Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Fifteen

Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter Thirteen, Chapter Fourteen

"Mom, can you hear me?"

I can you hear you, Lizzy!

"Mom. It's me, Lizzy. Can you hear me?"

I can hear you, Lizzy! I'm right here!

"Mama? Mama, can you hear me?" An English voice startled Alison into consciousness. Her eyes slowly registered on Elizabeth Bennet, who was standing by the bedside, dressed to go out. If the sun was on the ascent, the windows did not yet expose the fact. Alison must have been looking at her favorite heroine with befuddlement, for she soon explained, "I was told you've taken a liking to long walks, and I thought you might join me for my morning ramble."

It only took a moment for Alison to become fully awake. A "morning ramble" with Elizabeth Bennet! Her dream was already forgotten when she eagerly responded. "Indeed! Let me just get dressed."

Elizabeth helped her instead of calling for a servant, and Alison only extracting the most serviceable garments from the wardrobe, they were soon out in the dewy spring morning, walking in no direction in particular beneath the dawning sky.

"This is lovely!" Alison exclaimed, as they paused to look out upon a sloping vista. Not a road dotted the landscape for miles, and only the sounds of birds, sheep, and the occasional cow reached her ears. For a moment she wondered at herself for finding it all so novel, and then the memory of suburban streets intruded upon her vision, reminding her to wonder what would be on this very spot in her own time. Her own time ... somehow, when Elizabeth Bennet was her companion, the concerns of that world seemed to slip away. The thought made her heart race, but not enough as it should, and she vaguely realized the fact, honoring it with more insufficient alarm.

"Shall we rest on this rock a while?" Elizabeth asked, gesturing to a large and flat protrusion along the side of the path they pursued.

"It's Mother Nature's own answer to the park bench!" Alison proclaimed enthusiastically, and sat with alacrity.

Elizabeth descended more wearily, perching herself as far from her mother as she could with grace. They sat in silence for some moments, Alison happily smiling about her, lost to all bit the perfection of the moment, and Elizabeth studying her wearily, her eyebrows pinched together with concentration.  It was she who broke the peace by calmly stating: "There is a spider crawling on your gown."

As the words were spoken, Alison became cognizant of the rather ordinary brown spider climbing up her skirt. Her eyes might have widened at the sight, but she did not start, instead slowly leaning down to the side and picking up a stick which she used to remove the intruder carefully from the fabric. Soon the creature was safely scurrying away from the terrifying encounter, while Alison brushed off her gloves and gown.

"I knew it!" Elizabeth abruptly stood up and proclaimed, pointing a finger at Alison. "It may sound mad, and I know not how it might have happened, but you are not my mother!"

Alison paled at the accusation, and knowing not what to say, responded softly, "Then who do you suppose I am?"

"I don't know!" cried the distraught heroine, dropping the accusing digit and beginning to pace the ground. "It doesn't make any sense, but my mother has a decided aversion for all insects. She would never react as you just did."

"But spiders are such useful creatures, eating mosquitos and other pests, and really not insects at all, but arachnids."

"What are you even speaking about? My mother is not a font of information on scientific classification!" she said exasperatedly.

"I realize that," Alison replied sadly, "but I cannot help knowing the things I know."

Elizabeth looked at her intently. "So you admit to not being who you appear?"

"I cannot explain how it happened," she began to gush, "do not expect me to. One moment I was there, and then I was here, and that is all I know."

Elizabeth, far from relieved, had turned stark white at the words and sat unsteadily back down upon the rock. "So it is true!" she marveled. "I knew but still could not believe." She looked at Alison searchingly. "Who are you? Where is my mother?"

"My name is Alison Bennet," she began.

"No it isn't!" Elizabeth angrily interrupted.

"Alison ... Bateman," she said forcibly, trying to remember all the details. "I'm married to Tom Bateman." It got easier. "We live in Baltimore, Maryland and we have five children: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Lydia, and Kitty!" She was becoming frantic. Speaking of them out loud for the first time and weeks brought all the poignancy of her predicament bearing back down upon her. It was Alison's turn to lose her color, and Elizabeth placed bracing hands upon hers.

"Maryland? In the Americas? Yet we all have the same names ... how can it be?" she wondered.

"I do not know how it can be, but I can explain the names." She took a deep breath. "You see, I named my children after you."

"And you and your husband's names?"

"Coincidence. Austen never gave your parents' names."

"What? Who is Austen?"

Stop it you fool! Alison derided herself internally as her eyes grew big and her mouth hung open, though not wide enough to comfortably fit the foot she just stuck into it. How do you tell someone they are a fictional character? You don't.

"Austen, Austen, Jane, I mean James. Austen James, my cousin who records the family heritage," she quickly improvised.

"But we have no relations outside of England, nor relations named James! You are not making any sense!"

"It does not make any sense!" Alison cried in desperation. To her surprise, Elizabeth seemed to respond more to this logic than anything else she had said.

"Granted," she nodded once or twice and began to pace once more. Alison watcher her with fascination until she stopped and posed a new question:"What do you remember?"

"Not much, and less all the time! That is what I find most alarming."

Elizabeth looked like she agreed, and her posture softened at the thought. It was very quietly that she asked again: "Where is my mother?"

"I don't know! I'm so sorry," Alison instinctively put her arms around Elizabeth, just as she would have around her own Elizabeth, and held her as she began to tremble and then weep. Her emotion made Alison's own loss all the more poignant, and she felt she could cry and worse if she would only allow herself, but she was a mother, and here was a child in need of comfort, and she was the only one to provide it. She remained calm.

"Please excuse me!" Elizabeth eventually said, wiping her eyes and shaking herself into control. "I shall be myself agin now. Thank you."

"It's not a problem, my dear. I know how you feel."

"Yes. I suppose you do," Elizabeth grew thoughtful once more. "Yet you are forgetting your true life?"

"It's as if it just slipped beyond my hands, and I cannot touch it as I could before, when it seemed so much more real, especially compared to here. I was also so excited to actually be here that I didn't fight it at first as I probably ought to, and now it's all grown so familiar. I fear being trapped forever, but I am also enjoying myself, which is the even more horrifying scenario. When I think of my children ...." She could not continue. Suddenly it was her emotions that were rushing out of control, and she turned away to collect herself. She soon felt a warm hand on her shoulder.

"How did you know us? Through a cousin, Austen James?"

It sounded so ridiculous Alison knew it was unsustainable. "No, Jane Austen. I learned f you from Jane Austen. Please do not ask me more than that. I know you want answers, but I really do not have any to provide."

"But how do we undo this?" Elizabeth asked with a hopeless look.

"I do not know. I keep thinking I'll just wake up, and it will be over as quickly as it began," she looked at her hands, trying to remember the difference between Mrs. Bennet's and her own and failing miserably.

Elizabeth had resumed her pacing. "For some reason you wish not to explain, you named all your children the same as my parents." She suddenly stopped, as if absorbing the impact of a new idea. "How old are they?"

"The same ages as your sisters," Alison said meekly replied.

"It is impossible!" She replied, knowing that the entire conversation was, according to all logic, impossible. "Do whate'er thou wilt swift-footed Time,"* she laughed forcedly, and sat rather abruptly back down upon the rock. "Do you belong to my time?"

"No."

"To the future?"

"Yes."

"How far?"

"Two hundred years."

"Two hundred?" she repeated, sitting in marvel for several moment. "Then this Jane Austen must be a descendant? Are you my great-great-great-granddaughter or something?"

"Perhaps ... something."

"Well! This is all far too startling to make any sense out of it all. I sympathize more now with my father for not wanting to know the truth."

"He suspects me?" Alison asked.

"Yes, but he is too enrapt with the improvement to care." She looked sadly at her hands. "My parents marriage has not been a happy one."

"I known."

"How do you know such intimate details of our lives? It's hard to imagine the anecdotes of our daily existence survived for two centuries." She suddenly narrowed her eyes, "And how did you know of Mr. Darcy?"

"Forgive me, but I really do not think I ought to tell you."

"Why not?"

Alison searched for a response. "Because it might disrupt the space-time continuum?"

"What?"

"Never mind. I wish I were able to explain it better, but I really cannot," Alison said, sitting back down on the rock, far closer to Elizabeth than they began. "Besides, you have just absorbed the shock of all this. Let's take this one step at a time."

Elizabeth wore a weary smile and said: "So you will explain it all another time?"

"Perhaps," Alison softly replied. "If I'm still here, and I still remember."

Both ladies fell into a gloomy silence.

*Shakespeare Sonnet 19

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Perfect Match by Lory Lilian

The Perfect Match: A Pride and Prejudice Sequel is a short, satisfying novel providing a glimpse into the Darcy's happily-ever-after-lives a year after their marriage. They are, as the title unequivocally states, the perfect match: often shocking relations, friends, and society with their open devotion. Jane and Bingley have not managed to achieve the same happiness. Much of the conflict of the story centers around the difficulty this couple has bonding due to lack of communication and imposing relations. It is my favorite part of the book. The picture drawn of a timid and demure Jane, anxious for her husbands attentions but not even possessing the language to describe what she yearns for, pitted against a Mr. Bingley so in awe of her beauty that he's scared she could break is very believable. This tensions also sets up some wonderful comeuppance moments for Caroline. The very best set down she receives, astonishingly enough, is from Mrs. Bennet:
"You know, speaking of the ball, I had the pleasure of meeting with Lady Matlock these last few days - what a wonderful person, indeed. She is very fond of Lizzy and so polite and kind - one can easily observe the effect of a proper education. That is my idea of good breeding - and those persons who fancy themselves very important and only open their mouths to give offense, quite mistake the matter."
Go Mrs. Bennet! I love that. As this occasionally lovable matron hints, the crux of the plot rests upon Elizabeth's first ball. Relishing their privacy, she has yet to be properly presented to society, and Lady Matlock is guiding her through the process. Another great moment for Miss Bingley occurs when she is bullying Elizabeth about her preparations, and Jane cooly informs her Lady Jersey is coming. Very satisfying!

I also really enjoyed the devotion the staff shows their new mistress. I don't want to provide any real spoilers but this story does take place a year in to the marriage, Elizabeth is having a hard time sleeping, her appetite is lacking ... draw your own conclusions (mine were set a few pages into the book). Anyway, she has a fainting spell at one point and Darcy's valet, obviously feeling the need to act on behalf of his missing master, swoops the protesting Mrs. Darcy into his arms and deposits her in her bedroom. I laughed pretty hard upon reading that, and even more so when a distraught Mr. Darcy comes home and yells at his excessively devoted servants, who of course understand he is just anxious and have forgiven him long before he apologizes for his transgressions. Silly old Mr. Darcy!

Like most Lory Lilian books (two of which I have reviewed: Rainy Days and His Uncle's Favorite), things can get rather steamy from time to time, but while the more intimately romantic scenes in this tale can be lengthy, they are not terribly graphic, which I greatly appreciate. I happen to have been told by Ms. Lilian herself that her next book, My Husband, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, will be similarly discrete in its sexual depictions. The book should be out soon and explores what would have happened if Darcy and Elizabeth were forced to marry before coming to their own understanding. Can't wait! I really enjoy her books.

The Perfect Match makes a perfect summer read, especially for a distracted mom at a beach, pool, or on an airplane. The story is not so emotional that you can't put it down, yet it provides a thoroughly happy escape into a world of wealth, romance, ton, and it even gives us a little bit of Christmas in July, if you hurry up and read (or reread!) it in the next three days. A very pleasant diversion, indeed!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Fourteen

Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter Thirteen

That evening, once most of the family had already retired, Elizabeth sought Mrs. Hill in her office.

"My dear Miss Lizzy! Come in, come in! How nice to have you home again."

Elizabeth accepted a proffered seat. "It is nice to be home, Mrs. Hill." She glanced around at at the small room's familiar walls, in which most of her childhood scrapes and falls had been tended.

"What can I do for you?"

 "I was hoping you might tell me more about my mother's health since the carriage accident."

A thoughtful look overspread the good woman's brow. "What is it you want to know?"

"Her behavior is markedly ... different."

"That it is," Mrs. Hill agreed.

Elizabeth sighed. "Do you know what might have happened to cause such a change in personality?"

"No more than anyone. The mistress has been as she is ever since the day of the accident."

"What was she like when she first came home that day?"

Mrs. Hill pondered her words before proceeding. "She was confused, not knowing where things were and the like."

"For example?" Elizabeth pressed, sitting forward attentively in her chair.

"Well she couldn't remember how to work the bell, for one thing."

"That could just be disorientation due to the accident."

"That's just what Mr. Jones said," Mrs. Hill confirmed.

Elizabeth felt she was probing in the wrong direction. "Today my mother declared her intention to buy a riding habit. I thought the one thing my mother and I shared in common was a fear of horses, and now she wants to ride my father's stallion!"

Mrs. Hill shook her head worriedly. "Many of her tastes seemed changed. She wont take any laudanum any more, not since that first night, and bathes at every opportunity."

"Long walks, coffee, reading aloud, dropping stitches," Elizabeth checked each item off on her fingers. "She shares amusements and intimacies with my father, and rebukes Lydia for too high spirits. Can this be the same woman?"

Mrs. Hill looked startled. "Who else can it be, miss?'

"I don't know," Elizabeth confessed guiltily, "nor do I wish to alarm you, but it boggles the mind. Can a bump on the head do so much?"

"If it makes you feel better, Miss Lizzy, she has been ever so pleasant these weeks! Always thanking me, and hesitating most charmingly whenever she requests a service. That last dose of laudanum she took made her mighty sick, and my heart nearly broke when she apologized for all the trouble she was causing."

Elizabeth felt as if she could never cease to wonder at her mother's recent marvels. "You sound like my father and Jane, content with what they see as an improvement and unwilling to ask how it came about, lest it prove a fantasy."

"It's not my place to question the behavior of the family, Miss Lizzy, but if you are worried for Mrs. Bennet, maybe you should talk to her about it. She's the best one to answer your questions, I should think."

Elizabeth pondered this a moment then smiled. "You are right. I do not know why I did not consider it an option myself. Thank you, Mrs. Hill."

"It's my pleasure, Miss Lizzy. Reminds me of the days you used to run to me with all your little troubles, and we'd sit over a cup of tea and work out why Mary tore your book or some such thing."

"I always felt better for your counsel."

On the other side of the house, Alison was lying in her bed watching a candle flicker on the nightstand. If she squinted her eyes, it almost had the same pulsing look as the off-air snow the television channels of her youth would default to late in the night. She forced herself to recall familiar themes songs - The Brady Bunch, The Jeffersons, and Scooby-Doo. These memories were vital tethers to her real world, and it felt vital to hold on to them.

These meditations were interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by Mr. Bennet's head in a night cap sticking through the door. Alison bolted upright in alarm. "Mr. Bennet!" she exclaimed.

"Good evening, my dear." He stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. Alison dug herself deeper beneath the covers. "I though we might ... talk," he said cautiously.

"Can it not wait until morning?"

He looked hurt. "I suppose it could, but I'd like to speak now." He picked up the chair from the vanity and placed it beside the bed. "You need not fear me pressing my affections upon you, if that's what has you worried."

Alison hoped she didn't look as relieved as she felt. "I did not mean to offend you ..."

"No matter," he interrupted. "We have more important matters to discuss, Alison."

See started and blurted, "How do you know my name?"

He looked truly flabbergasted, "And why should I not know my own wife's name? As I recall, I did have to speak it in church at least the once!"

All the color drained from her face. "And is your name is Thomas?" she asked desperately.

"Are you in earnest?" he asked in astonishment. "I'd like to know what else you think it ought to be! Perhaps Lizzy was right to be so concerned."

"Lizzy was concerned about me?"

"We all are, my dear," he sighed and stood from his chair. "I do not know what happened to addled that brain of yours in the carriage accident, but ever since I've seen the first glimmer of the woman I married that I've had in years!" He bent down and grasped her hand in both of his. "I know the years have not been what we once imagined them, but that does not mean the future must be the same as the past."

"You are in earnest?" She was floored.

"Completely. Think of what' I've said, Alison. I will see you in the morning," and he leaned over the bed and kissed her forehead, just as Tom used to do when he tucked her and one of their infant daughters in for a nap together. "Good night, my dear," and he left.

Mrs. Bennet's name is Alison! she wanted to scream at the closed door in alarm, shock, and confusion. Instead, tears overwhelmed her, making the world look like an Impressionist painting. Alison and Thomas, but Austen never gave either character a first name! She didn't think her name sounded remotely Regency. Was this just some wild turn in her fantasy? Or was her modern world the fantasy, and she was just batty old Mrs. Bennet? She couldn't tell what was real anymore, and that terrifying thought kept her awake all through the night.

Read Chapter Fifteen

Friday, July 18, 2014

Etiquette: The Mourning Period

My husband and I find ourselves often consulting the copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan that his mother gave him upon graduation from high school. It is a bit dated, the 1995 edition we own having last been updated in 1978, but we find it an extremely useful guide when we have questions about how to appropriately proceed. I know we are discussing modern manners, not those of Jane Austen's era, but I have decided to start posting when we consult the book, as I just find it so fascinating. Miss Austen, after all, would want us all to be well-mannered, wouldn't she?

My grandfather has been dead for a week, and I find myself drawn back to Ms. Vanderbilt and what she has to say about wearing black.

Some people take much longer than others to recover from the death of a loved one The healing time should never be rushed; in fact, expressing grief is an important part of the recovery process. There is no longer such a thing as a prescribed mourning period for those close to the deceased. In the past, a widow or widower was expected to mourn (and wear black) for a year or, in some religions, for the rest of his or her life. Fortunately this has changed. Sensible people would want their surviving loved ones to continue on with life. 

I can't argue with the part about not mourning forever, but I think we have lost something in the relaxation of mourning expectations. Some people might be able to turn around and resume their normal lives, but I think most of us find it rather difficult. In the days when we donned arm bands and bombazine, everyone could see a mile away we that we grieved. There was no need to explain, and all knew delicacy might be required when interacting with a mourner. I wish I had that barrier of protection now. I think I'd prefer to be anxious for a period of mourning to end than feel it was inadequate.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Thirteen

Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter Eleven, Chapter Twelve

Alison rose that morning happy and refreshed. She had gotten used to the bed, and even more used to not waking too early to either an alarm clock or screaming. At Longbourn she heard the cock crow and slept through it. The first time it woke her, it took a while to identity what she was hearing. She had never heard a rooster in the morning before.

Not a thought to her real life disturbed her as she dressed. The clothing no longer foreign and incomprehensible, she was able to make natural choices about her borrowed appearance. Even the strange visage in the mirror no longer startled her: the too light hair and almond eyes felt not only familiar but almost right. She presented herself downstairs with excitement and anticipation. Elizabeth was home! She would east breakfast with Elizabeth Bennet!

Alison tried not to stare at her when she entered the dinning-room, moving through the process of getting her plate, food, and coffee without thought, just as if she had been eating from a buffet every morning of her life. Indulging the normal pleasantries and inquiring into everyone's intentions for the day absorbed some few minutes, as she gathered the details of Mary's piano practice, Jane's gardening, and Lizzy's letter writing. Having thus spread her interest around the table, Alison felt entitled to focus entirely on Elizabeth, with no small degree of pride in the self-control she had displayed in waiting so long. "To whom do you correspond this morning, Lizzy?"

"Mrs. Collins and my Aunt Gardiner, to thank them for their kindness."

"Does not Lady Catherine warrant a faint scratch in token of her nine dinners?" her father inquired.

"Mr. Collins was so good as to suggest I send her a note prior to my departure."

"Did he? What a valuable relation he has proven!"

"I'm surprised he didn't suggest writing again upon your homecoming," Alison remarked.

Elizabeth looked startled. "Actually, he recommend just such a course, but a reminder that she had not requested a correspondence weakened his insistence."

Everyone thought this rather amusing, and they were still laughing when Lydia and Kitty entered a few minutes later. The latter smiled on the sight. "Good morning! Everyone seems in fine spirit today."

"And what do you girls have planned this morning?" Alison inquired with a smile.

"We could walk to Meryton and visit my Aunt Phillips. We can tell her all about Jane and Lizzy's travels and our morning collecting them from the inn," Lydia eagerly suggested.

"But they plan to call on her tomorrow," Kitty protested.

"What does that matter?"

Kitty flushed. "Well we must leave them something to say."

Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth both burst into laughter, but Alison only looked on Kitty encouragingly and said, "That's very considerate of you, my dear," words which checked Elizabeth's humor.

"But what shall we do otherwise?" Lydia sulked, discontent to spend a day at home after the adventure of the day before.

"Poor Lydia! To confront the torments of a quiet day in her own comfortable home!" Mr. Bennet declared. "This cannot be allowed. Mrs. Bennet, you have inquired into everyone's intentions for this day but my own, and if you will only hurry up and do so, I might propose a solutions to Lydia's predicament, if Lizzy might put of her correspondence for one day more, of course."

Alison smirked and replied, "My dear Mr. Bennet: how do you intend to spend this delightful morning?"

He returned her smile. "I propose we take ride. The horses are free, the bluebells ought to be starting to bloom, and I know a lovely birch wood just about seven miles away. Shall we make it a picnic?"

This suggestion was greeted with squeals of delight from the youngest girls, smiling consent from Jane and Mary, and perplexity from Elizabeth, which her father acknowledged with a wink in her direction. Alison beamed on him, looking about and feeling responsible for the happy family scene, until her eyes met Elizabeth's and she saw the questions in her eyes. Her true identity and place came bursting back upon her consciousness: she was an impostor, and Elizabeth could see right through her.

Two hours later the family was on its way, Jane and Mr. Bennet riding beside the carriage into which everyone else was stuffed. Alison, to the wonder of all, had asked if she might rise as well. The objections to this were three-fold: she had not a habit, there was not another mount, and she didn't know how. Mrs. Bennet may not know, thought Alison, but I have been riding since I was seven! It was a stark reminder of her bizarre predicament. Under Elizabeth's assessing gaze, there was nothing to do but submit to the closed carriage, yet she was gratified to have Mr. Bennet say to her aside, "You may order a habit in Meryton tomorrow, if you have no aversion to shopping."

"Certainly not!" she assured him.

"Good! I'm glad to know not everything has changed about you, my dear!"

Now she sat dwelling on this statement with Elizabeth's penetrating eyes watching her every move. The combined effect was perfectly unnerving. How could she have gone through so much of the day without even thinking of her own family and concerns? Was she losing herself in this fantasy and if she did, would that be, in essence, death?

She wished it were just she and Mary, that she might probe the girl into metaphysical exploration. To attempt it before Elizabeth at the moment seemed suicidal. She might as well just tell them she was born in 1965.

Such morbid thoughts dominated the drive but dissipated as soon as they approach their destination. Carpets of blue and green spread in all directions, punctuated by trees in stark contrast. It was one of the loveliest sights she had ever beheld, but it was not the first time she beheld it. She took it in with a gasp, memories of her honeymoon flooding back. She had forgotten it entirely, but she was certain, looking on now, that she had two small buds pressed in a tattered version of Pride & Prejudice that she read while they traveled. For some reason, the memory jarred with a recollection that it was illegal to pick them.

Not in the Regency Era. Lydia and Kitty were soon engaged in making wreaths for their hair, Mr. Bennet went with Elizabeth and Mary to collect stalks to bring home, while Jane assisted Alison, Mrs. Hill, and the footman accompanying them to lay out a formidable picnic. They had just arranged things satisfactorily and sat upon the spread blankets when Mr. Bennet returned alone. "I find my stamina for flower picking does not equate that of the fairer sex," he explained, sitting himself beside Alison. "Still beautiful, is it not?"

"Incredible," she replied.

"I wondered if you would remember that day we spent here, just shortly after our marriage."
She looked at him in confusion. "I see you do not," he shook his head a bit sadly. "I stole your bonnet and filled your hair with bluebells." He smiled at her fondly. "You looked just like Titania."

Alison had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "I pressed some to remember the day by."

His smile broadened! "You do remember!"

Indeed she did, but she thought it was a memory from her real life, shared with Tom. The thought sent chills through to her core: Is my life dissolving into fiction?

Read Chapter Fourteen

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Lady of Quality and His Grace of Osmonde by Francis Hodgson Burnett

I've now been reading Francis Hodgson Burnett for four months, I think, and I've plowed through the bulk of her available writings. I'm reserving the rereads of Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden, and The Little Princess until I've gotten through her works I haven't read. As mentioned before, I didn't have a clue that the author of my lifelong favorite book (TLP) had ever written anything else. Just see what could happen in the world before the internet! Had I been a child today, I probably would have devoured all her books, both those directed towards children and those clearly not, as a youth. I feel for the child within who laments the loss, but I'm having a wonderful time discovering her books now.

Even those stories written for adults have an aspect of fairytale to them. Her characters are more archetypes rather than fully developed beings. She was a Christian Scientist, and her firm belief in existence beyond what the mortal eye can see definitely enhances the mystic feel of her writing. Anything is possible if one only believes.

I have to take exception with The Collected Works of Francis Hodgson Burnett for putting the historical novel His Grace of Osmonde before A Lady of Quality in the book. The latter was published a year before the former, and they are two sides of the same tale. I'm going to go ahead and review them together, to try avoid any biases I might have picked up reading the gentleman's story before the lady's.

The books begin in the last quarter of the 17th century, when Gerald Mertoun and Clorinda Wildairs come into the world. Their respective births could not be more different. The heir to Camylott (seriously) is born to ringing bells, wrapped in his parents well-deserved adoration all his youth, and carefully prepared to take a leading role in society. Mistress Clo must fight from the first moment when her abandoned and battered mother dies in after childbirth, nearly suffocating the new born. She lives to inhabit an ill-furnished nursery with her equally neglected sisters, while her decadent father, Sir Jeffrey, carouses with men of similar ilk, until he stumbles upon her one day, threatening her with his riding crop only to have it seized by a toddler and wielded against himself. So impressed is he by the fiery temper of his offspring that he makes her a pet. She grows up hunting and drinking with his cronies.

From starkly different beginnings these larger than life figures are destined to come together. And they are literally larger than life: bigger, stronger, and more beautiful than all their fellow humans. When Clo decided to shed her boyishness she does so with eclat, becoming the perfect maiden overnight. Sought by all men, she finally accepts an offer of marriage from Lord Dunstanwolde, kinsman and friend to his Grace, to whom she is first presented almost immediately following her engagement. Immediately, she perceives her mistake. What she does not know is that his Grace has loved her nearly all his life, going so far as to leaving England to see if time will mend her wild ways and make her a proper lady. He returned to claim her too late.

It is the stuff of legends through and through, and fate will not allow two soul mates to remain asunder. Their path to union is barred with a variety of impediments, and even when they are finally together, the means employed to overcome them take their toll, marring paradise.

I suppose it's fitting to have each character dominate their own book, as each is an epic scale hero. His Grace is all that is right and noble, and his lady is like a goddess, right down to the vengefulness, but Clorinda is by far the more complex character, My gut tell me her story could stand on its own without assistance from his Grace, but as his story is more saturated in the politics of the day, it does provide a better history. When you read the books side by side, there are a lot of redundancies, but the story and setting cast such an aura of chivalry and romance that I just wanted to keep reading anyway. Ms. Burnett's writing spins magic in that way, transporting the reader completely to some new world. These stories are not my favorite she wrote, but they represent so many of the themes I see repeated in her work that I thought they were a good place to start. Seeped in mysticism and romance, her almost mythological characters resemble no one I have ever known but fascinate all the same. Far more irresistibles to come!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Etiquette: Funerals and Mourning

My husband and I find ourselves often consulting the copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan that his mother gave him upon graduation from high school. It is a bit dated, the 1995 edition we own having last been updated in 1978, but we find it an extremely useful guide when we have questions about how to appropriately proceed. I know we are discussing modern manners, not those of Jane Austen's era, but I have decided to start posting when we consult the book, as I just find it so fascinating. Miss Austen, after all, would want us all to be well-mannered, wouldn't she?

It has been years since I did one of these posts. Truly, I'm surprised it didn't occur to me to consult Amy Vanderbilt in May when my grandmother died, or even better, a few months earlier when a cousin died. If I had, I wouldn't now be reading in agony as I count the faux pas committed at her memorial service. Now my grandfather is dying. The one who raised me. Finally I seek Ms. Vanderbilt's advice and find it profuse.

Of course, funerals were very different affairs now than in Jane Austen's day, when they were all male, processional affairs (for an elaborate discussion of period funerary customs, check out this post at The Regency Redingote). Yet for all the obvious differences, probably the most significant is the length and importance of the mourning period, to which Ms. Vanderbilt gives a nod:

Some people take much longer than others to recover from the death of a loved one. The healing time should never be rushed; in fact, expressing grief is an important part of the recovery process. There is no longer such a thing as a prescribed mourning period for those close to the deceased. In the past, a widow or widower was expected to mourn (and wear black) for a year or, in some religions, for the rest of his or her life. Fortunately this has changed. Sensible people would want their surviving loved ones to continue on with life.

Today, as soon as one feels up to it, social and business activities may be resumed. Well-meaning friends should be sensitive and not push social engagements on someone who has lost a spouse until that person indicates interest. On the other hand, one would obviously not give or attend wild parties or go dancing immediately after the funeral of a loved one.

I cannot even begin to replicate the twenty plus pages she dedicates to funerary matters, so beyond this noted difference from the 19th century, I'm just going to focus on her list of Do's and Don't for the modern mourner, as I think it gives a good overview:

  • Whether or not you attend a funeral is a decision only you can make, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Never criticize someone for not attending a funeral.
  • When talking about death, stay clear of euphemisms like "he passed away," or "She's found her resting place." Death is what it is. Pretending otherwise is unrealistic.
  • Unless you are an intimate friend of the deceased's family, don't drop by their house to offer your condolences. Call first. When you do call, ask if there is anything you can do to be of help to the family. Or make your offer very specific, such as putting up relatives of friends from out of town.
  • In you cannot go to the funeral home during calling hours, you can stop in at another time. Be sure to sign the guest book, so the family knows you were there (even though you sin your name in the guest book, you should still write a condolence letter).
  • If the obituary notice states that the funeral is private, do not ask to attend.
  • If you attend a funeral and the internment is private, do not go to the internment unless specifically asked to.
  • When you arrive at the church or funeral home, you will be shown to a seat by an usher. A woman does not take the usher's arm at a funeral, unless she is frail or unsteady on her feet.
  • If the clergy person announces at the end of the funeral that you are invited to the deceased's family's house for lunch and you already have a lunch date, drop by anyway for a few minutes. The family will be grateful you did.
  • When a Jewish family is sitting shivah, it means they are available for condolence calls, especially during morning or evening prayers. It's best not to come at mealtimes, and calls are never made on the Sabbath -- from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. If you are uncertain about when to make a visit, you may call the family and ask.
  • Try to remember a friend who has had a recent death in the family when Christmas or some other holiday comes around. This is a time when she will most need your love and support. Instead of a Christmas card, write a note saying, "I know this Christmas will a sad one for you, but I cannot let it go by without your knowing you are in my thoughts and that I send you a great deal of love." You can be certain this thoughtful gesture will be important to your friend.
  • Mark the date of the deceased's death on your calendar so you can write a note to your friend, the survivor, on the anniversary. Just a short note saying you're thinking of her will be a source of comfort. Flowers are also appropriate at this time. 
As the anniversary of my friend's father's death next month, I will be acting on the last one.

The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette was definitely written for a largely protestant audience, but her slant and the mentioning of shivah made me consider how different all the funerals I have attended over the past eleven months have been. One was Episcopalian. The turnout was enormous for an important man struck down in his prime. I imagine this was the kind of funeral Ms. Vanderbilt largely had in mind. Next I attended a small, intimate Baptist funeral. Far less formal, with hours spent back at the family home afterwards. Attendees were asked to stand and share any thoughts they wanted to share. This was also the predominate feature of the most recent funeral, my grandmother's, which was a Quaker ceremony. Almost the entire family stood and shared recollections, as did her many friends in attendance. It was simple, short, but beautiful. When my grandfather dies we will sit shivah. Having grown up in his house, it is the jewish mourning ritual with which I am most familiar. I presume it will be at my aunt and uncle's house, and we will spend the better part of the week burying, praying, telling stories, and perhaps most importantly eating. Food will play a much bigger and more formal role in in this mourning process. I wish Ms. Vanderbilt had advice on how not to overeat.

Despite differences in religion, time, and culture, I think the fundamentals of funerals and mourning are pretty universal. Death is a fissure that changes forever those closest to the departed. When it is a parent or grandparent, the roots that have always supported you are suddenly chopped away, the slightest breeze makes you waver, and the future seem terrifyingly insecure and lonely. With time, we recover, but the wound remains. The care and companionship inherent in mourning provides much needed TLC as mourners struggle to figure out what the world is without this dead person in it to turn to, talk to, and love.