In which we sit down to tea with the Queen of English Literature and chat about the nature of time, Regency cads and night-outs in the twenty first century
One damp, foggy Saturday morning, as I wended my way through the narrow, cobbled lanes of Galata in Istanbul, I encountered a vivid apparition of a distinguished looking English ghost. Upon closer inspection, however, the apparent hallucination turned out to be very real and palpably alive: seated jauntily at one of the atmospheric street side cafés, was a slender, self-contained young woman dressed in full Georgian regalia: watery-grey silk gown, gloves, trailing cloak, and stray curls fashionably peeping from under a real bonnet. Oddly, she did not seem out of place as she busily watched the goings-on around her with the alacrity of a sharp, determined bird, and scribbled furiously in a notebook – with a quill. I practically begged a waiter to introduce me to this most strange and singular creature. “Oh sure, that’s Jane Austen,” he said with a shrug. His abject indifference told me that he thought of her as some weirdo who frequented the café impersonating a dead author – in full fancy dress. But instinct told me that she was the real thing. I dashed off a note on the back of a paper napkin in my best Regency-Era English, seeking an audience with the Queen of English Literature herself. She responded warmly, asking me “to take tea” with her. Here is a faithful account of the astonishing meeting, as it happened:
I sit down at the table nervously, and introduce myself as a great fan who has not only read, but also watched every BBC and Hollywood adaptation of her novels. Expecting to settle into a cosy tea party for two, I attempt to serve a pot of Earl of Grey tea as elegantly and ceremoniously as possible. But Jane, who seems as skittish as a wombat, and a little bossy, isn’t impressed with my kettle-handling skills. “Hurry up and bitch the pot*, won’t you?” she orders, nearly sending the tea (and my suddenly and inexplicably sensitive nerves) clattering off the table. “Oh dear, I have dashed all your grand notions about Jane Austen with my boorish, simian conduct, haven’t I? Please forgive me, ceremony, poise and etiquette are of unimpeachable importance to me in eighteenth century Hampshire, but these time travelling voyages turn me into a foul-mouthed gobaloon.”
As we drink our tea, there seems to be a discernible shift in her demeanor – Jane goes from shrill to spacey – jittery wombat to still Galapagos turtle. Thankfully, she also stops swearing like a Victorian tramp from a Dickens novel and instead begins to weave a fantastical tale about time travel. Apparently, the warps, wefts and ripples introduced into the atmosphere by the Large Hadron Collider open up a fortnightly portal in the fireplace of her 18th century drawing room leading up to the back of this Istanbul café, whereby she is able to “merrily and wantonly traipse back and forth”, through time.
“To be sure, time travel is a profoundly pleasurable proposition, but it is not all beer and skittles. The Large Hadron Collider behaves in a most nefarious and unbecoming fashion on occasion. Especially on weekends. It could, say, dispatch you, without warning, to the completely wrong era, only to be chased around in your best gown through a dreadfully dense jungle by a herd of savages of unknown foreign extraction who are quite convinced you are some variety of rooster.”
The memory is clearly a distressing one and Jane takes a large gulp of tea and mumbles to herself: “Don’t get your drawers in a twist, Jane. Think of delightful, familiar things about home – verdant meadows, cosy cottages, grand country estates, dainty cups of afternoon tea…hmm… vile calf’s foot jelly, infernal trips to Bath, disagreeable balls and interminable, wretched, rainy afternoons with absolutely nothing to do.”
By now, I have a new-found awe for this anthropologically intrepid adventuress, this daring explorer of the unknown. However, the woman sitting next to me is still absorbed in her Earl of Grey-induced haze, and has presently moved onto meditating on the nature of time. “Time is like an elastic waistband; it shrinks and grows according to the girth of one’s thoughts and fancies. It has no substance, no form, in and of itself,” she spouts, like a woman possessed. I let this pass as the ramblings of a jetlagged time-travelling mind, and not something the Female Bard would say. To be fair, she is after all a novelist, and hardly an expert on general relativity. “Good heavens, I am beginning to speak in the likeness of one of the Bronte’s with all their insensible Gothic ravings. Or worse, Shakespeare after he has partaken of a joint,” she cringes, turning a dark shade of beet.
Feeling sorry for this Georgian Era misfit, I determine to ask her questions more worthy of her keen intellect – like what she thinks of the 21st century. “Ah, curious new world! It is indeed a marvelous spectacle to behold. Although, I must confess that it does not quite match my own ruminations on the matter: the future eras of my imagination have splendid gowns and grand Regency balls, but with the added conveniences of personal flying machines, modern plumbing and the ability to manipulate minds.”
Having drawn me this bizarre image of an antiquated future, Jane pauses to order another pot of Earl Grey tea and a ham sandwich and tells me she is both sleep-deprived, ravenous (and I suspect, hungover) after having spent the better part of the previous night partying at a popular club in Istanbul. The conversation enlivens considerably after this unexpected admission, as the Empress of Etiquette proceeds to give me an elaborate account of her “debutante appearance”. “The evening was spirited, and not without its lively and lunatic charms, despite the abhorrent traffic. The dresses were threadbare and in grave defiance of the laws of matter and mass; conversation was minimal and verged on the imaginary, as nothing intelligible could be said above the wailing caterwaul of the music. The sole objective of the evening seemed to be to safely make one’s way to the bar through the waves of inebriated humanity without getting impaled by the treacherous, flagellating footwear that some of the ladies doddered on. Thankfully, for the men, the evening did not involve any waltz or polka.”
A little crestfallen that Jane Austen did not seem to have a good time on her rare night-out, I ask if there was anything about the evening that she did enjoy. “Why, of course, the most joyous event of the night was a wild, windswept ride in a sleek horseless carriage that brought me back to the café – clearly, the biggest triumph of the modern world is manure-less transport.”
On that proud note, I venture to get her views on a quintessentially Jane Austen matter — dating in the modern world. “The rituals of modern courtship are as mysterious and incomprehensible to me as the mating practices of squirrel monkeys of Suriname. Based on the accounts of some of the ladies in the powder room last night, most of the wooing took place in etheric realms that did not even have a physical basis in reality: Tinder, Happn and OK Cupid. In the corporeal world of the club, the mood was strangely gladiatorial. The women gathered in packs to weigh in on the merits of the eligible gentlemen whilst engaging in a peculiar ritual of snapping images of their persons on mysterious contraptions as they rearranged their faces in the manner of birds and common fowl – ducks, sparrows and geese. The eligible men in question, while eager to engage with the opposite sex, seemed an easily distractible lot and soon retired to the sidelines around a screen of disquietingly large proportions to witness some macabre sport in progress.”
But what of the modern man – is he too ungallant and mannerless for her liking? “Quite to the contrary, I would be grateful to be pursued by a gentleman caller from the 21st century, should he desire to walk with me, write to me or court me with other marvels of technology. Better than some 18th century toffs I know. Regency gentlemen — with the exception of the excellent and sullen Mr Darcy — can be wretched toads. They do not hesitate to rank women by the size of their fortunes whilst they — the unremarkable creatures — delight in wasting their days with foolish pastimes like hunting hares; which I find to be intolerably stupid. Almost as much as seaside bathing. The modern man is much less disposed to shoot helpless, furry animals for sport.”
As she recovers from her impassioned rant on Regency cads and our second pot of tea empties out, it seems inevitable that our extraordinary chat should draw to a close. As she readies to leave, I ask her if she would rather stick around in the present than go back to her Georgian life. “Oh goodness, no. I dearly miss the view from my Hampshire cottage, the verdure of the countryside, letter writing by candlelight, arguing over the demerits of marriages of convenience with my sister and calculating my annual income.”
Seeing that I am reluctant to let her go, Jane tells me that she would be happy to “take Oolong tea” with me if I am happen to come by on some other Saturday morning. With that charming invitation, the formidable writer disappears into the foggy Istanbul morning, her pale-grey frock trailing after her.
*a curious bit of Victorian slang
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are purely fictitious and are meant to cause no affront to any persons, authors and Regency gentlemen, dead or alive.