I had long admired Jane Austen, author, with little curiosity about Jane Austen, person; her mystery was part of her charm. But once I began wondering, it was hard to stop. What could it have been like to be her – this irrepressible genius caught and tangled in a woman’s body, this precocious, obscure spinster daughter of a country clergyman? The way she finally resumed writing, after many dry years, only to fall mysteriously ill and die at 41, her last novel unfinished. Did she not quietly seethe with rage at the injustice of it? Did she never long for escape, for opportunities equal to her talents? How could she not?
It tormented me that there was no way to know these things — short of building a time machine and going back for answers. Clearly impossible, except in a story.
I’d love to read that story, I thought.
And so an idea took over my life.
What did 1815 England look and sound and smell like? What did people eat for breakfast, what kind of underwear did they have? I needed to know so much: about servants and hygiene, manners and medicine, money and carriages. Trying to imagine myself into Jane Austen’s world, I read only novels she could have read or later ones set in her era; went to London and Bath to walk on streets she knew; to her last home in Chawton; to Winchester, where she died.
From the start I was drawn to the contrasts: how 1815 would strike someone from a world more like mine, the smallness of Austen’s life with the hugeness of her posthumous fame. From the start I sought the emotional truth within the absurd premise of time travel. And the humor.
I grew skeptical of the romantic, sanitized image of Regency life common in film adaptations and in novels inspired by Austen, and the place she often occupies in our culture as the icon of happily-ever-after. Her world was complicated: beautiful, but also violent, squalid and unjust. Her vision of love was complex too, with a steely core of morality under the wit.
I aimed to write a story that would do justice to all I had learned and felt. To what extent it succeeds or fails, I leave for you, reader, to decide.