Searching for Mr Tilney
What secrets lie at the heart of Jane Austen’s teenage journal?
When Caroline Heath is taken to Bath in 1975, she little expects to find the gothic adventure she craves, let alone discover Jane Austen’s secret teenage journal, or how it’s possible to live in someone else’s body. Yet, she’s soon caught up in a whirlwind of fantastic events - travels through time, a love story or three, and even the odd sinister murder - or so she thinks.
As the past and present entwine, Jane’s journal reveals a coming of age tale, set against the scandalous backdrop of Knole Park in Kent, and the story behind an enigmatic portrait. In Bath, a Georgian townhouse acts as a portal in time, and Caroline finds herself becoming Cassandra Austen, a young woman making her debut in society, torn between family duty and the love of her life. As the riddles unfold, and the lines blur between illusion and reality, will Caroline find the happiness she seeks or will she indulge her wild imagination, threatening her future and a fairytale ending?
I’m lying in bed as I write, between sheets that feel scratchy with toast crumbs, under hairy blankets, a heavy candlewick counterpane, and a paisley eiderdown scattered with yellow and pink roses. I feel weighed down, but only just warm enough, and I can’t help feeling sorry for myself. Before I was ill and had to spend every day in bed it used to be a favourite place of refuge, but now it just feels like a prison.
It’s raining again, and I’m watching the wind tossing the bony branches of the trees in the front garden, blowing the last withered leaves as far as the lawn of Jane Austen’s House, or at least that’s what I see in my imagination. In reality I can only just about see the tip of her cottage rooftop from my bedroom window, but I’m glad to know that my favourite author once slept and lived just around the corner from me. I like to think of her walking down the Winchester Road past our house that was built around the time she was born, long before she came to live in the village. Perhaps she stopped to glance in at the windows or even came to call on the people who lived here all those years ago. Chawton is a very quiet village and I’m sure it can’t have been much different in Jane’s time. I can understand how she might have turned to writing letters and novels to fill the long days, perhaps scribbling her thoughts down in a journal, though I’ve never heard that she actually kept one. But, I’m almost certain she did - I don’t know a single friend who hasn’t kept a diary at some time in their life, and Jane hinted at the possibility of Catherine Morland writing one in Northanger Abbey.
I’ve decided to start a diary because I’ve got nothing better to do, and I’ll go mad if I have to do another jigsaw on a tray that’s too small for a thousand pieces. I like the idea of putting down my thoughts, and I can’t seem to concentrate on doing much just yet. I enjoyed having my radio up here at first, but there’s a limit to the number of times you can hear the same records played over and over, and even if I love Space Oddity - every time it’s played now I wish I was also floating in a tin can somewhere in space, where I can’t hear it. I’ve re-read every book I own, I can’t really draw or paint in bed, and I’m just counting the days until I can get up and go back to art school. In many ways I’ve loved being at home again, being looked after, and watching the changing seasons in the countryside where time still seems to pass so much slower than in the city. But, I do miss London and my friends. It’s frustrating now I’m feeling so much better - Doctor Grainger says I’ll be able to get up next week - to be perfectly honest I think I could now, but Mum won’t let me, and they’ve said I can’t think about going back to my course until next term.
Mum’s just been in to take my breakfast tray. ‘How are you feeling, Caroline?’ she said, her forehead wrinkled with worry lines.
My mother is never happier than when she’s fussing round me, though thankfully her painting usually distracts her. Years ago her pictures were exhibited in galleries in London, but sadly her work’s no longer sought after, and commissions have been a bit thin on the ground lately. Being far too proud to tell people how little we have to live on, she continues to give her paintings as presents, while she waits for the next job to come in.
‘You look a bit peaky,’ she said, her brows knitting together. ‘You were looking so much better yesterday, but I see you’ve hardly touched your food.’
‘I’m just tired, that’s all,’ I replied, without telling her how helpless I was feeling.
‘Well, you’re getting your strength back slowly … in another fortnight you won’t remember how poorly you’ve been. What you need is a little holiday to put some roses back into those pale cheeks.’
I knew there wasn’t any spare money to send me away anywhere. ‘That’s a lovely idea, but I’m so worried I won’t be able to catch up on all the work I’ve missed. I don’t know how I’ll complete all the projects, there’s a whole collection to make for my final show.’
‘You mustn’t worry; you can’t help being ill, and in any case, Doctor Grainger says you’re to avoid getting stressed. Now, can I change your library books? I’m going into Alton and can find you something a little more light-hearted, perhaps. Mary Shelley and the romantic poets are enough to fog anyone’s head. How about a nice romance?’
Apart from my love of Jane Austen’s books I love any gothic novel, as well as Keats’s poetry, and the Brontë sisters - Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre being two of my favourite books. Is there a scene more horrid, as Jane Austen would say, than the one where Cathy’s frozen dead hand hangs on to Mr Lockwood’s arm with a pitiful cry demanding to be let in, or the episode where Jane Eyre is locked up with the fear of being haunted by Uncle Reed’s ghost in the red room? However, if I was on Desert Island Discs and forced to choose only one book it would have to be Northanger Abbey, which has everything I look for in a novel and, best of all, can be read by candlelight without being frightened that your hair will turn white. I always feel sorry for poor gullible Catherine who is really clueless, and I’ve been in love with Mr Tilney for as long as I can remember.
My mother didn’t wait for an answer. She took the pile of books from my bedside table, popped a kiss on my forehead, and left. Dressed in the voluminous overalls she wears to paint in, the comforting smell of oil paint enveloped me like a luxurious perfume. It’s the scent I most associate with her, and I’m sure is the reason I wanted to do art in the first place, though it’s always been fashion that’s my passion. Spending hours in bed means I’ve had time to pore over magazines with pictures of my favourite designers like Bill Gibb and Zandra Rhodes, even if trying to imagine being half as good as they are is an impossible dream.
Money’s been tighter than ever, and I feel guilty that I haven’t got a proper job to help make life easier for us both, even if Mum insists I should concentrate on my degree. Oh, if only there was enough for a trip to Switzerland - I’d visit the Villa Diodati where Frankenstein was written, or go to Italy and find Keats’s grave in Rome. Or a gondola ride with Byron’s vampiric ghost might be nice, cruising down the foul-smelling canals of Venice before stopping off at Florian’s to sip coffee and glasses of Grappa. I have a picture in my mind - Byron swathed in black velvet, an arm draped along the curved back of the gondola seat, demonic good looks in a sort of unsmiling, but sexy way. I’m fascinated by dead personalities from the past. Clearly, Byron was very successful when it came to seduction. I can’t imagine meeting anyone like that - when I first went to art school I had high hopes of meeting a sort of Pre-Raphaelite type artist, dark hair flowing like a mane, flopping in an irresistible sweep over one beautifully dark eye fringed in long lashes, though I must quickly add the man of my dreams has two eyes. Anyway, the ones I know are all a bit disappointing - the most daring fashion items I’ve seen to date have been a cheesecloth shirt, and a leather belt on a pair of bellbottom jeans. I was born ten years too late to be at art school with Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, those otherworldly creatures, both rather Byronic in their own way. Still, at least they give me something to fantasise about.
I’d like to have the kind of relationship my parents had - they were always together, sharing every day and working side by side. Last year our lives were turned upside down when my father died, but I can’t write about him just yet, it’s too painful. I miss him more each day, and I do feel so very sorry for Mum. He was the love of her life.
All that writing must have worn me out because I dropped off mid-thought, and spilt ink all over the sheets in my sleep, simultaneously dribbling over a half opened packet of fruit Spangles, managing to glue three of them to my pillow case. Mum didn’t seem to notice when she came up, she was far too excited to tell me about her visitor. Her friend Ellen Appleby who lives at the bottom of the road in the large house on the corner, came for a cup of tea earlier and was full of her news.
‘So, Ellen and Roger are going to Bath,’ she said.
‘Oh, I love Bath,’ I said, though I’ve only been once.
‘Yes, I knew you’d say that,’ said Mum, and then she suddenly stopped, and her mouth twitched like it does when she’s worried she’s going to say something to upset me.
‘What is it?’ I asked watching her face turn crimson. ‘There’s nothing wrong, is there?’
‘Not exactly,’ she said, ‘and I don’t suppose you’d have to go if you really didn’t want to, though it would be a little awkward going back on what I said.’
Since my father died, I’ve found it very hard to get annoyed with my mother, and looking at her sweet face I realised, whatever she’d done, it would be impossible to be cross with her.
‘Go on,’ I said, trying not to sound impatient.
‘Ellen thought you might like to go with them, and I said it was such a thoughtful, kind invitation, that it would do you the world of good, and you’d love the idea.’
It came out in a complete rush, which left me feeling stunned and not quite sure what to say. I know the Applebys quite well, but the idea of going away with them is something else entirely.
‘Oh, Mum,’ I whined, and then I felt ashamed when I saw her face crumple.
‘It’s just that I’d love to take you away,’ she said quietly, ‘but I can’t, not just now I’ve got a new commission, and it seemed the ideal opportunity.’
What she really meant was that she couldn’t afford to take me anywhere, and so I pushed back the covers and threw my arms round her slight form, told her that it had taken a moment, but I couldn’t think of anything I’d enjoy more than going to Bath with Ellen and Roger Appleby.
‘Yes, of course, I’d love to go. Who wouldn’t want to be driven down to Bath in a fabulous Jag, and stay in a smart hotel for a couple of days,’ I said, trying hard to think of all the positives.
‘They’re not staying in a hotel,’ she said, ‘and they’re going for six weeks until Christmas.’
I felt time slow down. This was worse than I feared - a whole six weeks! At least in a hotel, I might have found someone my own age to talk to or go out with.
‘They’re renting a house on Pulteney Street. It sounds lovely, even if it’s not quite Ellen’s preferred choice of the Royal Crescent. Oh, Caroline, are you sure you’d like to go?’
Seeing her eyes were misting over, I tried my best to smile, and thinking of my beloved Northanger Abbey, I declared, ‘Well, if adventures will not befall me in my own village, then surely I must seek them abroad!’