I’m excited to continue 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 (which should publish around the end of February) primarily tells Anne de Bourgh’s story, beginning with the period covered in Pride and Prejudice (the part I will be sharing here) and then carrying well beyond to her own happy ending. These early chapters, though, will read like P&P “missing scenes” – your favorite book from a different perspective.
The ladies who live in and around Rosings Park (Anne, Lady Catherine, Mrs. Jenkinson, and Charlotte) take turns telling the story. Last week in chapter one, we heard from Anne – her reaction to Elizabeth Bennet’s arrival and some bittersweet reflections about her beloved father, among other things. Today, it’s Lady Catherine’s turn to give us a piece of her mind. I wonder what she thinks of Miss Bennet. Do you suppose she’ll live to regret inviting her nephew to Rosings at the same time? Lady Catherine never hesitates to declare her very frank opinions!
It matters little what others may say on the subject of Elizabeth Bennet. I stand ready to set the record straight. Around one indisputable fact, however, the opinion of every person of sanity must unite. It is that the disaster encompassed in her unfortunate presence among us was entirely Mr. Collins’s fault.
To be scrupulously fair, as I always am, I looked at the question from all sides. Was I in any way to blame, I asked myself. After all, Mr. Collins may have brought Elizabeth to Hunsford, but I had brought Mr. Collins. No doubt that is what a shrewd barrister would argue. And yet no one would dare convict me on such grounds, not when my spotless character and irreproachable motives are considered. Christian charity and the principle of noblesse oblige govern my actions at all times.
I am no fool; I knew there was nothing exceptional in Mr. Collins to justify my singling him out for such a valuable preferment. He had done nothing to earn my especial favor. If I am not mistaken (and I never am), that is the very definition of grace, the stooping down to bestow a gift on the undeserving, the giving of kindness to one who does not merit it. Perhaps that was my crime after all – being more charitable than what was prudent.
And how was I repaid for my goodness? Mr. Collins unwittingly delivered a viper to my bosom, one come from his family to destroy mine. I say ‘unwittingly’ because I do not for one minute believe he understood the danger. I did not see it myself in the beginning. The possibility that my own nephew, my dear dead sister’s only son, could fail to keep his solemn engagement was the farthest thing from my mind. That Darcy might forsake Anne for a young woman without family, connections, or fortune… Well, it was inconceivable.
So, I welcomed Miss Bennet into my home for the same reason I frequently did the Collinses – in a spirit of kind condescension. I held no illusions that my daughter and I could meet her on any kind of equal footing. Considering she was a relation to Mr. Collins, I expected to find her birth inferior, her manners marginal, and her education suspect. This, by skillful questioning, I soon confirmed. Indeed, the unfortunate tendency of her information went beyond anything I had expected. She actually admitted to her family having kept no governess, despite five daughters being brought up at home. Five!
“Then, who taught you? Who attended you?” I asked, somewhat incredulous at the news. “Without a governess you must have been sadly neglected.”
“Compared with some families, I believe we were,” Miss Bennet replied. “But such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”
This and more she confessed without apology. No doubt I was more ashamed for her than she was for herself, and you may be sure I did not fail in my duty to give her benefit of my opinions on these and other subjects. Had I known her mother when it might have done some good, I should most strenuously have advised her to engage a qualified governess. In fact, I might have been able to go so far as to recommend someone to her. I have lost count as to how many families I have been the means of supplying in that way.
I am always glad to step in where I can be of service, whether it be to settle some dispute within the parish, to see that a young person is well placed out, or by giving wise and timely counsel to keep a weak sort of character on the straight and narrow. There seems to be a general want of gratitude and common sense roundabout, which I make it my business to correct whenever possible. Often times a word from me is enough to restore harmony and contentment.
I believed Miss Bennet had been brought to me for this same reason, that she was yet another one who might benefit from my guidance. Although she expressed her mind too freely and without sufficient deference to her superiors, I put this down to the deficiencies of her upbringing and did not consider her faults beyond remediation. Left in the proper hands, I thought something useful might very well be achieved.
Here again, I allowed my kindness to lead at the expense of what would have been, in hindsight, a justifiable vigilance where the cunning Miss Bennet was concerned. But instead of raising my guard, I was thinking only of being of use to a misguided girl, of allowing the advantages I had in my gift to take their due effect.
Sir William Lucas departed after a week’s stay, but I knew he soon would be replaced by a person of real quality. This was yet another benefit I could provide our visitors – exposure to better society than they would ordinarily encounter. They could not help but be impressed by the contrast and edified by such superior examples.
One evening when the diminished party from the parsonage was dining at Rosings again, I decided the time was right for my announcement. Clearing my throat first to be certain I had their attention, I began.
“Miss Bennet, Miss Lucas, I am pleased to say that I will have it in my power to improve your society by the addition to our party of my nephew Mr. Darcy, who will be arriving the week before Easter. I understand from Mr. Collins that you may have met him some once or twice in Hertfordshire, but now you will be seeing him nearly every day. He is a young man whom you cannot help but admire, for he embodies everything that is best about the upper classes.” Miss Bennet smiled in such a way that I could not decipher what she meant by it. Nevertheless, I continued my thought. “You would do well to observe and learn from him. I daresay you do not often see a man of his quality in your usual society, confined as it must be. Are not you pleased with this news, Miss Bennet?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Mr. Darcy is very welcome, I am sure, and I shall be happy enough to see him again. But in truth, Madam, he is well known to me already.”
“How can this be?” I asked her with justifiable indignation. Mr. Darcy was my nephew, after all, and the right to introduce him should have been mine as well.
“Mr. Collins may be unaware that Mr. Darcy spent a good deal of time in Hertfordshire before his arrival,” said Elizabeth. “We were very often seeing Mr. Darcy in Meryton and at assemblies of one kind or another. Were we not, Maria? In fact, I spent several days in the same house with him, at Netherfield, while my sister happened to be convalescing from an illness there. So you see, Lady Catherine, why I say he is well known to me.”
There was nothing more to be said on that subject for the moment. However, you may be sure I put the question to Darcy himself when he arrived a week later, bringing Colonel Fitzwilliam, my brother’s younger son, with him. Now I would know the truth of the matter.
After welcoming them both in the drawing room, I hastened to ask, “Darcy, what is this I hear of your acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth Bennet? She tells me you are well known to her. Can it be so?”
The change in his appearance was marked and immediate. His face first went white and then grew quite red as I waited for his answer. Clearly, he was not expecting to hear that person’s name spoken at Rosings. That must account for his bewilderment.
“Elizabeth?” he asked, all at attention. “Is she here?”
“She is staying with the Collinses at the parsonage,” I explained. “But you did not answer my question. What is your level of acquaintance with this young lady?”
When he hesitated, Colonel Fitzwilliam added his urging. “Yes, Darcy, who is this Miss Bennet, and how well do you know her? Do tell us.”
“Oh… not well at all,” he said finally. “I… I met her in Hertfordshire, Fitzwilliam, while I was visiting Mr. Bingley at Netherfield. The Bennets are one of the principle families of the neighborhood, so naturally we were often thrown into company with them. Still, I would not say I know Miss Elizabeth Bennet particularly well. If she is here in Hunsford, however, it would be right for me to pay my respects to her… and to the Collinses, of course.” He rose as if to go at once. “Come Fitzwilliam. When one has a duty to perform, it is best to do it without delay, and you may as well accompany me.”
“A duty, is it?” Fitzwilliam remarked. “Are you sure it is not a pleasure? You seem very keen to be at it.”
“Stay where you are, both of you,” I said firmly. “Tomorrow or the next day will be soon enough to begin paying calls of duty. For now, you must rest from your travels and give your attention to those who have a higher claim to it. Ah, here is Anne.”
I had sent for her as soon as the gentlemen arrived. Now, however, I could have wished she had been less prompt answering my summons and taken more time attending to her appearance first. Mrs. Jenkinson would be reprimanded for allowing Anne to come down in such a state – in a very ordinary gown, hair mussed, and spirit not fully composed.
Fortunately, Darcy and Fitzwilliam seemed not to notice anything amiss. They both rose to cordially welcome Anne, each taking her offered hand in turn. Fitzwilliam, I knew, would flatter and make jokes, but I was much more interested to observe Darcy’s interactions with my daughter, to watch for some advancement in their courtship. I intended they be given every opportunity for that progress to occur. Indeed, that was my purpose in sending for my nephew. It was high time some definite plan for their wedding was made.
“Darcy, you sit beside Anne,” I directed. “Fitzwilliam, I will have you next to me. I am pleased you have come. You must tell me how my brother does, and all your family.”
He was in good spirits, and I allowed him to chatter on, following his banter as well as possible while at the same time keeping one eye on the other pair. There was very little of a satisfactory character going forward there, however.
(Continue Reading: Chapter 3 )