Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Of highwaymen, floods, and spectacles

Today's guest author is Kelly Fineman: poet, novelist, picture-book author, and all-around lovely person. She usually blogs at Writing and Ruminating.

I was pleased and surprised when Jenn asked me to write a guest post – and she asked me to write about research, knowing I did some interesting digging for the Jane project, the biography I wrote of Austen's life. (In verse. Using period forms. Moving on . . . ) Researching a person such as Austen, about whom much has been written and not all that much is known, could have been easy: grab a handful of the better biographies and run with it, right?

Well, maybe. It's not what I did, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are people out there who have done just that. I read no fewer than a dozen general biographies (e.g., Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin) and at least two dozen specialized ones (e.g., Jane Austen & Crime by Susannah Fullerton). And of course I read all six of her completed novels, her uncompleted novels, her novella (Lady Susan), and her Juvenilia, plus her letters. And I read some of the books that I knew she'd read and loved, including poetry, novels and plays. Plus I read books on Georgian and Regency England: customs, housing, manners, travel, costs, servants, etc.

The trouble with biographies is that they don't always provide factual support for their assertions. In fact, in the case of at least one biography that I read (David Nokes's Jane Austen: a life), scenes were manufactured wholesale for which there is no factual corroboration at all. It made me leery of accepting statements made in biographies on their face without further investigation. Also, I found that sometimes biographers leave things out – things they didn't find all that interesting, perhaps, or that fall outside the particular slant of their narrative.

Since I couldn't afford to travel to England to do research using primary sources (to which access might, in some cases, be exceedingly difficult or impossible, in any case), I found myself quite fond of books drawn from primary sources – Jane Austen's Letters and Chronology of Austen, both edited by Deirdre Le Faye – proved to be a boon, as did The Austen Papers, a collection of family documents that I copied pages from on a field trip to Baltimore.

Le Faye's Chronology was put together using more than just Austen family sources, relying also on diary entries from friends who lived in the same neighborhood as the Austens. The Chronology allowed me to write a poem about the summer that the entire Steventon neighborhood was on alert because of a highwayman in the area, and another about spring flooding that encroached into the Austen's home enough that they had to spend several days abovestairs. It confirmed that Jane's and Cassandra's bedroom in Steventon was blue, based on sales records related to refurbishing the room.

But my favorite bit of research may be the emails that I exchanged with people who had done research or had access to certain of Jane's items. Such as Austen's spectacles, over which I engaged in correspondence with a lovely curator at the British Museum. Turns out nobody had thought to ask (before I did) what sort of prescription was in those eyeglasses. It also turns out that the question cannot be answered without a really expensive investigation, due to insurance issues and such, which the museum can't afford to spring for at the present time. So I couldn't write a poem about her spectacles, and whether they were only reading glasses or were needed all the time due to nearsightedness. I suspect the former, and so do most biographers, who have asserted that they are her reading glasses, but there's no documentation to prove it, so I've left that poem unwritten. And yes, I see the irony here – that my favorite bit of research is one for which I came up empty. But research is sometimes about the journey, and not the destination. And sometimes that journey turns up things you never realized might be possible – like highwaymen. Or floods.

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