Brad Watson’s novel, Miss Jane, has been on my to-read list for years, and at last, I spotted a beautifully designed hardback copy in my local library. I am always drawn to female-focused novels, particularly those which follow the protagonist throughout her life. Miss Jane, which is set in Mississippi during the twentieth century, and based on the true story of Watson’s own great aunt, does just this.
The Independent calls the novel ‘superb’, The Guardian ‘subtle and moving’, and author A.M. Homes compares Watson to Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor – an interesting mix indeed. Safe to say, I was suitably intrigued, and looking forward to forming my own thoughts about the novel.
Miss Jane is Jane Chisholm, born in rural east-central Mississippi in 1915. The urological disorder which the doctor discovers when she is just moments old, is seen as a ‘birth defect’, and ‘will come to stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage.’ There are, of course, no medical treatments which Jane is able to benefit from, until very late in her life. The novel ‘brings to life a hard, unromantic past in a story tinged with the sadness of unattainable loves, yet shot through with a transcendent beauty’.
The opening scene immediately gives one a feel for Watson’s precise writing, and his understanding of what it must be like to deal with such a condition without medical intervention: ‘You would not think someone so conflicted could or would be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries. Early on she acquired ways of dealing with her life, with life in general. And as she grew older it became evident that she feared almost nothing – perhaps only horses and something she couldn’t quite name, a strange presence of danger not quite – not really a part of the world.’
We then move back in time, to Jane’s birth. Watson writes rather matter-of-factly about the discovery of Jane’s condition: ‘[The doctor] snipped the cord, and took a good look at the child, who’d come around to crying a bit. He didn’t say anything. He looked at the midwife. She stared through narrowed eyes but kept her lips pressed thin.’ The doctor then tells Jane’s father: ‘”… she’s just a girl who did not fully develop. Something stopped that in the womb… It’s rare, but at this point I do not think it’s life-threatening.”‘
We see, from very early on, that Jane has a real strength of character, and that she does not let anything hold her back. Watson comments: ‘She determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could, and when she could no longer do that, she would adjust her life to its terms accordingly.’ On the face of it, her surroundings seem idyllic, but Watson does not shy away from the fact that such a rural life is hard, and fraught with problems – with accidents, with violence, with alcoholism. Her family life can be difficult; her mother is very strict, her father rather dependent on alcohol, her elder sister Grace is difficult, and two siblings died before she was born. She is intelligent, but only attends school for a very short time.
As she begins to come to terms with the way in which she is different to other children, in her sixth year, she ‘had moments where she felt like a secret, silent creation, invisible, more the ghost of something unknowable than a person, a child, a little girl.’ She continually asks questions about what she can expect from life, and her natural curiosity shines throughout. Her main confidante is Ed, the doctor who delivered her; he becomes a sort of mentor to her, and corresponds with other colleagues about her condition, and how it can be managed.
Miss Jane is a rich and complex character portrait, of a woman who learns to live with her condition, and all of the challenges which it brings. I liked the emphasis of Jane’s many character quirks; for instance, Watson writes that ‘Between the ages of four and five, she began to make sure she was the last to sleep. It made her feel safer to be the last one awake, watching and listening to the world settle into the evening quiet and dark. The steady breathing, snoring, sleep-mumbling of the others made her feel more awake and alive, and that was a kind of safeness, too.’ As she grows older, Watson has crafted many scenes which deal with Jane discovering sex, and sensuality; she is an observer, first of the animals around the farm, and then becoming something of a voyeur.
The omniscient perspective in Miss Jane has been really well crafted, and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of this novel. One really gets a feel for the family dynamics, and for Jane’s independence, very early on. Whilst the focus is on Jane, we do learn about those around her too, not just those close to her, but also sharecroppers on the family’s land, for instance. The historical detail does not overwhelm, but does enough to situate the whole. I found it particularly fascinating to read about medical options changing across Jane’s lifetime, and the way in which others viewed her disability.
Miss Jane is a sensitive novel, but at no point does it become sentimental. Watson has the capacity to be unflinching, but a sense of real understanding suffuses the whole. Jane feels realistic, and is a character I will not be forgetting in a hurry.