Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Ladies of Norland: Part One

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the center of the property, where they had for many generations lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man who lived to a very advanced age and who, for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister, but her death, ten years before his own, produced a great alteration. To supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew, Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew, niece, and their children, the old gentleman's days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive, and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large and half of which devolved on him upon his coming of age. By his own marriage, which happened soon afterwards, he likewise added to his wealth. To him, therefore, the succession to the Norland estate was not so important as to his sisters, for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father's inheriting that property, could be but small. Nevertheless, expectations will arise, even when unwarranted. Mr. John Dashwood, it was noted, could be relied upon to be particularly punctual in his visits to Norland, together with his wife and son, a child of four years, who was encouraged to court the affections of his uncle by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of that age: an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise. But such accomplishments, impressive though they be, were not enough to outweigh all the value of the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters.

The old gentleman died. His will was read and, like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure. The bulk of the estate, as expected, was disposed upon Mr. Henry Dashwood, and with lifetime proprietary rights guaranteed to Mrs. Dashwood and handsome bequeathments secured upon his three nieces. He meant not to be unkind, however, and, as a mark of his affection for young Harry, left him a pony and three thousand pounds.

Mr. John Dashwood’s disappointment was at first severe, but his temper was cheerful and sanguine, and he might reasonably hope that neither of his parents should live for many more years, carriage accidents being common and influenza on the rise. In the meantime, it was decided that the pony had better be left at Norland, where it could cause no additional strain to his own purse (the three thousand pounds were not found similarly burdensome), and where Harry might frequently visit to try the charms of his lisp upon his grandparents and aunts. Yet before even two such sojourns could be achieved, Fortune proved a less fickle benefactor than man, and Mr. Henry Dashwood followed his predecessor to the grave only a twelfth month later.

Mr. John Dashwood was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather coldhearted and selfish is to be ill-disposed, but he was, in general, well-respected, for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was. He might even have been made amiable himself, for he was very young when he married and very fond of his wife, but Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself, yet more narrow-minded and selfish. Though she, too, was severely disappointed, her hopes of a speedy ascendance to the title of Mistress of Norland rather dashed, she was, nevertheless, quite quick to see the possible advantages in their current circumstances, and well-versed in how to make the most of status and position as she was, had no hesitation in inquiring what her husband intended to do for his poor suffering mother and sisters. Four women, she argued, living alone in isolation must have need of masculine guidance.

“How is a bereaved widow to raise three girls while overseeing both house and estate? It is too gross an imposition.”

“You forget Sanders has been Norland’s overseer these ten years or more, ever since he succeeded his father to the post. He can be relied upon between our annual visits.”

“Perhaps we ought to spend more time at Norland in the future. Even the oldest retainers have been known to tamper with accounts when left unsupervised for too long.”

“I have no reason to suspect Sanders’ honor, but I dare say he should have an easier time managing the workers with my regular, commanding presence to uphold his authority.”

“I should certainly think so. Only think what a help it would be to your mother to know the estate is in good order. She could focus her attention on finding suitable husbands for your sisters, which will be an arduous task, I assure you. Such charming and accomplished girls deserve a London season, where they will require firm guardianship. Dear Mrs. Dashwood is far too lenient.”

“You ought to introduce them to society yourself, Fanny.”

“My thought precisely, John. I should enjoy the task, and your poor mother could remain at Norland with Margaret, as I am certain she should greatly prefer, but such notions are a bit unseemly in the moment. Fortunately, their mourning period will be complete in time for me to bring them out next year, but for now, especially as our own activities must be curtailed, I think we might best support the grieving family by removing to Sussex.”

He frowned. “You do not think the ladies would prefer their own company at such a time? My sister Marianne is certain to be in the darkest of humors, and her dramatics can be quite unnerving. When last I saw her, she barely uttered two words.”

The lady honored her husband’s sensibilities, but she could not indulge them. “A little discomfort to ourselves is a small price to pay when our support is so needed. You can see to the books and grounds, and I can take over the housekeeping duties for dear Mrs. Dashwood.”

“I do think little Harry provides a cheering presence. One cannot but smile at his antics,” the fond father mused.

“To be sure, he will be the greatest balm to their blighted spirits, and you know how much he enjoys our stays at Norland. When might we depart?”

"Are we not too hasty? I do not wish to be perceived as encroaching," he replied. "One had rather, on such occasions, do too little than too much. They can hardly be expecting company."

"There is no knowing what they may expect," said the lady, "but we are not to think of their expectations. The question is: what do they require?"

"Certainly. Four ladies left to wallow alone in their sorrow cannot thrive. The mundane but necessary details of daily life will fall into neglect."

“That you must not allow. Any diminishment of the estate takes from your own pocket, John, and Harry’s as well. You have not just a right and interest in the house and family, but a duty to both. I know you would not wish to appear negligent.”

"That is very true, my dear. Indeed, that would not do at all, and so it is decided. I shall write to my mother of our intentions at once, but do rest easy regarding Sanders, my dear. He is a good man. There is no reason for concern over his ability to manage the estate for a few years. Harry’s patrimony will remain undiminished.”

His wife hesitated a little in accepting this reassurance. "I do not mean to disparage the abilities of Mr. Sanders. However, one would hope the estate would improve, not merely avoid neglect, over the time of Mrs. Dashwood’s residence. Should she live fifteen years, many an opportunity to increase the property’s value may be squandered."

"Fifteen years! My dear Fanny, her life cannot be worth half that purchase."

"If you will observe, people always live forever when they hold property required by others and of little use to themselves. She is very stout, healthy, and hardly forty."

Mr. John Dashwood looked alarmed. “Do you truly think so? I had not thought it possible. Certainly, over the course of so many years, it is not just matters of maintenance that press upon the attentive landowner. As you say, I have a duty to myself, my child, and my heritage to ensure the future prosperity of Norland Park. It is a matter of honor.”

“Very well stated, my dear. I could not agree more.”

So it was that within a fortnight of his father’s funeral, Mr. John Dashwood, his family, and their attendants were installed at Norland, and with no determined time for their departure. Though John’s letter, full of proper civility and respectable sentiments, prepared the ladies of Norland for their reception, the notice was short enough that a refusal could not be conveyed in time to prevent the encroachment. Thus was their quiet period of mourning brought to an abrupt closure, disrupted by social dictates, hostessing duties, and a determinedly rambunctious four-year-old, possessed of no consideration for his relations’ distress and perfectly capable of invading even the most secure sanctuaries sought in desperation by his aggrieved aunts, upon whom he was extremely fond of imposing himself.

In sorrow, Mrs. Dashwood must be equally carried away by her fancy, and as far beyond consolation as in pleasure, she was beyond alloy. Thus, the indelicacy of the John Dashwoods’ behavior was perceived so much the greater. Mrs. John Dashwood had never been a favorite with any of her husband's family, but she had had no opportunity, till the present, of showing them how grasping she could be. So acutely did Mrs. Dashwood, a woman of romantic mind, feel her insinuating behavior, and so earnestly did she despise her daughter-in-law for it, that she was hard-pressed to extend even the most basic of civilities. She would have been loath to do so had not the entreaty of her eldest girl induced her to reflect on the propriety of such incivility, and her own tender love for her dear departed husband not afterwards acted to temper her aggravation and, for his sake as well as that of her much beloved daughters, avoid a breach with their son and brother.

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding and coolness of judgment which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother and enabled her frequently to counteract that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to rudeness. She had an excellent heart, her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them. It was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.

That sister was the aforementioned Marianne, whose abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor's. She was sensible and clever but eager in everything. Her sorrows and her joys alike could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting — everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.

Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister's sensibility, but by their mother it was valued and cherished. In their mourning, the two ladies fully encouraged each other in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future. Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted, but still she could struggle; she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival and treat her with proper attention, and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion and encourage her to similar forbearance.

Margaret, the other sister, was a good-humored, well-disposed girl, but as she had already imbibed a good deal of Marianne's romance without having much of her sense, she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life. But we should be generous; few children at that tender age do show much promise. It is a wonder so many survive to adulthood, but they somehow manage it, usually surpassing the expectations of the concerned relations who bemoaned their future not ten years before.


Come back tomorrow for part two!


  1. Ha, I love the description of Margaret. As always, a wonderful twist bringing a fresh perspective!
    reichanam at

  2. Thank you! Having been an unpromising teen myself, I have a lot of compassion for Margaret, though not enough to give her a real role in this story. I have not done her justice, and I am sorry for that. I just didn't have the time.