Believe me, being famous is not everything it is made out to be. No, I am not the famous personage in question. It was my late wife. But I received an insight into the downside of renown by observing my cherished spouse. I live in fear that the media will discover me to be the other half of a deceased notable person, and I shall be hounded for interviews.
I'm telling this story so you will learn the truth of the matter, but I prefer to keep my own space if you don't mind. I have nothing more to add than the following facts in these pages.
My wife and I decided that we would wed in secret, and a secret it remained. Her parents and siblings did not approve of the marriage. Even today, people do not realize that my deceased wife was not in fact a perpetual spinster. We never had children, but I suppose through some convoluted logic one could construe that her extraordinary novels were our children. After all, I had a considerable hand in their creation.
Once, when my wife went to visit her brother at Goodnestone near Sandwich in Kent, I began a new novel for her. She always had the utmost difficulty in starting a new work. I scribbled for her the opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." When Jane arrived home she crossed out my opening sentence. She replaced it with, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." But I insisted on the original, and, as always, Jane accepted my better judgement.
The same went for the title of this particular novel. She wanted to call it First Impressions, but my suggestion prevailed.
I see you stare in disbelief. These days people believe what they like, and seem to be so entrenched in their pride and prejudice, that they can't open their minds enough to accept the genuine, hitherto unrevealed, facts. How the misinformation of the past gets set in concrete!
Jane's sister, Cassandra, burned most of their correspondence when Jane passed away. At first I was furious. Jane's letters to her sister would have been such a helpful resource to academics. Now I realize that had such documents survived then the world would know about our surreptitious nuptials. In the long run it was O felix culpa all over again.Those of you who are ignorant won't have a clue what I am talking about. Let me spell it out: I was the husband of the famous English novelist, Jane Austen. Perhaps you are none the wiser. No matter.
Here exactly is what happened: on the very visit Jane made to her brother at Goodnestone near Sandwich in Kent, she was poisoned. It was a slow poison. We had no idea at the time. But after she returned home, she had not finished even the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice when she succumbed, by death, to the foul deed. I was left to finish the novel on my own, and all her subsequent novels. A number of her works I never got around to completing.
Why was she poisoned? It has taken a few years, but I believe I have got to the bottom of the mystery. There was a visiting clairvoyant at Goodnestone. They have beautiful gardens there. Jane's brother did not own the Manor in the gardens but was employed by its Lord and Lady. When Jane visited her brother, the clairvoyant announced to the Lady of the Estate: "You do realize, My Lady, that there is currently visiting your home a woman who will become one of the most famous people in the history of England?" "A middle class hardly-more-that-a-peasant person?" queried the astounded Lady.
"It seems so," said the clairvoyant.
"Jane Austen!" exclaimed the Lady. "The one they call Aunt Jane?"
"The very one," said the clairvoyant.
To cut a long and fairly complex story short, the green-eyed monster consumed the Lady of the Manor. It resulted in the poisoning of my dear wife, and thus it was that I in effect became Jane.
No doubt you're wondering what her married name was. It was Twigg. Mrs Salathiel Twigg.
Grieved by her death, and exhausted by novel writing, I sailed to America to start a new life. I can promise you that there will not be another novel come into being from the pseudo-pen of Jane Austen. I have long laid her dear ironic soul to rest. As fate would have it, I remarried, again in secret, and my second wife, Louisa May, also wrote books. Although I must confess, yes, once again, that Little Women came from my quill. She herself wrote Little Men and the other lesser-known fripperies, which I consider to be vastly inferior. I ran out of time to improve upon them. We lived in a small New England hamlet called Concord. I did not think a great deal of the neighbors. I must admit that there is a tiny bridge there, and I once fired a gun at a raccoon on the other side of it. It has been described as the first shot fired in the American War of Independence. I have my doubts. Or was that the Civil War? American history seems to blur itself into a single never-ending battle. Conflict, I am told, is a founding myth (in the sociological sense). One has to get both the morning paper and the evening paper just to keep up.
To be honest, I didn't much have a liking for Louisa's style (and her sister's daughter, Lulu, whom she reared, was a frightful brat). While at Concord, I advised a local man called Hawthorne about a novel and a couple of his short stories, and also there was a man on the other side of the lake called Thoreau who had writer's block and frequently asked for fresh ideas. While living at Concord I penned my first piano sonata (with the working title of Concord Sonata) but unfortunately the manuscript was mislaid. If it's ever found, I've simply got to have it back to correct a few notes.
If you want to know what Louisa May Alcott's married name was, it was Twigg. Mrs Salathiel Twigg.
I had given up writing until now to be perfectly frank. Producing classics for two women had milked my mind dry. It's only recently that I have taken up writing again. In fact, you might be astonished to discover that you are reading what I am currently creating!
For a change, I took up painting after the death of my second wife. It all began when I entered into a deep personal friendship with an initially second-rate artist called John Constable. Some of you may have seen his paintings. This I doubt however. You have not seen a John Constable; you have seen a Salathiel Twigg. I forgot to mention that I had moved back to England prior to meeting Constable. At least for a time. My camaraderie with Constable collapsed. We had a deep-personal-friendship spat. I was creating paintings of some wild sky at the time and he chucked the paintbrushes and paint at me. Such an emotional man! The French don't like to admit it, but the result preceded the Impressionist Movement by a few years. In fact, the wild sky, at least if one stood back a little, appeared to all intents and purposes like a pond of water lilies.
Well, enough about myself! This history is meant to be about my wife, Mrs Salathiel Twigg. Not the Mrs Salathiel Twiggs (I include Constable in that collection) you have just read about. It's about my present wife. My current wife. My new wife.
I present to you Mrs Salathiel Twigg! She's a novelist. Of sorts. She does her best.
The current Mrs Salathiel Twigg was (illegitimately) born to an Irish mother and a Norwegian father, and hence was inflicted with a compromised classification: Bridget Ascrida O'Malley-Rognvaldsdatter. She is known as Molly (after the O'Malley bit), although I call he Wugzie. It's a pet name, and not something her adoring public would know or presumably want to hear about.
Let me say from the outset that this is not intended to be a biography of her in the normal sense of the word. It is more a deep analytical investigation into her psychological aspect. It may help illuminate the more profound aspects of her novels.
Of course, she doesn't publish under her own name: neither Bridget Ascrida O'Malley-Rognvaldsdatter, nor Mrs Salathiel Twigg, nor Bridie Twigg, nor Molly, nor even Wugzie. She uses a penname, which I think is only honest given the fact that substantial portions of her more weighty passages are contributed by (I'm not by nature a show-off but) surely-you-must-know-by-now who. You'll probably find out later, or work out later for yourself, her penname, but for the moment I don't want to compromise her anonymity. What the heck! Her penname is Esther Onion. Now you know, given her fame, why I was reluctant to tell! And I hope that Mugzie does not bear a grudge for my having revealed, to her adulating fans, her true identity.
There will be one or two of you who may not have read an Esther Onion work. A familiarity with her output is crucial to an understanding of what I'm about to narrate. So, if you'll bear with me, I'm going to outlay several substantial portions of her creativity before proceeding further with my own more logical plot. If you've already read these passages in one of her many classics then you can skip a few of the following pages, and take up once we get to the meatier portions.
O the running of the nightmare, night after night! Should one perhaps say the RE-running? Thomasine Smith lay awake on her bed, sweating like a pig. It was a nightly occurrence. Such a nightmare! It was frightful! It was fearsome! It made ones hairs stand on end and perspire like a herd of hogs.
To fill her mind with other more pleasant thoughts, she grabbed the novel on her bedside table and began to read. It was a wildly popular classic by Mrs Salathiel Twigg. The authoress was a favorite of Thomasine Smith. This was a novel recently out in paperback, and yet, already a wildly popular classic:
Believe me, being famous is not everything it's made out to be. No, I am not the famous personage in question. It was my late wife. But I received an insight into the downside of renown by observing my cherished spouse. I live in fear that the media will discover me to be the other half of a deceased notable person, and I shall be hounded for interviews...
Thomasine began to doze. Perhaps this time she would have pleasant dreams.
And indeed it was a pleasant dream. There is nothing more boring (other than other peoples family trees) than the dreams of other people, so I won't tire you. Suffice to say that had the events of the dream occurred in real life, Thomasine Smith would have achieved notoriety.
If I may briefly interrupt the narrative here for a moment and, in the manner of Victor Hugo, insert a probably lengthy diversion of apparent little consequence.
The bed upon which Thomasine Smith lay was a four-poster with intricate carved twisting grotesque animals scrambling up the columns, with the occasional tortured ivy leaf giving some semblance of realism to the otherwise highly unlikely proposition of having (apart from a squirrel) a tortoise, a dodo, a hare and a piglet climbing a pole. It was not unlikely that falling asleep gazing at such a vision would have given rise to the daily (one really means nightly) nightmares that inflicted themselves upon Thomasine Smith, although she is quite fictional, an invention of Mrs Salathiel Twigg, and one step yet further back, an invention of Esther Onion.
Thomasine Smith's bed is of particular importance because she did more than sleep there, and the results of her non-sleeping time are not unlikely to play a significant role in the pages following on from what you read relatively recently about the unpleasant and pleasant dreams of Thomasine Smith.
Thomasine had fourteen children. Now you know why she was described as sweating like a pig. There were no less than four sets of twins among the fourteen. It had been a prolific output, and if she had lived under some dictatorial regime she would undoubtedly have been given a congratulatory medal. The names of her children (not all of whom survived) were: Joan, Thomas, Frederick, Ellen, David, Elizabeth, Simon, Ann (called Nancy for short), William, Margery, Barbara, Bernard, Jane and Nathaniel. It is noteworthy that there was not a John among them, given the irresponsible commonality of that name at the time. You will have considerable trouble no doubt remembering these names. It is all a bit much to handle at once. The twins were, Tom and Fred, Dave and Betty, Ann (called Nancy for short) and Bill, and Barbs and Barney. The ones that died, either at birth or a little later, were: goodness, I am not going to name them. You may not remember the names any way. Suffice to say that the one you should remember is Simon, and he is about to achieve remarkable significance in the ensuing pages. Simon was known affectionately as Slad. His last name was not Smith. His family name was Twigg. His mother, Thomasine Smith, went under her maiden name. Her married name was Mrs Salathiel Twigg. Her progeny were Twiggs. Slad was an affectionate short form of Salathiel. Simon was called Simon so as not to confuse him with his father, Salathiel. But really, his real name was Salathiel Twigg. As you can see, all is a lot clearer if we just call him Simon.
If you have ploughed your way through Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings you will know that Slad Twigg was very like Tom Bombadillo. At least to look at.
Slad was seventeen. It would be a lie to say he'd never been kissed. He had been kissed often enough, but the reality was that he had kissed a lot more than he had been kissed. Kissing is not necessary a two-way activity. To clarify; he was more often subject than object.
When he was sixteen and younger he had pimples. They were disgusting. Now that he was seventeen, they had cleared up a bit, so you can keep reading and imagining his physiognomy without being too repulsed. And he used to squeeze them.
Anyway, this chapter is not about Slad's acne. It's about his penis.
It's not a particularly long chapter. Nor has it been cut.
Slad was obsessed with his penis. He played with it constantly. It was like having a morsel of pork stuck between his teeth and his tongue could not stop itself from poking at it. Well, Slad's penis was like that piece of pork. Except in this case it couldn't be removed by gauging it with a toothpick. Nor was it a morsel; at times it was almost an entire roast.
You might well wonder why these chapters are called the adventures of Slad Twigg if he only had sex with himself. Well, grow up. This is so typical. There are a lot of adventures in life without dragging sex into it. Slad's constant playing with his penis is about as much sex as you're going to get. It certainly was as much sex as Slad ever got.
Slad thought he smelled of sex. He thought everyone could smell it on him. He would have a shower and thought he still smelled of sex. He perfumed his body and clothes, and he thought he still smelled of sex. He could smell sex on himself ALL THE TIME. It seeped through his pores. He breathed it out. He was overcome with the stench of sex. He was so anxious about his sex-stench that he would break out into pimples and squeeze them and play with his penis.
So as you can see, alas poor Slad (I knew him well), he never had too much of an adventure in his life. Until one day...
You will have to read the rest of Esther Onion's breathtaking Featherstitch Baguettes yourself to find out what happens. Naturally I don't want to break copyright by quoting too extensively.
Just down the road is a sign that says STRAWBERRIES. It's been there for years. It's on the farm gate of the reclusive Salathiel Twigg. Anyone with such a name can be excused for being antisocial.
He's not a rude person. In fact, he's quite affable. It's just that he's never seen in public, and visitors up his driveway occur once in a blue moon. The last person known to call was a passing motorist who mistook the sign to mean that strawberries were for sale. But of course STRAWBERRIES is the name he gives his little farm. The passing motorist wasn't given the short shrift at all. In fact, the two chatted amicably for a good half hour. But generally (yes) Salathiel Twigg prefers his own company, and all the neighbors are happy enough to oblige. It's a pleasant farming community.
Salathiel Twigg's age is timeless. I can remember him being old when I was small. That was a long time ago. My parents referred to him as ‘Old Slad' even way back then. My mother and father have passed on now, but Old Slad keeps on going.
His name is not in the telephone book (although there is a Simon Twigg listed). People are not sure if he's got the phone connected or not. And there doesn't appear to be any aerials, or cables running into the house. Except for the electricity wires. I did notice however, that recently (say in the last ten years) he's been getting the Sunday paper delivered.
I can't see his gate from my living room window. There's a little curve in the country road. But if I rush out to gather my mail immediately upon its arrival, I can look down to see if Slad Twigg is getting any letters from the postman. For a loner, he seems to get quite a lot of correspondence. I have never once seen him pick up his mail. I sometimes wonder if he doesn't sneak down to his gate to gather it in the middle of the night. Of course, when it's dark I can't watch to find out, and it would be rude to shine a light down in that direction.
The little country road that runs passed my gate is very pretty, and quite lonely. In the long summers, which we always seem to have, there's tall dry grass on either side. It gets quite dusty sometimes, which is probably why most of the spasmodically scattered farmhouses are set back quite a distance from the road. The gate to STRAWBERRIES is quite a picture. There's no gate there of course. It's only a gateWAY, but on either side are wooden fences that are usually ablaze with blooming wild briar roses. And all the way down Slad's long driveway are grand silver fir trees leading to his verandah steps. (I do this from memory, as it's almost impossible to see much of the house from the road). It was quite a gracious house in its heyday. Slad keeps things tidy (from what I can tell from his gate), but the place was so much lovelier when Mrs Salathiel Twigg was alive. She had green fingers if anyone ever had. The place was a veritable botanical garden.
Mrs Salathiel Twigg's name was Dot, although I presume it was short for Dorothy. I called her Mrs Twigg when I was little, but in fact her name was Dot Smith. Don't get me wrong; they were married. We don't have that sort of unethical behavior on our little road. But I believe she was terribly modern for her day and kept her own family name. Given the fact that her name was Smith, I have no idea why she would not have desired to Twiggnify it. Dot Smith was a great friend of my mother. Which is why I know quite a bit about what happened down the road. It's years since Mrs Twigg died. Slad's been on his own since then. I used to live with them, you know, until she died. I was quite small when it happened. Then I came and lived with my mother and father in the house that I'm now in. My mother and father were not my real mother and father. Nor were Salathiel Twigg and Dot Smith my parents. It's all a little complicated, and what I know I heard from my mother. If I had the prodigious memory of the saint who refused to suckle milk from its mother's breast on Fridays and fast days, I'd be able to tell you exactly what happened first hand. But my recollection doesn't begin until I was about three, so you'll have to hear about the early events secondhand.
My word! I was about to tell you my name, and then I realized that you don't as yet even know if I'm male or female! I don't want to shock you by giving my name and having you say, "But I thought you were a girl!" or "But I thought you were a boy!"
The house where I live is on a couple of acres. My parents sold their farm off to the neighbors when they retired, keeping a substantial patch around the house. But the couple of acres keep me busy, and I'm now part retired myself. I worked in an office all my life (except for a stint in a war), and now I go in for work just for the two mornings a week. It's an interest. I'd saved enough for a comfortable retirement. Not having any family, and being by nature abstemious, a comfortable retirement was not a difficult goal to achieve. Besides, I inherited quite a bit here and there.
I still haven't told you my name. To be honest, I'm a little embarrassed about it. It's the family name of my first parents. Not my real parents, but my first parents. By "first parents" I mean my adopted parents, but they both died young before I had a memory. They lumbered me with their name before they departed. I then lived with Salathiel and Mrs Twigg (Dot Smith) until she died and then I came here and lived with the until-I-arrived childless couple whom I now refer to as "my parents". They were David and Irma Stephens.
People call me Phlip, although some spell it Flip, but really Phlip has a little more class. I need every ounce of class I can lay my hands on, because the family name is Bastard.
Phlip Bastard. Have your laugh. Fine. Now we can get on with it. We have the name we have. But if you want to have a laugh at my name, that's great. Ha! Ha! Ha! My adopted parents (the originals) were Bart and Bronwyn Bastard.
I said it was all going to be a little complicated, and now you can see it is. So let me draw a time line:
Natural parents (I never met them): Unknown
First Adopted parents: Bart and Bronwyn Bastard
Temporary Guardians: Salathiel Twigg and Dot Smith (married)
Final lot of parents: David and Irma Stephens
Okay, okay. Phlip is short for Philippa. My family name was a very good reason to get married, but the right man simply never came along. My middle name is Bronwyn. I never use it. I'm sixty-one. My hair is white. I'm of average height. I'm fit as a fiddle. Apart from having only one leg.
You might wonder why I have so little to do with Salathiel Twigg these days? Given that he was my guardian until Dot died. Well, you can wonder all you like because we're not up to that part yet in the narrative. I'm not even born in the story, although take this sentence as my birth. Sixty-one years ago I was born. I don't know who my mother was. And nor do I know the name of her impregnator. I have very little interest in finding out; so don't rush into research thinking you're doing me a favour.
Bart and Bronwyn Bastard immediately adopted me. They lived in Leicester. If you don't know where Leicester is then get out a map. If there's more than one, take your pick. I believe that environment has very little to do with who we become. And I don't care if you agree with me or not.
People don't like me much, and I can tell already that you don't like me much either. You can put the book down if you want; no one is holding a gun to your head. But if you put the book away I promise you you're going to miss out on hearing of something quite extraordinary.
I don't write for entertainment; I write for truth. Truth is very unfashionable these days. If you want entertainment, go to the movies or watch the news on television. If you want riveting facts, keep on reading.
I lost a leg in a war. Those who say they'd give an arm and a leg for something don't know sweet all. It's no fun. Nor was the war. It was an unnecessary war. Most are. The war to which I was sent was a contrivance of a particular administration that wept crocodile tears over thousands of bodies. I dare say not a drop was shed over my missing appendage.
A military superior shot me in the leg on purpose. He laughed and said, "Try convincing a judge I did that". There's no use trying. I will admit, I had been belligerent, but unfortunately shooting a leg roots not belligerence out. Belligerence resides not in a limb, Sugarplum. Belligerence is like insubordination. They both have an evil reputation and are practically unspellable.
Bart and Bronwyn Bastard died in a car accident when I was two. I have absolutely no memory of them. Not a jot.
After that, Dot Smith looked after me. And here begins the really interesting part of the story.
Enough of all these extracts from Esther Onion's momentous works! But I think it was necessary so that you might have a clearer idea of things. (Here also ends the digression a la Victor Hugo. Actually I could be wrong there. I'm not sure where it ended).
Old Slad's late wife, Dot Smith, was a writer. Her most famous story was called Salathiel Twigg, His Galliard. She was very intellectual. Now you know why my marriages were a secret. Now you know why Bridget Ascrida O'Malley-Rognvaldsdatter wrote under the penname of Esther Onion, and before that under the pseudonym of Jane Austen, and later under the nom de plume of Louisa May Alcott. Now you know why Esther Onion painted under the alias of John Constable. Now you know why everything in Esther Onion's prolific output in fact came from the hand of Salathiel Twigg. It would've confused the hell out of everyone if it had been any other way. Now you know why I live in constant fear of the media.
(How beautiful is this Galliard! A perfect Charles Ives!)
So to the cadence: nitty-gritty.