Miss Jane by Brad Watson: A life apart

Cover imageBrad Watson’s novel comes with the knowledge that it’s based on the life of his great-aunt. The press release uses the word ‘inspired’ – a word which, I’m not entirely sure why, always makes me feel a little uncomfortable but in this case it seems entirely fitting. It’s the story of a woman born in rural Mississippi in 1915 with a birth defect, a genital malformation which closes the conventional path of marriage and children to her.

Unplanned and unwanted, Jane’s birth is an easy one but it’s clear that something is wrong. Jane has been born with a condition about which little can be done in the early twentieth century. Her father blames himself, her mother keeps her distance.  She’s a bright child, curious and closely observant, looked after largely by her surly elder sister Grace who comes to love her, albeit reluctantly. Their most frequent visitor is Doctor Thompson who delivered Jane and who takes a concerned and professional interest in her development, corresponding with his urologist friend about the progress of research which might help her. Jane attends school for a short time, managing her incontinence with a strict dietary regime which eventually affects her health. She takes herself off to dances, a pretty girl attracting attention and falling for a young boy who returns her love but forced to retreat before the prospect of marriage appears on his horizon. She follows Grace, long flown the coop, to the small town not far away where they live and work together, Jane returning home when her father eventually dies. Throughout it all, Doctor Thompson remains a steady presence in her life. In the end Jane knows she will be alone but it’s something she’s been preparing for all of her life, facing it with characteristic dignity.

Watson tells Jane’s story with a quiet empathy: never sentimentalising, always compassionate. Jane is a memorable, vividly drawn character – her curious observation as she tries to make sense of sex as a young girl neatly avoids the prurient and her loneliness is quietly wrenching. Watson writes beautifully about the natural world in which Jane finds many of her questions answered. Rural Mississippi is summoned up in vibrant word pictures: the tomato worm studded with a parasite’s larvae under its skin; the plangent cries of Doctor Thompson’s beloved peacocks running wild in the woods; a chapter opening ‘And then there was the long quiet afternoon of autumn’ precedes a particularly glorious description. Watson underpins his story with a wry humour steering it clear of the maudlin – ‘A busy winter it was here with ague and the results of physical violence bred and borne by folks cooped up a bit too much with their chosen enemies’ writes Thompson to his friend. This is beautifully restrained novel – quietly laying out what it is to be different, to understand that what everyone else takes for granted you will not have – all handled with the grace and dignity that Jane embodies. A lesson for us all.

19 thoughts on “Miss Jane by Brad Watson: A life apart

    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It’s a sensitive subject, beautifully handled, Cathy. When I read the blurb I thought it might be a little prurient but there’s nothing of that about Watson’s writing at all.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Not too much of a chunkster – my proof copy is 279 pages – and it’s well worth the reading time.

      Reply
  1. Naomi

    Even though I’ve read about this one before, I keep forgetting what it’s about because the title makes me think it’s a Jane Eyre spin-off (there’s been so many of those). So, now I’ve been reminded again – and I think it’s definitely one I’d like. I love the cover!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Beautiful, isn’t it, and it ties in nicely with those plangent peacock calls. I see what you mean about the title. I avoid those spin-offs like the plague, I’m afraid, with the honourable exception of the Wide Sargasso Sea, of course!

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thank you, Belinda. It’s a lovely jacket, isn’t it, and works very well with the image of peacocks wandering through Dr. Thompson’s garden which becomes more and more wild as the years pass.

      Reply
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  3. Kate Scott

    I really want to read this one. It sounds like a fascinating story. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be born with a defect like that in a time when nothing could be done about it.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It’s all so beautifully and compassionately handled, too. The knowledge that Jane will never have what others hope for or take for granted is quietly accepted by her with great dignity.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I hope you like it, Poppy. For some reason it didn’t seem to get much coverage when published which is a shame.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It is, Ali, and all the more so as it’s loosely based on the author’s great-aunt’s story. It’s a novel which could very easily have been prurient but Watson steers it well clear of that.

      Reply

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