When the idea first seized me of writing a book about time travel and Jane Austen, I realized that despite being a fan of her work, I knew little about her life or her England. There was no way around it: I had to do some research. I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America, impressed that there actually was such a group, and started attending meetings of my local chapter. I got an alumni library card and read my way through the Jane Austen shelves at Barnard. My need for more obscure and specialized knowledge about things like the history of housekeeping and slavery-era Jamaica led me to the New York Public Library reading room and online collection. To great websites like Two Nerdy History Girls, Jane Austen’s World, Jane Austen’s London, and many others. In search of atmosphere, I went to London, Bath, Winchester and Chawton. Also, oddly, Dublin, better than London for trying to imagine 1815 London, with its streets and streets of Georgian terraced houses and the excellent Number 29 house museum. I set up Google alerts so as not to miss any Jane Austen news.
When I look back on all this, I think of a line from John Irving’s weird masterpiece The Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” And when I look back on all this, there seems a kind of innocence, an undergraduate assurance that if one could only learn enough about a subject, the rest would fall into place.
Still. Did I over-prepare? Probably. Did I need to read that many biographies? Probably not. There are all kinds of ways of not writing, and research is a great one, because it’s so respectable. There is no possible world in which this amount of time spent on one entertaining but slight novel could make any sense, economically or artistically. Not unless love or its mysterious twin, obsession, enters the picture.
For in the end, it boils down to time. Given varying lifespans — but we don’t know that part ahead of time — we are all equal in our allotment of 24 hours to a day, seven days to a week, 365 days to a year. We are crying babies, curious toddlers, restless teenagers and so on, until we look in the mirror one day, surprised to find ourselves trapped in the body of an old person.
You cannot conquer time. Unless, maybe, to lose yourself in something to such an extent that time ceases to have its usual dominion. It’s passing as always, but you don’t notice. The world just goes on without you, people dying and being born and seeking public office. And that, I see now, was the real gift of my multiyear obsession with Jane Austen. Not the novel I ended up with, but the experience of writing it. Not in the finding, but in the seeking.