Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Nine

Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter Seven, Chapter Eight

The Bennets did not return to Longbourn until after the cock's crow. Alison had not been up all night since her college days. Deliriously tired, she collapsed gratefully into her bead with barely a thought for its discomforts.

Awakening in the morning to her very first hangover unaided by pain killers, Alison dragged herself from the horror of a bed stiff, aching, and rebelling against the world. Sunlight attacked her eyes, and she could not see her way to believing that such acute pain could be anything other than poignant reality. No, this was no comma or similar episode of imagination: this was a living nightmare, perhaps hell itself, and there was no hope of an end in sight.

Hill stuffed her into yet another uncomfortable costume, supposedly appropriate for whatever time of day it was. 12:00! she mentally exclaimed, forcing herself to focus on the clock above the mantel. Never had she slept so late! Alison groaned aloud, but submitted passively to the torture of having her hair brushed, pricked, and pinned beneath a lace cap: the Regency equivalent to the ponytail.

Downstairs she found the entire family breakfasting in far too cheerful spirits. She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat gingerly down upon her chair. Lydia was talking so quick and loud that it was several minutes before Alison took in what she said.

"An uncle came storming down from London, traveling with four horses, and snatched Mary away within the hour. She hadn't time to pack all her things, which will be sent on behind her. La! How I wish I could have seen her face! After lording her conquest over us all these weeks, too! She shan't find someone near so handsome in London, where her 10,000 pounds will do less to diminish her freckles!" Lydia shrieked with laughter, which Kitty echoed with less enthusiasm, while Mary (and Mr. Bennet from behind his paper) looked on with perseverance. "I shall say the very thing to Wickham when we see him this morning in Meryton, as we surely shall, and we shall see what he says!" Another piercing round of giggles.

"Enough!" Alison bellowed loud enough to make herself wince. Once more she found herself confronting a table full of bewildered Bennets. "You will not badmouth the poor girl to her former suitor, not today nor any other day, for you may not speak with Mr. Wickham at all! I forbid you to say so much as good morning to the man."

"Not speak to Wickham?" Lydia echoed. "You want me to snub the handsomest man in all the regiment? Really, Mama! What has come over you lately?"

"An excellent question, my dear," Mr. Bennet said, folding the paper and putting it aside. "What has come over Mrs. Bennet?" his eyes twinkled amusedly.

"Nothing has come over me!" she snapped back, knowing such antics were not in her favor but feeling too reckless to care. "We should all be grateful to Mary King's uncle! Clearly, he learned something which rendered Mr. Wickham exceedingly undesirable as a husband, else why would he behave so? Let's take it as a lesson well learned and have nothing more to do with the man."

A few inchoate protests resounded through the room, then Mr. Bennet said, "It would cause a great deal of trouble to cut a gentleman on the militia."

"You should speak to Colonel Forster about his reputation before letting your daughters make fools of themselves over him, or are you afraid of taking the trouble to protect your children from a rogue?" Alison fumed in reply, finding gratification in the surprised look upon his face. Soon he regained himself.

"Careful, my dear!" he warned sardonically. "Do you wish to render the man irresistible? Stop talking up his charms, and your purpose will be better served."

"I am in no mood for manipulative games! The man is dangerous. I'll say no more on the subject. If you know what is good for you, girls, you'll stay well away from him." Oh god! I'm really turning into her! Alison thought with a shudder, reflecting on the inconsistency of her speech, yet she couldn't stop herself from continuing. "If nothing else, I will preserve this family from George Wickham. You may not walk to Meryton today, and we shall not be at home if he calls!"

"You heard your mother, girls!" Mr. Bennet declared with both finality and amusement as he rose from the table. "I"ll try to weather the clamor from my library." With dismay Alison watched him leave as the decibel of Lydia and Kitty's now joint complaints rose to new heights, and once having finally reached a plateau choosing to rest there for no less than an hour, Alison was thoroughly grateful when a visit from Mrs. Lucas and her youngest daughter heralded a change in pitch.

"It is odd to not have our elder girls not with us on such an occasion, is it not Mrs. Bennet?" questioned their guest in mournful tones. "To discuss a ball without the benefit of your Miss Elizabeth and dear Mrs. Collins to reflect on the follies of all! You cannot know the hardship of parting with a child through marriage. Maria will return to me, but who is to say I will live to see Charlotte returned to the neighborhood? How kind it was of you to spare Elizabeth for so long. What tales of Hunsford she will have to tell! Lady Catherine has been most condescending, and they have dined at Rosings quite regularly."

And so she prattled on. Alison narrowed her eyes at the woman, in such a manner that had always shown everyone in a conference room or PTA meeting that she meant business, little effect as it seemed to have in Longbourn's drawing room. Just as Lady Lucas was delving deeper into the subject of Mr. Collins' last sermon, Alison interrupted her. "Just because we do not have the company of all our daughters, it does not mean we are so devoid of conversation the night after a ball to need speak of Hunsford, where they have had very little entertainment at all."

"No entertainment!" Lady Lucas exclaimed, shocked at such a dismissal. "When they have dined at Rosings Park at least eight times!"

"It sounds very dull, indeed! Nothing but Lady Catherine's ill-founded pronouncements and dictates to listen to, while we have all the gossip afforded by a ball to got through, including the excitement of Mary King escaping George Wickham's clutches, with which Lydia has been regaling us all morning."

"Do you really think she has had such a narrow escape, Mama?" Mary asked.

"I believe her 10,000 pounds would be gone in a hurry had the marriage taken place," Alison replied, gazing around the room imperiously, as if to punctuate her words with wide eyes.

"I do not know why Mama has taken such a sudden dislike to poor Mr. Wickham, whose praises she was full of when he seemed to court Lizzy," Lydia pouted.

"Elizabeth was lucky to escape his attentions before they could do any more damage."

"What damage could dear Miss Eliza have possibly suffered at Mr. Wickham's hands," Lady Lucas laughed uncomfortably.

"He damaged her opinion of Mr. Darcy, and she has lived to regret it," Alison hastily declared, disliking the direction in which Lady Lucas's thoughts seemed to be heading.

"Mr. Darcy!" everyone in the room seemed to shout at once, followed by a melee of inquiries.

Alison pressed her fingers to her temples. "They have been much in each other's company in Kent, and Elizabeth's letters indicate that she was mistaken in her previous sentiments regarding the man. I do not meant to make any more of it than that. Mr. Darcy's behavior, though his demeanor has been lacking, has always been that of a gentleman. Mr. Bingley, whose good nature is beyond doubt, is his close friend and admirer. What do we know of Mr. Wickham but that the respectable Mr. Darcy despises him, and Mary King's uncle found him a highly objectionable suitor?"

"One should always judge a character by their deeds and not their charms," Mary provided.

"Yes. Thank you, Mary," Alison acknowledged with a sigh. Lady Lucas turned the subject back to Hunsford, and Alison simply tuned her out. She was watching Kitty, who sat thoughtfully by the window, while Lydia sulked ominously in her chair.

Read Chapter Ten

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Frances Hodgson Burnett

I must start with Austen before veering way off my usual course. Jane Austen inspired countless readers with visions of an idealized English countryside, and I believe Burnett carried these images with her throughout life, part of a yearning for a perfection never attained, like a glorious dream to which one cannot return.

Francis Eliza Hodgson Burnett's was a varied and international life. Born to a Victorian middle class family whose fortunes so fluctuated as to inhabit both manor homes and urban slums, they moved when she was 15 to a log cabin in Tennessee. By her 18th year she was supporting the family with her writing. Almost an instant success, she went on to live in Washington D.C., London, Paris, Bermuda, and Long Island, in all sorts of different accommodations and degrees of luxury. Crossing the Atlantic yearly much of her life, traveling throughout Europe, divorcing her husband in 1898, she wrote thirty-five complex books and stories, often highlighting her Christian Scientist beliefs, all while battling depression, raising four children (one of whom died), and taking active part in the social world of Western literati. Quite frankly, the more I read about her, the more astounding I find the woman.

Today Burnett is chiefly remembered for her three most famous books: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), The Secret Garden (1911), and The Little Princess (1905). The last of these is perhaps my favorite book of all time. I read it countless times as a child and continue to reread it every few years, each time amazed anew by the tale of Sara Crew, but I never knew of any Burnett books beyond these three until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon The Shuttle (1907). Mesmerized by the story, I quickly downloaded The Collected Works of Francis Hodgson Burnett on my Kindle, a steal at $1.99. I have been compulsively making my way through the stories ever since, and as I seem bent on a out and out binge, I figure I might as well share my thoughts. My post have been sparse this year, most of my time being devoted to writing The Madness of Mr. Darcy, and perhaps this diversion will spark some life back into the blog.

Burnett's writing is characterized by superhuman characters. Austen said "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked," but I can't help but think she would approve of the way Burnett throws her godlike heroes and heroines into contrast with equally vile and horrid humanity. Is it possible Sara Crew and Miss Minchin weren't inspired by Fanny Price and Mrs. Norris? Her characters may not be believable, but they set the stage for explorations of morality, spirituality, and human nature. Readers veer well beyond the "two-inches of ivory" that contained the world of an English village, complete with rectory and great house, immortalized by Austen, traveling across the globe to exotic places of unimaginable beauty, but somehow the morality that emerges is the same. Burnett's style almost resembles modern magical realism, as she depicts a time of as rapid change and astounding advancement as our own, struggling to capture the confusion such disorienting advancement must cause. I think there is much in her work to fascinate the modern reader, and I intend to review those of her stories that stir me the most here.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Eight

Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter Six, Chapter Seven

Over the next several days, Alison exerted herself to make the best of the situation. Lydia continued sulky, but naturally high spirits will not be repressed for long, and soon she was eagerly engaging her mother's attention once more. Alison teetered between encouragement and restraint in a balancing act that would make a tightrope walker's stomach flop, but it seemed to work. She was rewarded with the endearing affection Lydia had it in her to provide, when she was so motivated.

Kitty was a further source of pleasure. Like her own Kitty, Austen's was self-conscious and warm-hearted, resembling her modern counterpart far more than the other two girls. It was easy to love her, and for a few moments in her company, Alison was even able to forget her predicament, and that she didn't belong to this time.

On the evening of Colonel Forster's ball, Alison surveyed herself in the old fashioned mirror that hung above Mrs. Bennet's vanity. The many layers that composed her gown were laced and pinned to such a degree that she barely dared to move, so precarious was the nature of the carefully achieved effect. She wore a feathered turban that Mrs. Hill insisted was a favorite. How the twins would laugh at her! The thought brought tears to her eyes, which she quickly suppressed. They were, after all, probably all gathered around her this very moment. It was silly to yearn for what must be right there, even if she couldn't see or touch it.

Girlish giggles filled the halls as the three sisters ran about making their preparations. The sound was so familiar and almost like that her own girls made when getting ready for a party, but there was an intangible something slightly off. She sighed. All she need do is look around at her archaic surroundings and the intangible something became all too real, just like the pin jabbing her in the side.

It was good to hear Mary's usually sombre voice ringing light and carefree along with Kitty and Lydia's. Alison had taken the middle Bennet shopping the day before, intent on helping her present a prettier sight than was possible with the severe hairstyle and matronly clothing she usually wore. Most of Regency fashion was still a mystery to Alison, but some basic notions of appearance seemed to hold true through the centuries. Mary had not a single gown that wasn't dowdy, her real mother having long ago stopped arguing the point and let the girl choose her own attire. Alison theorized that Mary deliberately sabotaged her appearance, unwilling to compete with her sisters in the field of beauty, seeking to set herself off as an intellect instead. That her chosen role was ill-fitting, the novel amply demonstrated.

After much gentle persuasion, Mary conceded to wearing an older gown of Kitty's (who was delighted to be of service). It was a pretty blue, pale but vibrant, and complimented her hazel eyes. They bought a beautifully painted fan and some trim to match it, and Mary had been diligently stitching and altering ever since. Alison instructed Sarah to do her hair looser and higher on her head, softening her silhouette. The end result was satisfying enough to provoke Lydia's shocked surprise upon seeing her sister. "My word! Don't you look dashing, Mary, but whatever will you do without your tucker?"

Not until the moment they were walking out the door did Mr. Bennet join them. In his ballroom attire, he looked much more attractive than in his regular clothes, which Alison assumed to be that of the average country gentleman. He offered her his arm and escorted her to the carriage, and as they walked beside one another, Alison thought she saw a momentary resemblance to Tom in his moonlit profile.

The girls laughed like any others embarking on an evening of fun. Mr. Bennet smiled indulgently on them, catching Alison's eye as he did so. In this shared moment of parental camaraderie, Alison felt Austen might have been a bit harsh in her portrayal of the couple, despite the many facts contesting to the veracity of her account.

The ball was taking place at the local inn, where the assemblies occurred. Colonel Forster's lodgings could not accommodate so formal a gathering. The room swarmed with officers and their varying smells, while Alison struggled to not choke on the smoke from the multitude of candles. She managed to usher the girls through the receiving rooms and find Mr. Bennet once more before being presented to the host and hostess. Lydia and Kitty were quickly claimed by Mrs. Forster, and at the former's insistence, Mary tagged along. Finding herself alone with Mr. Bennet, Alison could not resist the urge to lean towards him and ask, "So now what do we do, having disposed of the girls?"

He looked at her in perplexity a mere moment before an impudent grin grew upon his face. "You are about to find out, my dear."

At that moment, Lady Lucas and Mrs. Phillips descended upon her, quickly sweeping her away in their chatter towards a group of ladies on the opposite side of the room. Alison cast a desperate look back at Mr. Bennet, just in time for her to see him disappear into the room designated for cards.

The next few hours passed in a jumble of gossip, petty dramas, and claustrophobia, but there was a single shining moment amongst all the unpleasantness that eclipsed all else. Alison was submerged in a bewildering debate between Mrs. Phillips and Mrs. Long regarding the efficacy of asafetida in fighting the vapors, when Lydia came squealing up to her, so overcome with excitement that she could scarcely breathe. Alison coached her through some deep breathing, and the entire story unfolded.

"Mary King has been packed off to London to stay with relations. The engagement is off! WIckham is safe, and I have the next dance!" she squealed again, and Alison had to forcibly keep her from jumping for joy.

You mean Mary King is safe, she could not help but think, instead saying gravely, "Do you not think it telling that her relations would go to such measures to prevent their union?"

"La, Mama!" Lydia exclaimed. "There is no knowing what to make of you any more! I would think you'd enter into my feelings upon Wickham, and what I'm sure will be Lizzy's too, when she learns of it! For myself, I shall take every opportunity to enjoy myself before she comes home," and she flounced off, determined to make the most of her dance, and leaving Alison with a blistering headache to endure the prattle of Mrs. Bennet's friends until dinner was mercifully served, and she was able to reunite with the relatively comfortable Bennet clan. Somehow managing to secure Mr. Bennet's companionship for the remainder of the evening, she was at least granted a  reprieve from the nearly unendurable neighborhood ladies as the horrid night dragged on into the wee hours of morning.

Read Chapter Nine

Note: This scene also needs to include the announcement that the militia is leaving for Brighton. Expect it in the final draft.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Being Mrs. Bennet: Chapter Seven

Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter Five, Chapter Six

Alison considered her predicament as she tied to fall asleep on the uncomfortable, straw-stuffed mattress. It must be a coma, she concluded. It's the only thing that makes any sense! To begin with, even if time travel might be conceivably possible, entering into the reality of a novel was not. It was all the imagining of her fevered mind, and as such, she was empowered to do whatever she should choose to do, was she not? No longterm repercussions could be felt in the literary world at large. Lydia Bennet would forever disgrace herself with Wickham, and Elizabeth and Darcy's journey to perfect contentment must be difficult and angst ridden. Trying to improve Austen's characters could have no lasting benefit, but it would keep her mind occupied. If this was a coma, it was vital she remain engaged, and it whatever manner possible.

But what if it is not a coma? The thought would recur. What if this is death? If so, it certainly was not heaven. The notion of spending eternity in a Jane Austen novel might seem appealing on the surface, but to truly endure the atmosphere of Longbourn day in and day out for all time would come to feel much like some infamous resident of Hades, forever rolling a rock fruitlessly up a hill. Thank goodness it was Pride and Prejudice and not Mansfield Park or Persuasion! She couldn't imagine having to bear with a real life Mrs. Norris or Sir Walter Elliot.

If she were in hell, it must be considered a just punishment for naming her children so ridiculously. There was nothing else in her life she so regretted. She had always been a kind and engaged person, eager to improve her surroundings and provide assistance to her companions, even as a child when others her age were torching ants with magnifying glasses, or coordinating psychological torments for the more vulnerable children to endure. All who knew Alison Bateman had only good to say of her. Even those ladies who found her mostly intolerable (for no woman even can be universally appealing to all her gender) would never admit to the sentiments very loudly. She was too much a fixture of the community to be crossed.

While her rational mind dismissed the notion of damnation as ridiculous, especially for one who had always sought to live honorably, an irrational unease persisted that it was terrible mistake to have named her children after the Bennets. It wasn't a new thought, but never before had it brought such panic. Seeing the manner in which her own brood grew like their namesakes had always seemed like the hand of fate. Of course Jane was stunning and kind, while Elizabeth was brilliant and witty. How could Mary have been other than bookish, or the twins boy crazy? She had always acknowledged the similarities with a smile, but that was before her brain had trapped her in a pseudo-reality populated by the fictional counterparts to her real children.

And what of her family? Were they this very moment sitting around her prostrate form, praying for some sign of consciousness? How badly was she injured? Would she ever return to them? These notions excited real terror, and of the kind far too poignant to confront head on, especially in the middle of the night when tossing on an uncomfortable bed! Alison banished them from her thoughts and focused her attention back to this fantasy family she had inherited.

After their walk that afternoon, it proved a bit difficult to pry Kitty from her side. The girl must have been starved for attention, Alison reflected with pity. Mary was much the same. She would not be so affectionate in response to some motherly guidance, but there was little doubt she would make use of it. The poor girl was practically begging for instruction, running around with her nose in a book, seeking her own way with no direction or aptitude. Mr. Bennet was just as much at fault on her score as his wife. It was he who should have taken the time with her.

Mr. Bennet was an entirely different sort of problem. He in no way resembled her Tom, and so she had not the insight into him she had with the girls. Would he not remark the change in his spouse? Though she doubted any real consequences could come of it if he did, she still thought it best to stay out of his way as much as possible. As he showed no disposition to be anywhere but his library, it would not prove difficult.

Then there was Lydia, who required far more than just the strong hand Alison had already brought down upon her, though it was undoubtedly a good first step. Lydia needed to learn why her behavior was a problem. She needed to understand what it meant to have self-respect. The pitfalls of her behavior were so much more dire in this Regency world than in the modern, but Alison was unsure of how to get through to her. She knew from the novel how her older sisters had tried and failed to teach her better sense. She would not heed them, but would she her mother? Alison doubted it. She would see what could be done through a series of bribes and threats, a method that worked well with her girls when they were irrational three year olds. Perhaps it might prove as effective on a thoughtless teenage mind.

From Lydia her mind drifted to the two daughters she had yet to meet, and in which she could not help but feel the most interest. It would be very interesting to see how the fantasy Jane and Elizabeth compared to her daughters. Alison loved all her girls equally, but she did share a different relationship with each. Jane and Lizzy were the eldest, and since they left home each had become rather more like friends than daughters. Not just friends, the word was too meek! The greatest companions she had ever known was more like it. She had hopes of sharing this remarkable relationship with each daughter as she became an adult, but for the moment it set apart the two eldest as something special. She would hopefully be awake before they returned to Longbourn, where they were not expected for nearly two weeks, but part of her could only hope she would get a chance to meet them. It was the one consolation for remaining as she was.

It was nearly morning before Alison finally fell asleep, and when Hill came in to wake her for breakfast, her head ached with groggy exhaustion. The kind housekeeper suggested she stay in bed and take a few drops of laudanum, but Alison was used to getting up when she did not want to. Besides, she had entirely overcome any interest she had in the opiate. She would no sooner take it for a headache again than the Oxycontin she was prescribed after breaking her leg several years ago in a skiing accident.

In the breakfast room, she poured herself a cup of coffee. She was delighted the first morning to find it there, just when she had been wondering how tea was going to pull her through the day. It wasn’t exactly the double shot of expresso she was accustomed to buying at the coffee shop across the street from her office each morning, but it would do. She prepared a plate from the buffet and sat down, the change in altitude causing her head to swim. She pressed on her temples until it stopped.

"Not feeling well this morning, Mrs. Bennet?" came the languid voice from the opposite end of the table.

Surprised he noticed her at all, Alison lamented this as a bad start to evading his attention. She sought for a proper response and uttered. "It's my nerves," clutching at the familiar and hoping it would appease his interest.

"Ah," he replied, addressing his food. Alison thought that was the end of it until, some moments latter, he continued the subject. "Perhaps your recent taste for coffee it the cause of your disorder, my dear. You never did take coffee until two days ago."

He looked up and caught her eye in a penetrating stare, a slight smile just betrayed in the left corner of his mouth. Yes, she would have to be very careful around him, or else be forced to answer a bevy of uncomfortable questions. It she must be trapped in a Regency world, she would at least attempt to remain outside it's mental asylums, which is where she would probably land if her story came out.

Read Chapter Eight