Four Riddles for Jane Austen (and her artful maid Tilly)
Before there was DCI Jane Tennison, there was Jane Austen!
Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken… (Emma)
Last year, you might recall the discovery* of a small roll of papers, tied up with age-pocked roasting twine and wedged under a cylindrical, tasselled cushion.
The cushion belonged to a fainting couch hired for the set of Austensibly Jane, a 90-minute mash-up of Jane Austen’s novels performed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe by the RSC – the Real Sensibility Company.
The stage hand who dislodged the papers handed them to the director. She in turn passed the yellowing pages to a group of renowned Austen scholars, who were soon able to match the faded handwriting on the papers to household accounts kept 200 years earlier by Matilda ‘Tilly’ Mayhew, née Marshall, a former maid to Jane Austen’s family.
These freshly discovered pages were far more than old laundry lists, however.
In fact, they described how the two women had collaborated to solve murders most foul, in each case displaying a flair for detection and deduction, and a tenacious ability to sift truth from mendacity. Moreover, Tilly was much more than a Watson to Jane’s Sherlock, with the pair equal partners in their perilous – but fearless – investigations.
Whilst a thrilling discovery, the handful of pages highlighted just how many must still be missing, raising the tantalising possibility that a complete narrative might still be out there, somewhere… Which is where yours truly comes in.
What is right to be done cannot be done too soon… (Emma)
The stage hand who unearthed the pages in Edinburgh happened to be my nephew, doing a bit of scenery shifting during his gap year. When he gave me the heads up on the discovery, he also told me that the Real Sensibility Co had bought the fainting couch at a Brighton flea market three weeks earlier.
Off I went to the flea market in a race against time, knowing others would soon be on the same trail.
I duly found a small emporium at the back of the market, entitled ‘all your Georgian and Regency knick knacks,’ which was doing a roaring trade in Mr Darcy sideburn crimpers, Mr Woodhouse slipper warmers and even Mrs Bennet fainting couches, inspired by that lady’s frequent hysterical collapses.
I had to do a good bit of wheedling (even had to put a downpayment on a fairly hideous Toby jug) before the stall owner would let me near his few wares that looked authentic, including an iron-hooped chest ‘once containing ladies’ petticoats and chemisettes’, which might or might not ‘still contain some musty old documents used to line the bottom.’
It was just as I’d hoped – the ‘musty documents’ still in place turned out to be the rest of the elusive narrative, written jointly by Tilly and – this is the most thrilling part – Jane Austen herself! – about dark events that unfolded between 1805 and 1807.
How these incredibly important stories had gone astray was anyone’s guess, but they had probably been entrusted originally to Tilly’s daughter, Janette.
Research suggesting that Janette had married a gambler, she may have had to pawn everything she owned, just to make ends meet – including, presumably, a trunk of hand-me-down undergarments in good condition, with half-forgotten pages stashed at the bottom.
The owner of ‘all your Georgian and Regency knick knacks’ admitted that he sometimes dipped into the trunk to grab a few pages and scatter them about on his ‘totally authentic, I’ll sue anyone who says otherwise Fanny Price writing desks’ – which may be how a few had ended up on a fainting couch.
A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can… (Northanger Abbey)
In order to rescue any more pages that might have been scattered about or used as wadding in ‘Wellington’s original boots’, I had to come clean and reveal my mission. I also named my price for the papers I’d found so far, and confirmed my commitment to the fairly hideous Toby jug.
Soon after, with a flea in my ear from the flea market entrepreneur as he informed me he ‘wasn’t running a bleedin’ charity here’, I made my excuses and left as swiftly as if Lady Bertram’s pug had taken a fancy to my ankles.
Luckily, my story has a happy ending; some months later, a publisher got in touch and granted me the supreme honour of being the first to read Four Riddles for Jane Austen (& Her Artful Maid Tilly), the final, edited version of all the restored pages, carefully excavated from the iron-hooped chest and adjacent sites, and published to mark the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death.
Delighted to read the restored manuscript in its entirety, I now direct you, gentle reader, to savour these stories with all the pleasure they first afforded me. Among other felicities, you will discover that Jane Austen not only encountered many of the characters who subsequently featured in her novels, but also pioneered the Heimlich manoeuvre and probably invented speed dating. What a woman she was!
And what a treat you have in store!
* every word of this post is no more authentic than anything provided by a fictitious flea marketer in Brighton
Published by Corazon Books July 2017.