“The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la,
Breathe promise of merry sunshine —
As we merrily dance and we sing, tra-la
We welcome the hope that they bring, tra-la
Of a summer of roses and wine…”
I’ve always loved that tongue-in-cheek tribute to springtime from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, but as it was written (and immensely popular) in 1885, it is not exactly spot on for a celebration of Jane Austen in the spring. Still, harking back is not an unpleasing activity (particularly if you subscribe to Elizabeth Bennet’s adage, “Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure”), so I seize the opportunity to hark back to my own first full length “Austenesque” novel, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, written as long ago as 1994, and therefore one of the earliest modern Austen sequels…or variations.
First edition, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma
My excuse for resurrecting the book here, is that it contains a character who, suitably for the month of May, is a self-described Rosarian. Dr. Clarke, the gentle clergyman who marries Kitty Bennet, is the incumbent of Lambton Parish, where the Pemberley household proceeds on Sundays. I present three short snippets of scenes which display Dr. Clarke and his flowery obsession.
In the first snippet, two daughters of Lydia (Mrs. Wickham), Cloe and Bettina, descend on Pemberley and are welcomed by Elizabeth (Mrs. Darcy) and Kitty (Mrs. Clarke):
“Mrs. Clarke, the girls’ Aunt Kitty, was married to the rector of the parish church, but she contrived to spend much of her time at Pemberley House. This suited her husband very well, for he was a mild and retiring man, whose reigning interest in life, beside the few needs of his prosperous parish, was his garden, and if such a gentle person can be thought to have any strong dislike, it was for his wife. Mrs. Clarke’s fretful disposition as a girl had brightened nearly to cheerfulness in her young womanhood, during which period she attracted and married her young clergyman; in middle life, however, she lapsed into a solid sourness, and it may be guessed that her husband was thankful that she chose to haunt Pemberley, rather than to disturb his own communion with flowers.
Mrs. Clarke had no children living, and she doted on her sisters’. Her curiosity to see Lydia’s daughters, was great, for she was very sure they would be wanting in comparison to Jane [Elizabeth’s daughter]; and in her partizanship she disliked them, even before their arrival. Their mother had been her companion-sister in girlhood, but now she disesteemed her as a lost being, and loved her not. Mrs. Clarke had a weak understanding, that her disappointments in life, fancied and otherwise, had not improved. She considered that her husband had spirit for nothing but to attend to his herbaceous borders…”
Second (Sourcebooks) edition, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma
In this second snippet, the two young ladies are being ushered in to dinner in the Pemberley dining room:
“Dr. Clarke, who had accepted an invitation to dine at Pemberley, tardily brought up the rear with his wife. That lady did not cease complaining to him audibly until they were all seated.
‘If you did not waste so much time in the garden, William, but spent more time in the drawing-room, as you should and ought, you would benefit from the society of your betters, and not be such a rough old thing. You cut a very poor figure, that you do, by the side of real gentlemen, like Darcy; and you think nothing of shaming me before every body with your lateness. That is why we are obliged to walk last, even behind the young people.’
‘He who goes last on earth, is first in Heaven,’ he found spirit to murmur, though nobody else heard this but his wife.
‘Well! That is very fine talking, and the way you end every thing, by putting on your pulpit-hat,’ she retorted, discomfited.
When Cloe entered the grand dining room, the glittering profusion of plate on the long table, the beautiful old wooden wainscotting, and the dignified dark portraits gazing down from the walls, so struck her that she halted for a moment in the doorway, in surprise.
‘What a beautiful room! I have never seen such a one before.’
‘It is a fine dining-room, seventeenth century, and one of the oldest in the house,’ said Mrs. Darcy, pleased. ‘This table was built specially for the room’s peculiar shape; and you see the ornaments that Mr. Darcy’s father brought back from his world tour, 1790 I believe that was.’
‘My dear, you know as much about the house after your five and twenty years’ residence, as the old housekeeper used to do. You must not overwhelm the Miss Wickhams,’ said Mr. Darcy fondly.
‘Oh, I declare, I can never hear too much about such elegant things,’ said Miss Wickham [Bettina]. ‘I shall tire you by asking you about them perpetually. I only hope I shall have a room like this for my own one day.’
No one answered this speech, though Fitzwilliam [the Darcys’ ne-er-do-well oldest son] looked much struck by it.
They sat down to table, and Dr. Clarke, though the quietest of the party, was the first to speak. ‘My dear young ladies, it is almost a pity you are here at this season,’ he said, ‘for the gardens are nothing to see. But in spring and summer, it is a very different story. I am not ashamed of my own little garden at Lambton Parsonage.’
‘I should think you are not, brother, people come from all over the country to see it,’ interposed Mrs. Darcy. He nodded gratefully at her, and continued.
‘I do have some very choice pears and peaches trained against the wall – and my borders in spring are very well worth seeing, the hollyhocks and delphiniums put on quite a show; and there are two quite beautiful lilacs; one violet, one white; but it is nothing to Pemberley. The rose gardens here! Well!’ He stopped, dreamily.
‘Dr. Clarke is a rosarian,’ said Elizabeth kindly, ‘he takes especial care of our walled rose-garden, and would be quite jealous, I believe, if the gardeners tried to interfere.’
‘Oh! I hope I would not be jealous,” said Dr. Clarke, ‘not jealous, that would be a sin. But roses are so very delicate. They require more than common care. I am devoted to Flora, you will perceive.’
‘Yes, I do believe you care more about them than any thing,’ said his wife disagreeably, and he lapsed into his ordinary silence.”
Diana’s roses and china
Toward the end of the story, the Bingleys’ son Jeremy visits Pemberley to give Cloe some news of her naughty sister Bettina, now turned actress, and after the news is digested:
‘They turned, and without further conversation they walked back past a field of purple foxgloves, and they passed into the walled garden, full of roses in bloom, and where Dr. Clarke was most happily occupied. He hailed the young people with animation.
‘How d’ye, Miss Cloe, how d’ye, Mr. Jeremy? Have you ever seen such roses as these – I should not boast, but they are approaching perfection, especially these white ones, a new strain, which I shall call “Queen Victoria,” to be sure. And did you notice the borders along the walk – Hayes has not done badly with them, under my direction, I think – wild-flowers, campion, lavender, celandine. I prefer a wild border to dry formalities – something more of a wildness – do not you agree with me, my dear?’
‘Oh, yes, Uncle Clarke,’ said Cloe, trying to bring her attention to what he was saying, ‘the roses – may I take a few back to poor Fitzwilliam? I think he would like it.’
‘Well – I do not like to disappoint – by all means, you may – but if you can wait, I would advise it. Three days, Miss Cloe, only three more days, and they will be perfection: then, perhaps, you will take a selection. And I have some that I am cultivating specially for his mother, too, as a great surprise. The Elizabeth rose, which – but I must betray no secrets.’
‘That will be lovely,’ agreed Cloe, absently.
‘There is nothing like a rose, is there?’ he said, growing confidential. ‘It was a rose first taught me to love my Maker, more than forty years ago; and I always shall, until gathered in by the great Gardener.’ He bowed his head respectfully.
Roses at Colyton, Devon
Diana Birchall’s Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma available on Amazon