Monday, April 14, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Five

Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four

Alison came to consciousness the next morning upon hearing the familiar sound of girlish giggles in the hall, yet before she could even open her eyes the feel of straw crunching beneath her and a bonnet on her head reminded her that she was not in Kansas anymore. Or Maryland, as the case may be. She sighed and opened her eyes to stare at the heavy canopy above her head. It had to be full of mites. At home, Mary's allergies required all of their bedding be incased in hypoallergenic covers. All the comforters had been replaced with easy to wash quilts, and they had the sofas and rugs professionally cleaned quarterly. Thoughts of what might be living in the bed curtains surrounding her made Alison feel rather queasy, and she drove it from her mind.

She needed to contemplate her predicament. There had to be something resembling a rational explanation for what was going on. Perhaps, like Dorothy Gale, she was in some sort of coma. That really was the most logical solution to her predicament. Time travel, if allowed to even be possible, would not result in her inhabiting a fictional world, however real it seemed to her. She set herself to recreating the events of the following day. Lydia and Kitty were arguing, they were late for the food bank, she was driving while Tom worked ... an accident! She must have bumped her head, just as in the carriage! Yes. She was clearly in a coma. Countless films, from The Wizard of Oz to Peggy Sue got Married, proved it.

If she was in a coma, what of the rest of her family? A thousand horrors pressed upon her, but she would not allow them to overcome her, unlike the real, or fictional, Mrs. Bennet. This was no time for needless worry. She had no way of knowing the truth, and she would not allow herself to be beset by anxiety. There was a family here in need, and she was always one to be useful where she could. She was sure to wake up to reality in no little time.

The previous day, upon first becoming aware of her strange surroundings, she had reacted poorly. Alison had always believed it essential to successful parenting to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them. Having contemplated the faults of the various Bennet girls so often, seeking corollaries in her own brood, the real life spectacle of Lydia shook her already agitated core, and she made several mistakes. Such high handedness would not pay off with the girl. This she knew all too well. If she were stuck in Pride & Prejudice, and in the guise of one of its least likable characters, the least she could do was repair the damage she had dealt the mother-daughter bond. Perhaps she might even do a great deal more. Alison spared little thought for the consequences of meddling in the plot of a literary classic. This was her coma, after all, and her actions could be of little consequence to anyone. She would not truly be changing the course of the story, and even if she did, it could only be for the better.

She climbed out of the impossible bed and opened the wardrobe doors. There she confronted the fact that she had not the slightest notion of what was appropriate to put on. She was not ignorant of Regency fashions. Indeed, she was educated well enough to know that she knew too little of what actually constituted morning dress. The one time she and Tom had spent an entire day in full costume at a Jane Austen festival, the removal of her fichu was deemed sufficient to transform her day dress to evening for the closing ball, but there was a great deal more to it than that. Dismissing five silk dresses and three brocade, which even she knew was passe, she still confronted a baffling variety of muslim, lace, and wool. It was fall, but the previous day had been warm, and remembering images of Mrs. Bennet from the films, she landed upon a tiered lace monstrosity. It seemed just the thing a Mrs. Bennet might wear on a morning. With a shawl and lace cap, she fancied she'd look just the part. The predicament remained of where such accessories might be kept and how and the laces and layers were supposed to be properly arranged. Alison laughed out loud at herself, remembering the bell pull a thoroughly confused maid had shown her the night before. It was cleverly disguised to blend with the wallpaper, which was hand painted with vertical braids, interspersed with a blue floral motif. Alison had seen something like it when her family visited a Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina, though this paper was a century older. The luxury of such an item slightly astounded her, and she wished she had her cellphone that she might take a picture of it. This thought made her laugh again, nonsense that it was. The sad truth was that it was all too clear how frivolously the money that should have been used to boost the dowries of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's needy daughters had been squandered. She shook her head at the mounds of lace in the gown she had selected, wondering whether or not it was imported.  

When Sarah arrived, Alison learned that she was, in fact, completely ignorant of Regency fashion. The girl stared at the lace dress in astonishment, timidly questioning why her mistress wanted to wear a ball gown that morning. She was gradually conjoled into making a selection on behalf of her mistress, and Alison found herself dressed in the very same green silk that she was certain had to be evening wear. The only parts she got right were the cap and fichu, which were stored in the hope chest at the end of the bed.

Alison found herself the last one to join the table, all the other members of the household being deep into their plates. She greeted them all warmly but received little gratification in the way of replies. Seeing the sideboard piled with food, she made her way to it and inspected the offerings. She supposed she had been expecting something along the lines of what was served in the English bed and breakfasts she and Tom had stayed in when they traveled through England for their honeymoon. The only items in this spread that mirrored those more modern English tables was the cold toast in the silver rack, a plate of kippers, which she never cared for, and hard-boiled eggs. Thank goodness for the latter! Between them and what she soon identified as a ham casserole, she was able to sit down with something like satisfaction, though she could not help but wistfully imagine the field greens salad that would balance the richness of the meal.

It was not a lively meal. Kitty and Lydia chatted and giggled, while Mr. Bennet and Mary were buried in books. Alison imagined Mrs. Bennet usually joined in her youngest daughters' chatter, but as they both were casting periodic glares her way, she abstained from interjecting until there was a natural lull in their conversation.

"I was thinking we'd take a walk today, girls," she said with a smile. The entire table stared at her.

"But you don't walk, Mama," Kitty was first to break the silence.

"Nonsense!" she replied. "It is a beautiful day, and I intend to enjoy it."

"Is this a bid for the carriage, my dear?" Mr. Bennet questioned. "I might very well spare the horses. You need not engage in such maneuvers to get to Meryton."

"I'm not maneuvering," she said tartly. "I want to walk and not to Meryton. Let us explore nature and enjoy the fall foliage!" Lydia's jaw hung open in shock.

"And where do you propose to walk?" Mr. Bennet was clearly amused.

She racked her brain and declared, "Oakham Mount!"

He laughed. "My dear! That is very good. I have not been so diverted in years."

"I'm quite serious."

He looked as her critically. "I see that you are! Very well. Girls, you will escort your mother to Oakham Mount. I know she cannot find the way alone, having never ventured there these past twenty years or more. How good of you to clear Lydia's schedule for her, my dear! That was forward thinking."

Alison glared at him and stood from the table. "I shall be ready to depart in fifteen minutes," she declared before excusing herself from the room.

"Do you think my mother is up to such exertion after the accident yesterday, Papa?" Mary questioned, thinking remorsefully of her pianoforte, before which she had intended to spend most of the morning.
"I'd be very surprised to learn what your mother might not be up to," he replied. "Never fear, Mary! Your instrument will await your return, which I doubt will be long in coming, but if you should fail to return by tomorrow, I will ask Mrs. Hill to keep it company on your behalf."

Monday, April 7, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Four

Read Chapters One, Two, and Three.

Alison was shown to large bed chamber with adjoining sitting room. The canopied bed was heavily curtained, and the furniture carved mahogany. Having only ever viewed such a room in museums or historical homes, and always across velvet-roped barriers, she entered cautiously, rather afraid to touch anything. Fortunately, Mrs. Hill quickly expelled her sense of reverence. The heavy dress was removed, the stays undone, and she was assisted into the tall bed. Though her eyes grew wide at the sound of crackling straw when she pressed on the mattress, the servant seemed not to notice. A cup of bitterly strong tea was soon presented to her, dosed with several drops from a greenish bottle, and she was left to an uncomfortable repose. Waves of nausea soon overwhelmed any amusement or interest she had in the laudanum, resulting in her making the acquaintance of the chamber pot.

While it was forcibly born upon Alison that she really was in a 19th century novel, the young Bennet ladies received a visit from Mrs. Forster, the new wife of the militia's colonel. Having so often sought the company of the officers, Kitty and Lydia were quickly becoming well-acquainted with the lady, and they delighted to make her their confidant on this occasion.

"You are so fortunate to be married, Mrs. Forster," was Lydia's lament. "I do not see why I should still be subject to the whims and inconsistencies of my mother's fancy. I'm sure I'd do much better on my own."

Kitty, feeling something was not quite right about this speech, hastened to explain, "We had a carriage accident this morning, and Mama bumped her head."

"A carriage accident!" exclaimed Mrs. Forster. "But you all look well. Was it not serious."

"Lord, no," Lydia replied. "No one was hurt but Mama. It was really rather exciting, until she began to act so strange."

Mary, who was only present out of duty and contributed very little to the conversation, now felt the need to interject: "A mother's attempt to steer her children towards the path of virtue is but her duty. I, for one, was pleased to see our mother being so reasonable under the pressures of an adverse circumstance. I would have granted lenience to anyone for extreme behavior following a severe accident." Other than an acknowledging smile from their visitor, this speech was entirely ignored.

"Imagine forbidding a slight indulgence as visiting a litter of precious kittens, and then threatening to keep us from your ball just for questioning such gothic behavior!" Kitty elaborated. "Our mother has always been in favor of our acquaintance with the militia. It was most unlike her!"

"Oh, but you must come to the ball! It will be no fun at all without you."

"My dear Mrs. Forster! I must be on my very best behavior so we do not disappoint you!" Lydia cried, greatly touched by the casual sentiment, which warmed into something more under the influence of her enthusiastic response.

"I know what we shall do! If you are indispensable to me, Mrs. Bennet could not keep you away. T'would be unneighborly."

"It's true," said Kitty excitedly. Mrs. Forster turned to her and said, "My dear Miss Kitty, won't you and Miss Lydia come to the inn and assist me in the arraignments? I'm sure your help will be very valuable.

Three of the ladies burst into animated chatter, while Mary's eyes grew wide. What two irresponsible and inexperienced girls like her sisters could possibly offer other than hindrance was unimaginable to her, but it mattered not: as they began to scheme to set out immediately to attend such a pleasant pursuit, another, more solid objection to the scheme provided a ready obstacle. "You forget, Kitty, that you are to oversea the inventory of the storeroom today."

This reminder incited no small degree of chagrin. "Mary, would you not do it for me?" her sister pleaded.

"Indeed not! I did it last time it was your turn."

"What is to be done? If Jane or Lizzy were here, I'm sure they would do it for me!"

"There is nothing for it," Lydia readily replied. "I will go with Mrs. Forster, and you shall do the inventory."

"But how am I to be indispensable if I am not there?" Kitty lamented, but her concerns went unheeded. Mrs. Bennet being indisposed, Lydia quickly applied for her father permission to go out with her friend, and it was readily granted. Soon they were off, leaving Kitty far too distraught to attend to the inventory, which Mary ended up doing after all.

When Lydia returned for dinner, she was alive with talk of Mrs. Forster's arrangements. Over the course of the afternoon, the two ladies leaped across the boundary between acquaintance and intimate, now referring to each other on a first name basis. "Harriet will not serve such a grand feast as Miss Bingley did at Netherfield, but the George simply cannot accommodate such abundance. As it is, the guests will be forced to cross a drafty corridor just to get their dinner. Harriet thoroughly laments the situation, to be sure, but she is hampered by being in lodgings."

Alison sat at the head of the table in a state resembling shock. Despite having disposed of the entire contents of her stomach, she could still feel the effects of the laudanum, which had at least dulled her headache. Meeting Mr. Bennet had been the most strange experience in a thoroughly bizarre day. At least there was little chance the couple were intimate.

Listening to Lydia babble and trying to eat the unfathomable dishes before her took almost all her effort, rendering her silent thus far, but when Lydia lightly explained her intention of spending the next morning with Harriet at the dressmaker's, the outing to which Kitty was pointedly uninvited, she had to speak,

"Mr. Bennet," she began firmly, "do you think Harriet Forster an appropriate chaperone for your daughter?"

He looked up from his food, in which he had been thoroughly engrossed, in surprise. "I'd sooner trust a epileptic with a surgeon's knife!"

"Yet you gave permission for her to act so today and make no objection to her doing so tomorrow?" The entire table stared at her. "I believe that the married lady takes responsibility for an unmarried female companion in this society, and I know Mrs. Forster is not up to it."

"You surprise me, my dear!" Mr. Bennet said with an amused look in his eye that angered Alison. "I did not know you were such a student of character. Perhaps you and Mary ought to compare notes on the subject."

"You have not answered my question," she insisted.

"Very well! Mrs. Forster is not my first choice of companion for Lydia, but nether is Kitty. If the latter will not feel her sorrow too loudly, I can only conclude that the former's attendance on the Colonel's wife will buy us all a great deal of peace and quiet. I like the scheme very well."

Lydia preened with satisfaction. "But Mr. Bennet," Alison began again, "I am her mother, and I do not give he permission to go. We must discourage this growing intimacy."

"My dear, what harm do you believe might befall them at the dressmaker's?"

"Nothing particular." Oh how she wished it were Tom she were reasoning with! They never disagreed before their children, alway providing a united front. If she were stuck being Mrs. Bennet, she was going to need this man's support. "You can't image that Lydia will improve her mind in such company."

"No, I certainly do not image such a thing, nor that she will do so amongst anyone else!" See an unusually determined look in his wife's eye, he sighed and relented. "Lydia, if your mother is against it, you'd best send a note to Mrs. Forster with your apologies."

"No, Papa!" she cried, and a burst of laments poured forth. Alison had an urge to scream and protest herself. It seemed Mr. Bennet only behaved as he ought in order to minimize his own trouble, expecting she would pester him until she got her way! It was insulting, and as Alison had no intention of acting in such a manner, she could not depend on the fear of her nagging to insure his compliance again. If she woke up the next day still trapped in this body, she would have to think long and hard about how to proceed. She had only one goal in site in this time, and that was to keep Lydia from ever going to Brighton.  

Continue to Chapter Five

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Madness of Mr. Darcy: Chapter 19

I just finished Chapter Nineteen of my second draft of The Madness of Mr. Darcy. I really wish I had this finished last week so it could have been featured at More Agreeably Engaged, but as it wasn't, and it is now, I thought I'd go ahead and post here. The following takes place during Mr. Darcy's second day at Ramsey House. Please please please leave comments! I'm really excited about this book, and the enthusiasm others have shown for it keeps driving me on during a rather torturous undertaking: turning 83,000 words of gibberish into something coherent. I think next NaNoWriMo I'll slow the pace down and in order to produce a more functional rough draft. Enjoy!

Mr. Darcy was escorted to the lounge. Looking about himself and seeing no sign of Mrs. Bennet, and finding Lord Dunfield and Mr. Knightley deeply engrossed in the chessboard, he decided to again attempt an afternoon of quiet reading. Having spent more time socializing in the past twenty-four hours than he had in the past ten years, a respite from conversation immensely appealed to him. He found a copy of the Odyssey, a lifelong favorite, and contentedly settled into a comfortable chair with no intention of interrupting his pursuit for anyone but Mrs. Bennet.

Again, such reclusive behavior was not to be allowed. Today it was Miss Crawford who imposed herself upon him. At first she was unobtrusive, merely getting up and sitting beside him, picking up a book of her own and saying nothing for a great many minutes.

He had just gotten fully reinvested in the story when she suddenly commented, “I always felt bad for Calypso. Perhaps she behaved somewhat badly, but think of her life when Odysseus has left her behind. At least Penelope might eventually die, if her husband never returned, but Calypso is doomed to mourn his lost forever. Perhaps she yet remains on Ogygia, still wishing for a man dead for thousands of years.”

“You are very familiar with Homer for a lady, Miss Crawford,” he responded, intrigued by her musings.

“Oh yes. I had a very worldly upbringing, I suppose, being raised by my uncle the Admiral. His sufferings of his poor wife taught me well what men are made of Mr. Darcy. I had no warmth in my heart for your sharp witted hero, though he’s preferable to Jason.”

“You do not like Jason!” he exclaimed, suddenly animated by a favorite passion. “The Argonautica was my favorite story as a boy. I must have read it countless times!”

“That scene before the temple of Hecate is remarkable!” and she began to recite:

But only do thou, when thou hast reached Iolcus, remember me, and thee even in my parents' despite, will I remember. And from far off may a rumour come to me or some messenger-bird, when thou forgettest me; or me, even me, may swift blasts catch up and bear over the sea hence to Iolcus, that so I may cast reproaches in thy face and remind thee that it was by my good will thou didst escape. May I then be seated in thy halls, an unexpected guest![1]

Silence followed, but Darcy did not resume his book. He looked at his companion with new respect and said warmly, “You recite beautifully, Miss Crawford, and from memory too! Your governess is to be commended.”

She laughed, and Mr. Darcy found he liked the sound. “It was no instruction I received, but the model my brother provided. His powers of recitation are admirable, indeed.”

“Did you perform theatrics on your holidays?” he asked with a smile.

“Dear me, no. Not at the Admirals. We did once participate in a production at a friend’s house, but it was called off before we were able to try our talents on the boards.”

“What happened?”

“The father of the house returned unexpectedly from Antigua, of all places, and put an immediate end to the proceedings.”

“That seems rather severe.”

“The play was Lovers Vows, Mr. Darcy, There were two unmarried daughters of the house, and the one playing Agatha recently engaged – not to the man playing Frederick.” She smiled mischievously. “I was to play Amelia.”

“That does cast a rather different light on the situation,” he said, fully recognizing the impropriety of the situation. “What possessed you to choose such a play?”

“Some demonic force, undoubtedly,” she laughed charmingly. “We were all intent on a great deal of mischief that autumn, and we all paid the consequences for our actions in the end.”

They both grew contemplative and nothing was said for several minutes. Mr. Darcy thought the conversation might be at an end, but before he could recede back into his book and rejoin Telemachus on the shores of Ithaca, Miss Crawford regained his attention.

“You do realize, Mr. Darcy, that we are not all mad here.”

“Indeed! The entire house seems most determined to exclaim so.”

She smiled. “It is not easy to find yourself in a madhouse full of people insisting they are sane, I know. Who is one to believe? Actions must prove the matter. Based on your observations so far,“ she cast an arm about, “where does your tally stand, Mr. Darcy? Who do you think is sane, and who is truly mad?”

Her question made him uneasy, but as he want to know where she was leading him, he offered, “Mrs. Prescott is sane.”

“Yes. She is perhaps the sanest of us all, for who wouldn’t have wanted to end their lives after losing all that is dear to them?” She saw his look of non-comprehension and elucidated, “Her husband and three children all died of a fever four years ago. Her sister took her in to her home, and there she took a knife from the kitchen and sliced her wrists in a bathtub. The sister would have kept her still, but her rigid husband couldn’t tolerate the scandal that arose and made accommodations for her to come here, to learn the value of living once more.” She paused thoughtfully. “She has carved quite a niche for herself in this little world we inhabit. Most invaluable to the doctor and Mrs. Bennet. Miss Higgins is fairly sane too, just prone to hysterics and invariably silly, as is Miss Whitten,” she laughed bitterly, “whose tale is so classic it might have been written by anyone from Virgil to Scott. She refused to marry the old man preferred by her father, and he locked her away to teach her obedience. Quite barbaric, do you not think?”

“Indeed, I do!” he exclaimed. “I am surprised the doctor allowed it.”

“Oh you must not blame Dr. Wilson,” she said quickly, in a surprisingly protective manner, “for he knew not of the truth when she was brought to him, and has since kept her here to protect her from her father, much to that gentleman’s approaching chagrin, once he knows of it. And then there is Lady Elliot,” she sighed. My boon companion, for lack of a better, she is really quite pleasant company, but completely out of her mind. Thinks she’s the former daughter of her estate half the time, whom I suspect her husband preferred to herself. I do not know all the details,” she looked to Mr. Darcy as if he might know before continuing, “but her periodic confessions make me suspect she’s far from guiltless in the affair. I would not be surprised if she somehow entrapped Sir William into marriage, somehow, and now regrets her actions. Poor dear. She is very pleasant company, even if she only responds to Anne and not Penelope, and if she’s a bit too fond of misquoting romantic poetry.” She looked at him critically, “You, of course, informed everyone yesterday of your reason for coming here, just the kind of action, may I say, that has probably landed you on most of our “crazy” lists, though I suspect you are one of the sane ones, just in need of some new direction. Perhaps the doctor will help you find it. He has been invaluable to me.”

“Are you sane, Miss Crawford?” he dared to ask.

She laughed. “Oh, I have no business being here at all, having committed no act of violence to myself or others, and having only been possessed of the gall to tell my brother, before his guests, precisely what I thought of his newest amore. I ran his house for him for thirteen years, Mr. Darcy, and now that woman does so in my place. You see there are ways in which a sister can be of no use to a brother.” She smiled bitterly, and Mr. Darcy avoided her eyes in his embarrassment. “Had I married, I would not be here. I always intended to, of course, and having failed that, I should have arranged for my own provision, but there was always an obliging sibling on hand to prevent me from establishing my own household. But I shall not lament the past, Mr. Darcy, nor the future, either. Henry will grow tired of Mrs. Shaw, and I will be recalled from exile, wiser than I was before and more determined to control my own destiny.”

“Better than the fate of many of Greek heroine,” he sympathized.

“Yes. Have you read Euripides’ Medea, Mr. Darcy?” she asked.

Now she truly surprised him. “Yes, but I am astounded you have. Was that part of your upbringing with the Admiral as well?”

“Goodness no. I found the volume here. Presumably, Dr. Wilson, when examining the library of the house, did not consider that he might one day have a female guest who could read the classic languages.”

“My word, Miss Crawford,” he replied, greatly impressed.

“Oh, I am terribly accomplished. I was so as a girl, and as an unmarried woman, I’ve had ample opportunity to expand my knowledge. I mentioned it because I find Medea a fascinatingly powerful woman, Mr. Darcy. So difficult to relate to: feeling the right and privilege to act as one will, even in matters over life and death.” she said musingly. “To defend oneself, instead of being dependent on other to defend you. That would be a great thing.”

“The workings of men are not to be misconstrued with those of demi-gods, Miss Crawford.”

“Is not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?”[2] she asked, and he thought she seemed to quote, but looking at him with a hint of crossness, she elucidated. “I just think its telling, Mr. Darcy, how many of the men at Ramsey House landed here of their own volition, while the ladies were placed here by the gentlemen in their lives: their so-called protectors!”

He looked alarmed. “Surely there is good reason for Lady Elliot, and Lady Saunders to be here,” he said defensively.

“Yes, of course. It’s just that I wonder if anyone notices the discrepancy other than myself,” her mischievous smile returned, “or Mrs. Bennet. She, of course, must be particularly aware of the inequalities that have so affected her life. I’m sure she only found herself needing to work at all because of the failures of the men in her life. She must have had a spendthrift brother or father, or perhaps a husband who left her destitute.” He felt all his new goodwill towards the woman evaporate in a moment. “You have known Mrs. Bennet longer than anyone here, Mr. Darcy. Tell me: do you know what circumstances brought her here?”

He rose, and it was then she noticed the black look that had overcome his face. “No, Miss Crawford, I will not comment at all on Mrs. Bennet’s past, to you or to anyone! How dare you presume to know what she, or any other human is called upon to suffer!” He nearly shouted, and his body language was violent. Mary Crawford cowered in the corner of the sofa and orderlies pressed in to prevent any disturbance. Just then a voice rang out:

“Mr. Darcy is correct, Miss. Crawford,” all the room turned to look at Mrs. Bennet, standing at the top of the stairs. “We should never presume to judge what others have endured, or do endure, in their daily lives.” She caught Mr. Darcy’s eye, and he stood frozen, watching her. “We all have our struggles, and when we are at our best, they are a blessing, for they teach us how strong we are, and we learn self-reliance. These are invaluable treasures.” She stood a moment longer, and then walked over to Mrs. Prescott and began discussing some household matter. Mr. Darcy sat back down and resumed his book, and Miss Crawford hastily withdrew to the other side of the room, where she began to chat in quiet tones to Lady Elliot.

Sitting back down, Mr. Darcy thought of Elizabeth’s interference, and how she knew just what to say to defuse his anger. After all these years, to know him so well! But perhaps that was her way with all the guests at Ramsey House. He wished he might see something more in her actions, but caution stayed his hope. Besides, he reasoned, now he was truly on everyone’s crazy list. What would Mrs. Bennet ever want with him, violent and volatile? He felt a wave of shame for his outburst, much the same sensation of nausea he experience whenever he thought of Wickham or Georgiana. Was it not just as Miss Crawford said, and Elizabeth, whatever her journey, was reduced because of the failures of the men in her life: her father and himself? The full impossibility of any future with her weighed down upon his heart. He could only keep up the pretense of reading while guilt continued to crush him down.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Three

Read Chapter One and Chapter Two.

Real or not, the weight of responsibility for Lydia Bennet descended upon Alison like an anvil on a coyote. She confronted five and a half plus feet of empowered teenager, just itching to do something stupid.

"Mama, may we not go see the puppies?" she persisted with a laugh at such unaccustomed silence in her mother.

"You certainly may not!" She was relieved her this-is-my-last-word-on-the-subject voice had just as much finality in the unfamiliar English tones.

The ladies stared in shock at such forcefulness from the permissive Mrs. Bennet, all but Lydia attributing such unusual behavior to the bump on her head. "But Mama ..." she began to protest.

"Not another word!" Alison interrupted. "I may not understand all that is going on, but I do know that to allow you, of all characters, to go off in the company of stable hands would be insanity." She was nearly yelling now, and the girl's lip began to tremble at the harsh treatment. Alison knew she was overreacting, however justified her response, and a stab of pity touched her motherly heart. "Forgive me. The accident has rattled my nerves." Lady Lucas nodded in agreement at the familiar complaint. "Perhaps I was in need of a good rattling, if you thought I would consent to such an activity, but I should not have raised my voice."

"Our actions should always be modulated as best befits our circumstance," Mary preened, in alt to see her mother check Lydia's immodesty. Alison glared at her, which caused the girl's posture to wilt. Her own Mary had similar middle child tendencies, trying to puff herself up at the expense of her siblings, and setting herself up in moral superiority to the others. Alison had been trying to squelch such behaviors in her daughter since they first materialized at the tender age of three, when she took to spying on and reporting her elder sisters' behavior no matter what they did, good or bad.

"Here is your tea, my dear Mrs. Bennet!" Lady Lucas cried in relief as a servant entered bearing the tray. "Do sit down and rest yourself. I fear you are yet unrecovered."

Alison allowed herself to be administered to, as her head was pounding ominously. The damp rag Sir William soon returned to present was not nearly cold enough to do the slightest good. She asked for ice, at which request her hostess balked but complied, commenting she happened to have some on hand for the dinner party she was hosting the next evening. A servant was sent running, and something resembling sherbet was presented in a bowl with a spoon. Everyone's eyes grew wide as Alison lifted the bowl and placed the bottom of the cool glass upon the lump on her head. She ignored them, just closing her eyes and sighing in relief, while Lady Lucas sat on edge and watched her delicacy melt.

What I would not give for a pill! Alison thought. Anything would do: ibuprofen, acetaminophen, Aleve. She was so accustomed to reaching into a cabinet and grabbing for a bevy of remedies, always at her beck and call. What on earth do these people do for pain? she wondered. Laudanum! The notion excited her, but she felt it would not be appropriate to just ask for some in the middle of a neighbor's drawing room. She hoped they had some at Longbourn, just to see what it was like, though she doubted it would do anything more than dull her awareness of the pain. What if she had a concussion? She lifted the bowl from her head, careful not to spill any of the semi-liquid substance dissolving within it. There was a large mirror across the room, reflecting the fireplace. Alison rose and went to it.

As she checked the dilation of her pupils, Mary came to her and asked in a hushed tone, "Mama? What are you doing?"

Alison was holding her thumb and forefinger around her left eye in order to pry it open. One look at Mary told her this behavior was utterly alien to her company. "It is possible to gauge the severity of a bump to the head by the pupils of the eyes. If one is large and the other small, the situation is more severe. Mine, as you can see, are the same size."

"Did Mr. Jones tell you so?" Mary questioned, astonished that her mother would have any specific medical knowledge beyond common cures.

"No," Alison sucinctly replied. "I think I'm now recovered enough to be jolted along home. Thank you, Lady Lucas, for your hospitality. Sir William! Come along girls."

"But you are to stay the afternoon!" Sir William protested. "I have ordered a nuncheon prepared!"

"You are very kind, but I think I will be most comfortable in my own home," Alison said wistfully. Longbourn was even stranger to her than Lucas Lodge, but at least there she might be more comfortable. She longed to take of the confining dress and lie down on a bed.

"Yet you must wait until Mr. Jones arrives, now he has been summoned," Lady Lucas insisted.

Alison looked to her wearily. He might be sent on to Longbourn, but she hated to cause others such undue inconvenience. "I suppose we must wait," she capitulated, resuming her seat. Sir William asked if she would eat her ice and, upon her negation, consumed the liquid himself.

Lydia, who was twitching impatiently in her seat, ventured to say, "Might we not just look in on the puppies while we wait?"

"No! Why do you persist when I already said so?"

"But it would only take a moment ..."

"Enough!" Alison commanded. Her head felt like it would split at the sound. If this were her child, in her own time, she would know how to proceed. Talking back equals no phone for the rest of the day. This Lydia, unfortunately, didn't a phone, a computer, or even a TV to be denied. What could she do: forbid her books? That seemed very backwards to Alison, and from what she knew of the girl, not much of a punishment. "If I hear one more word on the subject from anyone," she glared at Kitty for good measure, "she will not be permitted to attend the next assembly or ball to come up, whichever it may be."

Lydia gasped and was on the verge of retorting, but a quick pinch from Kitty stayed her tongue. Colonel Forster was finally holding his long anticipated ball the following week, and both were far too scared to remind their mother that this would be their very last chance to dance with the officers, whose near departure she had bemoaned beside them that very morning. Mr. Wickham had requested the first set from the youngest Miss Bennet. Had Elizabeth been in town, he would undoubted have asked her instead, and newly saved as he was from the encroaching attentions of Miss Mary King, both Lydia and Kitty (and formerly their mother) rejoiced to get the jump on his former favorite. Neither would jeopardize the opportunity for the world. The puppies and their handsome caregivers were given up as lost.

Mr. Jones arrived and examined Alison's eyes, confirming the good sense of her own actions. Mary looked at her with renewed respect, and the lady in Mrs. Bennet's body tried to set a good example by  not looking smug. The apothecary suggested a precautionary bleeding, which Alison stoutly refused. With his departure, the Lucases could excuse that of the Bennets, and the ladies were escorted to their carriage and soon on their way. It was an unusually quiet ride, or so Alison surmised. Mary maintained the bulk of conversation, a task at which she was not fluent. Alison imagined her younger sisters typically droned her out, and she responded encouragingly to one of the girl's less offensive assertions, but her attention was distracted by a familiar glare of rebellion from Lydia. Truly, Alison thought it must be searing her flesh. The girl was displeased with such unaccustomed parenting and was sure to test these newly formed boundaries at the first opportunity. Alison knew she was up for the fight but dreaded it nonetheless. Perhaps she would awaken before having to undergo the ordeal, but how could her head ache so if this were just a dream?

When they passed through an open iron gate onto the grounds of Longbourn, Alison could not help but eagerly take in all about her. She spotted the "wilderness" to the side of the house in which Lady Catherine berated Elizabeth and what must be the hermitage just viable on a distant rise. She could not suppress a gurgle of delight as her eyes took in the ivy covered edifice: a testament to the stability and age of the stone walls to which it clung. The sound of gravel scattering beneath the carriage wheels was perfect: almost familiar, echoing through countless classic novels. She was helped from the carriage by an awkward boy and surveyed the unobstructed facade. The house was perfectly charming: neither as shabby as in the 2005 film, nor as stark as the 1995 version. Were it situated in her own Baltimore County neighborhood, the place would cost a fortune. The entry way was arched and supported by two sturdy pillars. The carved stairwell nearly took her breath away, its artistry quite unusual in the modern world. Mrs. Hill was a surprise too - not the dumpy, worn creature of film, but a plump and motherly lady with a bright smile and twinkling eyes. She began helping Alison to remove her tight pelisse, causing her to jump slightly at the feel of unexpected hands on her shoulders, though no one seemed to notice. Lydia stalked off upstairs, soon followed by Kitty. Mary retreated to the pianoforte, whose strained notes soon penetrated Alison's ears.

"Can I get you anything, ma'am?" Hill asked. "You'll be wanting to rest after your ordeal."

"Yes," she knew not where anything was located. "Might you help me change into something less restraining? I would like to lay down."

"Indeed, ma'am! Just lean on me, and I'll get you upstairs and comfortable. You'll be wanting a few drops of laudanum in a nice cup of tea to settle your nerves. I'll have Sarah see to it."

Alison laughed. Laudanum would have been less exceptional than ice, after all.

Read Chapter Four

Friday, March 28, 2014

Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice at More Agreeably Engaged!

I wish I had gotten this post up on Wednesday as intended, but I just returned him from visiting my in-laws with my daughter and was never able to finagle the computer time. This is also the reason the third chapter of Being Mrs. Bennet did not post on Monday, though I did write it longhand on the plane (I made the questionable choice of traveling without my laptop, thinking its absence would make security with a two year old less of an ordeal). Look for it next week when my heroine, Alison Bateman (in the guise of Mrs. Bennet) begins trying to rein in Lydia's behavior.

My Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice were featured in a spree of wonderful reviews at More Agreeably Engaged this week! All three books are up for giveaway, plus each post features an excerpt from The Madness of Mr. Darcy! It has been ablest reading the responses to my work in progress. In fact, I'm considering sharing most, or maybe even all, of the work prior to publication. More on that to come.

Please do check the great reviews and tantalizing (I think) excerpts. Thanks Janet!

First Impressions: http://moreagreeablyengaged.blogspot.com/2014/03/my-share-in-conversationfirst.html

Second Glances: http://moreagreeablyengaged.blogspot.com/2014/03/my-share-in-conversationsecond-glances.html

Holidays at Pemberley: http://moreagreeablyengaged.blogspot.com/2014/03/my-share-in-conversationholidays-at.html

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mr. Darcy Likes It Wild by Beth Massey

I imagine I heard a few deep gasps of shock and astonishment as I typed this post title, and before I proceed further, let me declare that I decided two months ago not to write any more negative book reviews. I have only good things to say about Mr. Darcy Likes It Wild, though I remember shuddering with revulsion when I first became aware of Beth Massey's name, following the publication of Goodly Creatures, her first book, and learning its premise. Like many others, Jane Austen's characters were not the forum within which I wished to explore the issue of rape, no matter how vital the conversation.

With so much Austenesque available, I rarely read outside my favorite authors in the genre anymore. The great exception are the books I pick up for free on Kindle. I hesitated before downloading this book even under those circumstances, but as I was about to be traveling it was hard to turn down a free read when it was on offer, even when I knew I'd encounter just the sort of sex scenes that make me most uncomfortable. Still, I never cracked the Kindle edition until Tuesday, when being stuck inside with my daughter during spring break finally left me desperate enough to brave the book I'd been avoiding since December. My worst prophesies seemed almost immediately realized when Mr. Darcy became enamored by the sight of a young man's backside. Maybe it was astonishment - a bit of devious glee at the horror of some if my cohorts in the no-sex-in-Austen camp - but I didn't turn my tablet off.

Austen's heroines are in a constant state of restriction based upon their gender. Imagine if all the societal dictates and norms beneath which they toil could be flaunted forever, and the 19th century morality from which they derived proved ridiculous and cruel: that's what this "diversion" is all about. Mr. Bennet, weakened by illness and frightened for his family's future, insists that Elizabeth marry Mr. Collins. She does the only reasonable thing by dressing like a young man and hightailing it to London (I read the foreword to the book after finishing it and was pleased to see Ms. Massey's accrediting Georgette Heyer's The Corinthian as inspiration, as I was often reminded of it during the text), asking Mr. Darcy to loan her the money for passage to Nova Scotia. Horrified at what might become her on such a journey, he convinces her to journey to Pemberley with him instead. What unfolds is really utter nonsense, but much in Heyer's style it is diverting nonsense: coincidental encounters at inns, Bow Street Runners, and highwaymen included. The plot resembles something like Austen herself once outlined in jest, but the crux of the novel - the exposure of gendered hypocrisy - is poignant.

Much Austenesque focuses upon Mr. Darcy's transformation into a worthy hero for our heroine. Mr. Darcy Like It Wild takes this to new heights, bringing the gentleman to a place where he is more than willing to risk not only his familial relationships, but also his reputation in order to protect Elizabeth, who before the novel is over has been "compromised" a thousand times over (excepting the technical way). The gender norms and expectations of not only a Regency audience, but also the modern reader, are again and again called into question. While I'm not sure I'll ever look to Austenesque for political and social commentary, Ms. Massey's use of the genre as a vehicle for her message is really rather beautifully done. It stands out amongst most of my recent reading for it's originality.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Two

Read Chapter One

"Mama! Are you alright?" a voice cried. Alison assumed it was Kitty, but she sounded strange. She would not open her eyes to see who it was, in deference to the pounding in her brain. She felt she was lying in the grass but had no notion or interest in how she came there. The ache in her head overrode any other concern.

"La! It is a miracle any of us is alright!" said a new speaker. "I do think my whole life flashed before my eyes, just as in a book! How exciting!"

"Lydia!" No, not Lydia, Alison silently corrected a third voice, disapproving in its tone. "Our mother is unconscious, and her survival is in question. You must temper your spirits as the occasion requires."

"She is moving!" Definitely not Kitty. Each speaker sounded almost like one of her girls, but not quite. And where was Tom? Her eyelids fluttered, revealing blinding light and bulbous shadows.

"There, Mary! You see she is not dead, so now you can admit that a carriage accident, when it doesn't injure you, of course, is quite thrilling! I wish we might do it again." The accent, Alison realized, was British.

"Mama? Are you alright?" questioned the first voice again. Alison struggled to hold her eyes open and focus them on a teenage girl dressed like a Masterpiece Theater character. The bulbous shadow was her enormous bonnet.

"Don't try to sit up, ma'am," a male voice, far less refined, emanated from a new figure, leaning over her from behind the girl. "Johnny's on his way for help." It was easy for Alison to oblige. She closed her eyes again, and in what seemed no more than a moment was roused by a screeching sound.

"Oh! My dear Mrs. Bennet! How could such a thing come to pass?" Alison had only a second to recall her predicament before she felt strong arms begin to inch their way beneath her.

"T'was a rut in the road, Lady Lucas! Weren't there yesterday, and I'd swear on that!" She felt herself carefully raised.

"Never mind that, lad. Better ride to Longbourn and inform Mr. Bennet. Carriage accidents happen all the time. It is no great mystery, my dear!" Carriage accident? Alison wondered how she might possibly have been injured by a carriage. Nothing seemed to make any sense, but she assumed that was due to the lump on her head.

Eyes still closed, Alison felt herself gingerly laid against a leather bench, her head supported by a lavender scented lap. She sighed with relief and prepared to fall back to sleep, listening to a voice whisper, "It is but a short drive to Lucas Lodge, Mama. This will not take a moment."

I'll take it, she thought, and drifted off, only to be lurched back into consciousness a moment later when the contraption conveying her began to move. "What the hell!" she cried, sitting up quickly, only to be forced to cradle her head again while the world spun, jostled, and jolted, all at once.

"Mama!" cried one scandalized lady while the other two giggled.

Before another word could be spoken, the dratted vehicle slammed to a halt, nearly knocking Alison off her precarious seat to the floor, but six ready arms grabbed at her in support.

"Thank you," she said gratefully, in a voice nothing like her own, and the world came into focus. She looked around at the black box in which she sat with three oddly garbed strangers who kept calling her "Mama" in a lilting, staccato manner, and wondered if she had lost her mind. She soon knew she had.

One wall of the box dissapeared in a shocking bolt of light, and a voice called out from it: "Ah! Mrs. Bennet! You look more yourself already. Let me help you down!" A hand reached out for her, like something out of a Korean horror film, soon followed by the bulbous nose and ruddy complexion of the most unfortunate looking man she had ever beheld. There was nothing else to do but scream.

The women looked at her in surprise, while the man's yellow smile fell with concern. "No, not quite yourself yet, I see. No worries! We shall have you restored in a moment. The lads will carry you in to the sofa." He indicated to two dirty looking boys, the smell of whom she perceived the moment her eyes spotted them.

"I think I can walk now, thank you," she said shakily. With relief, she was allowed to step outside on her own.

"It was a carriage!" she wondered aloud, looking around her in amazement. She stood upon a gravel driveway before a solidly Georgian house: perfectly balanced, and but for the lack of a sun room on one side almost identical to the house in which she had grown up. Many of the houses in the neighborhood were of the same design, together presenting an impressive spectacle of suburban affluence, but those were set on one to two acre plots, not surrounded by such unabated land as this place. Nor did the chemically treated lawns of her youth ever sport sheep grazing upon them, except in the form of an occasional garden statue, never to be fazed by Chemlawn. She turned around to see her three traveling companions scurrying out of the honest to goodness carriage - drawn by two horses, no less! She had only once been in a carriage before: a tourist trap in Central Park. The ladies before her each wore an empire-waisted muslim dress and bonnet. She looked down at her own clothes and noticed with amazement the yards of brocade she sported. As with the smell of those filthy teenage boys, who were smiling at the young ladies, it took the observance of her eyes for her body to notice that the item poking her under her ribs must be a corset.

"Let's get you inside, Mrs. Bennet," said the horrible man, taking her arm, from which she recoiled, and leading her into the house. At least he didn't smell of stables. She looked behind her to see one of the girls laughing at something one of the boys said and shuddered. No good can come of that flirtation, her motherly instincts warned, and she took a moment to be grateful her girls knew better.

She was made comfortable on the sofa, or at least as much so as possible on such a hard, unforgiving piece of furniture. The ugly man was sent by the screeching lady - his wife, Alison presumed - to get a cold compress. She thanked the lady for the thought, especially that which banished the man.

"My dear Mrs. Bennet! I do hope you do not suffer any longterm trauma from this day's work! It's a wonder you and the girls weren't killed, and not a quarter mile from Lucas Lodge! Do drink a glass of wine. I'm sure it must help you!"

Alison accepted the proffered glass and sipped before saying in the strange voice, "I think there has to be some mistake. Do you know where my husband and daughters are?"

"Your girls will be in at any moment, and Mr. Bennet is at Longbourn, of course! He has been sent for: never fear on that score. I shall also drop a quick note to Mrs. Phillips, shall I? She will want to know what has befallen you. It is too bad my Maria isn't here to entertain the Miss Bennets. We look forward to the return of our girls from Hunsford, do we not, Mrs. Bennet?"

Alison was on the verge of protesting that she did not know any of the names her hostess mentioned, when a glimmer of recognition crossed her mind. One of the girls did indeed make her appearance, dropping a quick curtsy before burring her nose in a book. From an outside, one of the others emitted a squeal of girlish laughter. Longbourn, Bennet, Lucas Lodge ... "Lady Lucas?" she asked tentatively.

"Yes?" the lady readily replied.

Dear god! Alison thought. I really have gone mad. I think I'm Mrs. Bennet! The shock was enough to make her feel lightheaded again. It might be one thing to travel back in time - though the shock must still take some adjustment - but how is it possible for a person to be transported into a book? Ridiculous! Impossible! She must be insane.

It was upon drawing this conclusion that the two remaining young ladies burst into the room, stumbling upon each other and giggling. The tallest - perfectly raven curls bouncing, rosy cheeks aglow, and a devious sparkle in her eye - honed in upon Alison and renounced in bold tones: "Mama! Sir William's groom has a litter of puppies in the stables. May we go look at them? James says I might choose one to take home, if I don't care for getting my skirts dirty, which I don't a jot."

My god! It's Lydia! Alison recognized her youngest's namesake with abject horror. Real or not, it seemed the most oblivious hoyden in 19th century literature was her own responsibility. "Oh! My head!" she exclaimed and closed her eyes.

Read Chapter Three