A note on the text: This story presupposes that the opening words of Mansfield Park – “About thirty years ago … “ – refer to the time period in which the bulk of the plot takes place and not the first few chapters. It also assumes that though Austen almost always refers to Mrs. Norris in the opening paragraph, using her maiden name and title once, that the lady was still Miss Ward at the time of Miss Frances’ marriage to Mr. Price. Thank you for reading this “Twisted Austen” tale, and have a happy Halloween.
Between them, the Misses Ward had twenty-one thousand pounds, more than enough to cover the costs of their housing, feeding, and servants, and each year their uncle, the lawyer, presented the eldest with a tally sheet, detailing precisely why he was owed all of their interest earned. Miss Ward had learned not to question his figures, no matter how fantastic they might be. To do so would bring down upon her the dreaded charge of ingratitude, a sentiment Mr. Ward found particularly distasteful in his nieces, whose guardianship he only begrudgingly undertook. They made his inheritance, unlooked for and unneeded, more an encumbrance than a fortune. What good to him, for whom the country held no pleasure, was his elder brother's modest estate? He often swore he would rather his brother had lived – though he wished him to the devil often enough when alive – and not burdened him so, but the law declared the ladies his responsibility, and he was a strict upholder of the law.
In his eye, the three ladies were guilty of the unforgivable crime of being orphans. It was ludicrous to blame his brother: never intelligent and far too dead to feel his guilt. The two youngest Miss Wards were similarly vacuous, but the eldest was more capable. She alone was fully sensible of her culpability, and so for her did he reserve his most venomous complaints.
Knowing her privileged position within the household, Miss Ward did her best to protect Maria and Frances from his rage, and over the years, she had learned how to minimize his fits of temper. At twenty-one, having survived eleven years in his care, she knew how to best engage his meager supply of sympathy.
Knocking on the open door, she tentatively asked, "Sir? May I claim a moment of your time?"
He looked up through a cloud of pipe smoke and fixed her with an angry stare before consulting his pocket watch. "You have two minutes."
She stepped into the terrible glare emanating from the great windows behind the desk, but she willed her eyes not to blink. Better to water mercilessly than display such a weakness before her guardian. "I request your permission to invite a gentleman to dinner tomorrow evening. He is calling upon Miss Maria now. This is the third time he has called since they were introduced at last week's assembly."
He sneered, eyes still on his watch. "I suppose I shall have to bear the expense of feeding all the foolish gentlemen who are susceptible to a pretty face and empty head. Who is he?"
"Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park." She tried to hide the satisfaction in the words.
He looked up. "Mr. Norris' guest? The baronet?"
"He should not be bothering with Maria. She is at least three thousand pounds short of being worthy of his interest."
"You underestimate the appeal of becoming manners and complaisance, Uncle."
"I doubt it," he snorted, "but if Sir Thomas fancies an empty-headed wife, I shall not be the one to throw a rub in his way. Invite him for Wednesday next, when Richards dines. That will minimize the expense."
"Yes, Uncle," she replied and retreated, before he had the opportunity to scold that her two minutes had expired.
Rejoining her sisters in the drawing room was like reentering another world from that which lay just down the passage, sulfurous and bright. Maria's gentle laughter, like the sound of the angel she was, rang forth. "My dear sister!" she cried with an unusual degree of animation. "You will not believe what Sir Thomas has been telling us! He has property in the West Indies, and he has actually journeyed all that way to see it for himself! Can you imagine?"
Miss Ward beamed at her sister indulgently before casting her eyes towards Sir Thomas, whom she saw was just as charmed by Maria's innocence as she had always been. With uncharted pleasure she replied, "A gentleman of honor and intelligence must wish to be in command of all his interests. To leave land in the stewardship of others, with no supervision whatsoever, would be negligent."
Maria shook her curls in negation. "But what of the danger? I am glad, Sir Thomas," she said candidly, "that no hardship befell you on such a journey, but I hope you will never have occasion to ever venture so far from home again. I do not know how I could bear the worry."
Sir Thomas looked as if he needed only the slightest urging to secure such a becoming display of concern as his very own. Miss Ward saw it all with an anticipation that bordered on pain. The prospect of such a match, and the liberation she associated with it, was like a wild fantasy come true.
It had long been brought to bear upon her how much depended on each of the sisters securing husbands. It was only the second evening she spent in her uncle's house, not a week following the death of both her parents, that she was first summoned into the forbidding office from which her uncle oversaw all his concerns. There was no sun to blind her then, but the multitude of tallow candles which her uncle deemed necessary to illuminate his domain had much the same effect, their smoke combining with that of his cigar to make the terrified ten-year-old cough and gag.
He watched her silently until the fit subsided, making it perfectly clear that he had no intention of offering her any comfort, and then said, "Edmund would saddle me with sickly brats. If you are all inclined towards colds and ailments, I shall have you off to school at once."
"No, sir! That is ..."
"I will not have my household disordered, do you understand? I can only guess what kind of liberality you are used to enjoying, but I will not have waste and idleness under my roof. The three of you will remain in my charge until you marry or reach the age of twenty-five, at which point you may undertake the guardianship of your sisters. Between this time and that, I suggest you busy yourselves in attaining those accomplishments that will secure my relief from your burden as soon as possible. The interest from your dowries may be used towards this end. I shall not fund such nonsense, of that you may be sure!"
A bewildered Miss Ward was abruptly dismissed and returned to her grieving sisters, still overcome by shock at the loss of family and home, and as determined to be married with the greatest possible swiftness as her uncle could hope. Their removal from Opperthorn had been a heavy blow so close on the heels of their parents’ carriage accident, but their uncle lived in Huntington when he was not in London, and having no affection for his familial home, he ordered the place shut up and gave the servants their leave. The house was put up for sale, but as no one ever emerged who was willing to meet Mr. Ward’s terms, it had now stood empty for almost half her lifetime, all of which had been devoted to the goal of finding husbands for her sisters.
She was presented with a ledger – the first of many – and told to keep strict accounts of her expenditures. Item number one was the ledger. Item two the pen. Though yet a child, it was Miss Ward who was charged with finding a governess for herself. She was lucky to fall into the hands of a Miss Tilney, who undertook the care of the three girls at a rate tenable to their guardian. She remained with the family for nearly seven years, at which point Miss Ward was deemed to know enough to teach the others. Mr. Ward dismissed her one day while the ladies were out alone. When they returned from their shopping, Miss Tilney was already gone. She had been Miss Ward’s confidant and friend, and her loss, while bourn stoically, caused a hurt far too deep to ever completely recover.
It now fell to Miss Ward to find the masters who would complete the education of herself and her sisters. Never being allowed enough funds to hire competent instructors, they made do with those who were merely tolerable and emerged from their years of education predictably devoid of any true accomplishment. Miss Ward saw the lack but knew not what to do about it. Tolerable dowries and pretty faces would have to fill the void.
With the latter they were well endowed. Miss Ward was widely regarded as a handsome woman. Her long nose and slightly sharp features may not have held up to the severest scrutiny, but that she had countenance was undeniable. Maria was very pretty and promised to become more so. Frances was cut from a similar mold.
For herself, Miss Ward was not long in finding both security and satisfaction in the assumption within the family that she would, someday, marry Mr. Richards, her uncle's clerk. She liked James. They shared the ready sympathy of fellow sufferers in the hands of the same tyrant. His prospects were good enough to match her own ambitions, which for herself were very modest, and their understanding freed her energy to focus on her sisters, for whom she wished a bit better. It would be convenient if she could marry sooner, but such happiness must wait upon the advancement of Mr. Richards’ career (which Mr. Ward, considering his complaints against his nieces, was remarkably reluctant to promote) or the death of his maternal grandmother, a remarkably stout woman of seventy-two, to whose small, free-hold property he was heir.
The recent entrance of the baronet into their society was like a brilliant light shining where all had always been dark. As soon as Miss Ward saw him at the assembly, she knew he would be an ideal husband for Maria. She busied herself for the first few sets, positioning their chaperone, an elderly and somewhat feeble neighbor, so as to maximize the likelihood of capturing Sir Thomas' attention. The gratification of an introduction was quickly amplified by his request for Maria’s hand, a circumstance Miss Ward was certain would have taken much longer to occur if she had not been forward enough to suggest it. A second dance was claimed later in the evening, by which time all attending were abuzz with Miss Maria's triumph. She smiled and received the congratulations of those so bold as to give them with her typical, languid grace. Miss Ward, on the other hand, saw the conquest as largely her own, and her satisfaction in this suddenly illuminated path towards liberation was palpable.
Come back tomorrow to read Part Two!
A TWISTED AUSTEN GIVEAWAY
Today's giveaway includes one copy of The Madness of Mr. Darcy and a handmade set of my Harrowing Austen cards, featuring ghoulish moments from each of her novels. This giveaway is open internationally, but I can only offer a choice between a paperback or ebook to North American residents. All others will receive the ebook.
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