It’s our anniversary, and we’re in the mood to celebrate! Throughout February, we’re commemorating the success of Austen Variations‘ first year by dropping in on some of our favorite Austen couples on their anniversaries. We started with the Darcys and the Bingleys on the 2nd. Today, we’re visiting the Eltons from Emma. I wonder how they’re doing after twelve months together. Does connubial bliss live on, or is the honeymoon definitely over?
Mrs. Elton and Emma, illustration by Juliet McMaster from “In Defense of Mrs. Elton” by Diana Birchall.
Mr. Elton was reading the newspaper. He had finished his coddled eggs, and over the crumbs of toast and broken shells was reading out bits of stories to his lady, who in truth could hardly listen, and occupied herself by sipping her tea and mentally planning a new sprigged cap.
“Oh shocking,” said Mr. Elton, “there are greater incidences of forgery in the kingdom ever before, the Courier says; and a larger number of bankrupts too. No surprise then that the dreadful crime of self-murder is occurring in unprecedented numbers.”
“Murders!” shuddered Mrs. Elton. “Do not say so, Mr. Elton. You quite upset my breakfast.”
“I wonder if I ought not to say something about that from the pulpit this Sunday,” he mused. “Just in case one of our workingmen, or some person like that, is considering such a thing. If I tell them it is wrong, it may be prevented. A word to the wise, you know.”
“Mr. Elton!” his wife exclaimed. “I never interfere with your sermons, but I beg you will not say any such thing. Nothing of that sort could happen in Highbury. You will lose your place if you talk on such subjects, I know,” she nodded vigorously.
“Oh nonsense, Augusta. But I will read you something else. Perhaps you will prefer to hear about the snow-storm they are having in Vienna – it has given rise to a sledge party of great splendor, on the ice.”
“That is better,” she agreed, taking up her sewing reticule and beginning to hunt for a certain roll of spotted muslin. “But it is so far away, Mr. Elton. I cannot really be interested in any thing that happens farther away than London. You might read about what plays are going on. Mr. Kemble is doing Macbeth, I have heard; if only we could go to town to see some plays, that would be the very thing.”
“Impossible, my dear. My church duties at this season – why Shrove Tuesday is practically upon us.”
Mrs. Elton dropped her needlework. “Shrove Tuesday! Is it indeed! Why, I almost forgot – and yet, how could I forget the most important event of our two lives?”
He looked up from his paper a trifle apprehensively, having been married long enough not to show his ignorance of such a subject.
“Why, don’t you know? Our wedding day. We were married just before Shrove Tuesday, one year ago exactly.”
Mrs. Elton, illustration by Juliet McMaster
“Ah, yes of course, my dear Augusta; I do not forget the felicitous event that made me the happiest of men.” And thinking he had dealt with the subject handsomely, he went back to his paper. “You like local news – but this is bankruptcy too, for since Stanton of Lowbury Farm ran up those debts, all his livestock is now for sale. Most of it is oxen and such, but if you like, we might add to our poultry for a song, I think.”
Mrs. Elton treated that subject with the scorn it deserved. “Really, Mr. Elton, if you think you can get chickens away from Mrs. Weston at auction! She is a mild woman, but not when it comes to her hens.”
“Ah, I suppose you are right. Well, my dear, are you not going to angle for a present, in remembrance of our wedding, a year since? A new cap, will it be, or a new shawl?”
“I do want a new cap,” Mrs. Elton said consideringly, “but I think we ought to honour the day with something more. Yes! I should like to give a party, that is what. We might invite our most select neighbours, you know, for tea, and cards, and a little repast; there is no need for any thing more, the days are still so short and the weather so chilly.”
“My dear Augusta!” exclaimed Mr. Elton, his eyebrows raised. “Do you propose cassino or whist at the Vicarage? I beg you to remember our station. What might pass at other times of the year, will never be appropriate on the threshold of Lent.”
“Oh, but people play all sorts of games on Shrove Tuesday, Philip. I must speak to Cook about the pancakes for the pancake races, and I daresay some of the worse sort of villagers will have cock-fighting and bull-baiting.”
“I must speak to Knightley about putting a stop to all that,” Mr. Elton said gravely.
“Then you can invite him to our party,” his wife put in quickly, “if you are walking over to Hartfield this morning.”
He gave her a look. “You don’t suppose that Mrs. Knightley will accept our invitation,” he said dryly. “You know how disdainful and above herself that lady has always been, and since her marriage, her propensities have only worsened, in my opinion.”
Mrs. Elton’s face lengthened. “Tis too true,” she agreed, “but you must try, all the same. If we have the Knightleys – and the Westons – and the Coles – “
“But, my dear Mrs. Elton, you forget,” he protested. “There is no time for a party. Shrove Tuesday is next week, on the seventh of February, and our wedding-day was not until the twentieth, if I mistake not.”
“That is right; but how can it be? How could we have been married in Lent?”
“We were not,” he told her patiently, “Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday fell much later last year than this. No, no, we cannot have a party.”
“Oh but we must, to celebrate our year of wedded bliss,” she insisted. “It need not be on the exact day. Do you go, while Susan is clearing up, and call on Mr. Knightley. We can have the party this very week, to be sure.”
At Hartfield, Mr. and Mrs. Knightley were enjoying their own wedded happiness, sitting by the fire after breakfasting on delicate slices of their home-cured ham, and buttered-toast. Mr. Woodhouse had not come down to breakfast, and was having a little repast of gruel in his bedchamber, as best suited him these days.
“I declare, Emma, I ought to go have a word with Larkins, the ground is quite frozen, and I do not want the vegetables to turn to ice. Yet I can hardly tear myself away from you. Even after four months of marriage, I am as happy as a bridegroom.”
She smiled at him sunnily.
“You look very happy, my dear wife. Dare I inquire the reason?”
“You may. You have some news to hear, of a sort I hope will make you as happy as myself.”
He took her hand. “In that case, lose no time telling it.”
“I will not delay your joy for a single moment. My dear, we are – we may expect – “ Her face was overspread with blushes.
Mr. Knightley bounded to his feet. “Emma! You don’t say! Can it be? Is it really true? Are you quite sure?”
She bent her head shyly. “Yes. It is quite certain. I have missed…two…and Mrs. Weston sent Dr. Perry to talk to me, and they both say…that the event will take place some time in the latter part of the summer…” She said no more.
A look of such happiness as she had never seen before overshone his face. After a moment he asked earnestly, “And you are sure you are well, my dear Emma – quite well?”
“Oh yes indeed,” she said merrily, “you know I always am; though that is the reason that I did not eat as much as usual of our excellent Hartfield ham this morning!”
At that most inopportune moment, the young maid Hannah came into the room and bobbed a curtsey.
“Oh! If you’ll excuse me, sir – and ma’am – I am sorry, but Mr. Elton is here. I told him you was at breakfast, but he will see you.”
“Elton! What can he want, so early, and at such a time,” exclaimed Mr. Knightley, with irritation.
“Perhaps it is a matter of some importance,” said Emma soothingly, “we have finished eating, so you may send him in here, Hannah.”
Mr. Elton, in his best black broadcloth, strode beamingly into the breakfast room. Emma hospitably offered him a cup of tea, but he shook his head. “No, I thank you, Mrs. Knightley. I do not wish to presume, or to disturb you for more than one little moment – but time was important, as I wish to secure your presence, as early as possible. Mrs. Elton and I have decided to give a party, on this very Saturday. It is to celebrate our wedding-day. We were joined exactly a year ago, and you know it is every married man’s duty to raise a toast to his wife, after she has made him happy for a whole year! I hope and trust you will come?”
The Knightleys were speechless for a moment. “A party – oh, no, no, Elton. I am sorry. It is out of the question. Mrs. Knightley is, you see, indisposed.”
Mr. Elton looked uncertainly at Emma’s rosy, healthy, beaming countenance, but did not dare to contradict. Mr. Knightley continued, in an elated tone, “I cannot consent to her riding out in the carriage, over frozen ground, in this cold February weather. Our apologies to your good wife. I am sure you will be more successful with the Westons.”
“But – can you not come yourself, Knightley?” Mr. Elton almost pleaded. “Augusta will be so very disappointed!”
“I cannot leave my wife,” Mr. Knightley said so firmly the vicar saw there could be no argument.
After he had gone, Emma remonstrated gently with her husband. “My dear – was it not soon to tell him?”
“Me? Why I said nothing. Only that you were indisposed.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Mark my words, Mr. Knightley, the news will be all over Highbury tonight.”
And it was. By six o’clock Miss Bates was telling Mrs. Goddard and Mrs. Martin, who were dining at the Martin farmhouse, “Have you heard the news? Mrs. Knightley is expecting! And she has refused Mr. Elton’s invitation to their party. Yes, he is giving a party. To celebrate their wedding-day, a year ago, you know.”
“Is it a year the Eltons have been married already?” Mrs. Goddard wondered, while Harriet smiled to herself. “Why, Mrs. Knightley and I will have our babies at the same time,” she whispered softly.
Mrs. Goddard did not hear her. “Well, well, to be sure I wish the Eltons continued happiness.”
“Oh yes, indeed,” said Miss Bates eagerly. “Anniversaries are such good things!”
“And babies, too,” smiled Harriet.
“Now that I think of it, it is a wonder we have not heard such an announcement from the vicarage,” observed Mrs. Goddard. “A whole year, and no sign of a new sprig. I wonder if any thing is wrong there…”
And they began to gossip.
Note: Diana’s “In Defense of Mrs. Elton,” illustrated by Juliet McMaster, may be read on the JASNA website, here: http://jasna.org/publications/defense/index.htm