I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is a wonderful and original way to introduce younger generations to Jane Austen’s life and work.
Even more poignant perhaps is the fact that the foundations of this story are real.
- Waterstones's Books Quarterly review.
An Extract From ‘I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend’.
Jenny Cooper and her cousin, Jane Austen, are at a terrible boarding school at Southampton. The owner of the boarding school, Mrs Cawley, keeps the girls half-starved. They are taught very little and sleep in a freezing cold attic.
When Jane becomes very ill, Mrs Cawley refuses to send for her mother, so Jenny decides that, despite the dangers, she must steal out of the school at midnight and post a letter to Jane’s mother telling her how ill her daughter is.
Southampton at Midnight
Down the stairs . . .
Every stair creaks . . .
Every minute I think that I hear my name screamed by Mrs Cawley.
‘Miss Cooper!’ she will shriek at me. I stop and listen, but there is nothing to hear. My hands are damp and I am shaking. My bonnet strings come undone and the bonnet falls off my head and rolls down to the bottom of the stairs, only stopping when it reaches the front door. And it makes a sound that I feel could wake the house. I leave it on the floor as I struggle with the bolt. Eventually it slides back with a rusty screech.
The cold damp air of the street rushes in. I pick up my bonnet by its blue ribbon, but I dare not stop to put it on.
I close the door as carefully as I can and pray that no burglar tries the handle before I can get back, and then I am off running down the street, my bonnet swinging from one hand and my folded letter in the other.
Lights flash in my eyes: the watchman is ahead of me. I must not overtake him. He would want to know what I was doing out here on my own. I stop in a shadowed shop door and tie on my bonnet and then I go on, walking as fast as I can.
More lights now. Some runners with flaring torches, and four men carrying a lady in a sedan chair – through its window I can just see her powdered hair piled very high and the low-cut frilled neck of her yellow gown. The sedan is painted in very fine colours of black and gold, but the poles in the men’s hands are rough and look full of splinters. I shrink against a gateway with my back turned, and they pass me without breaking step.
I can hear their trotting footsteps grow quieter and quieter. And then a crowd of rough sailors laughing and shouting. Southampton is full of sailors. They’re the ones that brought this fever; the kitchen maid told me that. The men are on the other side of the road so I slip quietly behind a tree and stand there very still, my head down so that my bonnet hides my face.
I will just have to wait until they pass, and then I will turn left, go through two small lanes and then into Bargate. The post-inn is in Bargate. The mail coach will set out at midnight; I know that. I will be in plenty of time. I peep out to see whether the sailors have gone as I can’t hear their voices.
And then something dreadful happens. The sailors have not gone. They are all drinking from flagons. That’s why they’ve stopped talking. Another sedan passes and the torch held by one of the chairmen at the back casts a light over my face, making me blink. There is a shout, a sort of a cheer from across the road. ‘Look what I see!’ shouts one.
‘A little beauty,’ shouts another. He sounds quite drunk.
‘Come on, pretty girl. We’ll give you a good time.’ This sailor puts down his flagon and starts to cross the road. I shrink against the wall. My heart jumps and my mouth is dry. I open my mouth to shriek, but no sound comes out. I used to have nightmares like that sometimes, where I struggled to scream but could not. It’s a cold night, but I feel sweat run down between my shoulder blades.
And then there is a clatter of hoofs. An open-topped barouche comes swiftly down the road, drawn by a pair of grey horses. Two young men are in it. I think by their uniforms that they are naval officers. ‘Whoa,’ shouts one of them, and the horses stop with a skidding of hoofs and a squeal. For a moment I think that I am completely lost, that they will drag me into the barouche like what happened to Clarissa in the novel Jane lent to me. I will be ruined.
But they are not looking at me.
They are shouting angrily, but not at me. They are scolding the sailors for drinking in the street, for disgracing their uniform, and they are telling them to get back on board their ship.
Suddenly my courage comes back. My gown is well looped up over my petticoat, and my petticoat is quite short; it barely reaches my ankles. I start to run as fast as I can. The angry shouts ring out as I continue up the High Street, but it is still the young naval officers shouting at the drunken sailors. No one has seen me. And now I turn into the lane.
I had been afraid that it would be very dark, but there is an inn there, halfway up the lane, and the lights are on in every window. Even the door stands open and lets a pool of light come out on to the cobblestones. I tiptoe over their bumpy, uneven surface. I will be able to go quickly once I pass the inn, but I am scared of the rough voices that I hear from within.
There is a sudden silence from the inn. I’m afraid that someone has seen me and I step into a darkened doorway. I wish that my cloak were a dark colour, but it is a light blue, and my petticoat shows shockingly white below it. I reach inside and let my gown down to cover the petticoat, but the gown is also a pale blue; it will be easy to see against the darkness of the door. Then there are a few notes from a fiddle and someone starts to sing – a horrible, rude song, but I don’t care.
The man sings so loudly and the noise as the others join in is so deafening that it means that no one could possibly hear the sound of my footsteps. I move on as quickly as I can go, but I don’t run and I keep my face turned to the wall as I pass the inn.
Now I am at the top of the lane. There is a house there with a torch burning in the holder outside. All the windows are lit up. I can see an oil lamp burning in the parlour. The curtains
‘Captain Thomas Williams, at your service, Miss Cooper.’
are not closed so the light from the room spills out. I wait for a minute there. My heart is still thumping hard. I tell myself that I am just waiting for it to slow down, but I know that I am too scared to go on. There is a young lady sitting at the piano.
She turns her head and I can see that she is not much older than me. She looks about seventeen. She has lovely curling dark hair; some of it is piled up on top of her head, but other long curls hang down behind her neck and a few fringe her forehead. She is wearing a pale yellow gown and a string of pearls around her neck. Although the window is closed, I can hear the notes of the piano and the sound of a high, sweet voice singing a love song.
One more lane to go and then I will be in Bargate. In the distance I hear the watchman call out, ‘Half past the hour of eleven o’clock and all is well.’ Only half past eleven o’clock. That’s fine – still half an hour to go, and Bargate is not far now. I linger for a few minutes; somehow I feel safe there outside this well-lit house, but an elegant lady, her hair piled on top of her head and powdered in the old-fashioned way, comes to the window.
Her hand is on the cord of the window blind and for a moment her eyes meet mine. Hers are full of curiosity and mine are probably filled with panic. And so I turn away quickly and I go on. I go into the second lane. My eyes are getting used to the dim light and I don’t need to touch the wall. I am clenching my fists so tightly that my nails are digging into the palms of my hands. I know all the reasons why I should not be out here alone at night-time. This town is rougher than Bristol, and Mama would never dream of walking after dark in Bristol.
But I also know that I must send this letter to Mrs Austen – Jane’s life may depend on it – so I cannot give up. Now the street is less crowded. I am trying to see the post-inn. It should be near. I had passed it one day, but I cannot see it now. I am straining my eyes so much to see it that I almost don’t notice that a man with a sword is coming towards me. He’s looking all around him, and his hand is on the hilt.
He hasn’t seen me yet, but he will do in a minute. I stop. There is nowhere to hide. The man lifts the sword and shouts, ‘En garde!’ Then he screams something. For a moment I am frozen, just standing there, watching the light of the street torches flash on the steel of the naked blade. He draws back the sword and then makes a stabbing motion. The sword is very near to me. I can’t move. My mouth is dry and my legs have no strength in them. I feel paralysed. The man shouts again.
He is staring straight at me, but I know from the strange look in his eyes that he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t see a sixteen-year-old girl, small for her age; he is seeing some enemy. I don’t know the meaning of the words that he yells, but I know that I must get away quickly. Now the man points his sword at the ground and examines the blade carefully. He is talking to himself in an angry, loud voice. He lifts the sword again and it flashes in the torchlight. Suddenly the strength comes back to my legs.
I turn round very quickly and start to run in the opposite direction. The railings in front of the houses and the bright rectangles of window light blur in front of my eyes. My feet in their soft shoes patter on the cobblestones. My chest hurts. I can hardly draw a breath.
I turn back into the lane.
And I run straight into another man. ‘What’s the matter?’ he says, and he sounds quite alarmed. ‘Where are you off to, young lady?’ I stand very still. He has a tight hold on my arm and I don’t struggle. I just wait, my heart racing. I think about resisting so that he has to let go of my arm, but my legs are still so weak that I am quite glad to be held. And then the dangerous-looking man with the sword passes us, going straight along the well-lit street of Bargate.
His face is terribly scarred by a puckered line that runs down one cheek from eye to chin. He takes no notice of us; he is too busy looking over his shoulder and muttering loudly to himself. His eyes are strange. I can see them quite clearly in the light of the flaring pitch torch that has been stuck into the gateway of a house by the roadside.
‘Whew!’ whistles the man, letting go of my arm and giving a little bow. ‘That fellow looks dangerous.’ I look closely at him now and I’m not so scared of him. He is very tall and imposing, but quite young, and looks just like I imagine one of Jane’s brothers to look. He catches my eye and smiles, and his smile is so warm and his eyes so kind that I begin to feel less frightened. ‘You’re too young to be out alone in the streets of Southampton at this hour,’ he says. ‘How old are you? Fifteen? What’s your name?’
‘My name is Jenny Cooper and I’m sixteen,’ I say, and I try to sound annoyed and grown-up, but I can hear my voice shaking.
‘Captain Thomas Williams, at your service, Miss Cooper.’ He bows again and I manage to drop a curtsy. He is very handsome, with jet-black hair curling around his neck and very dark brown eyes. I would like to ask him how old he is, but I daren’t. He’s probably about the same age as Jane’s brother James.
It feels so strange, standing there in the street at night with a man that I haven’t even been introduced to, a man that I’ve never seen in my life, and another man, a madman, walking up the street waving his sword, that I start to giggle and then I think about poor Jane lying on the bed muttering, her face red with the fever, and I feel so bad about giggling when my best friend is so ill that I start to cry.
‘Are you running away?’ He gives me a worried smile, and for a moment looks as though he might move to comfort me, though he can’t, of course.
It would be most improper. But for some reason I feel that I can rely on him, and I begin to feel better. I shake my head. The watchman has got to the top of the High Street now. I see him turn round and start to march down towards us.
‘Take my arm, keep your head bowed so that your bonnet hides your face, and we’ll just stroll along. Try to stop crying, or else I’ll be in trouble with the watch.’
Captain Thomas Williams has tucked my hand through his arm and he starts to saunter up the High Street, stopping from time to time to look in the shop windows. He doesn’t say any more until after the watchman has gone to check on the locked gates of the Assembly Rooms and then he stops and faces me.
‘Seriously,’ he says, ‘I think you should go home. Running away isn’t a good idea. I’ll take you home now. Where do you live?’
‘I’m not running away!’ I nearly shout the words and then lower my voice in case the night watchman hears me.
‘So where are you off to, then?’ He’s smiling, but he looks a bit worried. I wonder if he’s sorry he met me. He probably doesn’t want the responsibility of deciding what to do with me.
‘I’m going to the post-inn. I want to send a letter.’
‘A love letter?’
‘No, to my aunt.’ I hold up the letter so that he can see the address and he looks surprised. ‘Wouldn’t the morning do?’
‘No,’ I say, and I tell him everything.
Text copyright Cora Harrison. Illustrations copyright Susan Hellard.