In my new novel, Jane Austen Lives Again, Jane is brought back to life in 1925 and has to get a job. Her doctor finds her a position as a governess to five girls in Devon, and though Jane is rather dreading the whole thing, she knows that without any money to live on she has little choice. Her only hope is that she'll have time to write in the evenings when the children are in bed …
Here's an excerpt from Chapter One - I hope you enjoy it!
Jane and her doctor are travelling to her new home in Devon by train.
‘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’m guessing William is the son of his first.’
‘William is in his late twenties, I believe, and the succession of younger girls most likely from a different mother, I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘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
‘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.
Jane Austen Lives Again will be available for pre-order on Kindle next week and published in November.