Only as I became familiar with a wider reception of Jane Gardam’s stories did I realize how beloved this one, in particular, is. I can see why. It’s all the usual things you might expect: gently acerbic, full of odd-yet-familiar characters expertly summoned in a few deft strokes, funny, evocative. But this one’s also about Jane Austen and contains a delicious twist that gives it the kind of additional, re-readable dimension that demands that it be endlessly anthologized.
Annie, a writer, is called with some bad news. Shorty Shenfold, a warily renowned literary academic and essayist and Annie’s former teacher, tells her that his latest wife (all three have been “tall, dreamy, bony, American good-looking with a tiny bewildered voice and a gigantic bank balance”), Lois, is dead. Oh and: he wants her to go on an errand for him to Sidmouth. That fact, that in the midst of a decidedly underwhelming grief he’s on the make, tells you everything you need to know. Only, this being a Gardam story, you’ll only know you knew everything you needed to know right in the first paragraph much later on.
Shorty is nicknamed thus not because he’s of Devito-esque proportions — quite the contrary (he cuts an imposing figure, with his “bull’s neck, a bull’s crinkly chunk of hair, a bull’s manners and a bull’s dangerousness”) — but because of his penchant for “the occasional short controversial piece about the great which he produced for one or other of the more popular literary papers — clever, sharp, always short.”
Annie had, as a young student, found initial favor with Shorty, who cherry-picked her for a much-coveted scholarship at a midwest U.S. university. She reminisces about her time there with Shorty as she takes in the news of Lois’ death:
…and what in the world made me submit to him, when I was hardly twenty years old, a piece of my own unsolicited work about Jane Austen, God alone knows. It was a short piece which in my innocence I had thought might interest him about Jane Austen’s only — and putative — love affair on a seaside holiday on the Dorset-Devon coast, the one or two (I forget now) contemporary hints of it and a history of the later references and theories. The piece established nothing new at all about ‘this shadowy lover’, but I think it was the first time the facts and allusions had been seriously set out.
Shorty gives the piece short-shrift, and Annie gets a scrawled ‘interesting’ on the paper for her efforts as well as a poor final degree grade.
I was surprised, therefore, about a year later, to read under the title Jane Austen at Sidmouth and over his name, my article word for word with just the added hint that the lover’s disappearance was a little mysterious, more of a getaway than a death. Don’t ask me how this was done, but the suggestion was certainly there and his, as the rest of the work was undoubtedly mine.
Shorty, shameless, brazen plagiarist, is soon enough a bit of a literary light, declaiming and dissecting his way through various writers and broadsheets on his way to pre-eminence as a frothy iconoclast, his “hyena” traits leading him down scurrilous biographical avenues for near-scandalous tidbits on otherwise revered, untouchable figures. And he still has a fair interest in Jane Austen, as we will discover.
And, indeed, in Annie, who bemoans her inability to avoid the man, who she meets to discuss that errand, and, in passing, the death of his latest ageless, oblivious and perpetually addled blank check.
Rewind a little: Annie had, a few days prior, managed to once again cross paths with Shorty (and Lois) — “Why, of all the people I had met in my life, was it Shenfold who kept turning up?” — at “a summer afternoon meeting of the Royal Society of Literature in Hyde Park Gate” and had ended up helping to escort Lois home. She’d been typically drunk and sloppy (Lois), skidding to her knees in front of the Duchess of Kent, for example. On the following afternoon (Lois’s last day alive), Annie is invited by both Lois and Shorty (the latter particularly keen to involve someone with discretion to help lug his drunken wife away from inevitable further embarrassment) to accompany them at Jane Austen’s one-time cottage in Chawton, and after Lois, bored, wanders off, Annie follows and a discussion about Austen ensues.
She stood by the writing desk in the window drawing an old woman’s finger over the old blotched wood. Only the hands showed her to be twenty years older than Shorty — her figure was ageless, American East Coast, face fragile, cherished, painted; she looked out at the Chawton pub across the village street and blinked her wet blue eyes. She said, ‘So she jus’ sat here, did she? Writin’ away?’
I said that this was what was said.
‘So she looked right in at the pub, did she?’
I said that I supposed so. It was an old pub. The cottage itself had once been a pub, but the pub across the road was quite old too. She might have sat at an angle, I said, facing the pond that used to be over towards what was the car park now — on the right.
‘The pond or the pub,’ said Lois. ‘Like me, it’s the pond or the pub.’
‘Not with Jane Austen,’ I said. ‘She never despaired.’
‘Don’t they say she sat in a hood? Right over her face? Near the end? When her face — her terrible discoloured face…?’
I said that I had read about that somewhere. It had been a caul, not a hood.
‘The pond or the pub in a caul. Jesus,’ said Lois. ‘Poor bitch. Y’know, Annie, I wonder what she really felt?’
And that last question is the crux of the story: we think we know Jane Austen, to an extent, however limitedly, and if we do it’s through her books. They live on, as do her characters, and through them we find her. Annie suggests that “[s]he never despaired” but this is an extrapolation and a desire. When poor sloshed Lois speculates as to what Austen “really felt” we’re wondering the same of her. We will never know on either count.
And, as Annie visits Shorty once again, he’s business-like and seems to accept yet another dead wife as a minor disruption, and we understand that he feels virtually nothing other than a sense of opportunism — he’s delighted that Lois has no siblings or children, for example, as he mulls over potential will contestations — and delivers the details about that “errand”: it seems there may be surviving letters that may reveal precisely what Lois wondered about, how Jane felt, somewhere amid the contents of private correspondence to a “shadowy lover” Austen is reputed to have met in Sidmouth in 1801.
Shorty is typically brusque and tasteless with his impatient persuasions, as he offers Annie a check for a thousand pounds to buy the “bundle,” an address in Charmouth, just along the Sidmouth coast — “Probably why they’ve not been discovered — dead-an-alive place. Worse than the rest, which is pushin’ it. You can see Lyme from there. It’s Austen heartland. Maybe you’ll like it.” — and a twenty pound note should negotiations drag on and she be moored there for the night.
Maybe Annie will like it. She’ll certainly be familiar, hailing, as she does, from Charmouth, not to mention her cousin and aunt, who reside at the address she has on Shorty’s hastily proffered slip of paper . . .
So there the penny drops, for us: Shorty is never going to find out and his “computer” brain has erred and missed a crucial bit of biographical info, which Annie had provided way back when. We visit Annie’s relatives — “We expected an American professor and we get you. Well Annie. It’s a very long time.” — and land in a world quite different from that of leafy literary lawns and callous career climbs. An old holiday cottage. Enid, Annie’s cousin, who “always pursed her lips when she was trying not to show excitement. It had left a map.” Gran, who is banging a gnarled old claw on her chair arm as the blare of horse races unfold.
‘You look hot, old Annie. D’you want to go and wash? Did you come by car?’
‘No. Train and bus. The train was late. And boiling.’
I saw her think that I had no car and that I probably hadn’t much of a life otherwise. No proper job, no marriage, only four or five novels in goodness knows how many years. Bits of reviewing. Something insignificant and part-time for the British Council. And after such a good start. Cambridge, then America. She, Enid, had left school at sixteen. She touched her pearls and said, ‘We liked your last book. Well, we’ve liked them all, Gran and I. Why don’t you write more? Something easy and rambly. People round here like them very much you know. They often try and get them out of the library, but it takes so long.’
I won’t insult anyone by emphasizing the Austen parallels there, but such comparisons beg further questions about Austen’s thoughts about her own work, how she might’ve measured her output, “only four or five novels in all those years,” and how what might be contained in those letters might contain some revelatory details as to her contentment, sadness, the reality of a woman writer’s lot in such times, the impossibility of measuring her own work and potential reception by future generations. We want, I think, to find suggestions in the mysterious “bundle” that Austen was, when she wasn’t writing great, timeless novels, susceptible to all those things we all are. We want to know how the pain of the apparent liaison led to the work, and so on.
But the story, really, is about how we’re all unknowable. We can’t all be Shorty Shenfold, predatorily hoving in on the next jittery millionairess and cultivating a steady stream of micro-mendacities, but how did he get to be that vulture? We will speculate and never know, about that, about why Lois was a doomed alcoholic, about why Gran at 96 sits in an overheated, curtain-drawn room in the middle of the afternoon watching horses run up and down, about Enid, seemingly quite content with her lot and yet lonely enough to suggest that Annie come back for good.
And about why, when Gran gives Annie that bundle of letters, which has been passed down through generations and is now hers — “Have it now. Why wait till I’m dead? It’s yours, Annie, being bookish.” — she takes them down to the beach and burns them all before sitting:
[ . . .] for goodness knows how long, but the sun was nearly gone by the time I came back to myself, so I think it must have been several hours. I took the half-handful of ash down to the water’s edge and paddled a fairway out and scattered it. Jane Austen had very much liked Charmouth Bay. ‘The happiest spot,’ she said, ‘for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation.’ I let a very small wisp of her melt into it.
That night I fell asleep in a bed-and-breakfast place at Sidmouth utterly certain that I had done right. I woke in the night and I still felt certain. And I have not changed my mind. I have felt very happy ever since that I of all people have had the chance of paying back a little of a great debt.
It’s an expertly sculpted and charmingly wrought “thank you” to a literary hero, a salutation to timelessness and to an unchanging part of the English landscape, and one in the eye for the Shorty Shenfolds of the world, literary or otherwise, whose star will continue to rise regardless, for now, despite his fruitless trip to Charmouth in Annie’s wake (she doesn’t let on, and merely suggests, in hastily-written-and-posted missive, that the letters are not for sale and, in any case, probably lost). But when Shorty eventually goes the way of his many hapless wives, and his micro-barbs are long forgotten, Austen will live on, along with the myth of those letters, the likes of which those perpetual literary trawlers of the scurrilous will pursue in vain.