My Mum, known here as Our Vicar’s Wife or OVW, but more commonly known as Anne Thomas, was one of the shortlisted winners of a Jane Austen short story competition, and now her story ‘The Power of Nurse Rooke’ can be found, starting on page 175, in the collection Beguiling Miss Bennet. So I’ve asked her to tell us all about it! Over to OVW…
Tuesday 22nd September saw OV driving me across southern England to Chawton, Hampshire, for the launch of the third Chawton House short story award’s anthology: Beguiling Miss Bennet, which comprised the 20 winning entries. The main remit for the competition was that stories must draw from the characters in Jane Austen’s works –both her well known completed novels and her other works – and that they could occupy any era, world or genre the writers wished.
You may imagine the delight with which, in 2014, OVW (me) rolled up her sleeves, sat down at her desk with paper and pencil, and screwed up her face in fierce concentration. What a challenge! What a delight! But, how to choose from the dozens of clamouring contenders?
My thoughts immediately went to P&P and S&S, but I reluctantly laid those ideas aside, for my namesake was calling me – Anne.
‘If one stays… I think it need be only one … if Anne will stay, no one so proper, so capable as Anne.’ Ah, Captain Wentworth, I was putty in your hands! Persuasion it must be – but whom? I could not choose the main characters – how could I do justice to them in ‘no more than 2,500 words’?
My imagination scanned the shoreline – no, not Lyme. I headed in my mind’s eye, to Bath – not to Pultney Street or Laura Place – no, I wandered down to Westgate Buildings and almost bumped into a busy little figure emerging from the shadows. Of course! Nurse Rooke!
The denouement of Persuasion rests heavily upon the figure of Mrs Smith. Laid up with some kind of wasting disease and seemingly helpless, she holds the key to unlocking the true nature of Mr William Elliot. She alone can save Anne from a disastrous marriage. But how does she know what is happening outside the four walls of her lowly room? Her only excursions are to the baths – helped by Nurse Rooke, who has clearly taken pity on her and is working to help her recover both health and the wish to live again. It is Nurse Rooke who forms the link – upon whom the plot relies.
Over the preceding months, the plight of 18th and 19th century women, left without male support, had been the focus of much thought as I researched and wrote a book set in Victorian England. Before the Welfare State and the Emancipation of Women, their fate was often a sad and lonely one. Mrs Smith, widowed and alone, wronged, sick and running out of money, was lucky indeed to fall into the hands of Nurse Rooke. This small vigorous figure began to grow in my imagination. I explored her possible history and those of her true life sisters. I found it fascinating to track them as they moved about the country, making a living in whatever way they could, using their gifts to stay out of the gutter and to keep a decent roof over their head.
In Jane Austen’s works there are two kinds of single women – those who are protected and those who are not. And of the unprotected, there are those who fall amongst friends and those who are seduced by deceivers. In Nurse Rooke I found a strong woman with a sense of humour, no fear of hard work and a determination to do good. She is resilient, amusing, hopeful and loyal. She deserved her five minutes of fame – so I gave them to her – and had great fun along the way.
Meeting the other authors who travelled to Chawton for the launch was a delight. It was wonderful to chat with them about their creations and to chew over the fun we all had writing their stories. The book is a delight – there is something in it for everyone. The stories are varied and the reader bounces from one to the next, never quite knowing where they will be taken next. The only disappointment is that of saying goodbye to each story – one is always left wanting MORE!
So, let Miss Bennet beguile you – you know it makes sense!
Beguiling Miss Bennet is available from the 22nd September 2015, priced at £8.99. ISBN: 9781909983304. Beguiling Miss Bennet is the third in the series of anthologies of the winners of the Jane Austen Short Story Award. The first two are Dancing with Mr Darcy (ISBN: 9781906784089) and Wooing Mr Wickham (ISBN: 9781906784324) both published by Honno Press.