Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

I'm slowly plowing my way through A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, reading an essay or two a week. Of course, it begs the question: why do I read Jane Austen? There are too many reasons to enumerate here (I'm squeezing this post in between the constant travel and parties that have filled my life for the last week -I know, poor me) but the most obvious is that Austen's heroine's have, since I was a teenager, provided me with both a model for my own behavior and a code of morality to follow. Austen has taught me much but there is still so much more to learn. If I ever want to even approach the perfection that is Anne Elliot, I must continue to take these strictures to heart. Therefore, my New Year's resolution is to internalize a lesson from each of Jane Austen's heroines. I like to keep me resolutions attainable, so these are small goals whose significance is certainly lost on anyone who isn't a Austenite. Some will diet and exercise while others quit smoking or drinking, but in 2010 I plan on ...

" ... always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense," and when that fails, "to forgive [myself] and be happier than ever ... ", just like Catherine Moreland.

... being a bit more like the Dashwood sisters, though my "feelings [are] strong" I shall endeavor "to govern them." To that end, "I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it--my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself."

... invoking Elizabeth Bennet's spirit when "frightened at the will of others." I shall hope that my "courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me."

... cultivating Fanny Price's sense of the sublime and hopes for mankind: "When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene."

... being thoroughly contrite and intent on setting things right when I do err, like Emma Woodhouse: "She had been often remiss, her conscience told her so; remiss, perhaps, more in thought than fact; scornful, ungracious. But it should be so no more."

... fully appreciating and relishing both "the happiness of such misery, or the misery of such happiness" that life brings my way, just like my dearest Anne Elliot.

Happy New Year everybody! May all your hopes and desires for the future come to fruition.

(The above illustration, borrowed from Mollands Circulating Library, is by C.E. Brock and depicts Catherine Moreland and Isabella Tilney strolling the streets of Bath)





Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Honest Scrap Award

I hope everyone had a marvelous Christmas. Though I remain at my in-laws, immersed in familial gaiety, I am taking time out from the festivities to thank Meredith of Austenesque Reviews for providing me with The Honest Scrap Award, given to bloggers who write from their hearts. With the reception of this award I have the option to pass it along to seven other deserving bloggers and/or share ten honest things about myself. I am going to pass on the former, not because I don't know of many bloggers who more than fulfill this qualification but because I am such a novice at blogging that it feels presumptuous, but I will share some honest truths about myself which are, hopefully, laugh worthy. Enjoy your holidays - the party is not over yet!

1. I was run over by a llama when I was four. No permanent injuries were incurred but I do have a lasting aversion to the creatures as a result.

2. Most ladies love shoes, but do their fathers? Mine has more than 300 pairs, far more than I do, though I still have a large enough collection that my husband insured it.

3. My favorite book of all time is not Persuasion but The Little Princess by Francis Hogson Burnett. I have read it once a year since I was six.

4. According to my mother-in-law (and to her infinite satisfaction) I have the appetite of a truck driver.

5. I am a huge klutz and my hands bear the scars of the many attempts I've made to dismember my fingers in the kitchen. I end up in the ER about once every two years, needing to be stitched back together.

6. Since I was 18, I have desired a collection of antique, silver, chamber candlesticks (you know, the ones with the loop handles) but have yet to purchase a single one. They are both hard to find and expensive, but I have great hope that at some point I will have a respectable assortment.

7. My sister and I once had a cheese fight, which is exactly what it sounds like. Kraft singles were the weapon of choice.

8. My husband was my college roommate, and my best friend, before we started dating. We were originally drawn together because we are both confirmed Rennies (a.k.a. those geeky people who show up at Renaissance Festivals in costume).

9. At a family reunion when I was 14, my father took us to see the house in which he grew up. Finding an open window he stuck my brother through it and instructed him to open the front door, allowing all of us - grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins - to break in. We have a picture of us assembled on the porch together in which I look completely mortified by such shenanigans.

10. I am not insane (I promise!) but I do speak to Anne Elliot in my head. She finds our modern world rather fascinating, if somewhat vulgar, and sends her warmest wishes for a happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

First Impressions: Chapter Three

Chapter One

Chapter Two


Chapter Three

The evening, altogether, had exceedingly pleased the entire Bennet family. Mary, our missing middle Bennet, had heard herself mentioned to Miss Bingley as the most accomplished girl in the neighborhood, both Kitty and Lydia had been fortunate enough to never be without partners – all they had yet learned to care for in a ball, and upon their arrival home at Longbourn Mr. Bennet found that he too, like his happy daughters, could wish the assembly had never ended as he found himself assaulted by his wife's raptures over the triumphant evening.

“Oh Mr. Bennet! Never have I had such a night! Our girls so distinguished! The entire neighborhood bore witness to their success! I always told you our girls were beautiful for a reason – it shall be the making of them, I've often said it. I have no doubt that the gentlemen will come courting soon and will undoubtedly be completely taken with Jane and Lizzy! Mr. Darcy is so exceedingly handsome! Oh, I just knew how it would be! Such an honor!”

“Just a moment there Mrs. Bennet,” her husband interrupted her. “Am I to understand that it is my Lizzy who has caused such excitement? Who is this Mr. Darcy and what ever became of Mr. Bingley, the cause of so much recent uproar?”

“Mr. Darcy,” his wife replied with much impatience, “is the gentleman whom Mr. Bingley brought back with him from London, of course! Along with his two sisters and the elder's husband.”

“I see the rumors of six ladies were quite unfounded?”

“Oh Mr. Bennet, please listen!” Mrs. Bennet pleaded, not betraying her gratification at this sorry but, nonetheless, novel display of interest from her husband in her matchmaking schemes. “Mr. Darcy is the most handsome and eligible young man fortune could have placed in our path! All distinction and elegance! He is said to have ten thousand pounds, Mr. Bennet – ten thousand a year do you hear!”

“How could I not?” he managed nonchalantly.

“He has a magnificent estate in Derbyshire and is surely the finest gentleman in that country, wherever it is. I am sure he must be. Noble lineage too! And the only lady he partnered all night, excepting those in his own party, was our Lizzy!” She grinned triumphantly.

Mr. Bennet, not for the first time, noted his wife's occasional resemblance to a cat, right now one who had caught a particularly meaty mouse. He was almost, but not quite, inclined to pet her. “I see how it is Mrs. Bennet – a rich man has danced with Lizzy. When he arrives to ask for her hand do show him in.”

“Yes he surely will come, mark my words. You were not there, Mr. Bennet. You did not witness the attention he bestowed on her!”

“And what of Mr. Bingley? Was he not to your liking?”

“Mr. Bingley is everything amiable. He danced twice with Jane. Twice! It was a most delightful evening! I told you how it would be Mr. Bennet – we shall have Jane settled at Netherfield and Lizzy amongst the first in the kingdom! Surely they will find admirable husbands for their sisters, perhaps even amongst the peerage!” She gasped for breath.

Despite the humor Mr. Bennet always found in his wife's antics he remained quite capable of filtering out anything valuable from her constant effusions. While he was never inclined to become overly heated himself, he did recognize the opportunity these new acquaintances provided for his daughters. “If any deserve it, Jane and Lizzy do,” he thought with a chuckle. The notion that the troubling lack-of-an-heir dilemma could possibly be resolved so conveniently to himself as his wife prophesied was an excessively diverting notion indeed. Mr. Darcy had yet to prove himself worthy of Lizzy but, as he had already shown the good sense to single her out, Mr. Bennet would happily acknowledge that as a mark in his favor.


When Jane and Elizabeth were alone the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much she admired him.

“He is just what a young man ought to be,” Jane happily exclaimed, “sensible, good humored, lively!” Elizabeth could not help but laugh. Rarely had she seen Jane so nearly approach giddiness. “And what say you of Mr. Darcy?” the elder sister continued. “I believe I have never before seen such a distinguished gentleman.”

Elizabeth did not immediately answer, though well she knew that Jane could detect the train of her thoughts. Similarly, when Elizabeth did speak, Jane perfectly perceived the concern hidden behind her sister's teasing response: “Certainly distinguished – I cannot but admit that I found his company pleasant. That is, when he actually spoke. At one point I grew quite concerned that he had suddenly gone mute between requesting my hand and leading me to the floor.”

“Oh Lizzy, you jest! Surely he was not so very quiet.”

“I assure you neither of us spoke a word throughout the majority of the dance. Please, whatever you do, do not let Mama hear of it! Her nerves surely cannot handle the shock.”

“Yet you found his company pleasant,” Jane asserted with a happy smile.

Again Elizabeth had no ready response. Obviously Jane did not intend to be dodged on this point and, while Elizabeth did keep some secrets from her sister, they were very few. Her admiration for Mr. Darcy need not be one of them, “He is one of the handsomest men I have ever encountered.” As she leaned forward to confess this her eyes sparkled. The sisters spent the next several moments indulging in a great deal of incoherent giggling and swooning, quite in the manner of Kitty and Lydia, and far too unbefitting the dignity of both ladies to recount here. Their raptures only ceased when Elizabeth resumed a serious tone.

“I know I should not say so, and would never admit this to anyone other than yourself, but I must confess my great relief Mr. Darcy did not appear to observe the over-exuberance of our mother's reaction to his attentions. I cannot but recognize that a man like Mr. Darcy, not only in his refinement but also his quiet nature, will be quite mortified by her response to him when they finally do interact. I make no pretension at having truly won Mr. Darcy's favor, yet cannot help but regret the opinion he must surely form of our family after she accosts him with her expectations.”

“Our mother means well, Mr. Darcy will surely recognize that.”

“No Jane, he will not. There is not only our mother to consider. What of Kitty and Lydia? Tonight they behaved even more unseemly than usual, dancing and flirting with complete abandon. No. It was a most memorable assembly but I believe I best not allow myself to indulge in fantasy. I cannot imagine a man of Mr. Darcy's stature marrying a dowerless young lady. What would his relations say?!”

This thought caused both ladies to entertain many melancholy reflections. Jane wondered how Mr. Bingley's relatives would regard her as a potential wife. Already he had been perfectly amiable with Mrs. Bennet but his sisters – well, they seemed less friendly. Jane had experienced a brief but uncomfortable conversation with Miss Bingley that evening in which she was intrusively direct in her questions regarding the size and wealth of the Longbourn estate. Though she would never say so aloud, she was not what Jane could wish for in a sister.

Elizabeth saw her sister's disquietude and made another attempt to laugh at the whims of fate rather than be daunted, “No matter what occurs, I shall not be the one to reject any overtures of friendship Mr. Darcy may extend. I believe I can bear our family's foibles with grace and not be too mortified when he proves to be less swept off his feet than our mother believes. But on the other hand,” she grinned playfully, “in the off chance it should turn out that he is subject to such an unfortunate bout of clumsiness, perhaps I can adapt to that circumstance as well.”

“My dear Lizzy,” Jane laughed. Both ladies fell asleep smiling, more content than uneasy.


At Netherfield, too, the evening was recounted with a mix of excitement and apprehension. Bingley declared that he never conceived of an angel more beautiful than Miss Bennet; never had he met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life. Darcy, with characteristic reserve, allowed the evening had been pleasant and the company more worthy than he had anticipated. As both men agreed that the Bennet sisters were charming, Miss Bingley found that she could no longer remain silent. She must interject. Miss Bennet she acknowledged to be a sweet girl – which her brother interpreted as leave to like her – but she could not truthfully claim to have seen any beauty in Miss Elizabeth. She began to recount a litany of flaws in far more detail than it seemed possible to compose after such a brief meeting, covering her face, which was deemed too thin, its features (decidedly unhandsome), and her complexion, which was lacking brilliancy.

Darcy listened in astonishment, taken totally aback that this woman, whom he had always at least considered well-mannered, would so blatantly reveal her pettiness and jealousy. He was amply cognizant that she had long ago “set her cap at him”, as the vulgar phrase it, and while tolerating her company for Bingley's sake he had been cautious never to allow himself to behave in any way which might be construed as encouraging her hopes. So his conscience was clear as he mentally rebuked Miss Bingley's ridiculous behavior. After all, what had Miss Elizabeth done but dance with him and what of significance could possibly be gleaned from that?

It was Mr. Bingley, and rightly so, who put an end to his sister's diatribe, “Come now Caroline, she is nothing of the sort. Clearly you are out of sorts this evening. You must be exhausted from having attended an assembly right on the heels of a bumpy carriage ride, though a short one. I'm sure we all are. Perhaps we should retire for the evening?”

The company followed their host's advice, Caroline feeling the sting of her brother's open rebuke. She realized she had revealed far too much of her emotions and resolved to guard against such behavior again. Exposing herself to such a degree was not the best means of dealing with Miss Elizabeth Bennet, nor would it endear her to Mr. Darcy's affections. Subtlety was called for. She would proceed with care.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen

I first became familiar with Mary Simonsen when she published Pemberley Remembered in 2007. Now that book has been republished in expanded form by Sourcebooks under the title Searching for Pemberley. My husband and I read this book aloud to each other, which proved a great way to weather the enormous snow storm we had over the weekend. It is the story of an American, Maggie Joyce, who while working in post-World War II London becomes intimate with a family, the Crowells, who are the direct descendants of the Laceys, the historic counterparts of the fictional Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. What is most striking about the book is the juxtaposition between England in the Regency period and England in the post-war era, achieved through the Lacey family's surviving letters and diaries, which provide a slightly altered account of the Pride and Prejudice plot, and bleak accounts like the following:

"If you are thinking about going to Canterbury, I should tell you that the city was bombed heavily during the Baedeker raids. The cathedral had some damage, but the chapter library and many of the buildings near the cathedral were completely destroyed." Neither Rob nor I had ever heard of the Baedeker raids, so I asked Mrs. Ives if they were a part of the Blitz.

"No, the Blitz was in 1940-41," Mrs. Ives replied. "According to Lord Haw Haw, the British traitor used by the Nazis for their radio broadcasts, the Baedeker raids were in retaliation for the RAF bombing of German cities. Using
Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain, cities that received three stars in the tourist guide because of their historical importance were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Before Canterbury was bombed in June 1942, Exeter, Bath, and York were also bombed."

For anyone who loves English literature, who has traveled to Canterbury with Chaucer, to Bath with Jane Austen, and has wandered along the Arno with Forster's Lucy Honeychurch, Baedeker in hand, this passage must evoke heartache. The stoicism with which the British people endured such destruction continually impresses the reader of this book.

Searching for Pemberley portrays an England humbled. There are still parties and balls amongst the upper crust, reminiscent of those their ancestors attended but for the understandable limitations of banqueting on rations and the patched clothing of the attendees. Also, the Derbyshire of the late 1940's is a far more egalitarian place than that Austen depicted and those who used to live below stairs are now invited to dine side by side with the heirs. The old social order that hindered Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship has been decimated by the two World Wars; while decaying Georgian mansions dot the country side, a reminder of past glory, England is now a strikingly different place. Yet despite all the deprivation, great love can still blossom and flourish just a successfully as it did in Austen's time, perhaps more so. Gone are the stringent moral strictures, though hint of them remains in characters like Mrs. Dawkins, with whom Maggie boards. The characters are free to explore each other in ways which would have led the Bennet ladies to utter ruin, as by the 1940's "loss of virtue in a female" isn't quite so irretrievable. There is no graphic sexual content in this book but sex is present in a way that it is not in Austen's work, understandable when taking into consideration what is emphasized in this novel: the difference 150 years can (and cannot) make.

I greatly enjoyed the new part of the book, which brings Maggie back to her small, Eastern Pennsylvanian, coal mining hometown. It is the most humorous part of the story, though depressed coal country isn't a much more uplifting setting then war worn England. I especially enjoyed the character of Maggie's grandfather, a caricature of the cantankerous old man very reminiscent of Austen in his universal familiarity. Most of Ms. Simonsen's characterizations have a hint of Austen to them: they are the inhabitants of small towns, revealing themselves through their actions, and are archetypal. The only one who I never managed to establish much sympathy with is our heroine, Maggie. I found her somewhat frustrating and kept mentally invoking Anne Elliot's silent censure as I read: "... she had a delicacy which must be pained by any lightness of conduct in a well-meaning young woman, and a heart to sympathize in any of the sufferings it occasioned ...." As I do not wish to spoil the story for those who have not read it, I shall say no more of the matter.

I am very pleased to say that Ms. Simonsen is a follower of this blog and has kindly offered to do an interview with me about her work on January 11th. I have never done anything of the sort before so please indulge me with your patience, as I will surely stumble my way through the endeavor. I am particularly interested in learning more about her experience with the publishing industry (as she has achieved what I hope to), her relationship with Austen's novels, and her foray in to the paranormal with Mr. Darcy on the Eve of All Saints' Day. Please stop by and check it out!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Jane Austen at Christmas

"I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings ..." - Pride & Prejudice

Austen tells us very little about Christmas. The celebration did not reach its modern popularity until the Victorians got their hands on it, but we know from her letters that Christmas at Steventon was a rather festive occasion, complete with elaborate theatrics. Yet the only glimpses we get of Christmas in her novels are vague. Emma goes off to a dinner party at Randell's, just like any other dinner party except for Mr. Woodhouse's company and the unfortunate attention she suffers from Mr. Elton. Anne gets a glimpse of the Christmas chaos at Uppercross but, as usual, she is rather more an observer than a participant in the children's bustle. There is also a slight hint from Mrs. Norris, Scrooge herself, that the ball held at Mansfield coincides with the holiday season (it is also when Edmund takes orders). Too, we learn that Tom Bertram was frequently called upon to recite My Name is Norval one Christmas holiday, not exactly light or festive material. In Austen, Christmas, along with Michaelmas, mostly serves as a way of referencing the time: a marking of the quarter days. It is a convenient time for visits to either begin or end, or perhaps for an entertainment or two to take place, but from such common occurrences we derive little Christmas cheer. This Christmas void, by our modern standards, has been amply filled by Austen's fans, who have imagined a multitude of Christmases for her characters to enjoy, especially Elizabeth and Darcy. Here are four excerpts from works of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction that give us visions of what Christmas as a Darcy might have been like.

Note: I have been careful to avoid any significant spoilers so that you may read the following without anxiety.

This first scene comes from Illusions and Ignorance: Mary Bennet's Story by Eucharista Ward (now A Match for Mary Bennet). Theatrics, including pantomime, charades, and pageantry have long been part of the Christmas celebrations in England. Many great homes had extensive collections of costuming available for use on such occasions.

Georgiana enthusiastically spoke of old costumes used for Christmas pageants when she came home from school as a child. "We had theatricals then-and do you know, even Miss Anne de Bourgh took part once! I am sure my brother remembers." Georgiana led them to an upper room full of trunks and old furniture, where she extracted from one very large trunk many relics of old Christmas pageants. She held up a long white gown. "Won't this even be long enough for Miss Langley?" She pulled out yet another. "This is about right for Dorothea Dixon, do you not agree?" Mary nodded her agreement as Georgiana held it against herself. "I wore this one when I was ten."

By the time their candles burned to stubs and the hems of their gowns had swept up trails of dust from the floor of the little-used room, they had assembled simple costumes for several shepherds and as many angels, and they folded each again carefully and put it into a box for servants to bring down later for brushing and airing.


This amusing anecdote comes from Duty and Desire: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman by Pamela Aiden. Being from Philadelphia, I have more experience with the notion of Mummers than most Americans, though ours are a far cry from those with which Austen would have been familiar.

The sounds of feminine laughter and a masculine chuckle broke through his thoughts, and bidding fancy away for a moment, Darcy rounded the corner of the door and joined his relatives. D'Arcy was whispering something in Georgiana's ear that sent her into renewed giggles, while Lady Matlock looked on in approbation.

"No! You cannot be telling the absolute truth, Alex!"

"Ask my father if you doubt me, Cousin," D'Arcy replied with a knowing smile, "for your brother will never admit to it."

"Admit to what, Alex?" Darcy poured himself a glass of wine.

"To running off one Christmas Eve to join the Derbyshire Mummers just before their performance in Lambton." Darcy winced. "You were ten, I believe, and we were all at St. Lawrence's for the service when you turned up missing."

"Brother, it cannot be true!" Georgiana looked at him in wonder.

Darcy nodded slowly as the wine gently awoke his palate. "It is true, but I was only ten; and you may believe that our father impressed upon me the indecorum of such an adventure."

"But our uncle...?"

"Oh, your father was forced to call upon mine to help extricate your brother from an altercation with some of the younger mummers in which he was rather outnumbered," D'Arcy supplied happily.

"Alex!" Darcy frowned at his cousin. "This is hardly fit conversation..."

"But it
is very interesting!" came Fitzwilliam's voice from the doorway. "I can remember the occasion quite well and cheering you on from the carriage window. Oh, it was a lovely brawl, sir, a lovely brawl!" He raised his glass to Darcy, D'Arcy and His Lordship following suit. "Never let it be said you were not pluck to the bone, Fitz! One against three, wasn't it?"

Darcy inclined his head. "It was four-and I admit it only for the sake of accuracy." He turned to Georgiana. "It was an exceedingly foolish thing to do, and I was proud of it only for a very few minutes before Father caused me to see reason."

"Caused his backside to see reason!" crowed Fitzwilliam. "I distinctly remember you standing for Christmas dinner that year and being devoutly thankful I wasn't you."


In Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride: A Sequel to Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice , Helen Halstead takes the Darcys into the world of the haut ton. Here is how she imagines a Twelfth Night celebration amongst London's elite:

As supper ended, the Twelfth Night entertainments began. To the sound of flute and drum the "attendants" of the court ran in and assembled on the platform at the end of the room. The "Twelfth Cake" was carried in. The sides of this massive concoction were sculptured like desert dunes, and on the top rode a miniature procession of figures representing the three Magi and their camels. A drumming brought silence and a boy unrolled a scroll and read aloud:

"Now the revelry comes.
For in this cake of plums
Is the coin for the King.
For his Queen the ring.
They'll reign over us here,
Both commoner and peer."

The cake was carried around in procession, before returning to the dais to be cut.

"Have you ever been King?" Elizabeth asked Darcy.

"Fortunately not. Rumor has it that aspiring kings bribe Lord Misrule for a chance at the coin."

"Who plays his part?"

"Except for the King and Queen, they are all actors."

The herald went on:

"So that justice may be,
Let Lord Misrule oversee!"

Through the door by the dais, leapt Lord Misrule. From his noisy welcome, it was clear that not much was expected in the way of justice. A team of footmen served cake first to the ladies, then replenished their trays to serve the gentlemen. Elizabeth noted how many eyes at the table watched the gentlemen pick through their sweet, in hope, or fear, of finding the coin.


This last picture of Regency Christmas comes from the first volume ofThe Pemberley Chronicles: A Companion Volume to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice by Rebecca Ann Collins (the seventh volume is on my desk now, waiting to be read). It depicts Elizabeth's first Christmas at Pemberley and she has already made her mark on the celebration. The most satisfying thing about this epic series is following the growth of these traditions through the generations.

Christmas Eve dawned cold and bright.

After breakfast, everyone who wanted to got rugged up and went into the woods to collect boughs of fir, pine cones, and holly for decorating the rooms and the stage. The younger members of the family enjoyed this part of the preparations most and spent all afternoon making garlands to hang across the windows.

Shortly before lunch, a carriage arrived, bringing Dr Grantley, who apologized for being late but assured everyone he was willing and ready to help, "I'll do anything," he offered, and Lizzy, seeing poor Jane and Georgiana working so very hard in the music room, sent him along to help them. With everyone pressed into service, the house hummed. Bingley and Darcy wandered in and out of the rooms, amazed at the activity. Darcy swore he could not recall an occasion when there was so much going on at Pemberley.

By late afternoon, everything was in readiness. The children had all been fetched and costumed like little choristers. The fires burned brightly and burnished all the dark oak and copper as well as the glowing red berried garlands around the walls and over the windows.

By six o'clock, the room had filled with guests and neighbours, and when the children walked in carrying their candles, there were gasps of surprise. Their glowing faces and sparkling eyes told of their excitement.

Jane, Elizabeth, and Georgiana shepherded them into place, and then, Dr Grantley read the story of Christmas from the Bible. It was the perfect touch, suggested by Georgiana and gladly carried out by Dr Grantley. When the singers began, a little nervously at first, but stronger and sweeter by the minute, the tears in the eyes and the smiles on the faces of the audience told the story. The parents of the children of the estate ranged from yeoman farmers to grooms, maids, and gardeners. Never before had they seen their children afforded such an opportunity as this to participate in the festivities at Pemberley. When it was known, mainly through Jenny and Mrs Reynolds, that it was all Mrs Darcy's doing, her popularity among them soared. When they broke for an intermission, to allow the little voices some rest, Elizabeth came over to Darcy who was sitting with the Gardiners. She had wanted reassurance that it was proceeding well; what she got was adulation from everyone around her. Elizabeth glowed, and Mr Darcy could barely contain his joy. If Mrs Gardiner needed any proof of the success of this match, for which she and her husband felt partly responsible, she had it there in front of her as Darcy reached across and too Elizabeth's hand and said, "I cannot honestly remember a happier Christmas, since I was a boy."


Doesn't that just sound lovely? I will be attending a Christmas concert this year, to hear my mother-in-law perform, but this will be the extent of the theatrics I shall enjoy. Usually we at least go to the theater but as tickets are dear we shall not indulge ourselves so much this year. Perhaps, if I am really persuasive, I can convince my family to put on a small entertainment of our own. I'll be the first to admit that it seems highly unlikely.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

First Impressions: Chapter Two

Happy birthday Miss Austen! It's been 234 years since the world was blessed with your entrance into it.

Added 12/16 - I'm so terribly scatterbrained lately! I could have sworn yesterday was the 16th! I guess I was so excited to celebrate that I jumped the gun a bit. Very typical of me.

*Read chapter one

Chapter Two

“Now what do you make of this?” that lady exclaimed triumphantly to an ever-patient Lady Lucas. “I must say I always knew Jane's beauty would attract a wealthy man, if one should be so fortunate as to fall in her path, but I certainly never harbored such hopes for Lizzy! Not that I'm complaining, mind you. If Mr. Darcy should take it into his head to fall in love with my daughter it would be very fortunate indeed. I just hope Lizzy minds what she says. No need scaring him off with that tongue of hers. She can be entirely too much like Mr. Bennet sometimes and I can assure you, my dear, that a particularly becoming young lady he would not make!”

“Calm now, Mrs. Bennet. Miss Eliza has charming manners; a witty word of hers has never trespassed decorum. Surely you have nothing to fear - Mr. Darcy seems quite taken.” As these words were spoken, Lady Lucas' eyes were fixed across the room where the two youngest Bennet girls, Catherine (Kitty as all called her) and Lydia, were predictably dancing raucously with their partners. “No,” she thought, “Lizzy will not be the Bennet who frightens away potential suitors. Someone, I know not who, should take those girls in hand.”

Of course Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas were not the only ones whose attention was drawn to the elegant couple at the top of the line. The seemingly haughty Mr. Darcy's favoring of a much-beloved local lady easily rendered this the most exciting assembly of the season. Even Mrs. Long scaled down her previous assessment of his manners: when she had attempted to speak with him earlier, she believed he deliberately snubbed her, but now she was convinced that the man must be hard of hearing on the right, a sad ailment for one so young, “Miss Elizabeth best think twice of an alliance with such a prematurely deteriorating man, ten thousand a year not withstanding. He seems hale enough now but one never knows what the future might bring. She may well find herself tied for years to the sickbed. I knew of a young lady who found herself in just such a predicament; she thought she was very well married but not a year into the match her husband fell ill. She spent years nursing him, wasting her youth, and when the unfortunate man finally died found herself right back where she began, with nothing but her dowry to live on as everything went to his younger brother!” The entire neighborhood was suddenly highly interested in the expectations of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

“Kitty!” Lydia called out as they passed each other in the dance “Do look at Lizzy! She is dancing with that handsome Mr. Darcy.”

Kitty, to her great chagrin, missed a step as she surveyed the line, but any embarrassment she felt was swept away with elation for her sister. “Oh, my how exciting! Mrs. Long told me he has twice Mr. Bingley's income. I do hope he falls in love with Lizzy!” Silently she wondered if she might ever be so distinguished, her heart slightly aflutter with the notion.

Despite such rampant general interest, perhaps only one person in the room could be deemed as concerned as Mrs. Bennet with this surprising development. For Caroline Bingley, the sight of Mr. Darcy, a man who professed to deplore a ball, dancing with one of the local girls was disturbing enough to cause her face to flush with consternation. The effect was not becoming. Upon first perceiving the pair she hurried to her sister's side, ignored the appearance of her next dance partner on her right, and proceeded to interrogate her sister, Mrs. Hurst, regarding the identity of her favorite's partner.

“Louisa, you must know the name of that lady dancing with poor Mr. Darcy! How ever did she inveigle him into such an unpleasant predicament?”

Mrs. Hurst surveyed her sister carefully, taking in the jealous glint in her eyes, before gazing towards the lady in question, “I believe she is one of the Bennet girls and that Charles made the introduction. As you can surely see as well as I can Caroline, Mr. Darcy does not appear to be distressed.” In fact she could not say she had ever before seen him so at ease in public.

“Oh no Louisa, you are most certainly mistaken! He looks distinctly uncomfortable. And is not Bennet the name of that vulgar woman, the one thrusting daughters at Charles? In such unrefined company, Mr. Darcy must be suffering! Look, there she is now, standing by and ready to pounce on the poor man. Surely we must endeavor to relieve him from such an encroachment?”

“He is his own man, Caroline. We must trust him to fend for himself.” So disconcerted was Miss Bingley that she failed to notice as her would-be dance partner inconspicuously backed away, anxious no longer to dance with the neighborhood's new heiress but to share his marvel that the fashionable Miss Bingley was so undone by Meryton's own Lizzy Bennet instead!

To all this Darcy remained oblivious; for perhaps the first time in his life, he was blissfully ignorant of the scrutiny of others. Even he was surprised by his transformative reaction to Elizabeth's simple courtesy: never had a young lady, other than his sister of course, not treated him as some stellar prize to be won. Darcy looked down into his partner's face as they came together at the end of the set and bestowed a smile of sincere gratitude. Elizabeth smiled back, the honest pleasure she betrayed causing his to broaden. He led her to the side of the floor, fortunately choosing that opposite from Mrs. Bennet, where they were met by Elizabeth's next partner. They thanked each other for the pleasure and parted, Mr. Darcy feeling immensely gratified with the evening and even contemplating, fleetingly, the notion of offering his hand to another Hertfordshire maid.

Elizabeth watched him retreat with a sense of relief for, at that timely moment, her mother made her descent, snatching her away from Mr. Lucas (who was, coincidently, the same patient partner who had been engaged to Miss Bingley for the last) before they could take their place on the floor.

“Oh my dear, dear Lizzy! Mr. Darcy is such a charming man! So handsome and tall! Ten thousand a year I'm told, plus probably more! Oh I do hope you endeavored to please him my dear. Just think, if he should marry you, how grand you would be!”

Elizabeth looked wearily at her mother as she erupted with excitement. “It was only a dance, Mama, and not even a very lively one at that. Mr. Darcy seems gentlemanly and agreeable but he certainly displayed no signs of being smitten.”

“This is no time to vex me child! It is up to you to make him smitten of course! You must put yourself forward and perhaps he will ask for a second dance.”

“You must excuse me, ma'am, but this dance is already promised.”

Mr. Darcy had returned to his former station and resumed his survey of the assembly, now casting a visibly more amiable mien on the room. The dance had been most agreeable, far beyond his expectations which, you will easily recall, were decidedly negative and he felt himself more generous in his estimation of the assembly as a whole. Knowing that the neighborhood could boast of some pleasant and sophisticated companionship relieved the entire company of much of its tedium.

Miss Elizabeth had proved to be a most pleasant partner indeed. He watched her as she moved down the dance – though his critical eye was forced to acknowledge more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, her figure was light and pleasing. He wished to know more of her and determined to further the acquaintance. As Bingley was blatantly enraptured with the eldest Miss Bennet (he was, at that moment, soliciting her hand for a second dance), Darcy perceived it would be an easy resolution to which to adhere.

“I must thank you for introducing Darcy to your sister," Bingley said to Jane as they took their places on the floor. “Never have I seen him enjoy a dance more.”

“I am pleased to have been of service, Mr. Bingley. Lizzy has always excelled at putting people at ease.”

“I wish more people shared her talent. Sadly, while Darcy always receives a great deal of notice wherever he goes, he would much rather go unobserved. In small, intimate groups he fares much better and is exceedingly charming, but in large gatherings he always seems to recede into himself.”

Jane Bennet smiled happily at the handsome man, charmed by the affection and care he displayed for his friend, the honor of his attention, and the excitement of that bestowed on her favorite sister. Never had she so thoroughly enjoyed an assembly.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Radiance of Jane Austen by Eudora Welty

This is the second essay in A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson. In "The Radiance of Jane Austen", Eudora Welty addresses the lasting quality of Jane Austen's work. I thought it a rather soothing perspective after the horrifying predictions of the future made in my last post.

Welty begins by evoking a similar dreamy state to the one I was in when writing "The Reader's Discussion Guide":

Jane Austen will soon be closer in calendar time to Shakespeare than to us. Within the reading life of the next generation, that constellation of six bright stars will have swung that many years deeper into the sky, vast and crowded, of English literature. Will future readers be in danger of letting the novels elude them because of distance, so that their pleasure will not be anything like ours? The future of fiction is a mystery; it is like the future of ourselves.

When these words were written, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was still part of that murky future. Welty spends the bulk of the essay placing Jane Austen firmly back in the time of her Regency world while probing the effects of a modern perspective on the reader's experience. The problem is that her modern perspective is thoroughly 20th century in its themes of alienation. For example:

For many of our writers who are now as young as Jane Austen was when she wrote her novels, and as young as she still was when she died, at forty-one, ours is the century of unreason, the stamp of our behavior is violence or isolation; non-meaning is looked upon with some solemnity; and for the purpose of writing novels, most human behavior is looked at through the frame, or knothole, of alienation. The life Jane Austen wrote about was indeed a different one from ours, but the difference was not as great as that between the frames through which it is viewed.

This essay was originally published in 1969, long before the massive resurgence in Austen's popularity that has occurred over the past 20 years. Welty died in the summer of 2001, just before that pivotal event that has so shaped this new millennium. The 21st century is just as violent and isolated as the 20th, if not more so, but I think we have learned to laugh at absurdities once again. Austen has never been more popular and, I believe, never better understood. The turmoil of our world drives readers to Austen (whose world we know to have been rather turbulent itself, despite it's appearance) because we long for the remarkable solicitude she provides. Welty concludes by emphasizing a sense of immortal stability one finds in Austen's work:

No, Jane Austen cannot follow readers into any other time. She cannot go into the far future, and she never came to us. She is therefore forever where she wrote, immovable to the very degree of her magnitude. The readers of the future will have to do the same as we ourselves have done, and with the best equipment they can manage, make the move themselves. The reader is the only traveler. It is not her world or her time, but her art, that is approachable, today or tomorrow. The novels in their radiance are a destination.

I take great comfort in this essay. Sure there maybe Werewolves in Highbury, of much greater concern than gypsies, no doubt, but no matter what corruption anyone (including myself) might unleash onto Austen's timeless classics, we shall always be able to return to the proper stories and experience their familiar joy once more. They are like a cozy quilt and a mug of hot chocolate on a winter's day: absolutely priceless.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Zombies and Sea Monsters and Werewolfs - Oh My!

A while back I called for a boycott on these monster-infused Austen books. It went unheeded, even by myself. I never returned Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, as I claimed I would. It still remains in its pile of things to read and I still cannot bring myself to crack the spine. But I will, eventually. It's clear these books are not going away. Last month, Mansfield Park and Mummies and Emma and the Werewolves were released and this spring adds another essential volume to this growing genre, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies prequel, The Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Interestingly, this new work is billed as a collaboration between Austen and Steve Hockensmith, not Seth Graham-Smith, the author of the first volume (I wish the marketers would be honest and give credit where it is due - to the two "dreadfuls" who wrote these horrid stories - and leave our dear lady out of it but they need her name to make their drivel sell, sigh). Furthermore, there is a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film in production, slated for release in 2011. Darn you Natalie Portman! It would be terribly ironic if this movie led to the revival of the Bonnet Drama we have all been hoping for. And for all those who dutifully attend to the proper fitting out of their libraries, you can now buy the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Deluxe Edition, hard bound with new and glossy pictures (the pictures were the best thing about the book, even if they added insult to injury by not even getting the clothing of the period correct). I give up. Monster-fied Austen seems here to stay.

One of the things that most angered me about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the "Reader's Discussion Guide" included at the end (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is likewise equipped, not sure about the others). The implications is that there is something worth discussing in these books: a trifle presumptuous, if you ask me. Presumably, the questions are supposed to be tongue-and-check, I get it, but they just make me livid. Beauties include:

#1 - Many critics have addressed the dual nature of Elizabeth's personality. On one hand, she can be a savage, remorseless killer, as we see in her vanquishing of Lady Catherine's ninjas. On the other hand, she can be tender and merciful, as in her relationship with Jane, Charlotte, and the young bucks that roam her family's estate. In your opinion, which of these "halves" best represents the real Elizabeth at the beginning-and end of the novel?

and

#5 - Due to her fierce independence, devotion to exercise, and penchant for boots, some critics have called Elizabeth Bennet "the first literary lesbian." Do you think the authors intend her to be gay? And if so, how would this Sapphic twist serve to explain her relationship with Darcy, Jane, Charlotte, Lady Catherine, and Wickham?

Anyway, I was inspired by these provoking questions to write the following piece of flash fiction (less than 1000 words). The Reader's Discussion Guide is a satirical, distopian tale that portrays a world I would hate to inhabit. Hopefully it make you laugh rather than causing any nightmares.

The Reader's Discussion Guide


“O.K. class. Take your seats.”


Already being in my seat, there is no reason for me to heed Carbuncle, but I put my pen down and look up attentively anyway. Around me, my classmates settle into their desks. It is a dreary, winter morning, still quite dark out. The smell of coffee penetrates the room as students endeavor to rouse their senses into attentiveness. Many hold their mugs for additional warmth but I am amongst those who choose to employ the cup holder built into the top corner of the desk. I want my hands free to take notes.


“Today we are reviewing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As you only had the last fragment to read last night, you should have had ample time to consider the Reader's Discussion Guide.”


I suppress a self-satisfied grin and pick up my pen, unable to resist the urge to pull up the texts I had found. A few of my classmates omit sounds of displeasure.


“In the course of this study we have addressed the factor of duel authorship in some detail. The translation of the text you read was written sometime after Austen died. From what we understand of the era, this was a time of great collaboration between artists, regardless of their biological states. Grahame-Smith obviously had some kind of access to her notes – there are suggestions that she left behind a correspondence.


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one of the most complete texts to have survived from this era. The Reader's Discussion Guide is a subject of great debate – some scholars argue that it was a later addition to the novel, rendering its authorship questionable. They premise this assertion on the first question, now displayed in its rather mangled form before you. The first line is the point of contention: 'Many critics have addressed the dual nature of Elizabeth's personality.' If the Guide was published at the same time as the novel – if, in essence, it was written by Grahame-Smith – who are the critics he refers to? Most scholars, myself amongst them, believe that this was indeed written by Grahame-Smith and the critics are those of Austen, whose work is believed to have been widely circulated.”


Borax's pen has rolled off his desk and he doesn't bother to pick it up. I stare at him as Carbuncle begins to dissect the remainder of the question. How can he be so lazy! In disgust, I finally bend down and retrieve the pen for him. He ignores me and I have to tap him on the shoulder with the errant pen before he will take it.


“Who would like to share their thoughts?”


My hand shoots up.


“Yes, Quilted.”


I try but fail to lower my hand good naturedly. Quilted stands up and taps her pad several times with her pen before proceeding.


“My reading of question five suggests that bisexual politics motivate the plot. The two 'halves' of Elizabeth, referred to in question one, seem to illuminate not only her sexual ambiguity but also that of the authors – could Seth Grahame-Smith actually be Jane Austen after the cosmetic surgery so popular at the time? If so, it seems clear that the Zombies represent the author's internal battle for sexual identity.”


“Very good Quilted. indeed, many scholars have argued as you do. Are there any responses to Quilted's thesis?”


My hand shoots back up as Quilted retakes her seat, looking rather smug all the while.


“Yes, Lysol.”


I stand up, pad in hand and take a steadying breath.


“I disagree with Quilted's reasoning. If the critics are those of Austen, might he not be asking which is the real Elizabeth, his or hers? It feels to me like Austen's story must have functioned quite independently of Graham-Smith's. Evidence suggests that they lived hundreds of years apart, negating the transgender concept. A search of the Internet Archives revealed a lot of animosity between those who considered themselves defenders of Austen and the Grahame-Smith contingency, who seems to have been ...”


“I must interrupt you there Lysol. You know very well the Internet Archive is inadmissible evidence. A more unreliable record of information never existed. Many scholars have attempted to harness that jumble to no avail – it is forever unverifiable. We have no way of knowing which author is primarily responsible for the text. It is all conjecture. Let us move on to question two: 'Is Mr. Collins merely too fat and stupid to notice his wife's gradual transformation into a zombie?' Many have argued that this points to the physical linkage between obesity and stupidity largely subscribed to at the time, others have suggested it is merely the character's defining ...”


I tune Carbuncle out, my enthusiasm crushed. Borax is grinning at me like I am the biggest idiot on Mars. I really thought I had something – it seemed so likely that Austen was the primary author and that this classic text was more of Graham-Smith's corruption of an Austen original than the result of a collaborative effort. But we have moved on to question three: no time to mope. I hope to redeem myself in Carbuncle's eyes with my reading of the zombies as manifestations of cancer.


Still not thoroughly sick of zombies? Take the Which Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Character are You? quiz! I'm Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which would normally offend me but her characterization in this book was its best aspect (if you must live in a Zombie infested land, it's best to have a hoard of ninjas around). Still, I wasn't so happy with my description: "Your wealth, noble breeding, and zombie-slaying abilities are impressive—not to mention your fleet of ninjas. But you are exceedingly mean and wrinkly." I can take the mean part but wrinkly!?! I most certainly am not!


Note to the reader: I am aware that there have been some contributions to the monster-fied Austen genre that are far better than the commercially driven books discussed in this post. I really liked Regina Jeffers' Vampire Darcy's Desire (I've mentioned it in two posts, here and here) and Mary Simonsen, author of Searching for Pemberley, has been writing a very cute piece called Mr. Darcy on the Eve of All Saints Day (I don't think it's finished yet, but its close) which tackles this werewolf notion and is available on her blog. There is another werewolf take on Pride & Prejudice called Moonlighting by Ola Wegner, released last summer. I have a copy but have yet to read it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Donwell Abbey by Katharine Moore

I have a hard time reading for extended stretches in front of a computer so, while I downloaded and started reading Donwell Abbey two weeks ago, I only finished it yesterday. Had I held it in my hands, I would have read it straight through, rendering it easier to keep track of the multitude of descendants Katherine Moore creates for the residents of Highbury. As it was, I had a difficult time keeping track of all the Knightlys and Wentworths. That's right, Wentworths. Mr. Knightly and Emma have had two children: George, who married Anna Weston and died in the Crimean War, and Jane, who married Charles Croft Wentworth of Kellynch Hall (how a gentleman with that name came to succeeded Sir Walter is never explained). Anna Knightly now lives at Donwell with her daughter Emily, the heroine of the story, and her mother-in-law. Mr. Knightly has, sadly, passed away before our tale begins.

This is a throughly Victorian book: the imagery, right down to the cottages in need of improvement, reminiscent of George Elliot's Middlemarch. We encounter Highbury at a time of great change: Mr. Philip Elton, son of the late rector, is extending a railroad line to the town. The story is constructed around familiar themes of progress, industrialization, and social upheaval. With the middle class ascending into power, the families at Donwell and Hartfield (another houseful of Knightlys) have to reevaluate their traditional place in society. Even Emma, who holds quite firmly to her traditional, hierarchical values, comes to respect those who are worthy of their advancement.

Donwell Abbey is an amusing book but it feels unfinished. For example, the middle of is broken up by an epistolary segment, making for awkward transitions. Still, I really liked imagining Emma in the role of the indomitable matriarch (the personalities Ms. Moore creates for her grandchildren and their cousins are rather fascinating, inspired by the characters of their forefathers). Unfortunately, the authoress is deceased so there will be no cleaner drafts of this story. As it is, it's free: how can I complain?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

First Impressions: Chapter One in its Entirety

You know, I'm not pleased with this fragment notion. Let us abandon it and try again. Here's chapter one complete.

Fitzwilliam Darcy found a quiet corner of the overcrowded assembly hall and breathed an almost silent sigh of relief. From the safety of this retreat he could watch with some degree of composure as his friend, Charles Bingley, smilingly endured the crush of new neighbors from which Darcy had just escaped. Bingley, always deemed universally charming, had somehow managed to maneuver his rather plain dance partner into introducing him to the blonde beauty whom Darcy found to be, unquestionably, the handsomest lady in the room.

Darcy tried to summon a smile in response to his friend's easy sociability but was far too unhinged to succeed in the maneuver. From the moment the Netherfield party made their entrance he could not help but be acutely aware of the familiar buzz that filled the attentive room as Meryton assessed the newcomers. Though he strove to be oblivious as rumor of his income spread through the crowd, the astute observer could clearly perceive the tinge of discomfiture that disfigured his handsome face. No deep observation was required on his part to immediately discern who amongst the strangers surrounding him was privy to the gossip and who remained in ignorance: their overly attentive demeanors told all. He cursed inside. Nothing put him more out of countenance than fawning sycophants and he was displeased to observe that this neighborhood, in which he had unaccountably found himself, had an ample supply. Almost always, except in very elite circles, Darcy felt isolated by his wealth. And when he was amongst his financial equals he felt equally isolated by his values and intelligence as, unfortunately, fortunes were frequently inherited by those of less than stellar abilities. Darcy suffered nearly perpetual discomfort in society but on the evening in question, amongst those he did not know, geniality was proving a particular trial.

Between the songs of the set Bingley sought out his visibly disconcerted friend in the kindhearted, if misguided, hope of admonishing him into ease. “Come Darcy,” he said jovially, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”

“I certainly shall not,” Darcy replied emphatically. “You know how I detest it unless I'm particularly acquainted with my partner. At an assembly such as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.” He suppressed a shudder at the notion.

“I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom!” Bingley cried in amusement, both at the irony of his statement, for never was he near as fastidious as Darcy, and at his friend's predictably taciturn behavior. “Upon my honor I never saw so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.”

“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” Darcy declared with a glance in her direction. Inwardly he acknowledged that she was nearly the only woman he could remember noticing at all, so preoccupied was he with his own awkward predicament.

“Oh she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”

“Which do you mean?” and turning around, Darcy saw a dark haired woman, of shorter stature than her sister, just perceptively tapping her foot in time to the music as she watched the dancers. She did not possess the impressive beauty of her sister, yet his quick mind was struck by the cheerful liveliness of her appearance. This lady did not pine over sitting out the set, sulking like so many women he had observed. No indeed – rather than languishing she displayed an easy pleasure in her surroundings and a generous goodwill towards those enjoying the dance. Darcy wished he could be so content, so able to relish his chosen role of spectator. He knew it to be the safest place for him. Were he to seek an introduction at this juncture it would, undoubtedly, incite unwelcome attention and gossip while forcing him to indulge in idle conversation with a young lady whose companionship surely must be intolerable. Why should he subject himself to such atrocities? A dance was entirely unthinkable. He moved to turn back round in order to give Bingley a decidedly negative response to his proposal when the lady's eyes locked on his and he realized, with a great deal of horrified mortification, that she had obviously overheard Bingley's idiotic suggestion!

She gave him a knowing look – he could almost read her thoughts: “Well sir? Would you deem my company insupportable?” There was no denying the challenge implied in the raised brow: she was clearly calling him out. Was retreat possible for a man such as he? To not step forward now would be ungentlemanly, an insult to what he must admit to be an intriguing young lady – unthinkable! If there was anything certain to overcome Darcy's timidity it was the need to always uphold the dictates of etiquette. Why else would he have come to this unfortunate assembly in the first place? He was a Darcy of Pemberley after all, descendant of some of the oldest families in England, nephew to the Earl of _________. He had the honor of his name to uphold; it didn't matter if it meant attending an assembly with his host or preventing the infliction of an insult upon a lady, he would fulfill his duty.

“Very well Bingley. If your partner would be so kind, I would be happy to make the acquaintance of her sister.”



Elizabeth Bennet was, to put it rather mildly, surprised when approached by the intriguing and handsome Mr. Darcy. Rumor had it he was among the wealthiest gentlemen in the land and was, to all appearances, extremely displeased with his provincial company and unlikely to oblige anyone with his attention. She had indeed overheard his conversation with Mr. Bingley and smilingly seethed at the man's dismissive manners. She prepared herself for what she perceived as the inevitable blow of rejection by lifting her chin, directing her gaze, and embracing a satirical perspective on the reticent gentleman. If nothing else, experience told her that such impertinence would readily drive off even willing partners, not draw them to her side. For a moment their eyes met but she failed to catch Mr. Darcy's response to his friend. Assuming it was not in her favor, she returned her regard to the dance. But here was an uncanny circumstance! For suddenly there he was, presented to her with all due ceremony by her sister Jane, “My dear Elizabeth, may I present Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Mr. Darcy, this is my sister, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

“Miss Elizabeth,” he began smoothly, if quietly, “it is a pleasure.”

“The pleasure is mine Mr. Darcy.” She curtsied prettily.

“Are you available for the next set? I would be honored if you would grant me your hand.”

“Certainly sir. I am indeed available.”

Darcy released the breath he had been holding, unobserved of course. The worst was over: the introduction made. He bowed and retreated from further conversation, waiting nervously for the dance to commence and praying it would not prove too tedious a trial to bear.

Elizabeth pulled Jane aside. “Did Mr. Darcy request this introduction or has his fine friend coerced him into it?” she eagerly inquired.

“Of course not Lizzy! Mr. Bingley assures me Mr. Darcy is everything amiable, only it seems he is a bit timid in a crowd.”

“Why should such a man as he be ill-qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”

Jane gazed at her sister, imploring her to be kind to Mr. Bingley's friend.

“Very well,” Elizabeth responded to the silent request. “He is decidedly handsome. I shall not be such a simpleton as to allow myself to appear unpleasant to a man of such consequence.”

The ladies would have enjoyed laughing at this characteristic retort of Elizabeth's had not the next set begun to form and their partners presented themselves. Mr. Darcy braced himself against the curious stares of onlookers as he led Miss Elizabeth to the floor, but he could not ignore the hum of speculation as Meryton stood in wonder at the withdrawn stranger's singling out of the second daughter of Longbourn. He focused on this lady as the dance commenced, hoping to block out both his discomfort and the gossiping company.

In this endeavor Darcy found himself surprisingly successful. In Elizabeth's eyes he recognized a calm acceptance of his attentions, not the flirtatious idiocy with which he was so often confronted on the dance floor. She smiled becomingly in response to his gaze but seemed, having completed the basic preliminaries, not inclined towards conversation. Despite his instincts, Darcy actually forgot himself a bit and relished the rare pleasure of enjoying a dance: be assured – a most unusual occurrence.

Elizabeth noticed her companion's discomfort as they took to the floor and began to feel some pity for him, struggling as he was to conceal his vexation with the poorly concealed murmurs of her neighbors. Certainly this was not a man made smug by his position – rarely had she encountered anyone so ill at ease. Remembering her promise to make herself agreeable, she thought to initiate conversation but could not escape her own thoughts long enough to proceed. As he silently but expertly led her through the dance, she regretted the part she played in unwittingly provoking him into an uncomfortable situation. If only she had been less proud in her response to the overheard conversation – she was, after all, an eavesdropper, though be it an unwilling one, and thus deserved to hear something unflattering to herself. Yet it seemed that instead of being appropriately knocked down by her transgression, she was instead the subject of all her neighbors envy! The least she could do in return for such felicitous entertainment was not to torture the man with idle conversation. And so she never attempted it; they danced in a mutual and agreeable hush.

It did not escape Darcy that, though he could relish a silent dance, his partner might take offense at his total lack of conversation. As the first song ended he gathered himself to the task of making a rather mundane comment on the performance of the dance. Miss Elizabeth responded only vaguely, as befit the statement, finding that even with her rather extensive communication skills she was at a loss for a retort to such insipidly polite conversation. Mr. Darcy winced. He could only imagine how turgid he must appear to this attractive young woman, she who had been kind enough not to overwhelm him with just such humdrum chatter as he had been blubbering. Struggling for a smile, he strove to redeem himself, “It is your turn to say something Miss Elizabeth. I talked of the dance, now you ought to remark on the number of couples.”

Completely surprised that the quiet man could suddenly prove witty, Elizabeth smiled back and said with an arch look, “What do you think of books?”

“Delightful,“ he replied, suddenly feeling more composed, “much better than the usual ballroom conversations. Shall we pursue Richardson? He is a favorite of mine. But perhaps Shakespeare is more appropriate to the occasion?”

Elizabeth, though noting with approval her partner's literary taste, could not resist making a mischievous retort. “As you like, sir,” she challenged, “though acknowledging that 'brevity is the soul of wit,' perhaps I should execute mine by continuing to hold my tongue.”

Perish the thought! It became him to concede, “If the Bard himself can be harnessed towards such an unfortunate end, Miss Elizabeth, we really must abandon the topic of books altogether.” Elizabeth – it was a name he had always favored and enjoyed using it. How fortunate that she was a younger sister! They must not continue in silence now. “Having already covered the dance, what is there left we can discuss but the weather? Perhaps our health?” Darcy almost laughed at his own jest, so much was he enjoying the novelty of playing interrogator as, typically, his statements were intended to block conversation, not encourage it. But he was soon to discover that novelty is very short lived, if not regretted, as the dancer's roles reversed with Elizabeth's mischievous response: “Do you talk by rule then, when dancing?”

“Obviously not!” he emphatically thought. But who could not be astonishingly intrigued by the humorous glint in what he now recognized as a set of extraordinarily fine, dark eyes? Quite unthinkingly and totally unlike himself, he admitted, “As our dance has amply demonstrated, most certainly not!” They both laughingly accepted the evident truth of this statement.

“Did I just make a joke at my own expense?” Darcy wondered in amazement. Even more striking was that he found himself unconcerned by the self-inflicted jab, so comfortable was he with this lady he had only just met. Befuddling really, when so many women he had known for years continued to make him uncomfortable – Bingley's sister Caroline amongst them. He found his partner's next comment, calculated in kindness to sooth any blow to his dignity, terribly gratifying, “Sometimes a silent dance, well executed of course, can prove far more satisfying than one marked by the strain of broken small talk.”

“Indeed. Perhaps that is why society was wise enough not to be too stringent in its regulation of this area. Now that we have canvassed the topics allowed us we may happily forgo all further pleasantries, should we so choose.” Though they grinned at each other in amusement, neither wished to pursue such a course. They parted in the dance.

Elizabeth was greatly enjoying herself. Not only did she appreciate the blessing of a graceful dance partner but also the gratification of vanity in receiving such flattering attention from the most distinguished quarter she had ever encountered. But her happiness was threatened when, just as she regained her partner, she observed over his shoulder her mother, from the far side of the crowded room, determinedly striding towards the dance floor with their neighbor, Lady Lucas, in tow. The ladies positioned themselves near the dancers and proceeded to whisper furiously to one another – little doubt did Elizabeth have as to the nature of this conversation. For as long as she could remember, her mother had spoken of none but two topics: her nerves and the disposal of daughters. That the eyes of Mr. Darcy, a single man of immensely large fortune, should fall upon herself was certainly propelling both topics to new heights of interest for Mrs. Bennet.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First Impressions: Chapter One, 1st Installment

O.K. Deep breath. Here it goes.

I am very nervous about posting excerpts from my book and have been putting it off for weeks. At my husband suggestion, I am going to post the first few chapters in "teaser" format, a little piece at a time. It took some work for him to convince me that this is a good idea before I agreed. I'm still not totally comfortable with the notion.

Please be kind. I know once it's published anyone can read it and tear it shreds as they like but too much blatant criticism now may cause me to shove the thing in a folder and never look at it again. Constructive criticism, on the other hand, is of course welcome.

So here it is: this is about a third of the first chapter, covering the point where I deviate from Austen and expose the entire premise of the story. Please don't forget about the intro, my apology, in the tool bar to your right. Enough dillydallying. Without further ado, I offer for your amusement (hopefully) the beginning of First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice.

Fitzwilliam Darcy found a quiet corner of the overcrowded assembly hall and breathed an almost silent sigh of relief. From the safety of this retreat he could watch with some degree of composure as his friend, Charles Bingley, smilingly endured the crush of new neighbors from which Darcy had just escaped. Bingley, always deemed universally charming, had somehow managed to maneuver his rather plain dance partner into introducing him to the blonde beauty whom Darcy found to be, unquestionably, the handsomest lady in the room.

Darcy tried to summon a smile in response to his friend's easy sociability but was far too unhinged to succeed in the maneuver. From the moment the Netherfield party made their entrance he could not help but be acutely aware of the familiar buzz that filled the attentive room as Meryton assessed the newcomers. Though he strove to be oblivious as rumor of his income spread through the crowd, the astute observer could clearly perceive the tinge of discomfiture that disfigured his handsome face. No deep observation was required on his part to immediately discern who amongst the strangers surrounding him was privy to the gossip and who remained in ignorance: their overly attentive demeanors told all. He cursed inside. Nothing put him more out of countenance than fawning sycophants and he was displeased to observe that this neighborhood, in which he had unaccountably found himself, had an ample supply. Almost always, except in very elite circles, Darcy felt isolated by his wealth. And when he was amongst his financial equals he felt equally isolated by his values and intelligence as, unfortunately, fortunes were frequently inherited by those of less than stellar abilities. Darcy suffered nearly perpetual discomfort in society but on the evening in question, amongst those he did not know, geniality was proving a particular trial.

Between the songs of the set Bingley sought out his visibly disconcerted friend in the kindhearted, if misguided, hope of admonishing him into ease. “Come Darcy,” he said jovially, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”

“I certainly shall not,” Darcy replied emphatically. “You know how I detest it unless I'm particularly acquainted with my partner. At an assembly such as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.” He suppressed a shudder at the notion.

“I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom!” Bingley cried in amusement, both at the irony of his statement, for never was he near as fastidious as Darcy, and at his friend's predictably taciturn behavior. “Upon my honor I never saw so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.”

“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” Darcy declared with a glance in her direction. Inwardly he acknowledged that she was nearly the only woman he could remember noticing at all, so preoccupied was he with his own awkward predicament.

“Oh she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”

“Which do you mean?” and turning around, Darcy saw a dark haired woman, of shorter stature than her sister, just perceptively tapping her foot in time to the music as she watched the dancers. She did not possess the impressive beauty of her sister, yet his quick mind was struck by the cheerful liveliness of her appearance. This lady did not pine over sitting out the set, sulking like so many women he had observed. No indeed – rather than languishing she displayed an easy pleasure in her surroundings and a generous goodwill towards those enjoying the dance. Darcy wished he could be so content, so able to relish his chosen role of spectator. He knew it to be the safest place for him. Were he to seek an introduction at this juncture it would, undoubtedly, incite unwelcome attention and gossip while forcing him to indulge in idle conversation with a young lady whose companionship surely must be intolerable. Why should he subject himself to such atrocities? A dance was entirely unthinkable. He moved to turn back round in order to give Bingley a decidedly negative response to his proposal when the lady's eyes locked on his and he realized, with a great deal of horrified mortification, that she had obviously overheard Bingley's idiotic suggestion!

She gave him a knowing look – he could almost read her thoughts: “Well sir? Would you deem my company insupportable?” There was no denying the challenge implied in the raised brow: she was clearly calling him out. Was retreat possible for a man such as he? To not step forward now would be ungentlemanly, an insult to what he must admit to be an intriguing young lady – unthinkable! If there was anything certain to overcome Darcy's timidity it was the need to always uphold the dictates of etiquette. Why else would he have come to this unfortunate assembly in the first place? He was a Darcy of Pemberley after all, descendant of some of the oldest families in England, nephew to the Earl of _________. He had the honor of his name to uphold; it didn't matter if it meant attending an assembly with his host or preventing the infliction of an insult upon a lady, he would fulfill his duty.

“Very well Bingley. If your partner would be so kind, I would be happy to make the acquaintance of her sister.”