodded in agreement knowing she had no intention of taking up any more of the young doctor’s time if she could help it and she certainly had no plans for ever picking up a telephone. Perhaps she would get used to it in time, but the infernal instrument seemed such an intrusion on one’s privacy, though she admitted that she and her sister Cassandra might have preferred conversing through such machinery, compared to the interminable letter writing on the occasions when they’d been separated. That was one thing she could not get used to, and thought she never would. Cassy had always been such a huge part of her life, and the idea that she would never see or hear her again was too much to bear. She caught her own reflection in the glass and started. Sometimes it felt almost as if Cassy were there, a part of her. Occasionally she caught a look of hers in her own image, in the expression of her eyes or in the turn of her head. But Cassy was gone. That was how she’d wanted it. Her practical, pragmatic sister had lived her life to a grand age and was happy at the last to leave in the usual way. Jane was slowly coming to terms with the fact, but life without her beloved Cassy would never be the same.
When Doctor John Lyford had initially hinted that he was experimenting with some success on his work in transdifferentiation at the beginning of her last awful bout of illness, she had not dreamed that it would take several generations to perfect the process. And once she’d first discussed the unthinkable with Cassy, the idea that she might one day cheat death to write again, she’d not considered the possibility of how she would feel at leaving so many beloved people behind. After the sisters removed to Winchester for her final illness, she had every hope that Dr Lyford might cure her, or at the very least keep her alive for a few more years.
Knotting her scarf around her neck and smoothing her skirt in a bid to distract her mind, she wondered when she would get used to her new clothes. Jane was shocked when she saw that young women in 1925 were not only exposing their ankles but their knees as well, and though her dress and simple belted coat were mid-calf, just as short as she found comfortable, after a few days she’d begun to appreciate the freedom that the clothes gave her. Of course, becoming a governess precluded any attempt at being fashionable for which she was thankful. Others might sport the new bobbed hairstyles, but Jane was glad she could still wear her chestnut curls in a simple bun pinned into place on top of her head and hidden under a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with a feather.
Her borrowed valise was stowed in the luggage rack containing all her worldly goods: a copy of Sir Charles Grandison - her favourite book, two extra day frocks plus one for evenings, a bottle of Luce’s eau de cologne, and a present from the doctor’s sister of a box of scented talcum powder, as well as a fountain pen, ink and notebook from the doctor himself. This last present was a most treasured gift, and Jane wondered if she’d ever get used to the miracle of having ink flowing endlessly from a nib that didn’t blot.
‘Are you absolutely certain you are ready to take on such a challenge?’ said Dr Lyford, watching her closely. In the short time he’d known her he’d decided she was a hard nut to crack, but every now and then he’d glimpsed a certain vulnerability, the merest hint of fragility to the woman behind the mask of strength and assurance she wore.
‘Quite sure.’ Jane continued to stare out at the fields flying by. ‘To do anything else would be unthinkable. I have been given the greatest gift, and to squander it would be sinful. Besides, I am looking forward to seeing Devon again and I love the sea. I am used to small children, Dr Lyford, having supervised my own nephews and nieces on many occasions. Dear little Neddy, precocious Anna, and darling Fanny were the delight of my days, to name just three of them. They used to love my fairy stories … strange to think that they are all dead.’
Dr Lyford wondered what she might think if she knew that some of her brothers’ descendants had taken it upon themselves to write her biography and publish her personal letters. Fanny, whom Jane had once described as quite after one’s own heart, had taken to criticising her aunt in later life saying she was “very much below par as to good society and its ways”, and that Fanny’s father’s influence and superior connections had rescued Aunt Jane from “commonness and a lack of refinement”. Dr Lyford had shied away from telling her very much about her large family of descendants. He’d concentrated instead on telling her that her work was loved, and how her books were still being published, bringing comforts of home to the troops in the war still so fresh in all their minds. Though pleased to be so well regarded, one hundred years after publication, she remarked on the fact that she’d missed out on a fortune, which would have been more than useful in her present predicament.
‘Your memories are very clear, Miss Austen.’
‘Yes, I remember everything. Being twenty-one again, Dr Lyford, and seeing my face in the glass as that young girl brings back many bittersweet recollections. I recall the sense of heartbreak and loss when we left Steventon for Bath as if it just happened. And then later on, the memories of finding our beloved home at Chawton, revising my books and sending them out into the world, quite as my own darling children, are still fresh in my mind. I could not forget such dancing spirits when my dearest of them all appeared in print. I am gratified to know Elizabeth is still a heroine my readers admire.’
For a few minutes she was quiet as the train sheared through the scenery like scissors through fine muslin. She didn’t want to think about the past, she must look to the present and the future if she were to survive. Looking out through the window she noted the sky clouding up above. The landscape was changed beyond recognition in the towns, she thought, and tried to imagine the lives of those weary looking individuals waiting at grim stations who were so tightly housed together in back-to-back houses, blackened by soot and smoke. The countryside offered a glimpse of a landscape she recognised, and though the people she saw were dressed in the fashions of the day, Jane was sure they were still the same in essentials. Human nature didn’t alter, even if their clothes, their hairstyles and their use of slang changed. People still loved and hated, won and lost, struggled, succeeded or sank.
The train came to a halt in a village station, and she saw three children. Dressed in country clothes, white pinafores on the little girls with large black bonnets on their heads, long shorts and a tweed cap on the little boy, she watched them swinging on a gate, back and forth, until the guard shooed them away with a wave of his flag. It was like watching herself with Cassandra and one of her brothers. Henry was the most likely to have been found swinging on a gate with her, she decided. He was always her favourite brother, always eager for fun and games. The children disappeared, running off before the train lurched once more enveloping the platform and the bright pots of marigolds, lovingly displayed, in plumes of white smoke.
‘Manberley Castle sounds like a title for one of my books,’ Jane said at last, pushing all memories of the past from her mind. ‘The Miltons of Manberley has a lovely ring to it, perfect for a novel.’
Dr Lyford smiled. ‘I believe it dates back to the twelfth century, though I’m assured there are more modern additions. The last building took place in about 1815 so you should feel quite at home.’
‘And how did the Miltons come by their money?’
‘Well, they’re sugar millionaires, so I’m guessing their family history and wealth was built on the misery of others.’
‘Ill-gotten gains, how perfectly dreadful, and at the expense of so much human suffering, though in my day those who profited from the trade of their fellow men had no qualms in doing so. It is a fine thing to learn that such abhorrent practices are completely stopped. I hope the Milton forbears had a conscience, and helped to put right the wrongs of previous generations.’
‘I couldn’t say, Miss Austen. I am certain Sir Albert Milton is like most men of his class since the war; still trying to hang on to the life he’s always known and enjoyed, that of squire and landowner. But times are changing, and their way of life, though seemingly luxurious to many, is not quite as lavish or extravagant as it was once upon a time. I believe Sir Albert is still very much the gentleman of leisure, though his heir seems to have a lot more about him. He runs the estate, providing much employment for local farmers and workers. By all accounts William Milton is very much a modern man, not afraid to get his hands dirty.’
‘Quite right, too. I’m not certain I could be in the employ of a feckless family content only to laze away their days. You mentioned there is a lady of the house … is she an idle creature or am I to expect hidden depths? Is Lady Milton a useful sort of person or one inclined to lie out on a sofa?’
‘With five girls I expect she has her hands full, but I’m afraid I don’t know anything much about her ladyship or her children.’
‘Though you say she is a second wife, and I suppose William must be the son of his first.’
‘William is in his late twenties, I believe, and though I’m not certain, I think the succession of younger girls are the offspring of the latest Lady Milton.’
‘But you do have a list of their names? I must try and familiarise myself with them.’
Dr Lyford took out his wallet from his jacket pocket, pulling a piece of paper from inside. ‘Yes, here we are. I’ve written them out and made some brief notes. I was able to talk to the housekeeper on the telephone. Her name is Mrs Naseby; rather an abrupt and evasive woman, but seemed able to distil the essential personalities of the children in one or two words. I thought it might help … give you an idea before you meet them.’
Jane grasped the paper and read. ‘Alice … kind and considerate, Mae … needs a tight rein, Beth … headstrong, Emily … has rather too much her own way, and Cora … reads excessively. Goodness, if I’d read this before, I’m not sure I would have agreed to your plans, though Alice sounds promising and Cora is clearly a little girl I could get along with.’
‘Which is precisely why I haven’t shown you this previously. I did wonder if it was a good idea, but I do think Mrs Naseby has probably not painted the Milton girls in the best light.’
‘I should say not. Heavens, whatever shall I do?’
‘Think of this job as a temporary measure. I couldn’t find you any other employment with your limited experience, and at least if you can stick to it, you’ll gain some valuable skills along with a reference at the end of a year or two.’
‘A whole year … or two.’ Jane found it hard to keep the dismay from her voice. She couldn’t help thinking about her dear friend Anne Sharp who’d been a governess to her niece Fanny. Sweet Anne who’d always been a constant source of pleasure, a clever, witty woman, cheerful and capable, the most uncomplaining person she’d ever known, and always determined to get the best out of life. If Anne had managed it, then so could she.
The train was pulling into the station. Dark, sullen clouds up above were brimming with raindrops like the tears she felt welling inside, and before she’d gathered her belongings, the heavens opened. Water fell in torrents, pattering on the roof of the Victorian waiting room, gurgling down the drainpipes and running in streams along the platform, dribbling down the name painted on the station sign. Jane rubbed at the misty glass with a gloved hand, and peered out anxiously. Stoke Pomeroy looked grey and unwelcoming, cold and dark, despite the fact that it was the beginning of June.
‘This is where we part company, Miss Austen,’ said Dr Lyford. ‘Now, you have my address and telephone number in Dawlish if you need me. I shall be there for six weeks before heading back to London.’ He looked at his companion of whom he’d grown very fond in the last few weeks. ‘Do call or write if you need anything.’
Jane took a deep breath. ‘I shall be perfectly fine, Dr Lyford, do not worry.’
‘Sir Albert said there’d be someone to meet you.’ The doctor opened the door, stepped onto the platform briefly and called the porter to take her suitcase.
‘Thank you, Dr Lyford, thank you for everything.’ Jane knew the words were vacuous, but it was impossible to express just how she felt. If only she’d written him a letter, she thought, the written word always came so much more easily. She watched him step back inside the train, shutting the door with a finality that left her shuddering with fear at the thought of being alone. Jane told herself to stop being so silly and extended her hand through the window, shaking his vigorously.
The guard appeared, doors slammed, a flag waved and the great beast ignited once more shunting off in loud roars leaving a trail of dragon’s breath behind it. Jane watched her doctor being taken away, and suddenly felt rather alone. No one else had got on or off the train apart from herself and she wasn’t quite sure what to do, as she waited. Struggling with her umbrella to prevent getting any wetter, she got it up at last and walked up and down the platform. There didn’t seem to be anyone waiting for her and then she wondered if perhaps there’d be a pony and trap with a trusted servant waiting outside beyond the gate. Handing her ticket to the man at the exit she stepped out of the safety of the station to discover there was nobody waiting for her there either, but there was a bench under a shelter so she took a seat and watched the rain gurgling in the gutters and bouncing off the road like large pennies.
Nothing could have surprised her more than the sight of a sleek black motor drawing up a few minutes later, and a liveried chauffeur stepping out to address her. Dressed in navy with a smart peaked hat and leather gauntlets, he took her case and opened the rear door with a flourish. ‘Miss Austen, please take a seat.’
Jane had never been in a car before, though she’d taken a trip into Winchester with Dr Lyford’s housekeeper on the omnibus. She was relieved to be sitting in the back of the vehicle and glad to see a glass partition dividing her from the driver in front. Forced conversation with a stranger was never a very useful activity to her mind, and she didn’t want to chat to the chauffeur. He didn’t look like the talking sort, and for that matter, wasn’t quite what she’d expected at all. He had a very cock-sure way about him, and an arrogant air, which made her feel most unsure of herself. Jane needn’t have worried; he didn’t speak though once or twice she caught him watching her through the rear view mirror which was unnerving, to say the least. She noted his dark hair underneath the cap, and the way he drove with his head on one side, his elbow resting on the window and one hand casually holding the wheel. He was speeding down the narrow lanes, which made Jane shut her eyes and hold onto the strap as she swayed from side to side. It wouldn’t do to be ill, she thought, as she opened one eye to see the world flashing past in a blur of green hedges and cow parsley.
They were ascending out of the valley when she saw her first glimpse of the sea, a slice of lavender ribbon under an oppressive sky, and as they wreathed along the cliff top road she saw the greater expanse below, white horses crashing down on the beach, and a strip of sand stretching along an endless coastline.
The car finally slowed and she saw the chauffeur’s hand reaching for the partition to slide it open.
‘I’m sorry if my driving is a little fast,’ he said.
Jane met his gaze in the mirror. He was staring intently again and she didn’t know where to look. It made her feel very uncomfortable and she had the feeling he was enjoying her discomfort.
‘I must admit I prefer a slower pace,’ she answered, ‘I am not used to being driven about.’
‘I’ll try my best to drive as you wish,’ he said, his eyes still on her face. Jane wished he’d watch the road, and although there hadn’t been another vehicle anywhere since they’d left the station, she was sure they’d meet with an accident sooner or later if he persisted on staring into her eyes.
There was silence for a while for which she was glad, and then the car turned off the road into a drive between tall rusted gates with ornate gateposts topped by crumbling stone urns. A gatehouse looked neglected, ivy climbed over the windows, which were fogged with green moss and mould. There was no keeper to welcome them or wave them through; there’d clearly been no occupants for a while.
‘Have you been a governess long?’ he said at last.
‘Not very long, no.’
Jane thought his questioning impertinent and pursing her mouth stared determinedly through the window at the overgrown tangle of laurels and rhododendrons on every side, bursting into flower and dripping in the rain. Her first impressions of the place were not exactly reassuring, but she hoped things might improve as they reached the house.
‘The Miltons are an undemanding bunch,’ the driver went on, ‘though what some folk might call slightly odd or eccentric, I suppose.’
Jane regarded the back of the young man’s head steadily. ‘I prefer to make up my own mind about people, I thank you, but in any case, I do not think this is a subject for conversation. I dislike gossip and I would appreciate you refraining from further discussion on my new employers.’
‘Just as you please, Miss Austen.’
He appeared to find her amusing, she noted, as he made no attempt to disguise the laughter in his voice. He kept his eyes on the road after that and as they drove up the long drive the house made an appearance at last in open ground, a gloomy Palladian façade that time seemed to have forgotten with rows of windows on either side of a central pediment. Crouched on a cliff top, the house would enjoy astonishing sea views, Jane thought, and with the stunning scenery of hanging woods on the other side where the village of Stoke Pomeroy could be seen happily nestled in the valley, she decided she’d never seen such a splendid situation. A tower, the only remains of the oldest part of the ‘castle’ formed an extension on the west side with crenellations, and gothic windows clearly added at a later date. But for the peeling stucco and an air of abandonment, the house should have been the jewel in the crown. Lashing rain and skies as green as gunpowder added to the general sense of despondency and Jane felt her spirits sink. The chauffeur swung the car round to the left and to the side of the building.
‘You’ll find the servant’s door at the bottom of the steps,’ he said, and without another word handed her out of the car and deposited her suitcase at her feet before getting back into the vehicle to roar away over the gravel drive.
Jane stared after him hoping she wouldn’t have much occasion to see him again. He thought far too much of himself, she decided, and with his brooding good looks she was sure he must create havoc amongst the maidservants. Overhead she heard the mournful mewing of wheeling gulls, and tasted the brine of the sea on her lips. Taking a deep breath, she picked up her case, and opening the cast iron gate at the top of the stairwell made her way down the steps until she reached the small door at the bottom.