That night you heard voices say remember, remember. You did your best not to remember. You spread a meter of cloth and started painting on it. Colors called for other colors and you portrayed the image of the momentary light bending the line between good and bad. You pulled them to a corner, lay down on your stomach, and tried writing; you couldn’t. You were still hearing the voices and couldn’t catch the flow of the story. You wanted to sleep, took pills. You waited. Even so, you didn’t feel sleepy. You were flying and walking in the bedroom, you fought the ones who told you to remember. Then you waited. You flawlessly created your own vicious cycle and you were trapped in it.
I got off at Alton Station. I started walking on Gasport Trail leading to Chawton. In that village, three roads met on a wide boulevard people rarely passed. You might slowly walk the Gasport Trail in an hour. But my walk lasted two hours; I gazed at the gardens of one-story houses, caressed their horses and goats, talked with their dogs. As I walked, I realized why habitants always wished to stay in rural areas. I saw the red house in the shape of letter L to the right of the pathway surrounding the inexpensive house people settled in 1808. It was one of Earth’s corners embellished with an infinite meadow, trees, and calm houses. Awe-inspiring hills and howls were ahead… The images in my mind became clear as I walked, then I registered the roads the characters in those novels walked on. I realized the reason those novels had a horrendous, dark, gothic, or mysterious atmosphere. Modest and fragile.
Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire. Photo credit: Rudi Riet, CC BY-SA 2.0
As a child, I drew a beautiful house made of bricks. I entered through its garden’s door and expressed my gratitude. With her skirt gathered up, Cassandra was feeding the pigs at the small atelier where pigs and chickens lived at the back of the well outside the house. She smiled and said her sister was in the kitchen. I passed the garden and the huge tree, entered the house, and went down the stairs. Facing back, she was kneading the dough for bread on the counter before the oven.
I approached her, touched her shoulder, and put my other hand in the dough. Our fingers met in the dough. Our hands had ink on thumbs, index and middle fingers, and our middle fingers were swollen. I put my head on her shoulder. Though I couldn’t predict what came next, I started crying. The bouquets of grain near the oven were swishing in the wind of the fire, my cry echoed in the empty kitchen’s stone walls. Pulling our hands from the dough, she hugged me. I buried my head in her chest.
I tried to utter Jane. She hushed me. She let me cry in her arms for a long time. I couldn’t remember how we went upstairs, I lay down on the white pillow… And who covered me? I could sleep in peace at Austens’ house with a garden, six rooms, and an attic turned into a warehouse.
I came on Thursday, I woke up on Sunday. There was nobody at home. Following Mr. Austen, they had to be at the church ahead of the house. I wore one of her dresses. The low-cut white dress had short sleeves, it was tight in the chest and had a loose skirt. I left the room they slept in with Cassandra.
I entered the room with a small bookshelf. I opened the drawer of the manuscripts of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan. I touched the papers. I played with the cone-shaped toy juggling balls. Browsed the drawings of Hugh Thomson and found plenty of letters. It was impossible to read them all, so I hid some of them beneath my dress. I observed the fingerprints over Udolpho Castle and saw Mrs. Radcliffe’s sign for the first time. I went down to the living room with the piano, sat down on a single seat, and waited for Austens to return.
After they moved from Southampton, she didn’t write anything for nearly ten years — until they settled here. At the age of twenty-five, she wrote three great novels, and when her parents forced her to leave the house she grew up in, she put the novel drafts in the wood suitcase because she thought her perspective would change.
When I saw the family in the garden from the half-curtained window, I ran to the room I slept in as to not bump into others by accident. She soon came. She was glad I finally recovered and my cheeks were red again and said she would go to the kitchen to bring me milk, cheese, and bread and wanted me to wait for her in bed. It was impossible not to obey her words, so I got under the blanket, stealing her bed once again.
She returned, put the tray on my lap, and fed me. Then she lay near me and covered us with the blanket. We looked at each other under the light coming in from the bedside. Looking at her almond eyes, I caressed the crooked side of her nose and fleshless cheeks. I wanted to tell her anything, but she closed my mouth, hugged me. My body absorbed the strength of her body.
I embraced Jane above the half of the round and wooden three-legged desk smaller than our arms. Sitting at her desk, she thought nothing of comfort. I adored how she used time. Writing her novel was appropriate for she could present sustainable narration during the time left from making bread, dealing with cousins and neighbors, feeding the pigs. She couldn’t predict the time she wrote, but she protected her characters from the interruptions caused by a scream, a door knock, or an obligation to pray. She put her desk near the window of her room she shared with her sisters, near the piano in the living room and in the shady corner of the hall. It was unique how she created those great novels on such a small desk.
Jane Austen, 1873
Tall and great Jane. Jane was not close to her mother, for she was given to a milk-mother after she was born. She was with the boys in the garden of a private school her priest father managed; she was like them. Being immaculate with her muddy legs at the age of fourteen, she couldn’t make a distinction between man and woman. She didn’t know yet that all boys’ games she joined would be the source of inspiration in creating Catherine Morland. Did growing up in a boys’ school make her create a list of the expectations of men? I had difficulty in naming the feeling she missed within the narratives including jokes, horses, clandestine inebriation, and all the experiences life could easily grant men. I bowed respectfully before the outstanding time perspective of the woman who could say, “I’d rather be a teacher at a school (I cannot think of anything worse) than marry a man I don’t like,” observing the teachers at boarding school. But I knew her loyalty to women’s duties was defined as “working hard, treating animals and servants well, forethoughtfulness and taking mother’s advice when having a hesitation.” I knew how politely she curtsied and never impeded the customs, but she was despised by family friends for she didn’t fit the traditional girlhood standards. How good it was to stand firm among all the entrenched rules.
Almond-eyed Jane. She told me stories making me think her father gave birth to her. She told me how she tried to write more qualified stories after people adored her when she read aloud the stories she worked on during friends or family meetings. Her greatest support was her father at the defining moment when her dream of being an author turned into a dream of being a student and dreams turned into endurance. I could cry over the knees of Mr. Austen. Her father wrote elegant praise on the front side of her notebook she wrote her stories in. “The imagination overflowing out of a young girl’s pen contains stories with a brand new genre.” Good father, handsome father. Father opened his library to his daughter without restrictions. Father presented Dr. Johnson and Samuel Jackson to his daughter.
Yet still, money talked. In this world, unless a woman was not married or unless her family was rich, she was not allowed to live by herself. I asked why she rejected marriage. She told me about desire and heartbreaking love. She said she couldn’t find love in pale-faced men and it would be more authentic to stay where she was instead of seeming weak with passion. She told me about the transparent, content line between fulfilling and not fulfilling the great physical pleasures.
Village dances, saloons, and girls dancing with each other. Jane said she experienced weighing the magic of touching in those dances. She mentioned the cruelty of spending life to catch the rare moments when the energy of the joined hands got out of flesh and entered the minds. But she felt the pulse many times, she wanted to go to the meadow with them, but she only greeted her partners by nodding when her sisters were looking. The greeting was a polite expression of the cumulative libido’s oppression. Unity became possible only with hands at the balls people signed up to by paying a small fee, only eyes and heaving breasts could accompany the unity. But she wanted to be embraced suddenly and strongly, wanted her neck to be smelled, her hair to be pulled, and she wanted to taste the blood on the lips kissing her. To use her sharp tongue in kissing for once.
For some, she was auburn and beautiful. Others said she was light-skinned and some reported she had big black eyes and bright skin. Someone described the waves of her long black hair, whereas others said she was stubborn. All in all, she existed in a beautiful way. Who could say a woman who knew how to adapt to all things she tolerated inside to the rules of her time was ugly?
Jane, her round face. Her sister Cass was always regarded as more beautiful than her, but she was never hurt. She didn’t pay attention to clothes, never cared about fashion, preferred leaving hair long enough to tie it and cutting the front waves short. She put her hair inside a cap whenever she wanted, it was quick and simple. It meant running faster towards the pigs.
I read everything written on her. The final decision was she was not that beautiful. But I sat at the half of the round desk which was smaller than our arms, hunching my back. Being possessed with the harmony of the pen of the woman who would be called to draw water, rake the garden, or milk the goats, I tried to depict the love breaking loose from my nipples and scattering in the air. Hugging her behind, some days I wanted to ask, “Did you only love Mr. Lefroy, Jane?”
Because he was the first, it might be. The passion of the first kiss, the shared shudder on the lips, the excitement transferred with liquid. A spiritual longing arose from dreaming about the joining of the bodies and dreaming of her undressed for nights. Lovers put the blame on destiny when they couldn’t be together because of distance, family issues, or the dynamics of the changing era. Her heart didn’t sink when she heard her first love named his daughter Jane after many years.
She didn’t surrender her lips to kissing. She might not be able to recover from her first rejection unless his father embraced her by sending the novel to the publisher.
When would writing become essential for a woman? What could be the extent of holding on to paper and pen? Which suppressed impulse embraced the ability to write four novels at the age of twenty-four to be included among future’s literary classics? What was actually sacrificed? Did stories replace the abandoned? Did writing mean consoling or speaking through others by means of different personas set in unprecedented lives? I had a Jane who wrote to her sisters, “I am not in great demand. People do not intend to propose to me unless they have to. There was a man, a military officer from Cheshire, young and handsome, he wanted to meet me. But he didn’t want it enough to tolerate so much trouble, so we couldn’t make it happen.”
As days passed slowly like the slowness of flies buzzing in the air in Aston, I was collecting partly reproachful, partly furious questions I wondered after becoming close to her through theories and the first time I read and comprehended her. It was an afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Austen, Cass, and her other brothers were not at home. We were looking at the window, sitting on the sofa near the piano. I had a lump in my throat, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and asked her.
“Why don’t you speak about women’s rights? Your actions and your manifesto don’t match. You reject men, belittle marriage, try to live with the earning of selling novels. But you don’t say anything about it. I don’t want to believe you didn’t read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which created a tremendous impression in 1792 or you didn’t support the arguments in it. I cannot convince myself you kept silent while trying to create free characters years after that text.”
She kept silent for a long time.
“These things were improper for the daughter of a priest, identifying an area of freedom for a woman is only possible by absorbing the enthusiastic novelties which were silently accepted before and restraining them in the mind, she has to create a form reflecting the character as much as possible. I couldn’t write a manifesto, your approach and my time network do not coincide and I have been hearing the crudeness of the argument ‘Jane doesn’t defend women’s rights so much’ for centuries in some talks. I only cared about protecting the little desk from the burden of daily life. It was only a moment. My own. I cared about seeking it. Seizing the tranquil night.”
Then she continued.
“If I didn’t write rebellious texts about the things I kept silent on, it doesn’t mean I didn’t oppose. In 19th century, to be silent meant opposing at the least.”
I didn’t want to make her tell me her whole life. Where she went and when, how she was forced to move from the place she was born and how she couldn’t write anything for ten years because of that, how hard it was to carry her novels everywhere in a wooden suitcase, whether she ever had sex, how she was strong in face of death and how she lost herself after losing her father. Jane standing before me was in her forties, only a little time left before her death. I wanted to sleep on the part where her white linen dress was tied. The more I got close to her breasts, the more I could know her. But it was simple, when she was not at her desk, you couldn’t tell the difference between her and other women of Chawton. You couldn’t find a sign of creativity in her perception of ordinary things. However, I could argue about the brand new universes gathering above her head then exploding as dust clouds when she sat at her funny desk. I watched her while she was writing.
I found a potential moment floating towards the divine in her writing I couldn’t find in any other authors. It pertained to being a woman. I saw the existence devoid of ego, longing for freedom as a halo above the author’s head. I saw how late it was for Pride and Prejudice to be written by a woman in her twenties. I observed the way she expressed herself as a fellow who was always uncanny and I resolved the sentence into piles to reach the etymological roots of the language. I saw how the finger that kneaded the dough also kneaded the words at the intersection of holding a pen and kneading dough. I saw how Jane, who prepared breakfast for her family at nine in the morning, woke up from her dreams and how she tried to erase her existence within the house. I witnessed her principle of pretending not to write while writing. I heard some say, “She behaved carefully to hide what she did from servants, visitors or someone else except for her family. She was writing on papers that could easily be removed or covered them with blotting paper. The door between the entrance and study room was creaking, but she opposed fixing it because she heard someone coming through the creak.” I tried to describe the direct relation between keeping an ear to the ground and vagina. Observing the obstacles of judging, I knew Jane once more. I saw the woman covering her writings with her hands in every creak she heard. She went beyond the place she lived and reached small villages, she imbued her fellows with courage by challenging the curves of continents. I saw the times her heart sank and the times she tore her hair.
I saw her yearning for loneliness without a room, the moments she lay on the grass as she sought an opportunity to touch herself. I saw the path she drew for me, I sensed that we would walk on the anger of the crooked path made of restrained passion. I resolved we would tell the same story in the same way at the scattered equation of geography. I couldn’t blame the repetition of the things a woman would tell about being a woman. To all women in the world, I delivered the names Jane hid behind while struggling to keep her authorship a secret. I was between being pointed at and being excluded. I couldn’t react to newspaper articles. I couldn’t whisper to her about the future by holding her shoulders. The way she was. On the line she drew, without changing the woman’s destiny. I found it hard to intervene. In their night’s sleep I caught the critics who found the intelligence in her novels inappropriate for a woman and smothered them with my hair.
I read the testament of Jane who was on the threshold of death as she was running a fever at night. She left her sister 84 pounds and 14 shillings earned by writing. I adapted the testament of a woman who hardly existed in 1816 to the modern day and I bowed respectfully before the saving of 5090 pounds. It was too much for a woman writer in my country to earn during modern days.
At Austens, I learned how a gender’s destiny could change by owning a space as small as a desk. I slept there thinking of the possibility of a universe where thick Business Relationships were not seen appropriate for men. I found out the reason why I stayed there so long after leaving the rural Alton, my tower of Babel. It needed to be reconstructed, so it needed courage. A female’s mouth was needed for the translation of languages talking in me, the judgment of a pen expressing itself well under pressure was needed to oppose the sovereign. The fire in my heart needed ember as I tried to write while tearing myself.
Feeling pain in my chest, I left her. I put the last dough in the oven. When it was ready, I took it with me and left the red house in silence.
Nazli Karabiyikoglu is a Turkish author, now full-time resident in Georgia, who recently escaped from the political, cultural, and gender oppression in Turkey. She helped create the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing industry, from which she was then excommunicated. With an M.A. in Turkish Language and Literature from Bogazici University, Karabıyıkoglu has five published books in Turkish and has recently completed translations of two new books for international publication. Having won six literary awards in her country, she has been nominated for Pushcart Prize in 2019 and won The UnCollected Press/Raw Art Review Full Length Book of Short Stories with her book Subdermal Sky. Visit nazlikarabiyikoglu.com.