The Trial of Jane Austen
The raft, warm in the dying sun, swings to her anchor and lies at rest. I nudge my foot out to calm the shivering picnic basket. The first of our number has brought the gift of tea, the second whisky; with typically poor judgement, I arrived with a sponge-cake, and nobody has touched it but me.
A cruise-ship horn bellows, in the distance and the three of us, as if by unconscious agreement, stir ourselves up to observe the prisoner. She gazes back at us, without concern. Classy even now. There was a fourth of our company, who was willing to supply us with the boat, but refused to get involved any further. Perhaps he would have balked at the sight of her.
Twain is the first to speak. Clenching his pipe between his teeth, he reaches across to the neat pile of paperbacks stacked in the dead centre of the raft.
Sense and Sensibility, he says, bobbing it in his hand. He twists, without getting to his feet.
It skims once across the muddy waves, pages trailing, and sinks.
Pride and Prejudice.
He hurls it high in the air. It plummets and drowns.
A doomy splash. Brontë winces and perhaps Twain is not as tough as he imagined, because, a little paler with every throw, he tosses the final three out into the ocean in muttered succession.
Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Done.
There is a general sense of relief, as if an unpleasant but entirely necessary ritual has been dealt with. I cut myself another slice of cake, but feel too awkward to begin eating it.
Milady, Twain begins, moustache twitching in irritation, you stand trial on a number of very serious charges. He glances at me. I clear my throat and begin, nervously,
The charge of being over-loved and over-appreciated.
The charge of excessive lightness and excessive petty perfection.
The charge of Mills & Boon.
The charge of misleading women into the lie that self-absorbed, dislikeable men are romantically desirable. We have, in the vaults of history, a number of divorce proceedings and almost certainly one murder to place as evidence against you.
Brontë, who, I suspect, would like to do nothing so much to Fitzwilliam Darcy as chop off three of his fingers, gouge out his eyes, and set Pemberley on fire, shifts a little on the surface of the raft. Twain, puffing at his pipe, is gazing absent-mindedly out across the sea.
The charge of a nasal sense of humour.
How does the defendant plead? Twain asks. He nods his head in greeting to a seagull trailing overhead.
Brontë helps herself to some more tea. Then she relents.
Would you like some? she asks the prisoner, civilly.
As she’s pouring, Twain reaches across and adds a three-finger measure of Jack Daniels to the mixture. He glances up to see if the prisoner reacts. She doesn’t. She takes the cup but does not drink from it.
I clear my throat.
Perhaps, I begin, hesitant, we should start with the witnesses for the prosecution?
Twain, I know, would rather get on to the sentencing. An antique revolver lies, hidden, beneath the napkins in the picnic basket. He thinks I haven’t seen it. He raises himself to a crouch, and pours the whisky into each of our cups in turn.
More tea, he growls. Do the honours, boy.
I do as he says.
We drink. Austen has to be told twice- Drink! Drink!- by Twain, who’s no longer joking as he was when we first stepped off the pier and onto the raft, whispering into the sackcloth over her head,
The stick up my ass and the stone in my heart are going to break the bone in your head.
Night is coming over us, fast.
You know, says Twain, slurping at his enhanced tea, it’s your kind of writing- your classically formed, darkless, dangerless stories, pretty and perfect but so damn petty- that’s the worst kind of writing there is.
Except metafiction. That’s the worst of all.
We can all agree on that, at least.
I don’t think I’d hate you nearly so much, Brontë says, with a kind of sadness in her voice, if so many idiots didn’t think we were so much the same kind of thing.
They are watching me, I know, waiting for my accusation, though their eyes are no longer clearly visible in the shadows of the oncoming night.
Come on, boy, Twain says, impatient.
I just want…I begin, and hesitate.
I can only tell by the twitch of her lace-capped head in my direction that she’s listening to me.
I just want to see you dream of a monster, I tell her. Everyone else has a monster in their work, in some sense. I don’t know where yours is.
For a moment that makes me shudder, and I imagine that something huge and dark is drifting beneath the raft.
Austen doesn’t reply.
Enough, says Twain. He’s turning, almost unconsciously, the weight of his body towards the picnic basket. Enough. Where are the witnesses for the defence?
We’re in the middle of the ocean, Brontë replies, a Victorian silhouette. She sounds irritated, perhaps a little upset.
If she can’t produce witnesses, Twain snaps back, then we’ll pass straight to sentence.
His body is beginning to shake in the darkness. That movement is all I can make out of him any longer.
She might want to have something to say for herself, I tell him. Perhaps she wants to give a final speech.
A helicopter is chundering somewhere overhead. A blue light flashes in the distant sky, and disappears. An ugly snort. It takes me a moment to realize it comes from Twain.
They won’t find you, you know! His voice comes out of nowhere. They won’t find you! So you just give your final speech, missy! You just give it!
Blackness. The only dimension is the surface of the raft below us, lit up by the gentle pattering of the waves passing below. And then, a low, tortured scraping. Twain is drawing the picnic basket across to him with his foot.
Well? he snaps again. What do you have to say for yourself?
She doesn’t reply. I think she’s laughing at us.