“I want to know if she will ever be better. Normal, like other girls. Women.”
After a time, the fortune-teller, Mrs. Eugenia Savell, responds.
“I don’t see a change,” she said then.
“Will she die?”
Ida nodded again.
“She is strong, even stronger than you,” Mrs. Eugenia said then. “She may even be relatively happy in life. Unlike you.”
Ida then laughed a curt laugh of her own.
“Nothing to do about that, I suppose.”
“We are what we are,” Mrs. Eugenia said.
In rural east Mississippi in 1915, Jane Chisolm is born to a taciturn farmer and his wife, a dispirited woman still grieving an earlier child who’d died. It’s a normal delivery, and she’s a healthy baby, aside from one thing: young Jane has a rare genital anomaly that leaves her incontinent and will make sex and childbearing practically impossible.
Richly imagined based on thorough research and family memories of Watson’s great-aunt, who had the same condition, Jane’s story is told with plainspoken simplicity and grace. She’s a naturally observant child, and she extends her curiosity about her environment – the herbs and mushrooms she gathers in the woods, the actions of animals on the farm – to the appearance of her own body. She knows that she’s not built like other girls but, without knowing what “normal” looks like, she can’t picture exactly how.
Guiding Jane from childhood on is Ed Thompson, the physician who brought her into the world. (Switching viewpoints, which the novel does on occasion, we get invited into a country doctor's life; in one illustrative scene, he finds a "sagging, ragged group" of sick and wounded people waiting on his porch after he gets home from delivering Jane.) The doctor becomes her good friend and a wise, supportive voice. He’s realistic about her prognosis, since medicine hasn’t advanced enough yet to remedy her condition through surgery, but communicates regularly with professional colleagues and makes sure Jane knows she can approach him with questions.
From Dr. Thompson, who she calls by his first name when they’re both adults, she learns kindness and understanding. Any child would be fortunate to have a friendship such as theirs.
Jane may be destined for a life without a partner – a youthful romance she shares with a neighbor boy can only go so far, to her regret – but as she demonstrates, solitude doesn’t have to equal emptiness. Women led hard lives in this place and time, and Watson sketches out numerous examples. Jane has only to look at her unsatisfied mother, her rebellious older sister, or the wife of the sharecropper who rents from her family to see that sex and marriage don’t always lead to contentment. Who’s to say she'd have been any happier if her body had been created differently?
Dr. Thompson keeps peacocks on his property, and their presence in the novel (and on its gorgeous cover) becomes a symbol of Jane's proud spirit. Following Jane's journey toward acceptance of her rightful place in the world, and her determination to forge ahead with her life as it stands, makes for an enriching experience.
Miss Jane was published by W.W. Norton in July in hardcover ($25.95/C$33.95, 284pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.