But no one burns Emma. No one would dare. There is too much concentrated here: too much history, too much respect, too much of the very essence of civilization, which is, I must tell you, connected to its Literature. It’s Literature, with a capital ‘L’, as opposed to just books.
Here in this City of Invention, the readers come and go, by general invitation, sauntering down its leafy avenue, scurrying through its horrider slums, waving to each other across the centuries, up and down the arches of the years. When I say ‘the arches of the years’ it may well sound strange to you. But I know what I’m doing: it is you who are at fault.
Some build because they need to, have to, live to, or believe they are appointed to, others to prove a point or to change the world. But to build at all requires courage, persistence, faith and a surplus of imagination. A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.
The Angel of the House stood at Jane Austen’s elbow, that is my guess, and she never quite learned how to ignore her—except perhaps in the early Lady Susan, for the writing of which, I imagine, she was gently chided by her family, and drew back quickly as at the touch of a cold, cold hand, and never tried that again.
It takes great courage and persistence to swim against the stream of communal ideas. The stream itself is so much part of daily existence, it is hard to see it for what it is, or understand that it flowed in a quite a different direction in other decades.
In the days of the Empire, women followed their husbands around the globe, and shipped their children back to England to live in unspeakable boarding schools, where they were as like as not sexually abused, beaten, and starved, without apparent alarm to anyone. You do not know, little Alice, how recent or how lucky you are.
I think indeed she bowed her will and humbled her soul, and bravely kept her composure, as a good nun in a good convent might, and escaped into the alternative world of her novels: and simply because she was so good, or did become so, and her self-discipline was so secure, she brought into that inventive world sufficient of the reality of the one we know and think we love, but which I think she hated, to make those novels outrun the generations.
You see! The born novelist. She is raising invention above description; what she makes herself above what the real world has to offer. She will put up with writing a history so long as she doesn’t have to get the dates right, and mocks those who take the whole thing seriously, and so long as she can be biased.
But I do dislike all these ‘ifs’, and ‘may haves’; they can only be speculation; and are in a way parasitical: the present sucking nourishment from the past, the living from the dead, as if there wasn’t enough emotion and event now to sop up all our desire for analysis and explanation.
Fiction, on the whole, and if it is any good, tends to be a subversive element in society. Elizabeth Bennet, that wayward, capricious girl, listening to the beat of feeling, rather than the pulsing urge for survival, paying attention to the subtle demands of human dignity rather than the cruder ones of established convention, must have quite upset a number of her readers, changed their minds, and with their minds, their lives, the society they lived in: prodding it quicker and faster along the slow, difficult road that has led us out of barbarity into civilization.
We do not need offices and a muted typewriter and no disturbance—we need a table half-way between the fire and the window, and the muted sound of the world around: to be of that world, and not apart from it. It is easier for women than for men, and the world being what it is, and women writers, to their great advantage, are not allowed wives.
You are not the model for Chloe in Female Friends. Too many of my friends claim that role, in any case, for you to be able to do so sensibly. Any woman who waits upon her husband as a servant upon a master—and they are legion—all too easily sees herself in Chloe. But I made her up. I promise.
So what are you going on about? I hear you repeat. Why this reverence for Jane Austen, who was blind (in our terms) to so much? I will tell you. The gentry, then as now, has to read in order to comprehend both the wretchedness and ire of the multitude. It is not only ignorance in the illiterate we need to combat, it is insensitivity in the well-to-do. Fiction stretches our sensibilities and our understanding, as mere information never can.
I am trying to explain that writing must be in some way a shared experience between reader and writer: the House of Imagination built with doors for guests to enter in, and pegs for their coats, and windows for them to look out of: it is no use being a recluse. You will die of hypothermia and malnutrition if you live alone in your house, however beautifully constructed it is. It must be a welcoming place, or exciting, if dangerous, or educative, if unpleasant, or intensely pleasurable.
As if it were decreed that your mother Enid should put bread rolls to rise every night for your father Edward’s breakfast, in order that a certain paragraph in a certain novel should be written. As if the City of Invention, little by little, using a chapter here, a paragraph there, is waking from its slumber and will eventually be more real than life itself, and we its servants, its outrunners.
All over the country irons were held in suspension, and car exhaust bandages held motionless and lady gardeners stayed their gardening gloves, and cars slowed, as Emma spoke, as that other world intruded into this. It does more and more, you know. We join each other in shared fantasies, it is our way of crossing barriers, when our rulers won’t let us. ET and his like is our real communication. Hand in hand the human race abandons the shoddy, imperfect structures of reality, and surges over to the City of Invention.
Now, inasmuch as those engaged in particle physics will assure us that a particle alters by virtue of being observed, so we can never really know what anything is like, because the knowledge interferes with what we wish to know, it doesn’t surprise me that a painting, so imbued with the force of attention, changes its nature. Heats up. Hot property!
Journalists, in particular, who work so cleverly from the real world, understand description, but not invention. It is not surprising. They lose their jobs if they do invent—novelists get sued if they don’t invent. So I, Grace, D’Albier, must go round the world, stared at as a victim of paternal and maternal incest: and though my parents still speak to me, they do so in a rather stiff way. They can comprehend that I made it up, but their friends can’t.
Writers are not so rational about the writing of their books, you see, as students of English Literature like to think. They write what they write and if it was different, it would be a different book and have a different title, so fault-finding is self-defeating. And if you think your brain is dying slowly, that your head is held trapped by iron bonds of boredom, it is no more than you deserve. When you study a writer’s work in depth you are stealing from that writer: so much he or she offered to you gladly, but you are greedy: you are demanding more.
The rebellious spirit, raging at being so cast out by mother and father, learning the defences of wit and style—Miss Crawford. The dutiful side, accepting authority, enduring everything with a sweet smile, finding her defence in wisdom—Fanny. So tempting, in fact, that I shan’t resist. I shall offer it to you as an explanation of Jane Austen’s determination to make the unctuous Fanny a heroine.
The novel must be used to set before the reader examples of good behaviour. I am frequently asked why I write about anti-heroines and anti-heroes, and not role models, and all I can say in my defence is that what I write is what I write and there is not much I can do about it.
Alice, we will, as they say, be a long time dead. You must carve your living self as sharply into the Rock of Eternity as you can. Please send your novel off; don’t do as you threaten and forget it. Of course it’s more than likely to be rejected and come back, and of course you will then feel rejected and discovered in your presumption. But if you embark on these things, you can’t draw back.
Sometimes, I think, the exhilaration of all this being so great—of ideas, notions, fantasies, speculations, claims false and valid, advice good or bad, the pattern made by altering truth as day melts into day, is great enough to make us immortal. These things have been, and so in a sense always will be: they are not finite in time. Only our bodies are that. Let them blow us all up if they want, reduce the planet to ashes (as they say)—the leap between nothing and something, once made, is always made.