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 – ”
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’.