I believed for much of my life that I was destined to be a spinster, tragically alone as I wrote my stories and became a crazy bird lady. I knew several women in my church who fit that description as well. But then an odd year happened, and these older single women got married! Well, what would Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, or Louisa May Alcott say about that?
Jane, it seems, had an opportunity to marry, but found she could not surrender the life she lived to wed a childhood friend whom she did not love. In her time, marriage gave women some social security in later life. As Jane died tragically early, staying single was possibly the right choice for her.
Charlotte Bronte did marry, in her late 30s, and died while carrying her first child. For her, the man she chose loved her so well that he did not change any aspect of her life or writing. Her loss from his life was deeply wrenching, and the what-if the child has survived aspect tickles my fancy.
Louisa seems a much more tragic life than the other two, because she was convinced no man could love her without wanting to make her a domestic slave. She grew up in material poverty but with a wealth of close family, love, and faith. She felt so strongly about the right of freedom from slavery for all men that she went off to volunteer at a hospital during the Civil War. She contracted a nearly fatal disease, but the treatment used in those days left her an invalid for the rest of her life. She still managed to adopt her niece when her sister died, and so had the experience of raising a child.
Maybe because of my early imagination, and the way the life stories of these women impacts me, I love books about their lives and their possible lives. “The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott” (Amy Einhorn/Putnam), by first-time novelist Kelly O’Connor McNees, had me laughing and crying as I listened to it on my commutes. The author imagines that at one time, Lou had a passionate relationship with a young man who was promised to another girl. The writing felt natural, and inspired me to reread via audiobook Louisa’s own best loved writing, Little Women. No wonder Ms. Alcott could never convince anyone the book was not autobiographical.
Romancing Miss Bronte: A Novel by Juliet Gael carried an equal sense of sharing the life of a remarkable woman. The difference is that the novel is based on actual events. Were this a Romance novel, the pair would have realized their undying love for each other much sooner. The events did take decades to unfold, but really, I wanted to cut to the chase a few times. However, you can’t know why Charlotte was who she was without sharing the deaths of all her siblings, and the stark loneliness of her life after they had gone.
Jane Austen is the writer many of us historical romance writers would like to be. Perhaps that is why there are several networks of Jane Austen Fan Fiction, and more historical sites than one can shake a keyboard at. While her writings have been subsumed into the horror genre via Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, there’s not that much out there that finds a secret winter or stolen spring when she found true love. She was in real life a stern moralist, so it is nearly impossible to imagine her off for a bit of illicit sex.
Several amusing memoirs exist written about people who discovered Jane Austen at some point. A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz is one I might look up, and her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869 is a must-read. But there is room in the days she spent at school, or the visits to her brother in London, for a story like The Lost Summer. And what about the gentleman believed to have been her secret sweetheart, and the one whose marriage proposal she first accepted and then turned down? Well, as the latter was a most unromantic figure of a man, it has to be the former. And yes, there is a book and a movie, the 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Hunter Spence, filmed in 2007.
I am happy to report my own life took a lovely romantic turn, and I did not end up a crazy bird lady spinster. And I was blessed with two stepchildren to raise and enjoy family life in their company. One does no longer need to be a tragic heroine in one’s own right to be a writer of romances. And maybe there is an epic story idea for me in these three lives. I expect they watch over other women writers with encouragement and sparks of inspiration.