At the age of thirteen I became a Jane girl―Jane Eyre, not Jane Austen. I discovered Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre during one of my regular visits to the Chattanooga public library. While my mother browsed the fiction section in the library’s high-ceilinged front room, I roamed the stacks, where I had already discovered books by Daphne du Maurier (beginning with Rebecca), Thomas Costain, Lloyd C. Douglas, Pearl Buck and Richard Armour, whose books made me laugh out loud.
My most prized library discovery was Jane Eyre. I was so enthralled with its heroine and romance that I saved my babysitting money and bought the paperback—the first in my library collection, although I did not know it at the time. In fact, I have that book right here. It was published in 1963 by Airmont Publishing Company and cost 60 cents. Now 51 years old, its pages are yellowed and the spine has begun to crack, but it is in good shape otherwise, except that inexplicably I blanked out the word “words” in blue ink on the last page.
Since high school I have read Jane Eyre more than 20 times and seen every film production of it. It was plain Jane Eyre I admired and understood. It was Mr. Rochester’s smoldering looks, impertinent questions and disturbing secret that captured me.
I did not discover Jane Austen until I was 41 or 42, at which point I decided to read Pride and Prejudice, merely to learn what all the fuss was about. Of course, I fell in love with Darcy and Elizabeth’s story but was struck instantly with sympathy for Miss Anne de Bourgh. She doesn’t appear to have much to recommend her, being “unfortunately of a sickly constitution,” looking thin, small and pale. “Her features, though not plain, were insignificant,” wrote Jane Austen. On glimpsing Miss de Bourgh from the parsonage dining room window, Elizabeth Bennet has this to say to Maria Lucas about Darcy’s fiancé: “I like her appearance … She looks sickly and cross.” Gracious Heaven! Anne was a miserable little creature.
But was she? Why did she look sickly and cross? Had she been happy as a child? What did she think of her mother’s mission to marry her to her cousin Darcy? What happened to her after Darcy married Elizabeth Bennet? Did she die sometime between his marriage and the end of the novel? (This question arose from noticing that Anne isn’t mentioned in the last chapter of Austen’s story, even though nearly every other character is.) If she didn’t die, what course did her life take? Was she anything like her mother, the imperious and irascible Lady Catherine? Or did she take after her father, much like Elizabeth Bennet favored Mr. Bennet?
I pondered these questions for close to 20 years before I started writing Anne’s story. Rosings Park is the result of all that gestation and shows the world why Anne is sickly and cross on first meeting Miss Elizabeth Bennet.