The first question I asked myself approaching this book was, “will Brad Watson, a man, handle Miss, a woman, authentically?” By the end of the first few pages, in which he describes what all Miss Jane does not fear, he reassured me he could. Writing in the third person helped. Third person may not be as intimate as first, but perhaps it is more compassionate. (As the saying goes, “I’m my own worst enemy.”) In Miss Jane, Brad Watson touches humanity’s common search for love while narrating an individual’s grappling with her own sexuality.
This novel celebrates sex in many forms. Each character has his or her own sexual story, Miss Jane’s that she is born without fully formed genitalia, or, rather, genitalia that are “tucked up inside,” causing persistent incontinence and the inability to conceive. Dr Thompson, who oversees her birth on the family’s farm, takes a lifelong interest in her. He examines her regularly, and encourages to examine herself, to learn about herself. He gives her anatomy books and teaches her about puberty, although he says she already knows about “it,” having watched not only dogs and birds, cows and pigs, but her sister, too. She lusts for the knowledge of, and the sensation of, that secret pleasure found in the act of observing the world around her.
“All things of this nature, apparently unrelated – torrential storm, the burst of salty liquid from a plump and ice-cold raw oyster, the soft skins of wild mushrooms, the quick and violent death of a chicken, the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom, a pack of wild scruffy dogs a-trot in a field, the thrum of a fishing line against the attack of a bream, and peeling away the delicate frame of its bones from the sweet white meat of its body, a smooth and hard oval nutshell rolled in a palm, the somehow palpable feel of fading light – were in some way sexual for Jane.”
The opposite of “deflowering,” Watson pollenates his prose with curiosity. This examination allows us readers to behold the world in wonder, as Jane does. “As if nothing could be unnatural in that place, within but apart from the world.”
Jane’s differences set her apart. She is favored for her frailness and innocence by her father and sister in particular, and protected by her mother, who has already lost two sons to the West and one son in infancy, but she is also shunned. When she tries to go to school, she’s teased, so she drops out after one year. She tries to make friends with the young wife of her father’s tenant farmer but is not welcome. For her own good, they say, the doctor and her father keep her from a budding love interest. After that, she pushes people away herself. In a climactic scene, she confronts her sister when she attempts to set Jane up with a companion. She’s humiliated and patronized. She sits alone in her room with “that ghost self that now so often seemed to be with her when she was alone.”
Miss Jane is punctuated by dialogue in a prose otherwise as quiet, languid and earthy as the setting, backwater Mississippi. At times, I wished for more showing in the text and less telling, more movement and less talking. For example, Watson pronounces, like Ida Chisolm, Jane’s mother, “it’ll be heartbreak,” “it won’t last,” after the town dances Jane enjoys. Come on! Let it play itself out. Or, “there was also a kind of serenity in the way he listened when someone spoke,” Watson says of one of Jane’s suitors. He lavished me with such description of characters elsewhere, this analysis struck me as heavy-handed. However, I think that is the point; Watson’s analysis as third person narrator works like destiny in the book. When Jane finally speaks up, she breaks the spell of inevitability. Her words mark her singularity, her staking out her independence. She claims her loneliness, and thereby reveals Watson’s gift as a writer: to let Miss Jane speak for herself.
In the end, left with no one and nothing, Jane feels empty. But as a reader, I feel hopeful rather than desolate. Watson was compelled to write this book by his own mysterious great aunt Jane. The less he knew, the more he was motivated to learn. So, too, Jane, as we get acquainted with her through Watson’s care, shores me up to confront bravely my own dark places, my own emptiness, with freedom. “In time her gaunt, dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty would be altered and sharpened by age, a visible sign of her difference, her independence, and a silent message to all that her presence in the world was impenetrable beyond a point of her own determination.”