An occasional series detailing the fictional misadventures of the Misses Austen, their dearest mother, their newfound Chawton friends and neighbours, a donkey called Gerald, and not forgetting the spirited Miss Harriet Brown and the haughty Mr Eckley.
Psst…Part One can be found here…http://austenvariations.com/a-little-bit-of-ivory-two-inches-wide/
Chawton, July 1809
The walk to the great house at Chawton takes no more than twenty minutes. I think Jane, who has taken special care in dressing for the occasion, looks lovelier than I have seen her in many a month. Her complexion is bright after the exercise. Not for the first time, I think of how better she fares here in the countryside than at Southampton or Bath.
As we are family and such regular visitors, the butler greets us with no special notice and leaves us find our own way into the drawing room. “Do you suppose Mrs Brown and the Miss Brown’s will be in attendance?” I ask as we walk. “Any invitation Edward has issued will have come impolitely late? I would have half a mind to refuse something that seems like such an afterthought.”
“You forget Mrs Brown’s keenness to marry off her eldest daughter Cassandra” Jane says. “She would have the girl ready to be paraded about in a trice if she knows Mr Eckley will be in attendance. I daresay Mrs Brown can sniff out a single gentleman of good fortune at twenty paces or more.”
Our brother Edward greets Jane and I cheerfully, but he is always awkward around my mother. Their relationship is strained and for a long while they have not known how to behave around one another. Edward was given him up to the care of our father’s wealthy but childless relatives when he was only eight. My mother was the one who convinced my father to let the Knights adopt him. “Let the boy go!” she was reported to have said. How much it must have cost her to utter those words as a mother, and how much it must have hurt him as a son to hear them, I cannot begin to imagine. Now he has another mother, and while he treats the mother who gave birth to him cordially, he is distant and occasionally I fear, somewhat resentful towards her. For her part, my mother must take cold comfort from knowing she was right to have let him go. Her sacrifice has earned him his prosperity. Yet now, as we sit around the fire waiting for the arrival of the other guests, there is a gulf that divides them, caused by years of distance, separation and feelings of rejection. Edwards smothers his hurt with smiles and bland conversation, and pays no attention to the praise and approval she bestows on him. We are family, and in order to remain one, there are things which must never be said, wounds which should not be irritated, scenes we must not revisit.
Thankfully there are grandchildren—young people for us all to love. They are both the balm and a glue that hold us all together and give us something to discuss when all other subjects fail us. Fanny bursts into the room. At sixteen, she is Edward’s eldest. Despite the loss of her mother, she is a happy girl, eager to embrace life and all the opportunities for enjoyment she is allowed. She is not properly out and is therefore overjoyed to be allowed to join us for dinner when there are guests expected. She has many hugs for her grandmother and loves to sit beside her Aunt Jane, whom she looks up to in wonderment, hanging on her every word, eager for her advice and instruction.
Jane, in turn, is equally fond of Fanny. She shows a marked partiality towards her, far over and above the general affection she shows to her other nieces and nephews. “I suppose a good aunt ought to love them all the same,” Jane once said to me, “though I am content to be a mediocre aunt, and save the very best of my affection for Fanny.”
“My good friend, Mr Eckley will join us in a moment. He has gone upstairs to correct his appearance for dinner,” Edwards says.
“Yes, we met Mr Eckley earlier,” Jane replies. “He seemed extremely correct already. A very exact sort of man.”
“Be nice, Jane,” Edward warns, knowing her too well.
She smiles in return. “Do the Brown’s come?”
“Yes, Mrs Brown answered my invitation promptly. Why did you wish me to ask them?”
“Harriet Brown was of great assistance to us earlier, I wanted to repay her kindness. I thought it far better to do so at your expense than ours.”
Fanny laughs, earning her a disapproving look from her father, but Jane’s easiness and teasing mood lightens everyone else’s until Mr Eckley appears. He has a serious face and a grave way of speaking. He seems to suck the enjoyment from the room. He is polite to an extent, but his manners are not easy. He speaks succinctly and only when he absolutely has to.
“It is a shame he is so rich, he would make a fine undertaker,” Jane whispers to me. “Though a very handsome one.”
I shake my head at her as we are forced to stand up again. The Browns enter the room, sans Mr Brown, who we soon learn has a cold. Mrs Brown is clearly not of a mind to waste time or opportunity when it comes to her daughter’s marital prospects, and steers Mary in front of Mr Eckley, where she begins to expound on her accomplishments. “I am sorry if we are a little late, Mr Austen. I could not convince Mary away from her practice. She is most diligent about it, though when you hear her play, I hope you will agree she employs her time well. What an ear for music she has, Mr Eckley! I think she has inherited it from me.”
“Mamma, you do not play,” Harriet Brown says.
“No Harriet, but if I had learned, I am certain I would have been most proficient.”
I see Jane and Fanny, who share much the same sense of humour, struggle to contain their laughter. Edward invites Mrs Brown her to sit and she heads for the most comfortable chair, nearest the fire, which happens to be my mother’s favourite spot. There is then, between the two eldest ladies in the room, a race to claim the prized position. My mother, who spends equal amounts of time bemoaning her ill health as she does digging up potatoes wins, and claims the chair with a look of triumph, before taking up her wine and supping it as if it were her prize.
“Pray tell me, Miss Harriet, are you as diligent as your sister? Do you play?” Mr Eckley asks.
Harriet Brown looks astonished that he should begin a conversation with her. “No. That is, I do play, a little, but I cannot claim half Mary’s diligence. I do not play as well as I would like, but then as I do not practice as regularly as I am told to.”
“Perhaps I might have the pleasure of hearing you perform later, after dinner. I am sure I will find nothing wanting.”
“Oh, I know what you are about, Mr Eckley,” Harriet says. “I shall not embarrass myself for your amusement. I am sure you are used to hearing the very best of performers, and would take an enormous amount of pleasure in critiquing me.”
She delivers her accusation with a teasing smile, as if it were all a joke. Still Mr Eckley must be a little cross with her. He frowns.
“My sister Jane plays exceedingly well, Eckley,” Edward interjects. “She has a real gift for country dances.”
“Really, Miss Austen?” Harriet Brown says, leaning forward. “I supposed none of you were musical. You have no instrument at the cottage.”
“How observant of you, Miss Harriet. No, we have no instrument,” Jane blushes. She is a quietly confident lady, who is rarely ashamed of anything, but her high colour speaks volumes about our current circumstances. We have talked about renting a pianoforte, if we can find one cheaply enough. Though I fear on our modest income, it will be a long time before we might own one of our own again.
“Well, you may come play here, Jane, whenever you like,” Edward says offhandedly, rather missing the point. Mr Eckley’s frown deepens and he walks to the other side of the room to stare out of the window.
“We are to be blessed tomorrow, for we are to be joined here at Chawton by our friend Martha Lloyd,” my mother says, changing the subject. “She is a great collector of recipes and will no doubt be pestering you for any particular favourites to pass onto our cook.”
“And I shall be glad to bless her with my plum pudding,” Mrs Brown replies. “Will it be a long visit?”
“Miss Lloyd has been with other friends at Steventon, where my late husband, dear Mr Austen, was once the Reverend, but she will settle with us now. She shared our house in Southampton. Sadly, she is without family, and so has become one of ours.”
I see Jane raise her chin and smile thinly at Edward. Martha is a dear friend, particularly of Jane’s, but the truth is that she came to us for the sake of economy, rather than company. She could not afford to live alone, and as we too have often struggled after the death of our father, it seemed sensible for us to share the burdens of food and rent with Martha.
“She is to come over to us on Mr Benson’s cart. He was kind enough to offer to bring her to us,” Jane tells Edward, with something of a challenge in her voice. She wonders, I know, whether he will offer to send his carriage to collect Martha. He does not.
At the window, Mr Eckley’s shoulders stiffen.
Edward is good to us now. I am immensely grateful for the use of the cottage, and for the improvements he has made to it, but I do wonder why it has taken him so long to assist us. Perhaps he thought the hundred pounds a year he previously provided my mother with was enough. Yet I have seen my prodigiously talented sister knee deep in dirty water when our store cupboard in Castle Square flooded. I will not forget the sight of her helping to bail it out, when all available hands were needed to save our provisions. I also remember seeing her hunched over a table, calculating her expenditure carefully, worrying over the cost of paper, and how it once pained me to see her sitting out on a game of cards, when she could not afford to lose even a few shillings to the amusement.
Edward is the master of three estates and father to eleven children. He is a busy man, but still, how could he have not noticed how increasingly difficult our circumstances had become? Yes, he has many others relying on him, but his wealth is so phenomenal in comparison to our gentle poverty. Did he never question why we have moved so much, going from one bad house to an even worse one, in order to save on rent? Did he not hear how we have gradually been forced to give up so much of that which we relied on for pleasure? Jane has had no instrument for some time. We had to give up our garden in Southampton and let it out to others to cover our costs.
Perhaps it is our own fault. Maybe we have been too proud. If we had applied to him sooner and directly, who is to say he would not have given us some assistance. Yet, in my meanest moments, I suspect there is a part of him—a piece of him which must surely have been damaged by being sent away from his large, happy family at such a tender age—that relished seeing us struggle for a while, until his conscience got the better of him; or perhaps the passing of his wife made him examine his responsibilities more closely.
It is not a sister’s place to complain or question, but his motives are a mystery to me. Does his recent generosity come at a price? I spent much of last year at his Kent estate, Godmersham, helping to care for his children. Have we been lured closer, Jane and I, we maiden aunts, so we might take on more of the burden of childrearing? When Edward leaves for Godmersham again, will one of us be expected to go to? If so, I will ensure it is I, not Jane, who goes with them. She must get back to her pen.
While I am lost in thought, Mrs Brown chatters nervously, endlessly, while her elder daughter says nothing and appears to be no more than a pretty statue, a useless ornament. When we go into dinner, her mother attempts to bring Mary to Mr Eckley’s notice, but I suspect he will never condescend to look her way. A simple Mary Brown, no matter how beautiful, will not satisfy a man like him.
Her sister Harriet is far more interesting to watch and listen to. Her eyes sparkle in the candlelight and her smile is mischievous as she gleefully teases Mr Eckley. When he speaks of liking a French sauce, she declares him His Majesty’s traitor and asks him to explain what is so wrong with simple English fare. They have an equally lively debate over art.
Harriet Brown is quick-witted and opinionated, a little too opinionated to be truly ladylike, but her boldness makes her entertaining. When the subject of books is raised, I see Jane lean forward to hear them better. Her interest is particularly piqued. How can it not be?
“I try to get Fanny to stick to the texts her Governess sets for her,” Edward says. “Though I do find her on occasion curled up with a volume of Belinda, Evelina or Cecilia. Or worse, some gothic nonsense.”
“You would do well to listen to your father,” Mr Eckley says, with a nod towards Fanny. “Novels can confuse and beguile a delicate young mind.”
“Do you suppose young ladies are not capable of knowing the difference between fiction and real life, Mr Eckley?” Harriet Brown protests.
“I think novels require a suspension of disbelief, a requirement to believe in a world in which people behave in fantastic ways. In young people they must give rise to unrealistic expectations; dreams of travel and romance, of adventures. When they grow older, they will surely be dissatisfied when faced with the realities of life; when they come to understand life does not resemble a novel.”
“I agree,” says Jane, “that some novels stretch credulity to its very limits, Mr Eckley, but do you not think that even in those books there is some value? Is not a lovely thing to be able to transport yourself into another world, to be so entertained for a few hours, that you forget your own troubles?”
Mr Eckley blinks. Jane has not said much all evening, and like so many people do, he has underestimated her. He turns in his chair so he might see her face. “If we are speaking of values to be gained, then you must agree there is far more worth in religious texts, geography books, or volumes of history.”
“Oh yes, they might tell me much about kings and queens and countries and wars. But what if my studies extend to the human heart? I refer of course, not to its vessels or arteries. I should imagine they can be easily described. What is not so easily discovered are our feelings, our emotions, and perhaps that is why we read novels? To examine the unexplainable, the inexplicable workings of our souls, our hearts.”
Mr Eckley smiles. “You are a romanticist then? Tell me, has it done you much good?”
“Actually, Mr Eckley, I consider myself a practical woman,” Jane replies. “I am well aware of the harshness that exists in the world. I am under no illusions that we live mostly in disappointment, but that does not stop me from also having hope.”
“What does Miss Jane Austen hope for?” Mr Eckley asks.
“I hope that one day you will have your heart broken, but pray that when you do, you will have a good novel at hand with which to console yourself,” Jane says, smiling.
Edward’s face, at the top of the table, is aghast until he sees Mr Eckley is not offended by Jane’s words.
“Your hopes are in vain, Miss Austen,” Harriet Brown says to Jane. “In order for his heart to be broken, he must first be in possession of one. Why, to dismiss all literature so lightly, you must have no soul either, Mr Eckley! Do you not live in the land of Shakespeare, Sir?”
Mr Eckley looks as if he has been struck. I suspect he has been assaulted by some of the romantic notions he has just finished deriding.
Edward coughs and tries to defend his friend. “We have moved away from the subject, which I think was Fanny’s reading habits, and there I must agree with you, Eckley, the balance should be more firmly with the texts set for her by her Governess.”
“Very well, Papa,” says, Fanny, in all innocence, her fair curls bobbing prettily about her neck. “I promise not to read another novel until Aunt Jane publishes one of hers.”
The table falls silent for a moment. Jane closes her eyes, looks feint and mortified by the spilling of her most secret wish, to see one of her stories in print.
“Do you write, Miss Austen?” asks Harriet Brown. “How exciting.”
“No,” Jane says, recovering. “You must not take Fanny seriously. I have written for the entertainment of my family, no more than that, but I have given it up. I played devil’s advocate for Mr Eckley just now, but I actually begin to think he may be correct. There is little value in novels, at least for me.”
I listen to her in dismay, hoping to heaven she is not in the least bit serious.
If you have made it this far, may I say thank you, and well done. Oh, and happy Wednesday x