What I Owe Jane Austen and Others, by Jennifer Petkus

What I Owe Jane Austen and Others, by Jennifer Petkus

It’s amazing to consider how much I owe Jane Austen. Thanks to her, I’m now reading Charles Dickens and enjoying it. Thanks to her, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people at the two JASNA AGMs I’ve attended and the many more people I’ve met online, at my local JASNA chapter and when I attended the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta. Austen was even responsible for me joining my local Sherlock Holmes scion society and for starting a chapter of The Wodehouse Society.

And it’s because of my Jane Austen inspired fiction that I was asked to join Austen Authors, which has been a wonderful opportunity to further embrace those who read and write stories inspired by her. But I have to confess that for some time now I’ve had a competing interest, which I’ve mentioned more than once in the posts I’ve written for Austen Authors.

Just about the time I discovered Austen my husband and I had decided that we would take a narrowboating vacation in England. In fact, when we chose to start our narrowboat trip in Bath, I hadn’t yet read any Austen and it came as a surprise and a disappointment when I realized we’d be in Bath the week before the Austen festival there.

So narrowboating and Austen have both been competing and complementary interests. Since writing Narrowboating for Beginners, however, I’ve decided to double-down on that interest and start a website devoted for first-time narrowboaters, with news, advice and opinion, all from an American perspective. It will be a full-time job, however, and I’ve decided to leave Austen Authors, especially now that this group has very exciting plans for the future that will deserve more attention than I will be able to give.

Of course, I’m already regretting my decision. I’ve just finished editing Our Mutual Friends, the first sequel I’ve ever written and which continues the adventures of Charlotte House in Georgian England. It’s inspired by Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes, but to be honest its greatest influence is Dickens. I’ve slipped in a few references to Austen of course, notably Mansfield Park, and after all Charlotte House is modeled after my great girl crush, Emma Woodhouse.

I do have a genuine JAFF story upcoming that’s not only inspired by Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes, but actually has Holmes, Watson and the inhabitants of Highbury in it. I hope to have that ready next year. So I’d love to remain with Austen Authors and bore you to death with details about Our Mutual Friends and Elementary, my dear Emma (working title), but I’ve got to research various canals, plan our next narrowboat trip and write more advice for first-time boaters. I’ve also decided that I must update Narrowboating for Beginners yearly, and that process has already begun.

I do hope to keep in touch with the brilliant authors here, so I hope this is not the last you’ll hear of me. With that in mind, I offer another snippet from Our Mutual Friends, in which I manage to combine Austen (Mansfield Park), Doyle (The Sign of Four) and Dickens (Our Mutual Friend) for what I hope is comic effect:

Mrs Fitzhugh and I kept a nervous watch as our carriage negotiated the busy streets of Lambeth. The traffic we had met on the bridge continued and our progress was slow. We exchanged nervous glances of encouragement that Charlotte would not have sent us to such an unseemly aspect without reason … or without assurance of our safety. Being unfamiliar with London and its environs, I had associated Lambeth with the archbishopric or even the gardens, and was unaware of the many trades that operated there beside the river.

‘Make way, damn you!’ we heard Robert shout and then felt a jostle as our carriage collided with some obstacle.

‘I am glad Robert is with us,’ I said to my friend.

‘As am I.’

I nodded and understood my friend’s remark. That Charlotte thought it necessary to have our footman accompany us emphasized the parlous nature of our errand.

‘Thank God,’ we heard Robert say as the carriage slowed and then stopped. Again the carriage rocked as Robert and our coachman descended. Robert opened the door and said, ‘We’re here at last.’ He wore a scowl on his face that betrayed his annoyance.

‘Thank you, Robert,’ my friend said as she took his hand and stepped out.

‘Yes, thank you, Robert,’ I added. Our solicitous tones must have made him realize his behavior.

‘I beg your pardon. It’s only … it was difficult to find … Pinchin Lane is on no map … but we are safely here,’ he said. As he said this, however, he was forced to protect us from a chandler forcing his wheelbarrow between our carriage and the building.

‘Perhaps we should enter,’ I said. ‘Even the pavement has its hazards.’

Robert hurried to the shop door and after first glancing inside, held the door for us. He then quickly preceded us into the darkened shop. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out many forms surrounding us and suddenly discovered the eyes of a stoat looking at me. I stumbled backward and collided with Mrs Fitzhugh.

‘Don’t be afraid, that’s only Alfred,’ a comical voice said. ‘He’s quite happy with his coney there and is no danger to fine ladies.’ A happy, round-looking man of perhaps five and thirty years, wearing a heavy coat with astrakhan collar, his cheeks brightly coloured, appeared from the gloom, followed by Robert. The speaker held in his arms a writhing bundle of tan fur.

‘You are Mr Mercury?’ Mrs Fitzhugh asked.

‘At your service,’ he said. ‘And you are the friends of Miss House? Welcome to my menagerie.’

‘You prepare … you stuff …’

‘I am an articulator of bones, if you will, an artist with fur and feather.’

‘You have real skill,’ my friend said, stepping closer to the animal that had alarmed me. She reached out a hand but stopped. ‘May I?’

‘Please do, Alfred likes the attention.’

She removed her glove and stroked the fur of the animal, and then the much larger rabbit, which was the stoat’s prey.

‘It could be alive,’ she said, ‘if only for a few more seconds. You are an artist, Mr Mercury. I have never seen its like. You must feel it, Jane. I would swear I could feel its heart beat.’

I had no desire to feel the dead creature, however, and instead asked, ‘And is this Toby?’

‘What? Oh, that’s Miss House’s little joke. No, this is Pug. He’s small enough to fit in a jug, I’ll grant you. He’s the fellow you want. Follow me to the yard and I’ll show you what he can do.’

Mr Mercury then led us further into the murk past shadowy imaginings of fauna caught in the moment of death. My friend seemed quite interested and called my attention to an erect bear, but I shrank back. It was a relief to step through a door and enter the sun-filled yard behind the shop.

‘Now, let me put Pug down …’—Mr Mercury, with a groan of exertion, bent down and released the dog—‘… and you can see how clever he is.’

The small dog danced in a tight circle and looked up at us in turn before returning his attention to Mr Mercury. He was a comical little thing that I found far more appealing than the other offerings of Mr Mercury’s shop.

‘Sit, Pug,’ his owner said, and Pug promptly sat, although the dog’s small size made it difficult to appreciate much difference. ‘Stand, Pug, good boy. Lie down, sir. Good boy.’ He called out command after command with which the little dog immediately complied, occasionally rewarded with some morsel.

‘Oh, he is very clever,’ I said.

‘This? Why this is nothing. Pug, dance Sir Roger de Coverley. Sir Roger de Coverley.’

The dog, however, remained stationary although its body quivered. I began to fear Pug would refuse his master’s order.

‘What, you disobey me? Oh, of course, you require music and a partner,’ Mr Mercury said, and began, with mincing step, to dance forward and backward and then turned to his right, all the while humming the tune. Whereupon Pug stood up on his hind legs and danced in time with Mr Mercury.

I turned to my friend and we clapped time while the dog and man danced. Pug was forced occasionally to drop to all fours but impressively he kept time throughout.

‘Well done, Pug!’ I cried, after Mr Mercury stopped the dance to wipe his brow. I leant down slightly and Pug leapt up—a considerable distance for him—into my open arms.

‘You have a new friend,’ Mrs Fitzhugh said.

‘Yes, although he is a handful.’ The little dog made some effort to find a comfortable position and I was aware of his considerable warmth.

‘But he has other tricks to offer,’ Mr Mercury said. ‘He can jump backward and he can hunt Boney …’—at this Pug gave a sharp growl—‘… and he …’

‘I think he has done enough, Mr Mercury,’ I said, worried about overtaxing the animal. ‘Will he obey my commands as readily as yours?’

‘Yes, he is quite eager to please.’

‘Then we shall take him,’ I said. ‘Although I suppose he has necessaries … rewards, food &c.’

‘Already done up in a parcel I shall give your footman.’

Mr Mercury led us back into the shop and found the parcel to give to Robert. With Pug in my arms, I did not find the denizens of the shop as intimidating and we were soon off.

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Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
May 26, 2016 9:55 AM

Jennifer I had no idea you were into narrowboating. Guess I missed that one. Best wishes and keep writing. Jen Red

May 24, 2016 5:12 PM

Aw, shucks. Thanks Sharon and Caryl and Alexa and Diana!

May 24, 2016 3:52 PM

Jennifer, may you have a GRAND adventure! 🙂

Sharon Lathan
May 24, 2016 2:32 PM

You BETTER not be a stranger, Ms. Petkus! We will miss you greatly here on Austen Authors. I have so enjoyed getting to know you better, and simply do not have the words to express how appreciative I am that you were willing to join our group. It has been an absolute pleasure! PLEASE stay involved and keep us informed of your exciting adventures, both in real life and in your writing. The blog and Facebook pages are forever open to you, Jennifer. 🙂

Your friend, Sharon

Alexa Adams
May 24, 2016 12:30 PM

Best of luck to you Jennifer! You will be missed.

Diana J Oaks
May 24, 2016 12:29 PM

I’m sad for us – you have such a unique and interesting perspective that I’ve come to anticipate your posts with an expectation of always learning something not just new, but fascinating too. You never failed to deliver on that. I’m also sincerely happy for you, that you’ve found something you’re passionate about that will lead you to both new places and new friends. Best wishes on this adventure, Jennifer.

May 24, 2016 12:19 PM

Jennifer, as many times as I have been in England, I have always wanted to try narrow boating. I envy you. Enjoy! What a marvelous adventure.

May 24, 2016 12:22 PM
Reply to  barbsilkstone

Thank you kindly, and you should really hire a boat. There is no pleasure to surpass a narrowboat trip.

May 24, 2016 8:43 AM

You know from our previous conversations that I will miss you as part of AuAu, my friend, but that does not stop us keeping in touch. That is the only good thing about the internet. LOL!!!!!

May 24, 2016 11:07 AM
Reply to  reginajeffers

I owe you and Sharon so much and like bad odors and houseguests, I’m not that easy to get rid of.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
May 24, 2016 8:00 AM

Jennifer, change is always difficult and I know you do not leave Austen Authors without struggle. However much you will be missed, you have a whole new adventure before you. We cannot help but benefit from this new focus. You are opening the doors for Americans to enjoy a whole new idea of adventure and/or vacation.
Austen fans can benefit by coordinating their vacation/adventure /boating trip with JA events, tours and festivals. Wow, imagine gorging on everything JA and then finishing the vacation with a relaxing longboat trip. Yeah…that sounds like a fun trip. Best wishes for your future. JWG

May 24, 2016 11:29 AM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

Thanks for your kind words. And if only a canal passed near Steventon! The closest would be the Basingstoke and the Wey and Arun canals, but not really, and the Basingstoke suffers from low water. There is the Itchen Navigation in Winchester, but it’s no longer navigable.

Of course your comment gives me an idea. My husband and I are going to write a narrowboat murder mystery and what a fun idea to set a book on the Kennet and Avon about the murder of an illustrious Janeite … not that I have anyone in mind.

Joana Starnes
May 24, 2016 7:54 AM

What a beautiful cover! It’s absolutely exquisite. Glad to hear about your boating holiday in the UK. If you find yourself on the Kennet and Avon Canal, please get in touch 🙂

May 24, 2016 11:15 AM
Reply to  Joana Starnes

Thanks, Joana. We’re trying to figure out how to do a canal trip with hiring a boat. When you’re actually on the boat, it’s actually pretty hard to take the pictures I need. For instance, I want to take time lapse pictures of turning a lock, which is something you don’t have time to do when you’re on a boat. Right now we’re trying to identify what canals we need pictures of. So that may be me knocking at your door.

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