30 Novels, day 27: Pride, Prejudice, and Gastrointestinal Distress
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
“I should infinitely prefer a book.” -- Mary Bennet.
In crowds and public places I often find myself agreeing with Mary. And one of the books I infinitely prefer is this one. The fact remains, though, that there are certain aspects of life as a physical being which Austen, because of the time she lived in, never touches on. Her characters have to be brilliant from the neck up because she can’t say much about the rest of them from the neck on down.
I was reminded very keenly of this on a trip I took to England some years ago to promote my second novel, Salamander. I went by train from London to Bath, to read at a literary festival there. Much of the eighteenth-century city is preserved in Bath, and reminders of Jane Austen are everywhere (she lived in Bath for several years and her characters often visit the city). During the festival I met many wonderful people and was accosted by only one of those insufferable British know-it-alls, who felt it necessary to point out to me that I had gotten the date of a battle wrong in my book.
In Bath I was asked to be on a panel for a British television show about books. I reluctantly agreed. I knew it was a great opportunity for me to promote my book, but the thought of being in front of a camera has always terrified me.
The taping was done at the august Jane Austen Centre, which made me all the more nervous. When the show began, two other authors and myself were seated on a dais in front of cameras and a distressingly large audience.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m not good at traveling and I tend to have gastrointestinal issues after I’ve been through too many airports and slept in too many hotels, not just in tropical countries but even in temperate zones. So far on this trip to England the situation hadn’t been too bad. But as I sat down, tired out from a long book tour and extremely nervous, I realized that a terrible attack of the trots was coming on. And not just any trots. These trots threatened to become mad gallops on the thundering stallion of uttermost physical necessity.
For the next 45 minutes I sat and squirmed and crossed my legs repeatedly and gave short, feeble answers to questions, while within me churned what Nabokov in Pale Fire referred to in his usual elegant way as a “liquid hell.” Somehow, I don’t know how, I held on. All I knew was that there was no way I was going down in Jane Austen history as the Canadian author who filled his drawers on British television. (The producers very kindly sent me a video of the show after I got home to Canada -- mercifully it wouldn’t play in my VCR). I wondered, did Jane Austen ever suffer such moments of absurd torment? She probably did. Who hasn't? Maybe that's why she liked to stay at home. Maybe that's why Mr Darcy is so disagreeable in the first few pages of the book.
The instant the show wrapped I was off the dais and hurtling desperately in the direction of the nearest washroom. I’m afraid I may have been rude to a nice woman who tried to halt my progress to tell me she really liked my book and would I sign it -- not now sorry can’t -- Maybe that’s why I haven’t been invited back.
How I would’ve preferred to spend that afternoon alone in a hotel room with a cup of soothing tea and a book. With Mary, and Elizabeth, and Mr Darcy, and Mr and Mrs Bennet.