What better way to start the year that to focus on one of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters? Join Austen Variations as we spend January looking into the lovely Jane Bennet.
In Pride & Prejudice, after Jane Bennet receives the letter from Caroline Bingley informing her Mr. Bingley is not returning to Netherfield, Elizabeth reflects, “That he [Bingley] was really fond of Jane, she doubted no more than she had ever done; and much as she had always been disposed to like him, she could not think without anger, hardly without contempt, on that easiness of temper, that want of proper resolution which now made him the slave of his designing friends, and led him to sacrifice his own happiness to the caprice of their inclinations.” Jane, of course, is anxious to find reasons to think well of him, and will hear nothing of it.
But I’ve always wondered — what if Jane Bennet had another man, one with more backbone, to compare to ‘the most amiable man of her acquaintance’? Would she be able to find some anger at Mr. Bingley then? Jane Bennet ended up telling me the answer herself when I wrote Mr. Darcy’s Refuge, when she meets Colonel Fitzwilliam, an equally amiable man but one who could stand up for himself in disagreements. She falls in love with him, but believes he is in love with Lizzy. Here’s the scene where the details come out, as he is fetching her to London under false pretenses.
At first Jane had been nervous, perched on the narrow seat of the curricle. She had never ridden in such a stylish vehicle before, nor so far from the ground in an open carriage. But Colonel Fitzwilliam had noticed her discomfort and made a joke about how he felt tiny when he stood beside one of the fashionable high-perch phaetons, and shifted to make more room for her so that she did not have to sit at the edge of the seat. She noticed his skill at handling the team; she was not accustomed to seeing a driver so responsive to his horses.
As always, she found him remarkably easy to converse with. She still could not understand why Lizzy had chosen Darcy over his much more amiable cousin, and wondered, not without guilt, if her sister had made her choice based not on her heart but on the need for one of them to marry well. If Bingley had lived up to her expectations of him, Lizzy would not have had to consider their family’s future when making her decision. At least Lizzy did seem genuinely attached to Mr. Darcy, but that could be an act. She would need to see the two of them together to know for certain.
“Since you are aware that Lizzy is in London, I assume Mr. Darcy must be as well. Have they been able to meet?”
“Several times. In fact, there is a confession on that subject I must make to you.”
Jane’s stomach lurched, and it had nothing to do with the motion of the curricle. She did not want to hear about Colonel Fitzwilliam’s heartbreak at Lizzy’s hands. She could accept that her own romantic fantasies about him were hopeless since he could not afford a woman with her poor prospects, but it was harder to face that he cared for Lizzy more than for her. “I am eager to hear it,” she said politely.
“I am taking you to London under false pretences. While my mother did in fact invite you and Miss Elizabeth to tea, it was only after she discovered that you would be coming anyway. I chose to tell your mother of the invitation as the reason you should be allowed to come with me because my instructions were to fetch you without telling your mother the true cause.”
Jane’s heart began to flutter. “What is the matter? Is Lizzy ill? Or my father?”
“Miss Elizabeth gave me a letter for you which explains the situation.” He withdrew a folded paper from his pocket and handed it to her.
Darting a glance at him, Jane opened the letter and began to read. She gasped when she reached the part about her father’s heart seizure, and she must have turned pale since the colonel placed his hand lightly on her arm and said, “He is better now.”
Not for the first time, she wondered how he could tell so easily what she was thinking. Her eyes hurried through the rest of the letter. “They are to be married tomorrow?”
“Yes, and Miss Elizabeth very much desires your presence.”
Her first thought, oddly enough, was for the colonel. How this sudden marriage must pain him, yet he had gone out of his way to fetch her and had even been reassuring her when he himself must be in need of comfort! Her earlier envious thoughts were banished now, replaced by a desire to protect him from pain. “Thank you for bringing me,” she said slowly. “I appreciate the efforts you have taken so that I may attend.”
“It is a pleasure and an honor to be of service.” He sounded as if he actually meant it. In a lighter tone he added, “Even if it did require me to indulge in a bit of prevarication with your mother just as she was proclaiming how she knew she could trust me to bring you safely to your uncle’s house.”
She turned a grateful smile on him. “You gave her such delight by making her believe that the Countess of Matlock wished for my presence enough to send her son for me. You may be certain she will be sharing that story with everyone of her acquaintance!”
“I hope the change of plans does not cause you any distress.”
“Not at all!”
“I am glad. You seemed a little subdued, and I supposed you might be disappointed.”
How could she tell him she felt pain on his behalf? “I was taken aback to hear of my father’s heart seizure.”
“Of course.” He looked at her with such sympathy that she felt almost guilty for misleading him.
“I am also a selfish creature, and I find myself sad to be losing my sister’s companionship sooner than I had expected.”
“That is a worry I can help allay. Darcy and your sister plan to spend a month or more at Netherfield so that she can be near your father during his recovery.” He seemed to be watching her very carefully.
The mention of Netherfield did not cause her the pang of distress that it had so often since Mr. Bingley had left. “It is kind of Mr. Bingley to allow them the use of it.” How odd it was – usually she found it difficult to speak his name, but this time it rolled off her tongue without a second thought.
He seemed unusually preoccupied with the horses as he steered them around a slow farm cart. “I understand that Bingley will be returning there soon as well.”
For a moment she could not think at all. She had prayed for so long to hear this news, had longed for it and dreamed about it, and now that it was here, she felt nothing except embarrassment for all the talk and pitying looks that would now begin anew, just when they had started to wane. With Lydia’s disgrace, Mr. Bingley would be that much less likely to seek her out. He might even start dangling after some other pretty girl who would at least have the advantage of knowing that he would eventually disappoint her hopes. She would not be able to avoid seeing him if Lizzy was living at Netherfield. To her astonishment, she realized she did not want to see him at all, and that distressed her most of all. She looked away from the colonel, pretending interest in the farm they were passing. At least she had the consolation that the colonel did not know what Bingley had meant to her.
With great care, Colonel Fitzwilliam said, “Darcy tells me there is a lady in the vicinity whom Bingley has found himself unable to forget, and whose acquaintance he intends to renew.”
“Does he?” The uncharacteristically angry words escaped Jane’s lips before she realized what had happened. “I wonder that any lady who had been abandoned so long would be willing to receive him again. I suppose he believes his fortune is enough to gain him forgiveness.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam did not appear to be disturbed by her outburst. In fact, he seemed to be smiling, or at least as much as he could while tunelessly whistling. “Many ladies would tolerate a great deal for a fortune such as his.”
She could not understand him. Was he laughing at her? She took care to speak in her normal, calm voice when she said, “Perhaps some might think it naïve of me, but I believe that true affection and respect are worth more than the largest income. Is something the matter, Colonel? You have gone quite pale.”
His pallor was belied by his expression as he beamed at her. “I am quite well, thank you! I am merely suffering from an unaccountable urge to spring the horses, but I will not subject you to that.”
Pleased to see him cheerful again, she said recklessly, “Why not? Is it too dangerous?”
He smiled broadly. “You do not mind if I spring the horses? It is not dangerous, at least not on such a good road. The horses are very well trained.”
“I cannot say if I will mind, as it is something far from my experience, but I will never know if I do not try it.” She could not understand what had happened to her normal reticence.
“In that case, you might wish to hold onto the rail.”
Obediently she leaned forward and gripped it with both hands. “Very well, you may do your worst, sir!”
He hesitated. “Will you tell me immediately if you find it at all unpleasant?” At her nod of agreement, he shook the reins. As the horses shifted in unison to a smooth canter, the curricle surged forward.
The wind whistled past Jane’s ears. It was an odd but exhilarating sensation to hurtle along at such a speed with no enclosing carriage. The countryside almost seemed to blur beside them, but her attention was captured by the colonel’s intent expression as he drove, shifting the reins slightly from time to time, the team responding instantly to his instructions. Despite their speed, she did not doubt his command of the situation.
He reined the horses in as they came up behind a plodding stagecoach, deftly veering around it and onto the clear road ahead at a trot. “Well?” he said. His hair was becomingly tousled and his expression was boyish.
“It might be a bit much for everyday, but there is something pleasing about it. You drive beautifully. I was not in the least bit frightened.”
His expression of satisfaction warmed her heart. He said, “Thank you. Darcy’s team is a pleasure to drive. I have none so fine. Actually, I do not own a team at all, just my horse, but he has bravely carried me through several battles, so I cannot complain.”
“Carrying you to safety seems of greater value than the ability to race along the highway in a fashionable equipage.”
“Ah, but the fashionable equipage is enjoyable, is it not? Still, one can live without it. Tell me, Miss Bennet, would you consider an offer from a gentleman with little to offer except his affection and respect?
Jane’s heart slammed against her ribs. She could not possibly have understood his question correctly. He was in love with her sister, and Lizzy had told her that the colonel needed to marry an heiress. How could he be offering for her? Or was her heart hearing only what she desired in a question that had been meant innocently? That must have been the case. The disappointment was bitter. It was exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes, even though they were in vain.
But she intended to keep the colonel’s respect, so she put on the calm face she employed to disguise distress. “Is that a theoretical question, Colonel?”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “For the moment, yes. After all, your father has made quite clear his opinion of gentlemen who offer for his daughters without speaking to him first. Fortunately, I know precisely where to find him.”
Heat seemed to pour through her, and Jane was certain her cheeks must be scarlet. She looked down to hide the incredulous smile that insisted on showing itself. “But you hardly know me.”
“Do you recall the day we met, and you walked with me through the gardens to the wilderness beside your house? By the time we left that wilderness, I felt I had known you all my life. When we danced together at that assembly, I realized that I found more pleasure in one of your smiles than I could recall experiencing in a day spent with any other lady.” He paused, then began again, his voice rough. “Despite my profession, I am not a violent man. But when I learned Bingley intended to return to Hertfordshire, I wanted to run him through. That was when I first knew what it would cost me to see you married to another man.”
“Yet you were the one to tell me of his return.”
“Of course. I would not attempt to secure you under false pretenses. You deserve to know that you have a choice, especially since he has so much more to offer than I do.”
“I beg to differ.” And she looked up at him with her heart in her eyes.
What do you think? Could Jane Bennet ever discover her anger at Mr. Bingley, or would she have to bury it deep inside forever?