I’m so excited to begin sharing weekly chapters of my upcoming novel with you! Every Monday I will post another installment of The Ladies of Rosings Park here at Austen Variations. The book primarily tells Anne de Bourgh’s story, beginning with the period covered in Pride and Prejudice (the part I will be sharing here). So these chapters will read like P&P “missing scenes” – your favorite book from a different perspective.
What did the Rosings ladies think of Elizabeth Bennet when she arrived in Hunsford? Who first detected the danger she represented to the supposed engagement between Anne and Darcy? Was Anne heartbroken, relieved, or indifferent to discover Darcy would marry Elizabeth instead? And then, what becomes of Anne afterward, after Darcy and Elizabeth ride off into the sunset together?
In very polite fashion, Anne and Lady Catherine will take turns telling you their sometimes-spectacularly-different versions of events, chapter by chapter. Anne gets the first shot today, but I wonder who will have the last word. Hmm. If you missed my preview post in November, review the brief Prologue before beginning. Happy reading! Shannon Winslow
On Envying Elizabeth
I often wonder what might have happened had Elizabeth Bennet never come to Rosings.
That occurrence is laid to the charge of Mr. Collins; he must have the credit or the blame for it. One does not like to speak ill of the dead, but why Mama should have taken a liking to that odd gentleman, I shall never entirely comprehend. Then as now, it is a matter of persistent wonder to me.
From the beginning, Mr. Collins made it clear by his servile manner that he would always be entirely at my mother’s disposal. He made good on his implicit promise too. He was, for his short tenure as rector, Mama’s eager lapdog and an ever-willing hand at her card table. His deference to her in all things never failed. I suppose that personal devotion (even more than religious piety) was her chief requirement for the office, and no one before or since has satisfied her half so well.
Looking back, it seems to me that Mr. Collins’s installation as rector toppled the first brick, after which all the others fell in an inexorable chain of events that has brought us to this point. He came. Upon Mama’s advice, he obligingly married. He brought Charlotte Lucas home to the parsonage as his wife, and she in turn invited her friend (who was also his cousin) to Hunsford.
Then one day, there she was: Elizabeth Bennet in all her glory – arrived at the parsonage, sitting in church on Sundays, and by repeated invitation, within the very walls of Rosings time and again.
There was nothing to give me any alarm at our first meeting, when she came with Mr. and Mrs. Collins, Sir William Lucas, and his daughter – nothing to awaken the slightest feeling of dislike within me, only the mildly envious sensations I often experienced upon being introduced to a person in whom all the extraordinary benefits of good health and good humor reside. Miss Bennet was everything I was not – strong, blooming, self-possessed, and with an exceptional liveliness of mind.
But perhaps I demean myself overly. For I consider that I too possess a very lively mind, although few if any would notice. Most of the feverish activity remains secreted below the surface, as unseen and unheard as a flowing underground stream. Within, I entertain myself by a nearly continuous private dialogue, with stories of unguarded imagination, and sometimes with very cutting but silent remarks.
None of it is allowed to come out into the light. Therefore, no one appreciates the long and clever debates I carry on inside my head. My companions have no suspicion of the fanciful tales to which I make them a party while I sit quietly with my hands folded in my lap. Neither can they perceive the witty comments and the occasional merciless barb I imagine myself dispensing.
Usually these samples of wit come to my mind too late to be of any practical use. Even if they did not, I would be far too timid to speak them aloud. Besides, although Rosings is an extremely large house, there is room for only one person to exert the force of her will and opinions. And that person is my mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Mama was entertained by Elizabeth. I did not know what to do with her. So I did nothing. Externally at least, I became more stupid and more insipid than usual in the face of Elizabeth’s vivacity. I barely managed to utter a word in her presence that first day, all through dinner and afterward. It was not because I found her objectionable in some way – in truth, I did not – but because of my general lassitude and the fact that nobody quite like Miss Bennet had come my way before.
My silence was not entirely wasted, however; I turned it to a useful purpose. I studied Elizabeth, for she intrigued me, especially how she kept her courage under the heat of Mama’s interrogation (for it was little short of that). When we ladies withdrew from the dining table to return to the drawing room, the questions thrown Elizabeth’s way commenced in earnest. ‘How many sisters have you, Miss Bennet?’ ‘Are they handsome or plain?’ ‘Is there any reason to suppose you or your sisters will marry well?’ ‘What kind of carriage does your father keep?’ ‘Who are your mother’s people? What was her maiden name?’ ‘Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?’ ‘Do you draw?’ ‘Do your sisters?’ And so it went.
Elizabeth could not have failed to feel the impertinence of these probing questions, and yet she answered them composedly, without apology, demure, or much visible resentment. Extraordinary. She was respectful but not overawed by the great Lady Catherine, despite Mama’s imposing posture, superior rank, and grand house.
“Has your governess left you?” Mama continued.
“We never had any governess,” Elizabeth explained.
“No governess! How was that possible…?”
Ordinary families do it all the time, Mama. They have little choice.
“…Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I assure you, Madam, she was not.”
As I silently observed, I tried to picture myself behaving the same in similar circumstances – arriving somewhere I had never been before and calmly answering an imposing stranger of superior rank. “Yes, Your Grace, that is correct… I assure you, Madam, it is quite possible, for it has been done that way in my family for generations. I am sorry if that fails to meet with your approval….” Only in my imagination, for in reality, I cowered before my own mother! Thus, I discovered that I must envy Elizabeth’s self-confidence as well.
“Are any of your younger sisters out, Miss Bennet?” asked Mama.
“Yes, Ma’am, all.”
Oh, dear! That will not sit well with Mama. It just isn’t done in ‘good’ society.
“All! What, all five out at once? Very odd! And you only the second. The younger ones out before the elder are married! Your younger sisters must be very young?”
“Yes, my youngest is not sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be much in company. But really, Ma’am, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters that they should not have their share of society and amusement because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early. The last born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth as the first. And to be kept back on such a motive! I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind.”
Hearing this, Mama expostulated on Elizabeth’s daring to have an opinion at her young age. And then Elizabeth went on to answer more questions about the Longbourn family. Meanwhile, I made another mental note to this effect. I must add a point of envy to my growing list. I now must envy Elizabeth having a father alive and a large family of sisters, all of whom she clearly adores. It was not so much the words she used as the way she expressed herself – the warmth in her voice when she mentioned her father, the crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she spoke of her sisters.
I had never spent a great deal of time bemoaning my lack of siblings, but the truth is I had been lonely for years, ever since Papa died, really. He had been my closest companion and truest friend. He loved me – as most fathers love their children, I suppose – but he went beyond. His attention was not limited to fifteen or twenty minutes every evening as I have heard is typical. He took the trouble of including me in his day-to-day affairs as much as possible.
He made a place for me alongside him in his library, for one thing, with my own more diminutively sized desk. While he dealt with business correspondence or examined the estate finance books, I would pretend to do the same, completing little tasks Papa set me to and signing my name to imaginary contracts. I routinely accompanied him on his periodic tours of the park as he inspected the fields and spoke to the tenant farmers. He often took me along on ventures to the outside world as well, thinking up little games to amuse me along the way.
I can still see him in my mind’s eye, robust and merry. Bending down to my level, he would say, “Annie, my dear girl, how would you like to take a drive with me today?”
Barely able to contain my excitement, I would ask, “Where are we going?” It hardly mattered, you understand. We could be going to the bank or the solicitor’s offices for all I cared. It was enough that I would be spending the day with him.
“I cannot tell you that,” he might answer with mischief in his eye. “It is a surprise. Now, run get your bonnet and kiss your mother, and then we shall be off on an adventure.”
Those were happy times.
Papa’s invitations to adventure still echo down the halls of Rosings, although more faintly with the passage of the years. My spirit still longs to answer that call, but now my explorations must take place in my imagination, often sparked by what I discover within the pages of books. That realm has been my one true solace, my refuge, my ever reliable escape from the disappointments and oppressions of life. Only there do I find freedom without bounds. Unlike my body, my mind knows no limits. And books reveal their secrets to anybody who takes the trouble to open them. Man, woman, young, old, strong or frail: they make no distinctions or judgments. They hold no prejudices. “Come on an adventure with me,” they freely beckon, and I am happy to follow.
So I have climbed mountains without my health or sex holding me back. I engaged in high finance, solved mysteries, and faced powerful foes – on the battlefield and in a court of law – all with no anxiety for safety or decorum. I sailed the high seas and visited far-away lands. Paris. Madrid. The Alhambra. The pyramids of Egypt. Bombay. Even the New World. These are places my father mentioned, places he had already been or promised to take me one day
And since my travels occurred only in my imagination, there was nothing to stop me imagining my father went with me, just as originally planned. In this way, I kept him fresh in my mind, for the idea that I might eventually forget him altogether filled me with dread. How could I successfully pattern myself after my better parent, my wisest and truest friend, the one who loved me most and who well earned my love in return? How was I to be trained by his example if I could no longer remember it?
He was the very best of men – highly principled, and kind to everybody regardless of position or class. I do not believe he ever disappointed or harmed another living creature in his life. In truth, I fairly worshipped the ground he walked on and still do to this day.
My mother has good qualities too, I suppose. I would do well to incorporate some measure of her confidence into my character, for example. There is a certain rigidity about her, however, an unrelenting severity which I do not wish to emulate. It is well to know one’s own mind, but I believe firmness must be moderated by reason and charity to prove a true virtue. Papa knew the proper balance between kindness and resolve; I fear my mother does not.
With the loss of my father, light and warmth vanished from my world as surely as if I had been plunged into a place of perpetual winter. A cold cloud settled over Rosings, and darkness reigned unchallenged for months.
For a long while, I knew very little beyond my own sorrow. I should have been thinking of my mother’s pain, but I confess I was not. Youths of thirteen and fourteen are extraordinarily selfish creatures in general, I believe, and I was no different. I only knew that Mama offered little comfort to me. In any case, it would have been impossible for me to judge my mother’s state of mind during that period – whether she sincerely grieved for Papa or not – for she was stoically inscrutable. She never betrayed any trace of emotion, even then.
And so we went on, the two of us in that vast house, now feeling cavernously empty bereft of my father and his ability to fill it with warmth and laughter. We rarely left home anymore, my spirits declined, and then so did my health.
We had few visitors, Mama and I, for it had always been Papa who initiated plans for balls and parties. We occasionally made or received calls from our closer friends. The ancient rector, Mr. Ludington, and his wife dutifully came to pay their respects once a week. A steady procession of medical men arrived, one at a time, to apply their various theories and potions towards improving my health, all without result. Other than these, my only companions were my paid attendant and teacher, Mrs. Jenkinson, and occasionally my cousins.
Yes, my cousins. I could surely count William Darcy, Georgiana, and Colonel John Fitzwilliam among my friends too…
My mental wanderings had arrived at this point when Mama’s voice called me back to the present.
“Ah, here are the men at last,” she said as they joined us in the drawing room. “Cards next, I think. We have just enough to make up two tables.” A wave of her hand was sufficient to send servants scurrying to adjust the furniture arrangement accordingly. “Sir William, Mr. and Mrs. Collins, I must have you with me for quadrille. Anne, you take Mrs. Jenkinson and the two young ladies. What will you play? Name your game.”
“Casino, I think,” I murmured.
“What did you say?” Mama asked. “For heaven’s sake, child, speak up!”
I tried again, a little louder this time. “We will play casino, Mama, if everybody finds that agreeable.” It was the longest speech I made the whole night and probably the only complete sentence. With Mama’s scolding, however, I was more embarrassed than before.
The others at our table were nearly as taciturn, even Elizabeth. Dear Mrs. Jenkinson was the only one amongst us who ventured any remark much beyond the necessary business of the game, for she was in the habit of inquiring after my welfare, moment by moment. Was I too warm or too cold? Was the light bright enough for me, or did I find it too glaring? Did I desire any alteration in the position of the fire screen?
I could not blame her; it was her assigned duty to do so, thanks to my mother. And yet I wished I could kindly explain that I was not nearly as fastidious as Mama’s potted orchids in the conservatory. Despite all opinions to the contrary, I knew I would not die if the temperature were to waver by a degree or two. I would not wilt away to nothing if briefly exposed to the direct heat of a fire or the unshielded rays of the sun.
Although Mrs. Jenkinson’s solicitous chatter relieved the terrible weight of silence at our table, it drew more attention to me and to my accursed weaknesses than I liked. What a relief when Mama decided we were finished with cards! The carriage was sent for, the weather discussed until it arrived, and then finally our guests departed.
I spent much time in contemplation after they had gone, considering our new acquaintances, how they had behaved, and how I had behaved in return. I could not reflect on the latter with any satisfaction. Although not without some excuse, for I really had been dreadfully tired that evening, I had been silent to the point of rudeness. I had in all probability offended Maria Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet. As Mrs. Collins’s intimates, they would be recurrent visitors to the parsonage, and so I would no doubt be obliged to see them again and again. They may even have become my valued friends had I behaved better by them.
That night I vowed to make what amends I could, to learn from Elizabeth’s example, to acquire (and soon) some courage, fortitude, and social grace, whatever it might cost me. Perhaps then I would be more content within myself and have less cause to envy others.
I did not know it at the time, but before long I would be given yet one more significant reason to envy Elizabeth. It became apparent as soon as two of my cousins arrived.
(Continue reading here: Chapter 2 )