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.
“I do not like to boast of my own child, but to be sure, Jane — one does not often see anybody better looking. It is what everybody says. I do not trust my own partiality. When she was only fifteen, there was a gentleman at my brother Gardiner’s in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were.” Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 9
The Gardiners’ Home Gracechurch St.
“Jane! Elizabeth! Come quickly!” Mrs. Bennet squealed as she entered the house with Mrs. Gardiner. “I have some news for you!” She turned her head both directions looking for her daughters, and the two women walked towards the drawing room. On the way, Mrs. Bennet stopped at the stairs and called one more time. “Jane! Elizabeth!”
She waited until she heard the sound of footsteps and Elizabeth’s voice. “Coming, Mother.”
Mrs. Bennet clasped her hands tightly and followed her sister-in-law into the drawing room, taking a seat as she waited for her two eldest daughters.
Jane walked into the room first. At fifteen, she had grown into a very attractive young lady. She was followed by Elizabeth, who at fourteen years of age was about the same height but not quite as pretty. Jane had a very serene, generous, and quiet personality while Elizabeth was lively, enjoyed a good laugh, and had a tendency to speak her mind. The two young ladies were very different but were extremely close.
“What is it, Mother?” Elizabeth asked.
Mrs. Bennet waved for the girls to sit. Elizabeth could tell from her mother’s jubilant smile and rapid hand motions that it must be good news.
“We were in the milliner’s shop and your aunt met an acquaintance there, a Mrs. Thornton. They are having a ball and have expressly invited you, Jane!”
“Me?” Jane asked. “Are you certain, Mama?”
Mrs. Bennet nodded.
Jane looked at Elizabeth and then back at her mother. “But I have never been to a ball.”
“Well, everyone must have their first.”
“But…” Jane paused and looked again at Elizabeth. “But I would not wish to go without Lizzy.”
Mrs. Bennet wagged her head back and forth. “Well, actually we were all invited. But they seemed particularly interested in you attending, Jane.”
“But Mother, are you not leaving for Longbourn on the morrow?” Elizabeth asked.
Mrs. Bennet waved her arms about excitedly. “No, I have decided to stay until the ball. Your father and the younger girls will not suffer if I do not return directly.”
Elizabeth turned her head towards Jane. “The girls will not suffer, but Father likely will!” she whispered.
“But they truly extended the invitation to us?” Jane asked.
Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “I may have mentioned that my two favourite nieces were going to be staying with me. I had no idea they would invite us to a ball.”
“So we are both to go to our first ball!” Jane turned and grasped Elizabeth’s hand. “Oh, I would be so nervous without you. I am so glad you will be there with me!”
They sat in the drawing room for quite a while talking with their mother and aunt about the ball. Mrs. Gardiner informed them that they had been friends with the Thorntons for many years. They had recently come into money and had moved into a large home in a fashionable part of London. They were hosting this ball for a nephew who was coming to town.
The day of the ball arrived, and Elizabeth and Jane talked as they dressed in the gowns specially made for the occasion.
“I hope we shall remember all the steps to the dances,” Jane said. “I would hate to make a mistake on the dance floor!”
“Heavens!” said Elizabeth. “With all the practicing our mother and aunt made us do since we received the invitation, we best not forget.”
“I still do not understand why we were invited. But Mother thinks it is a wonderful thing.” Jane looked apprehensively at her sister. “I know how much Mother talks about meeting the right gentleman to marry and thinks a ball is the perfect place to meet one. I hope she does not expect me to make such an acquaintance tonight.” Jane let out a moan. “I am still too young.”
“Unfortunately, Mother does not think it is ever too early to begin planning and scheming for our marital felicity.”
Later that evening, Jane held Elizabeth’s arm tightly as they travelled to the Thornton’s home with their mother, aunt, and uncle. The carriage stopped in front of a large, stylish home. They stepped out and joined others who were walking up to the house.
The party entered and stepped up to greet Mr. and Mrs. Thornton, where introductions were made. The Thorntons welcomed them warmly.
After speaking briefly with the couple, the sisters walked into the ballroom, following the urgent motions of their mother. The stepped in and gasped. They had never seen anything like it. Melodies being played by a small orchestra filled the ballroom, a wondrous display of food and beverage was set out on a table at the side of the room, and people were dressed in their very finest. Candlelight flickered across the walls, and couples were lined up to dance.
The two girls smiled at other guests as they slowly walked about the room; Jane had her hand tucked securely around her sister’s arm. Their mother had walked away with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and was being introduced to a woman.
At length, Elizabeth looked at her sister. “Jane, if you do not loosen your grip, I shall have no feeling left in my fingers” She tilted her head. “My understanding is that one should become acquainted with the people at a ball and not remain at the side of one’s sister the whole time.”
“Oh, Lizzy, I am so nervous.”
“Yes, and there is one gentleman over in the corner of the room who has not taken his eyes off of you since we first entered.” Elizabeth felt Jane shudder. “So I thought. You noticed him as well, I see.”
Jane silently nodded her head.
“Perhaps he is merely bored with the people here and is lost in his thoughts. He likely has no idea he is staring.” Elizabeth shook her head firmly. “You have no need to worry, dear Jane.”
The two stood silently for a few minutes until Elizabeth felt Jane’s grip about her arm tighten.
“Look, Lizzy! Mother is going up to him with that lady. She is introducing them.”
“I would not be surprised if that is his mother. I see a small resemblance. Still, I do not think you have any reason to…” Elizabeth stopped when Jane gasped.
“They are coming over!” Jane whispered frantically.
Elizabeth took Jane’s hand and began to pat it. “Now you can worry.”
“Girls!” exclaimed Mrs. Bennet, who stopped proudly before her daughters. “May I present to you Mrs. Shirk and her son, James? Mrs. Shirk is the sister of Mrs. Thornton. Mr. Shirk is their nephew.” She turned to the woman and her son. “These are my daughters, Miss Jane Bennet, the eldest, and Miss Elizabeth.”
The ladies curtseyed and the gentleman bowed.
Mr. Shirk smiled and looked at Jane, saying, “My eyes beheld you across the floor, and at once my heart began to soar.” His eyes remained fixed on Jane.
“Oh, Jane!” Mrs. Bennet cried! “He is a poet! And a fine one, indeed!”
Elizabeth stifled a giggle when she noticed Jane’s pale face.
“Thank you,” Jane said softly. Her cheeks blushed a bright rosy shade.
“Please accept my offer to dance the next,” Mr. Shirk said with a slight raised brow, “Is there hope that I might have a chance?”
“Oh, my!” Mrs. Bennet gushed. “You should be flattered, Jane!”
Elizabeth could not hold back a chuckle, but disguised it with a cough. Her mother gave her a warning look.
“Of course, she would be delighted!” Mrs. Bennet answered. “Now, come, Elizabeth. Your aunt has need of you.”
Jane reluctantly released Elizabeth’s arm so her sister could follow her mother and Mrs. Shirk. Elizabeth looked back once, giving Jane a resigned shrug of her shoulders.
She turned back and walked over to her aunt, who was speaking to a couple.
“Elizabeth, I should like to introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins. This is my niece, Elizabeth.”
The couple smiled, and Mrs. Hawkins said, “Your aunt speaks very highly of you and your elder sister. It is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Thank you. It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
They spoke briefly, and then the Hawkins went onto the dance floor to await the next dance. Elizabeth and her aunt watched as Mr. Shirk escorted Jane to the dance floor.
“It appears as though the Thornton’s nephew has taken a liking to Jane.” The crease in Mrs. Gardiner’s brow convinced Elizabeth that her aunt was just as surprised as she was. “I know spoke often about you to them, and perhaps on occasion mentioned how handsome you both are.”
“Well, I am certain you spoke of Jane’s beauty; I cannot be certain you spoke of mine.” She did not wait for her aunt to reply. “We shall now see if he is as good a dancer as he is a poet.” A chuckle escaped.
“He is a poet?” Mrs. Gardiner asked.
“He thinks he is,” Elizabeth answered and sighed. “Poor Jane. Forgive me, Aunt, but I fear she is far too pretty to waste it on someone like him.”
“Now, Lizzy, one cannot be too particular when it comes to attracting a man’s attention.”
“When she is older, she can decide how particular she wants to be.”
Elizabeth was disappointed she could not find fault with the gentleman’s dancing, even when he was so engaged in speaking to Jane.
Mr. Shirk was all propriety and did not exceed two dances with Jane, but he stood with her or watched her when she was dancing or speaking with someone else. She and Elizabeth danced several dances, enjoyed a delicious meal, and made many new acquaintances. It was a joyous evening.
On the ride home, the girls were tired and did not speak much. They sat silently as Mrs. Bennet expressed her complete delight that Mr. Shirk paid such particular attention to Jane. Mrs. Gardiner confessed that she discovered Mrs. Thornton had informed her sister about Jane’s beauty. Apparently, Mr. Shirk had been quite interested in making her acquaintance.
There was little opportunity for the sisters to speak that evening once they arrived back at the Gardiners’ home. They were both greatly fatigued and went straight to bed.
The next morning, Elizabeth tapped lightly on Jane’s door and whispered, “Jane, are you awake?”
At Jane’s muffled reply, Elizabeth opened the door and walked in. Jane sat up and stretched her arms high in the air.
“How did you sleep?” Elizabeth asked.
“I think I fell asleep before I even put my head on the pillow.”
“It was exciting, was it not?” Elizabeth tugged at the sleeve on her nightgown. “Imagine, we have now been to our first ball!” She laughed. “And in London, no less!”
After a long yawn, Jane replied, “Yes, but I know you are more interested in what I thought of Mr. Shirk than in talking about the ball.”
“To own the truth, I am most curious.”
Jane sighed. “I confess that my enjoyment of the evening was somewhat tempered by Mr. Shirk’s attentions.” She looked down and shook her head. “During our two dances, Mr. Shirk spoke almost constantly in poetic form.” She glanced up and bit her lip, adding. “I had to admit I almost giggled on several occasions.”
“Oh, that must have been dreadful!” Elizabeth took Jane’s hands. “If they were all as bad as the ones I heard, I cannot imagine how you kept from saying something to him. If it had been me, I would have asked him to refrain from any more poetic attempts or not speak at all!”
Jane chuckled. “I wondered what you would have done if you were me.”
“You and he can both be grateful it was not me!” Elizabeth stood up and crossed her arms. “So even our Jane, who is always so generous towards a person’s faults, found him to be quite an oddity.”
Jane sighed and looked up at Elizabeth. “Those times I did not have a dance partner, he lingered near. I can honestly say I hope never again to hear another sentence that ends in a rhyme.”
“I can only imagine.” Elizabeth walked over and clasped her sister’s hands. “But poetry is not just having words that rhyme.” She looked at Jane with a sly smile. “It is something that requires one’s heart, one’s thoughts, and a lot of time.”
Jane looked at her curiously, and then picked up her pillow and threw it at her sister. The two young ladies began to laugh.
Later that morning the two Bennet sisters were sitting in the drawing room with their mother and aunt. The sound of a carriage stopping before the house drew their attention, and Elizabeth walked over to the window.
“Oh dear,” she said softly.
“Who is it?” Jane asked.
Elizabeth flashed her sister a forced smile. “Mr. Poetic himself.”
“Mr. Shirk?” squealed Mrs. Bennet. She clasped her hands and quickly stood, rushing to the window. She placed her hand over her heart. “Oh, Jane! This is wonderful! And to think you kept it a secret all this time that he was going to pay a visit!”
Jane’s face paled. “He said nothing about paying us a visit.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “He probably could not think of a word that rhymed with it.” She sent her sister an apologetic look and reached for her hand. “I shall be here with you.”
A short while later Mr. Shirk entered and bowed, greeting the ladies.
“Welcome to our home, Mr. Shirk,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Please have a seat.”
“Mr. Shirk! It is so good to see you again!” A sideways glance at Jane and a quick nod of her head displayed Mrs. Bennet’s ebullient approval.
“I hope you do not mind,” Mr. Shirk replied. “I am grateful you are so kind.”
“Ooh, you can pay us a call anytime!” Mrs. Bennet assured him and then began to laugh. “I think I just made a rhyme! Oh, and another!”
The two sisters watched in astonishment as their mother and Mr. Shirk were the only ones enjoying their repartee, which continued for quite some time.
At length, Mr. Shirk looked at Jane, giving her a nervous smile, and then back to Mrs. Gardiner and Mrs. Bennet. “I hope you do not consider me ill-mannered or rude, but I shall be honest; I am in quite the mood. I was so inspired by Miss Bennet, I fear, that I wrote a poem I would like her to hear. Would you mind terribly if the two of us stepped outside so I can read it to her – if I may? It is truly such a beautiful spring day!”
Elizabeth watched Jane’s eyes widen, and then she swallowed hard.
“Oh, I see no harm in that!” Mrs. Bennet replied. “Certainly! Certainly!” She clasped her hands tightly. “But may we hear a few lines ourselves?”
Mr. Shirk pulled out a piece of paper and cleared his throat. Taking in a deep breath, he began, “Was she a princess, or an angel, or a dream? This lady whose hair was like sunshine and skin like cream; Her eyes are so blue I felt I would melt; as I looked into them, there was so much I felt.”
“Oh, Jane! Such lovely verses! And all inspired by you!”
Mrs. Gardiner drew in a breath and said, “Pray, do not stay out too long.”
“Thank you! Thank you!” Mr. Shirk said as he stood. He handled the piece of paper gently, as if it were a treasure, offered Jane his arm, and the two stepped out the door. From the look on her sister’s face, Elizabeth could almost feel her desperation.
Once they stepped out, Elizabeth rushed to the window and looked out. “I do not think this a good idea! It is most improper!”
“Oh, Lizzy! You are too young to understand these things,” Mrs. Bennet replied.
Elizabeth watch them begin strolling away from the house. She watched as Mr. Shirk held out the paper in front of him and could only imagine what other things he had been inspired to write about her sister.
They soon disappeared from view, which caused Elizabeth a brief bout of apprehension, but the couple soon turned around and began walking back. Mr. Shirk was no longer reading from the piece of paper.
She turned to her mother and aunt. “It appears as though he has finished reading his poem and I am of the opinion they have had enough time alone. I shall go out and join them.”
“Oh, no, Lizzy!” her mother cried. “You shall spoil everything.”
Mrs. Gardiner placed her hand over Mrs. Bennet’s. “No, I think Elizabeth is right.” She nodded several times in her niece’s direction. “Perhaps you ought to join them.”
Elizabeth did not wait for her mother to argue and hurried outside, seeing that the couple was in front of the neighbouring house. She looked down at the variety of flowers in her aunt and uncle’s garden and suddenly smiled. “It is a beautiful spring day!” She walked over to one particular flower and picked it.
When the two came up to Elizabeth, relief spread across Jane’s face.
“What do you have there?” Mr. Shirk asked. “There is nothing like a flower so fair.”
Elizabeth held it up to him. “A flower, of course. What colour would you say it is, Mr. Shirk?”
He smiled. “Why that flower is orange! There is… It is… Um…” His voice trailed off.
“Why, I believe you are correct, Mr. Shirk. It is orange,” Elizabeth said with a chuckle.
Jane looked at her sister oddly.
“You seem to truly enjoy the poetic form, Mr. Shirk,” Elizabeth said.
“Oh, I do, most heartily!”
Elizabeth frowned and shook her head. “It is such a shame, is it not, Jane?”
Jane’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I distinctly recollect a time when you told me you hoped to never again hear another sentence that ends in a rhyme.”
Both Jane and Mr. Shirk gasped. He turned to Jane. “You dislike poetry?” His countenance fell. “This is unfortunate. I had hoped… I have always wished to have someone by my side who both inspires me and encourages me in my writing poetry. I should one day like to publish a book of my poems.”
“Oh, and I am certain you shall,” Elizabeth said. “You shall publish a book and meet someone who will inspire and encourage you. Unfortunately, that person is not Jane.”
Mr. Shirk looked down as he shuffled his feet. “I… Pray, forgive me, but I must take my leave. Be so kind and give my regards to your family, but I just recalled that I am to depart on the morrow and I need to make certain all my affairs are in order.” He looked at Jane. “It has been a pleasure, and perhaps in a few years you will grow to appreciate rhyming verse.”
“Perhaps,” Jane said. “Thank you.”
Mr. Shirk nodded and walked back to his carriage.
“There!” Elizabeth said triumphantly. “I do not think you need to worry about him any longer.”
“But why did you ask him about the flower?” Jane fingered the dainty petals in her sister’s hand and pulled one off. “It is definitely orange.”
Elizabeth laughed. “There is no word that rhymes with orange. I wanted to see what he would do.”
“Oh, Lizzy, I cannot believe it. And to use my words from last night to make him think I disliked poetry.”
“It worked, did it not?” Elizabeth took her sister’s arm and they began to walk to the house. “Did you notice that he seemed to lose all poetic inspiration after that? He stopped speaking in rhyme.”
“I did, but what are we going to tell Mother? She shall be most upset.”
“We shall tell her that Mr. Shirk sent them his regards but was required to depart as he is leaving town on the morrow.”
“Do you think she shall be upset?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No, I do not think so. At least, not until she learns that Mr. Shirk quickly departed when he heard you had a great dislike of poetry.”
“Oh, Elizabeth, do you think he will suffer greatly on my account?”
Elizabeth let out a cheery laugh. “He certainly shall not. But consider, Jane, he shall likely spend the remainder of the day penning a poem about the pain and grief of love lost, and then he shall be quite well.”
I hope you enjoyed this little story about Jane that Mrs. Bennet only hints at in Pride and Prejudice. I have edited this because some of you began commenting in rhyme. So… If you can, make your comment rhyme; I’m sure it won’t take up that much time. 🙂