That fine writer Brad Watson has just published a new novel, Miss Jane (W. W. Norton, 2016). Drawing in part on family stories about his great aunt, Watson has set Jane Chisolm’s story in the east-central Mississippi farm country of 1915. Jane is born with a urogenital sinus anomaly with persistent cloaca—her urethra, vagina, and anus fused into a common channel, precluding intercourse, and her sphincter doesn’t function. Corrective surgery was not possible at that time, so Jane remains incontinent and must wear diapers all her life. Jane is strangely different, and that difference propels the novel. As an adolescent, Jane has a crush on a neighbor boy, so her parents promptly send her away to the nearby town to help her elder sister run her dry cleaning and laundry business. After her father drinks himself to death, she returns to the family farm to care for her increasingly despondent mother. After her mother’s death, Jane lives alone on the farm. Eventually, she is offered corrective surgery, but she refuses it. She continues to live on the farm until she dies in her sleep.
The voice of the narrator is matter of fact yet sympathetic about Jane’s otherness, and it immediately establishes our senses of Jane and of place. Take the first sentence: “You would not think someone so afflicted would or could be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries.” Instead of keeping the audience at arm’s length, that “you” pulls us in and makes us complicit. At the same time, the reference to “the miseries” reminds us of an earlier, country mode of speech. The next sentence about Jane is straightforward narration: “Early on she acquired ways of dealing with her life, with life in general.” But the next, concluding this opening paragraph, hints at what Watson does so skillfully, alluding to a dimension that remains just out of reach: “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 or not really a part of the world.”
As a young child one evening on the verge of dropping off to sleep, Jane hears “the low growling of something, a growl of something that sounded massive, slow, and fierce passing just below the window of her room. Some unspeakable monster. Her heart seized and she shouted out" (p. 61). Her father checks the ground outside her window for tracks: nothing is there. Her sister Grace ups the ante by suggesting that it could have been a bear, but her father dismisses that possibility scornfully. “‘Not only would we’ve heard that,’ her father said, ‘we sure would’ve smelled it. Nothing stinks quite like a bear.’” Comforted by Grace’s presence, Jane does go back to sleep. What the narrator makes clear is that this unspeakable monster remains in Jane’s mind, even though she is never conscious of it: “her only nightmares would be about the nameless beast she had heard, her sleeping mind imagining it in all kinds of forms, none of which she was ever able to recall upon waking” (p. 62). Later, when as an adolescent Jane is trying to figure out the mechanics of making love, she spies on the young couple who are sharecroppers for her father. Afterwards, Jane worries that she has done something terribly wrong, with the result that she has become the monster outside the window, the other who cannot do what normal people do in loving one another.
Jane’s guilt is assuaged by Dr. Thompson, the man who delivered her and who continues to care (in every sense) for her. As she matures, he explains the facts of life to her, facts that unfortunately will never apply to her personally. Dr. Thompson never loses hope that eventually surgical procedures will be discovered to correct her problems. In this sense, he serves as a foil to Jane: what he sees as an abnormality, she of course takes to be normal for her, and she adapts reasonably successfully. Both of them learn how to live alone and not be lonely, and their love for each other is no less real for being Platonic. At some point after Dr. Thompson has died, Jane receives a letter from Johns Hopkins offering to perform the operation they have pioneered, free of charge. She feels indignant because she sees no reason to be “fixed”; she has long since become accustomed to who she is, and that’s the end of it.
But Jane’s life is not defined by loss. On the contrary, she possess an altogether remarkable and to some degree compensatory awareness. It ranges from relishing the mud squishing up between her toes the first time she goes wading in the beaver pond to her visits to her secret meadow, a clearing in the woods she considered her very own. There she could step altogether out of time: “The eyes of all the wild, invisible animals watching her. Time was suspended, or did not exist. She could linger there as long as she liked and when she returned no time had passed at all since she had stepped into the clearing and then awakened from it” (p. 75). At their most intense, these feelings deepen from sensuous to sexual (although Watson is careful to say that she was too young to verbalize what this meant): the taste of her first raw oyster, the soft skins of wild mushrooms, the pecan nuts in their smooth brown shells that she rolled between her palms—these were all more than sensuous for Jane. They produced a sexual climax: “She felt it inside herself though, as deeply and truly as a lover. She fell into the grove’s rough, tall grass and into darkness, some charged current running through her in pleasant palpitations of ecstasy” (p. 110).
Over time, the peacocks that Dr. Thompson had introduced on his place so multiply that they come to inhabit Jane’s farm as well. He had introduced them on his farm because they were at once beautiful and strange—he felt people didn’t know what to make of them. In this sense, the peacocks are like Jane. The peacocks are also the creatures Jane sees before she goes to sleep for the last time. As she does, she dreams she moves through her secret clearing and, in her yard, enters a secret avian cathedral. It’s not filled with peacocks—that would be too easy. No, these are “some kind of winged and feathered things” that she had never seen. They don’t appear to be the monsters she dreamed about in her youth but never recalled when she woke up, but neither do they appear to be altogether benign. Miss Jane ends with the sentence, “They stood very still, hushed, their gleaming black eyes fixed on her, white beaks open in a strange, alert anticipation.” Is this the “strange presence of danger not quite or not really a part of the world” that Brad Watson invokes in the opening of the novel? Or is this one last suggestion that this wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful character Jane can perceive what the rest of us cannot know, tethered as we are by being altogether ordinary?
Sir Francis Bacon observed in his essay “Of Studies,” “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, . . . some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Miss Jane falls into the third of Bacon’s categories. A tour de force, it abundantly rewards reading with diligence and attention. I would add only that the best of these books are to be read slowly and with appreciation, their language heard in the mind's ear the way good whiskey is savored on the tongue. Brad Watson’s Miss Jane is one of those.