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Critically acclaimed and award-winning—but hardly bestselling—author Georgina Jackson can’t get past the first chapter of her second book. When she receives an urgent email from her agent, Georgina is certain it’s bad news. Shockingly, she’s offered a commission to complete a newly discovered unfinished manuscript by a major nineteenth-century author. Skeptical at first about her ability to complete the manuscript, Georgina is horrified to learn that the author in question is Jane Austen.
Torn between pushing through or fleeing home to America, Georgina relies on the support of her banker-turned-science-student roommate, Henry, and his quirky teenage sister, Maud—a serious Janeite. With a sudden financial crisis looming, the only way Georgina can get by is to sign the hugely lucrative contract and finish the book.
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Elizabeth Aston is a passionate Jane Austen fan who studied with Austen biographer Lord David Cecil at Oxford. The author of numerous novels, she lives in Malta and Italy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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Henry stood at the door of Georgina’s room, holding a weighty textbook in one hand and marking his place with a finger. He looked at his lodger with concern. “Gina, why the screech of terror? What’s up? Why are you looking at that screen as though it had grown fangs?”
“It’s an email from Livia.”
“Okay, fangs is right. What does she want?”
“She wants me to ring her.”
“I’ll get the phone.”
“I don’t want to ring her. It’s bad news.”
“What precisely does she say in her email?”
“You can’t deduce from those two words that it’s bad news.”
Oh, but Georgina could. Good news, Livia rang her. Bad news, she expected the recipient to foot the cost of the call. Except that it didn’t actually cost Livia anything to make a call, it wasn’t as though Georgina were on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Wish I were in America,” she said, staring at the screen. “Or Tasmania; in the bush would be good.” Perhaps if she looked long and hard enough, the words would rearrange themselves. The message would say, Enjoy more Viagrous sex, every time. Or, You have inherited a million zoots, send us a hundred dollars and we’ll show you how to claim your rightful inheritance. Or...
Like Alice, faced with that bottle which was labelled Drink me. Only there’d be no magical change of being for Georgina. Although after a few minutes of conversation with Livia, she’d feel about two foot high, so...
Henry was back, with the phone in his hand. “Call her.”
Livia’s direct line, ringing and ringing, thank God, she’d gone out, was in a meeting. “Yes? Who? Georgina? I’m on the other line, can’t talk. Get over here. Right away. See you in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes? Livia, it takes me—”
Brrrrrr. The sound of an empty line, of a phone put down, of an agent who is too busy to talk.
“What can she want?”
Henry looked up from a page dense with equations and formulae and gave her a quizzical look. “Go and find out?”
“I suppose so. Should I take a chapter of The Sadness of Jane Silversmith?”
“Which of the—how many is it now?”
“Forty or so. All right, forty-eight, to be precise.”
“If she wanted to see a chapter, she’d say so. I judge she wants to see you, rather than a chapter.”
“Twenty minutes! She’s mad.”
“Less than that, in a taxi.”
“More than that by bus. I don’t do taxis except in emergencies, remember?”
“Perhaps this is an emergency. Go, okay? Taxi, underground, bus, camel, donkey, yak—just go.”
Henry went back to his study, which overlooked the street. It had been his parents’ study when they lived in the house. They now had a flat in Cambridge, overflowing with books and papers; his study was somewhat more orderly, but still the room of a man who liked to have everything at hand. He kept his desk clutter-free by dumping whatever he was finished with on to shelves and another table, where the pile of books obscured a silver framed photo of Sophie, his extraordinarily pretty girlfriend. He watched Gina, dark curls escaping from the red beret she’d thrust on her head, hurrying along the pavement beneath the autumn-coloured poplars, energy in every step. She did everything with such intensity, it must be a strain on her nerves.
It was a five-minute walk to the bus stop. There was no bus in sight, and Georgina circled the post, knowing that seconds would seem minutes and minutes hours because of her impatience. Calm down. Breathe in, then slowly out. Why wasn’t she like her landlord, Henry, imperturbable?
She had a ten-minute wait before the double-decker bus appeared. She still got a thrill from the red London buses, even after more than five years in England, and the sight of the splash of colour raised her spirits, as it always did. She climbed up to the top deck of the bus, squeezing her way past two women with shopping overflowing into the gangway, and sat down in the front seat.
The bus roared round a corner and braked violently as it joined the end of a long tailback of traffic.
The first time she’d come to London, her father had taken her for a ride on the top of a red double-decker bus, and it was the highlight of her trip. She’d been in England with her father and the second of five stepmothers on their honeymoon, but that particular stepmother hadn’t cared for London, and considered public transport unhygienic. Georgina had been a skinny eight-year-old then, legs dangling from the seat, all huge eyes and unruly hair. The legs had grown and filled out in the right places, but the hair and eyes had stayed much the same through another three stepmothers.
Georgina didn’t remember her own mother, who had walked out on her and her father when she was six months old, taking a wardrobe of clothes and Georgina’s two-year-old brother with her.
Her first stepmother had been into pink and prettiness, and Georgina hadn’t taken kindly to being decked out in the frills and fussiness that made her look, she told her father in a fit of rage, like something just out of the poodle parlour. Number three stepmother was a hippie and way-out; her lasting legacy was teaching Georgina how to relax and tune out, which she’d done so effectually at school that there’d been talk of remedial classes. That one had gone off to India to join an ashram, presumably to assuage the materialistic guilt she must have felt over taking Georgina’s father for every penny he had.
After her had come Louise, the brightest and the best of her stepmothers. Intelligent and thoughtful, raised in a Quaker family, she had encouraged Georgina to take her studies and life seriously. Without her, there would have been no top college for Georgina, and no chance of the career as academic and writer that she now enjoyed. Although Louise, presently living the pure life with a woman friend in the wilds of Canada, would have frowned at the word enjoyed. Endured was more her style.
Forty-eight chapters. Enough to make a whole book. Except for the minor problem that they were all Chapter One. She must breathe properly, close her eyes, relax her shoulders, relax her jaw, relax her scalp. How did you relax your scalp? Count your blessings. You have good health. You have a brain. You have an education. You have great legs and straight teeth. You live in a house far nicer than you can afford, because you have a kind landlord. You like your landlord. You get on fine with his girlfriend. You have an agent. An important London agent. You are a published author, of a prize-winning book, which received rave reviews and made you into a Literary Name.
Magdalene Crib by Georgina Jackson. 426pp
This searingly grim read is a long one, but in its polyphonic brilliance, with its spare yet wincingly tender account of the hopeless life of its eponymous heroine, one can only wish the author had prolonged her harrowing tale of despair. Jackson draws on documentary accounts such as law court records to create a fictional life of a woman whose existence explodes the distorted myth of Victorian values and highlights the reality of unspeakable deprivation for so many voiceless women of that time.
Magdalene Crib is the bastard daughter of an alcoholic prostitute. Raised and abused by Catholic nuns in Liverpool, she runs away to Ireland, where she is taken into service by a tyrannical master before being cast off, penniless and homeless. Weakened by famine and typhus, she manages to board a ship bound for America and a new life, but after enduring a most terrible voyage, she falls into the hands of a pimp and is set to work in a brothel. She escapes and returns to Liverpool, where she takes her vows as a nun, only to continue the vicious cycle by in her turn abusing the children in her care. In the poignant and moving ending, she casts off her role as victim and takes her own life.
Jackson’s Victorian style is brilliant and utterly convincing; this is a new literary voice that we shall surely hear more of.
Rave reviews, but what was the use of them, when her book had come out two years ago, and she knew in her heart she was never going to get to Chapter Two of her second book, and that even if she did, no one would want to publish it?
Fifty-five minutes later, she was ascending the shallow steps that led up to the elegant, black front door with its gleaming brass plate: HARKNESS AND PHILBY LITERARY AGENCY.
The teenager at the desk, who wore blue-tinted glasses and had her hair in coiled plaits—retro look, or just no sense of style?—pouted at Georgina, then cast a scornful look at her sneakers. “Miss Harkness was expecting you hours ago. Hours! I’ll see if she’s free.”
Georgina closed her eyes and prayed that Livia would be involved in some international auction deal, would send down the message, “Go away, come back tomorrow.”
“Go on up,” said the teenager.
Georgina went slowly up the stairs, and stood outside Livia’s door. She took a deep breath and pushed it open.
“I said right away.” Livia never was one for the niceties. “What did you do? Walk? Hobble?”
“I came on a bus. I have to economize—”
“Since you aren’t earning beans, spare me the sob story. Sit down.”
Livia Harkness had been an agent for more than twenty years. Ageless, but probably in her forties, she was, as usual, wearing b...
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