I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen a lot lately. No, I’m not waiting for a dashing Mr Darcy to storm over the horizon to carry me off to Pemberley. Actually, perhaps that’s not such a bad idea after all… But, no, the reason I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen is that recently my working life has been very much like hers.
Jane Austen is remarkable to me for many reasons, not least the quality of her work. She is one of the few women to be mentioned consistently in writings on the development of the novel. But one of the most impressive things about dear old Jane is that she wrote her novels in a communal sitting room in the midst of her family’s busy and noisy lives. Jane would pretend she was writing letters at her desk and cover up her work as soon as anyone came too close. It’s a sign of her immense writing ability that she managed to complete novel after novel while being constantly interrupted by visitors, having family consultations about whether to have lamb or pork for supper, and listening to inquiries about the sick people in the community.
Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit like Jane. Although working from home has many advantages it’s not always easy. Not having to dress for work at 6 am is a big advantage, though, and the joy of sloping around in my pyjamas until I absolutely have to get dressed is not to be sneezed at. Especially in winter. Having the flexibility to choose to work when it suits you, instead of when a boss tells you to, is another big plus.
Unfortunately, this flexibility is a double-edged sword. In many people’s eyes, working at home means that you are available. Available to help at school sports days. Available to have meetings with people who want to ‘pick your brain’. Available to visitors who come to stay during the week during what is a normal working week for you. You see, people seem to think that the phrase ‘working from home’ is an oxymoron.
What happens to me because of my flexible working hours is that I find myself doing all the extra things: the school meetings, the entertaining of visiting friends, the meetings with brain pickers, and sorting out of people in crises. And then in a frazzled rush I try to catch up with the never-ending load of work late at night, most weekends, and in the early hours of the morning.
Having your home as your work space also means that you have no place to hide. After a recent stint with builders wrecking my roof with some vague explanation that it was for my own good, I found the scales tipped far too heavily against me. Dealing with men breaking through my ceilings while supposedly fixing my roof, under which I was trying to write something vaguely intelligent, was just too much for me.
This intrusion into my home and work space was followed by an onslaught of visitors. It’s always lovely to see friends and spend time together, but my work suffered badly. The resultant strain as I tried to find any piece of a candle left to burn on either side has made me dream of an office with a heavy-handed boss. How blissful it would be to say that the boss won’t give me time off to have my brain picked, solve emotional problems or attend meetings of any sort. How nice it would be to say that I can’t be available as entertainment co-ordinator for visitors either as my boss won’t let me leave the office.
But I don’t have a boss, and I’m not really sure I’d like one. So I have to focus on Jane Austen. If she managed it, I should be able to as well. And so I think of how her novels sparkled with vibrant and quirky characters. Perhaps she would never have written such unforgettable classics if she’d been isolated in an attic with hours a day to think about her next line. I like to think her work would not have been as good if she hadn’t fed off the interaction of people around her. At least that’s what I’m telling myself just before the next batch of visitors arrives.