Brad Watson’s novel Miss Jane is about a girl born to a farmer and his wife in rural, early 20th– century Mississippi. The baby was born with “apparently manageable urological condition” makes her incontinent and later hampers her from marrying and being sexually active – considered to be a serious problem in her community. Later while explaining to her the doctor says:
“What you have on the inside is just as complex—I mean it is just as much a wonder of a miracle of the human body – as anyone else. But it didn’t get to finish putting itself all together, didn’t get to finish itself up and get everything right, before it was time for you to be born. Or maybe I should say at some point, for some reason, it just stopped making itself into what it was supposed to…”
Dr Eldred Thompson who assisted at Jane’s birth is a kind-hearted soul who does not share his wife’s ambition to move to a sophisticated urban practice but would rather than remain an old-time country doctor. He often marvels at the variety of patients he attends to: And all these wretched souls came out of the womb perfectly normal, the doctor thought, looking around. What can say what life will make of a body? Later Dr Thompson’s sentiment about keeping peacocks in his backyard to deal with his loneliness when a widower oddly enough illuminate his empathetic caregiving of Jane too “I like to think they really exist just because they are oddly beautiful”.
Dr Thompson takes little Jane under his wing and documents her progress meticulously. He shares his notes with medical colleague, Dr Ellison Adams, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland in the hope a possible cure can be discovered through research developments. The correspondence spans a few decades. By the time surgical intervention is possible to rectify it Miss Jane is elderly, more or less a social recluse, living on her family farm and has no desire to go ahead with the procedure.
As a child Jane has a joie de vivre that astounds everyone given her condition. She is warm, loving and ebullient but becomes reserved as she experiences first-hand the hostility of her classmates at school until they are reprimanded by their teacher for not making fun of anyone for “being who she is”. Jane continues to live with grace and quiet dignity. “She was the only one made the way she was made…[but] is determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could.” Yet when as a teenager Elijah Key (who is keen on her) asks if she is happy with life Jane wonders.
She did not know what to say. She’d never put a word to the sadness she could sometimes feel, especially in the last couple of years, that would linger at the edge of her thoughts like the invisible ghost of someone she thought she recognized but didn’t know who it was, some kind of familiar she couldn’t quite grasp.
There are others in the community but her relationship with her parents is beautifully told. With her mother it is fraught with anxiety. As she grows older Jane notices “her mother shut herself down in the secretive way she sometimes did when she wanted to hide something from you”. With her father she shares a special relationship where she may be the daughter of his twilight years but he is sweetly protective of her. He teaches her to fish, literally and metaphorically. Her father would take her into the forest and point out the beauty in the flowers and trees to her all the while naming them but stopping short of their erotic overtones such as with the stinkhorn mushroom.
Her father would point things out to her. He knew the names of most trees, the oaks, elms, sycamore and sweetgum, the magnolia, swamp bay, cherry, cypress, pecan. Some shrubs, the buckeye, sweetshrub, huckleberry, sumac, snowbell. Flowers of the valley, wisteria, joe-pye weed, jack-in-the-pulpit.
Ironically Jane will forever be surrounded by the woods and animals that procreate and give sustenance while she cannot. Despite her physical constraints her father taught her to be alive. He is practical and makes her future secure by buying insurance in her name and bequeathing the farm to her since it will give her a living and privacy too.
Award-winning writer Brad Watson has been an aspiring movie star, a garbage collector, a digger of ditches, a bartender, a professor, and much more. Brad Watson wrote Miss Jane drawing upon the story of his own great-aunt. As he says in an interview, “My mother’s family was a pretty stoic bunch, after all. But Jane was not dour, like some of the tough ones in there were. From what little was remembered of her, she was kind, generous of heart, as well as tough. She did not ever complain about loneliness, I was told. She lived her life as if nothing was ‘wrong.’ I, at the time I became interested in her, was pretty much wallowing in self-pity for this or that. I never knew her. But I began to admire her. I wanted to know more. So I tried to imagine a life.” In an essay he wrote discussing Southern Literature “My working mine, in the novels, has been family history, looking to family stories for what might illuminate something about a place and time, and the people in it, who are now gone but who seem as real as anyone living today, and who perhaps may cast a light on how we came to be who we are now. But what seems to me still distinctive, most distinctive, about Southern writing, is the sense of place in the work.” Watson was born and raised in Mississippi, spent much of his adult life in Alabama, and has taught there, in Florida, Mississippi, California, and for the past 11 years in Wyoming. In Miss Jane Watson presents a multi-faceted society wherein he gently questions the idea of “normal”. It comes home strongly when Jane’s mother consults a psychic, only to be told that Jane will never be “normal, like other girls,” but she’ll be happy: “Unlike you.”
Miss Jane is an elegant and sensitively written historical novel that will linger longer after the book is shut.
Brad Watson Miss Jane Picador, 2017.