Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare (short fiction)

Another piece of short(ish) fiction; a little bit different this time!  I hope you enjoy it...

“Thank you very much, Dr Welling, that was a fascinating – a fascinating and original – talk on the way in which Jane Austen uses middle-child syndrome in her novels, letters, and, of course, her juvenilia. I’m sure that there will be lots of questions, but we’ll wait until all three panellists have spoken.” The chair glanced quickly at her watch, but needn’t have been so surreptitious; every member of the audience was performing the same action. “Now please join me in welcoming Dr Tove Sivertsen, from the University of Oslo, who will be speaking to us on Jane Austen and William Shakespeare.”

Applause was desultory, and ceased before Dr Sivertsen had made her way to the podium. She was a short woman with tiny glasses and messy white hair. Her head and neck were visible to the audience of tired academics, but no more; she reached a diminutive hand to pull the microphone down an inch, and neatened the edges of the papers in front of her.

“I take as my first premise,” she said, in a heavily-accented voice, “that Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare. If we –”

“I beg your pardon,” said the chair, aware of the sudden attentiveness in the room. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Dr Sivertsen, but could you repeat your opening sentence?”

“Certainly, certainly,” said Dr Sivertsen nervously. “I said, ‘Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare.’”

There was a fraught pause.

“I’m sorry,” said the chair again, “are you really suggesting that Jane Austen wrote the plays which are commonly attributed to William Shakespeare?”

Dr Sivertsen’s tiny eyes grew anxious, and it was in a whisper that she replied that yes, indeed she was.

A German gentleman in the front row stood up. “That is ridiculous!” he cried, and, after a moment, added: “Ridiculous!”

“If we look at the evidence – ” began Dr Sivertsen.

“There is none! There couldn’t be! The idea is preposterous!”

“Perhaps we could – ”

“Ridiculous!”

There was an awkward silence. The chair felt that order ought somehow to be restored, but before she could interject, Annette Steinberg had risen to her feet. This was enough to make other attendees roll their eyes at the best of times; Annette was renowned for her love of conspiracy theories, and belief that neither Austen nor her works were quite all they seemed. Her belief was constant, though its manifestations were subject to much variation.

“My colleague raises an interesting angle,” she began, “And one I am inclined to take seriously – ”

“Oh, shut up Annette!” cried somebody from the back of the room, which was met with rather more applause than Dr Sivertsen had been given.

“A cursory glance at the dates in question – ” one man was asserting, while another loudly and determinedly listed all the arguments in favour of an anti-Stratfordian perspective. Annette, accustomed to being interrupted, boldly continued to support (the now silent) Dr Sivertsen:

“ – and, if we recognise the possibility of the falsification or disposal of documents – which, given Cassandra Austen’s acts in the 1840s, ought to – ”

Suddenly everybody in the room seemed to be speaking at once, except Dr Siversten, and many were shouting as loudly as they could. Though nobody in the room had initially taken the suggestion seriously, the question of the Austenian authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (“the Bard of Chawton!” cried one particularly enthusiastic junior research fellow) drove the room into a frenzy. Unwillingness to consider the theory was seen by some as symptomatic of the arrogantly conservative old school of Austen critics, while a willingness to consider it was seen by others as symptomatic simply of insanity – or, worse, poor scholarship.

It wasn’t clear who threw the first chair; in any case, it missed its target. As did the second. Whoever threw the third – witnesses have suggested it was, ironically, the chair of the panel herself – had a truer aim, and broke the nose of Adrian Bridgeton, a second-year PhD student who had only attended the conference to avoid embarking on his next chapter. After that, more chairs seemed to be in the air than on the ground. Papers flew in every direction, and several people are believed to have hurled copies of Mansfield Park at the professor who had, the day before, given a talk about slavery in that novel that had exceeded the twenty minute time allowance by over quarter of an hour. Those who loved Persuasion attacked those who preferred Northanger Abbey; two academics who had edited Pride and Prejudice for rival publishing houses dropped the silence of a decade, and replaced it with voluble insults. A gentleman who had travelled from New Zealand to present a paper on the influence of Frances Burney found himself being pushed through an open window, though thankfully the panel had been held on the ground floor.

At some point in the furore, security guards guided Dr Tove Sivertsen out of the room and through a fire exit. In one hand she clutched her lecture papers; in the other, her briefcase. Few people noticed her bewildered face as she left the building.

Although the first to be escorted from the room, she was not the last. Paramedics arrived at 2pm to remove a man who had been knocked unconscious when asserting that the dedication in Emma was a forgery, while police, uncertain whom to arrest, started with the tall Parisian academic who had greeted their arrival by toppling the podium onto a colleague from Nice. Shortly after 2.30pm, somebody in maintenance had the idea of turning on the sprinkler system. By 3pm, every speaker and delegate – sopping wet – had been taken either to the hospital or the police station, and all conferences had been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Quietly, on a bench some distance from the conference centre, Dr Tove Sivertsen was examining her Norwegian/English dictionary, and tutting gently to herself. How frustrating, and how careless. Once again, she realised, shaking her head, she had confused the English words ‘wrote’ and ‘read’.

48 comments:

  1. Simon!!! This is brilliant! I was crying due to laughing so hard. And you are a master of last sentences. Really, wonderful job!

    Also, this was especially a joy for me as my thesis for undergrad was on the critical history of comparisons of Austen to Shakespeare and how her work reflects his influence.

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    1. Thanks so much, Samara, and for your really lovely blog post about me - I felt so honoured! And what a fascinating thesis that sounds - I wish I'd looked at that as an undergrad.

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  2. :) excellent - you've cheered up my afternoon with that.

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  3. That's just wonderful Simon - grinning from ear to ear! Keep up the shorter fiction, please - you really have a knack for it!! :)

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    1. That's a lovely comment, thank you Karen! I was so nervous when I first posted fiction on here, but I will definitely keep doing so after the great response I've had for my excursions into fiction, particularly this one (which I was most pleased with.)

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  4. Tee hee! Love that sting in the tail. Calvin Trillin meets Roald Dahl ?

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    1. Both great names to be compared to! I hadn't thought about the Trillin connection, but I can definitely see it.

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  5. De-lurking to comment: that was hilarious!

    -- Shari R

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    1. Thanks so much, Shari! Always lovely when readers de-lurk :)

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  6. Absolutely hilarious - great fun!

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  7. Absolutely wonderful, I loved it!

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  8. Good work, Simon. I have often struggled with short stories because I get to the end and wonder what the point was; not so here. The journey is an enjoyable one and at the destination is a literary punchline to round it off rather than leave things hanging. I think you should get a collection of these stories together and publish it as an e-book, even though like you I don't have an e-reader. Incidentally, shouldn't "police", in the context it is used in the penultimate paragraph, have a capital "P"?

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    1. Thanks so much, David, that's a lovely idea - maybe once I've got a proper number written, I'll consider the e-book route. My answer to 'police/Police' is that I have no idea, I'm afraid!

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  9. Good God, Simon!!!! I knew you were a clever lad, but I didn't know you were a Sakian Genius! This is a fiendishly clever and hilarious story that deserves universal anthologization. Some of the academic kerfuffle does sound like it came from the desk of a man who in a state of post-Ph.D completion mad euphoria, but it is none the less devastatingly witty for that (perhaps more). Here I thought you were going to spend your life laboring in the academic bookfields, and you turn out to be an original writing genius "in your own write," as John Lennon would say. This is absolutely terrific, and deserves to be published somewhere highly prestigious...let's think where...

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    1. Oh, Diana, one of the very nicest comments I have ever received! Thank you so much :) As for publication - gosh, I don't know where to start, but if you have any ideas, do let me know!

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  10. Oh dear, Blogger ate my comment, which was laced, larded and loaded with the most fulsome compliments you have ever seen in your LIFE, Simon! I called you a genius SEVERAL times! Seriously I did, and having to write this all over again is excruciating - it's like the bit in Emma ("And Emma had the advantage of hearing her own silly compliment repeated twice over before the good old lady could comprehend it"). To the best of my recollection, I basically said that your story was a masterpiece of Sakian genius, and that I was positively jealous of your cleverness, wit, and hilarity! Also something to the effect that the story ought to be circulated first throughout the Austenite world (I'll help with that), and then universally, meaning throughout the universe. A nice discovery, that a friend is brillianter than you thought (too often it's the other way round)! I hardly know what I say, but believe me there is admiration in every line. xx Diana Birchall, hoping the Anonymous selection gets through to you...

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    1. And thank you so much for circulating through the Austenites etc.!

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  11. Thanks Simon. Very amusing and I laughed out loud at the end.

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    1. Lovely, Ruthiella :D I started from the idea that somebody would announce it and a riot would ensue - and then it struck me how fun it would be if somebody caused the riot *accidentally*...

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  12. I loved this Simon, it was hilarious.

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    1. Thank you :) I'm guessing from your name that you have some experience of conferences...

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  14. Simon, Hilarious!! And only by scant millimeters an extension of reality.
    Elissa

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  15. A real authenticity in your detail, the result of shrewd observation of many literary conferences? Most enjoyable indeed
    Martina

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    1. Thank you Martina! I have been to a fair few literary conferences, although I have to say that 20th-century middlebrow conferences are very friendly affairs - no seething resentment that I've noticed - but I thought it would be fun to play on the stereotype ;)

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  16. Very enjoyable and so true.

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  17. Simon, it's Thanksgiving week here in the States and I will toast you as someone for whom I am thankful. Enjoyed your story throughout and laughed aloud at the unexpected ending.

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  18. Amazing, Simon! Loved it - especially the ending. Perfect!

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    1. Thanks so much, Rachel :) I have to admit I was rather pleased when the ending came to me.

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  19. Never would have guessed the ending. This needs to be turned into a youtube video.
    -Modern Austen
    http://modernaustenblog.com

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    1. Thank you! I'm not sure how I'd go about doing that, but thanks for the idea!

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  20. Oh, how this made me laugh! And I loved the ending - it sneaked right up out of the blue. Keep writing Simon.

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    1. Thank you so much Christine! I'm hoping more ideas come to me :)

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  21. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

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  22. Wonderful! The ending made me laugh out loud :)

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