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Henry stood at the door of Georgina’s room, holding a weighty textbook in one hand and marking his place with a finger. He looked at his lodger with concern. “Gina, why the screech of terror? What’s up? Why are you looking at that screen as though it had grown fangs?”
“It’s an email from Livia.”
“Okay, fangs is right. What does she want?”
“She wants me to ring her.”
“I’ll get the phone.”
“I don’t want to ring her. It’s bad news.”
“What precisely does she say in her email?”
“You can’t deduce from those two words that it’s bad news.”
Oh, but Georgina could. Good news, Livia rang her. Bad news, she expected the recipient to foot the cost of the call. Except that it didn’t actually cost Livia anything to make a call, it wasn’t as though Georgina were on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Wish I were in America,” she said, staring at the screen. “Or Tasmania; in the bush would be good.” Perhaps if she looked long and hard enough, the words would rearrange themselves. The message would say, Enjoy more Viagrous sex, every time. Or, You have inherited a million zoots, send us a hundred dollars and we’ll show you how to claim your rightful inheritance. Or…
Like Alice, faced with that bottle which was labelled Drink me. Only there’d be no magical change of being for Georgina. Although after a few minutes of conversation with Livia, she’d feel about two foot high, so…
Henry was back, with the phone in his hand. “Call her.”
Livia’s direct line, ringing and ringing, thank God, she’d gone out, was in a meeting. “Yes? Who? Georgina? I’m on the other line, can’t talk. Get over here. Right away. See you in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes? Livia, it takes me—”
Brrrrrr. The sound of an empty line, of a phone put down, of an agent who is too busy to talk.
“What can she want?”
Henry looked up from a page dense with equations and formulae and gave her a quizzical look. “Go and find out?”
“I suppose so. Should I take a chapter of The Sadness of Jane Silversmith?”
“Which of the—how many is it now?”
“Forty or so. All right, forty-eight, to be precise.”
“If she wanted to see a chapter, she’d say so. I judge she wants to see you, rather than a chapter.”
“Twenty minutes! She’s mad.”
“Less than that, in a taxi.”
“More than that by bus. I don’t do taxis except in emergencies, remember?”
“Perhaps this is an emergency. Go, okay? Taxi, underground, bus, camel, donkey, yak—just go.”
Henry went back to his study, which overlooked the street. It had been his parents’ study when they lived in the house. They now had a flat in Cambridge, overflowing with books and papers; his study was somewhat more orderly, but still the room of a man who liked to have everything at hand. He kept his desk clutter-free by dumping whatever he was finished with on to shelves and another table, where the pile of books obscured a silver framed photo of Sophie, his extraordinarily pretty girlfriend. He watched Gina, dark curls escaping from the red beret she’d thrust on her head, hurrying along the pavement beneath the autumn-coloured poplars, energy in every step. She did everything with such intensity, it must be a strain on her nerves.
It was a five-minute walk to the bus stop. There was no bus in sight, and Georgina circled the post, knowing that seconds would seem minutes and minutes hours because of her impatience. Calm down. Breathe in, then slowly out. Why wasn’t she like her landlord, Henry, imperturbable?
She had a ten-minute wait before the double-decker bus appeared. She still got a thrill from the red London buses, even after more than five years in England, and the sight of the splash of colour raised her spirits, as it always did. She climbed up to the top deck of the bus, squeezing her way past two women with shopping overflowing into the gangway, and sat down in the front seat.
The bus roared round a corner and braked violently as it joined the end of a long tailback of traffic.
The first time she’d come to London, her father had taken her for a ride on the top of a red double-decker bus, and it was the highlight of her trip. She’d been in England with her father and the second of five stepmothers on their honeymoon, but that particular stepmother hadn’t cared for London, and considered public transport unhygienic. Georgina had been a skinny eight-year-old then, legs dangling from the seat, all huge eyes and unruly hair. The legs had grown and filled out in the right places, but the hair and eyes had stayed much the same through another three stepmothers.
Georgina didn’t remember her own mother, who had walked out on her and her father when she was six months old, taking a wardrobe of clothes and Georgina’s two-year-old brother with her.
Her first stepmother had been into pink and prettiness, and Georgina hadn’t taken kindly to being decked out in the frills and fussiness that made her look, she told her father in a fit of rage, like something just out of the poodle parlour. Number three stepmother was a hippie and way-out; her lasting legacy was teaching Georgina how to relax and tune out, which she’d done so effectually at school that there’d been talk of remedial classes. That one had gone off to India to join an ashram, presumably to assuage the materialistic guilt she must have felt over taking Georgina’s father for every penny he had.
After her had come Louise, the brightest and the best of her stepmothers. Intelligent and thoughtful, raised in a Quaker family, she had encouraged Georgina to take her studies and life seriously. Without her, there would have been no top college for Georgina, and no chance of the career as academic and writer that she now enjoyed. Although Louise, presently living the pure life with a woman friend in the wilds of Canada, would have frowned at the word enjoyed. Endured was more her style.
Forty-eight chapters. Enough to make a whole book. Except for the minor problem that they were all Chapter One. She must breathe properly, close her eyes, relax her shoulders, relax her jaw, relax her scalp. How did you relax your scalp? Count your blessings. You have good health. You have a brain. You have an education. You have great legs and straight teeth. You live in a house far nicer than you can afford, because you have a kind landlord. You like your landlord. You get on fine with his girlfriend. You have an agent. An important London agent. You are a published author, of a prize-winning book, which received rave reviews and made you into a Literary Name.
Magdalene Crib by Georgina Jackson. 426pp
This searingly grim read is a long one, but in its polyphonic brilliance, with its spare yet wincingly tender account of the hopeless life of its eponymous heroine, one can only wish the author had prolonged her harrowing tale of despair. Jackson draws on documentary accounts such as law court records to create a fictional life of a woman whose existence explodes the distorted myth of Victorian values and highlights the reality of unspeakable deprivation for so many voiceless women of that time.
Magdalene Crib is the bastard daughter of an alcoholic prostitute. Raised and abused by Catholic nuns in Liverpool, she runs away to Ireland, where she is taken into service by a tyrannical master before being cast off, penniless and homeless. Weakened by famine and typhus, she manages to board a ship bound for America and a new life, but after enduring a most terrible voyage, she falls into the hands of a pimp and is set to work in a brothel. She escapes and returns to Liverpool, where she takes her vows as a nun, only to continue the vicious cycle by in her turn abusing the children in her care. In the poignant and moving ending, she casts off her role as victim and takes her own life.
Jackson’s Victorian style is brilliant and utterly convincing; this is a new literary voice that we shall surely hear more of.
Rave reviews, but what was the use of them, when her book had come out two years ago, and she knew in her heart she was never going to get to Chapter Two of her second book, and that even if she did, no one would want to publish it?
Fifty-five minutes later, she was ascending the shallow steps that led up to the elegant, black front door with its gleaming brass plate: HARKNESS AND PHILBY LITERARY AGENCY.
The teenager at the desk, who wore blue-tinted glasses and had her hair in coiled plaits—retro look, or just no sense of style?—pouted at Georgina, then cast a scornful look at her sneakers. “Miss Harkness was expecting you hours ago. Hours! I’ll see if she’s free.”
Georgina closed her eyes and prayed that Livia would be involved in some international auction deal, would send down the message, “Go away, come back tomorrow.”
“Go on up,” said the teenager.
Georgina went slowly up the stairs, and stood outside Livia’s door. She took a deep breath and pushed it open.
“I said right away.” Livia never was one for the niceties. “What did you do? Walk? Hobble?”
“I came on a bus. I have to economize—”
“Since you aren’t earning beans, spare me the sob story. Sit down.”
Livia Harkness had been an agent for more than twenty years. Ageless, but probably in her forties, she was, as usual, wearing black from head to toe, with jet earrings and bangles to lighten things up. She was one of the last of the many publishers and literary agents who had once inhabited Bloomsbury, and her office, situated on the first floor of a Georgian house, was usually spartan in its minimalism. Today it hosted a miasma of paper. Manuscripts lay on every surface, piled high on the deep shelves and even stacked up beside her desk.
“Unsolicited submissions,” Livia said, puffing at a noxious cigarette. She coughed, and blew a few smoky halos into the air. “We’ve had a clear-out, they’re all in here until the men come to take them away. For shredding, pulping or throwing into the Thames. Wish all the bloody authors would jump into the Thames. So you’re too tight to take a taxi? What do you think my time is worth?”
Georgina knew better than to answer that. She sat straight-backed on the edge of a monstrously uncomfortable chair, her mouth zipped shut.
“A lot more than your time is worth. Right, let’s get on with it. I’ve got you a commission.”
Georgina was so startled, she tilted the chair forward and only saved herself from a confrontation with the floor by hanging on to the lip of Livia’s vast mahogany desk. She levered herself back into something like an upright position.
“A commission? For The Sadness of Jane Silversmith?”
More smoky halos, and a look so filled with scorn that Georgina felt prickles of nervous perspiration bursting out on her forehead. “It’s what I’m writing.”
“Don’t lie to your agent. Ever. It’s what you’re trying to write. It’s irrelevant. No one who isn’t witless or senseless on substances would commission that book. I’ve told you, misery’s over. Done for. Finished. Times are bad. Prosperous, self-satisfied people read miseries, noir and grit. Worried, jobless, indebted people want a richer palette of happiness and good fortune.”
Miseries! “That’s a pejorative term, Livia, and there’s always a market for realism.”
“Realism! Spare me. Anyhow, forget about it. We’re talking completely different. New angle, new venture. Big. High concept. Very, very high. Sign this.”
To Georgina’s amazement, her agent pushed a sheet of paper across the polished surface of her desk, and rolled a pen after it.
“Don’t bother to read it. Just sign.”
“I can’t sign without knowing—”
“I’m your agent, right? For the moment,” she added, and there was no humour in her voice. “If I tell you to sign, just pick up the pen.”
“What is it?”
Livia sighed. “Non-disclosure. You will not tell a living soul what we’re talking about in this office today. Not your sister, your dearest friend, your mother—oh, you don’t have a mother, I forgot—and not that crazy would-be scientist you live with.”
Not for the first time, Georgina wondered whether Livia’s mental state was hovering on the danger zone.
“I don’t live with Henry; at least I do, I live in his house, but I don’t live with him in the sense—”
“You seriously think I’m interested in your sex life or lack of it? I don’t care if he’s your masseur, your analyst or an in vitro sibling with whom you are having an incestuous relationship. You don’t discuss this with him, get it? Nor with anyone else.”
Georgina picked up the pen and dragged her chair closer to the desk. “I really think I ought to read it. And that you ought to tell me what this is all about before I sign anything.”
Livia picked up her half-glasses and perched them on her beaky nose. So would a vulture look after a trip to the optician. “Sign.”
“Your publishers, your former publishers, have a manuscript. A nineteenth-century manuscript, written by a major author. Very major.”
Georgina waited. “That’s exciting,” she ventured.
“In her handwriting.”
What kind of a book? A journal? A novel? “Do you mean the manuscript of an existing book?”
“Don’t be stupid. That would be worth money, but what would it have to do with you? No. An unknown work.”
Despite herself, Georgina was intrigued. “Where has it come from? Did they buy it?”
“Buy it? Why would they do that? They found it. Building works, some bricked-up cupboard, reams of dross, nothing’s changed in publishing for the last two centuries. Amidst the rubbish, some pages of gold. Pure gold.”
“Pages? How many pages?”
“Eighteen or nineteen. Chapter One.”
Chapter One? A soul mate, this writer; another novelist specializing in Chapter Ones, by the sound of it. “And where do I come into it?” Georgina had been holding her breath, and now she took a gulp of air which rushed into her lungs and hit back in the shape of a desperate hiccup.
“Have you been drinking?”
“No,” Georgina said, her eyes watering. “A glass of water—”
“What do you think this is, a café? You come into it because Dan Vesey, director of Cadell and Davies, thinks that you are the person to finish the book.”
“Finish the book?”
“Cut the echoes. You heard. It works. It has synergy. Cadell and Davies dropped a bundle on Magdalene Crib, all those American returns did nothing for their bottom line. You do Victorian, you can write nineteenth-century. It’s going to be huge, ultra huge. He gets his money back, you get a second chance.”
Silence. Georgina sat waiting for what Livia would say next, but she said nothing.
Georgina swallowed hard. “You said a major author. Just how major? I mean, if we’re talking, say, one of the Brontë sisters, someone like that, I’m absolutely sure—”
“It’s not a Brontë.”
“I’m not the right person for this, I don’t think I could write a book in someone else’s voice.”
“Don’t give me that voice stuff. Since you aren’t writing anything, and since what you think you want to write is past its sell-by, you’d better jump at this, and jump quick. Tight deadline, Dan wants a finished book on his desk when he announces the find to the world. It’ll be headlines from here to Sydney, and that way there’s no chance of anyone else muscling in. He’ll sell the manuscript pages to a collector or a museum for megabucks, but at that point, he won’t have control. So he wants a book, written by a reputable, respected author—you—picking up the story at the end of Chapter One, on its way to the presses, before he goes public. He gets publicity for the discovery, he gets sales for the book. Even you can get the point of that, am I right?”
“My new book’s shaping up well. It might not be good for my career to—”
“You don’t have a career. Let’s just review how things stand, shall we? I got you a tip-top contract for Magdalene Crib. Cadell and Davies took it, paid good money for it, pushed it out. Classy reviews, lots of literary succès d’estime”—Livia’s French accent was nasally perfect—“winner of the Lorrimer prize, short-listed for the Orange, sold peanuts. Like I said, misery’s dead. What you’re working on is even more depressing than the first one. Bin it. Clear your head, and sniff the coffee. You missed the market. Two years, even a year earlier, you might have made it with that book. The world’s moved on, you haven’t. Get over it.”
“Honestly, Livia, I don’t—”
“Let’s look at things time-wise. We can’t keep the wraps on this for more than twelve weeks max. Hundred and twenty thousand words, could be more, you’ll know what length she wrote. You’ll do it under her title of course, not a bad one, got the right period feel, Love and Friendship. Seems she reused it, wrote some kid’s stuff with the same title, only spelt it wrong. No spell-check those days, least you’ve got Microsoft on your side.”
“Livia, just who is this author?”
Livia sat back, a foxy smile on her face. “Jane Austen, that’s who. Jane Austen, no less. Couldn’t be better, couldn’t be bigger. What a writer, bankable all the way, in print for two hundred years and now a superstar. That’s my kind of client. Not much sex and violence, of course, which is a pity, but that Andrew Whosit guy will put the sex back in when he does the TV adaptation.”
Georgina couldn’t believe her ears. Aghast, she fought the sense of panic that had her firmly in its grip. She pushed the chair back, stood up, and braced herself on Livia’s desk. “Jane Austen? Are you telling me Dan Vesey’s found the beginning of an unknown novel by Jane Austen, and you want me to finish it?”
“Don’t do that, you’ll leave marks on the polish. Yes. Jane Austen, and that’s the deal. Chance of a lifetime, for you.”
Jane Austen? Chance of a lifetime? For some author, possibly, but for her? Nix. “Christ, you’ve picked the wrong person, you really have.”
Georgina sat, eyeing the door, wondering whether to make a run for it, then gathered her wits. She had to put a stop to this whole absurd business right now.
“Clean out of my period,” she said. “I’m late, she’s early. You know how I work, I use authentic original sources, letters, journals, contemporary newspapers, court records. None of those apply here. And writers like Austen have their own style, there’s absolutely no way I could do it.”
Ominously, Livia said nothing, just kept her eyes boring into Georgina. Without shifting them from her face, she banged a brass bell on her desk and shouted, “Tish!”
Ms. Blue Specs appeared at the door. “Bring me Georgina Jackson’s file,” Livia said.
“I have it here, Miss Harkness.”
Livia slammed the blue folder down on the table. “Just to remind you of a few facts, Georgina. You’re an historian, right? Dr. Jackson, let’s not forget the Ph.D. Early-nineteenth, late-nineteenth century, what the hell’s it matter? You’re not familiar with the period? Then get familiar. You can pastiche 1880, you can pastiche 1810.”
“It’s an honour to be asked, but truly, you’d be making a mistake.”
“I don’t make mistakes.” Livia counted on her bony fingers, which were adorned with chunky modern rings. “Let’s recap, shall we? One, you lost your publisher money on Magdalene Crib. Two, you aren’t writing anything else that anyone’s going to want to buy or read. Three, you’re an American, but anglicized American. That’s a plus, because sales over the pond are going to be huge. Jane is even bigger over there than she is here. Four, you have a name as a literary author.”
She let her fingers go, flexing them in front of her as though she were about to grasp Georgina round the throat. The voice changed from sharp to menacing purr. “You need money and work to stay in the UK, right?”
Georgina wished that she’d never let on to Livia how much she wanted to stay on in England. She had, and she would bet Livia knew exactly how difficult it was to get the right to stay permanently. “I have my university fellowship.”
“You’ve only got a few months left at the university and when that’s finished, you won’t be able to get another job in the UK, not without a permit. Writing’s all you’ll be allowed to do, and you have to have money in the bank to support yourself while you do it. Write this novel and it wipes out the loss, you get big bucks, Dan Vesey gets big bucks, I get fifteen percent of big bucks, you get to stay in England, we’re all happy. Turn it down, you’re on your way back across the Atlantic, with nothing to show for your time here but a heap of faded cuttings.”
Georgina tried to keep her voice low and reasonable. Livia was in la-la land, but with the right approach, she must be able to make her agent understand how impossible it was. “You don’t understand, I’m not being wilful nor ungrateful. It’s can’t, not won’t. I’m not capable of writing a book like Jane Austen. Oh, there are just so many reasons why I’m not the right person for this,” she finished, knowing how weak it sounded, but determined not to reveal exactly why Livia and Dan had chosen the wrong writer to do the job.
“Don’t give me that crap. I’m the one who says what you can and can’t write. You wrote one book in fancy language, you can do another. You didn’t get sales, but you got the crits. The literati like you. You won that prize and got coverage for your book, got your face and name out there. Radio, late-night TV, Edinburgh Festival, weekend supplements, that kind of thing. That gives you the credibility Dan Vesey’s looking for.”
“It’s huge, you say it yourself. Get a big name, any one of a dozen top writers would snap your hand off for this.”
“Yes, and are they my clients? No, they are not. I’ve been through my entire list, don’t think I only considered you, and none of them fits the bill the way you do. Now, I’ve got a twelve o’clock. Tish will give you the paperwork on your way out. A transcription of the pages, complete with all the interpolations and cancellations, plus background stuff. It’s been authenticated by Dan’s sister, she’s an academic at Oxford and has all the right contacts. All in the family, and that’s how we want to keep it.”
“No,” Georgina said.
“I’ll give you, from the kindness of my heart, exactly one hour to come to your senses and get back to me with an answer, and that answer will be yes. Got that?”
© 2010 AEB Ltd.