Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Jane Austen's Chair

English Regency Era Arm Chair, mid 18th c.
This day precisely marks the sixth anniversary of my first blog entry at A Lit Chick. Almost 600 blog posts and nearly 93,000 views later, I wanted to mark that occasion by talking about why I continue to write and why I think many other women write. 

It is my fate to be a geek clothed in the guise of a vixen. The things that intrigue me, preoccupy me, would likely surprise you ...

I often think back, sometimes inexplicably, to a trip that my family and my brother's family made to Dundurn Castle in Hamilton probably about ten years ago. Th Castle is an area called Burlington Heights near the Royal Botanical Gardens in the west end of Hamilton (see a virtual tour of Dundurn here). Our girls, my daughter J and my nieces B and M, were quite young, the two eldest being six or seven years old and the youngest three or four.

Dundurn Castle, a 72 room house in the style of the Regency era, was completed from 1832-1835 for Sir Allan MacNab, future prime minister of the united province of Canada from 1854 - 1856. It became famous for its grand entertainments and its uniqueness in the region. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII, Queen Elizabeth's great-grandfather, were feted there. It became the property of the city of Hamilton in 1900 for the modest price of $50,000.  

While we did our tour of the house the girls were likely mystified as to why we were there. My husband R and my brother C good-naturedly put up with my desire to see the Castle which I don't think I ever explored when I lived in Hamilton although I seem remember being on the grounds for some reason as a child. 

In any event ... I became a bit fixated on a certain feature of the house ... not the entrance hall, nor the impressive dining room that seated twenty and faced the lake, or Sir MacNab's writing desk and private library, the somewhat fussy but pretty ladies' bedrooms, the pink and plum-hued drawing room where guests were entertained. Neither Lady MacNab's boudoir nor the gorgeous grounds on which it stands captivated me. The rooms were not particularly elegant but rather serviceable, neat, not particularly glamorous or ostentatious.

But no, it was the furniture, specifically a chair in one of the parlors (similar to the one pictured above - which dates a little later than the era that Jane Austen lived in as she died in 1817 but bear with me reader) and the fact that, in all probability, Jane Austen had sat on a chair very similar to the one pictured. I kept staring at the chair and imagining Jane sitting there in her voluminous gowns and neat little cap.

When she wrote, Jane purportedly sat in the main parlour of the Austen home at a small writing table, scribbling on small pieces of paper that she slyly hid whenever anyone entered the room.

Why did she write in the main parlour rather than in the privacy of her own room? Why did she seemingly hide her writing? Did she feel it was a vanity for her to write? Did she do so, so that she might persuade anyone who viewed her that she was perhaps writing letters rather than fiction - a more genteel, ladylike occupation for that time? 

I started thinking of all the women who write ... at the kitchen table after the dishes are done and put away, at their office desks during after hours and at lunch, at the library down the street away from children and husbands, late into the night, early in the morning before their families wake, while the kids napped ... are we still in hiding, still working unobtrusively so that we disturb no one, alarm no one?

When I began to write I often felt guilt physically leaving the space my child and husband were in and moving to another part of the house to work. It seemed selfish, unfair to them. They were a bit resistant too ... sometimes following me up to the third floor bedroom to hang out with me. But writing a blog for the journal Descant, a literary quarterly, on arts-related issues changed that. I was firmer about the time that I needed alone and the space that I needed to do so. I had an obligation to the magazine that freed me somewhat from my guilt and inhibitions and then, based on my increased confidence, it inspired me to start my own literary blog soon after. 

Soon I started writing in the dining room, in full view. I learned to ignore the everyday noises of a shared space and no one was tempted to follow me around as I was there hiding in plain sight.

At that time I was having a great deal of difficulty writing fiction. I felt demoralized and uncertain, I feared I was losing the capacity to write and that no one was interested in what I had to say. Writing for Descant and my own blog, adhering to a strict bi-weekly schedule, forced me to keep writing. It didn't matter (somewhat) if no one read it, I needed to do it for myself. 

I love that image of Jane writing in the parlour, in full view of the family. Maybe I misunderstood her motives. Maybe she was thinking ... I have as much right as anyone to be here doing something that I love. Right here in front of everyone.


Sheila Stewart said...

Yes, so interesting where, how, and why we write, whether with family or others near by or do we need to be alone. Creating a space of one's own, time of one's own, a writing practice. Congratulations, Lit Chick on 6 years.

A Lit Chick said...

Thank you Sheila!