Twisted Austen

First published on this blog October 24-31, 2012.

"Nonsense, arrant nonsense, as ever was talked!" cried Mr. Knightley. "Robert Martin's manners have sense, sincerity, and good humor to recommend them, and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could understand."

Emma Woodhouse made no answer. She tried to look cheerfully unconcerned, but was really feeling uncomfortable and wanting him very much to be gone. She did not repent what she had done. She thought Harriet destined for far greater things than farm life, but a habitual respect for his judgment in general made her dislike having it so loudly against her. To have him sitting just opposite to her in angry state was very disagreeable.

"Robert Martin has no great loss,” he continued, “if he can but think so, and I hope it will not be long before he does. Your views for Harriet are best known to yourself, but as you make no secret of your love of matchmaking, it is fair to suppose that views, and plans, and projects you have. As a friend I shall just hint to you that if Elton is the man, I think it will be all labor in vain."

Emma laughed and disclaimed. He continued, "Depend upon it, Elton will not do. Elton is a very good sort of man, and a very respectable vicar of Highbury, but not at all likely to make an imprudent match."

"I am very much obliged to you," said Emma, laughing again. "If I had set my heart on Mr. Elton's marrying Harriet, it would have been very kind to open my eyes, but at present I only want to keep Harriet to myself."

“I do not believe you, I am sorry to say.”

Now Emma was offended. “You do not believe me? What a thing to imply!”

“It will not do to prevaricate, Emma. I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do. I cannot see you acting wrongly without a remonstrance.”

Emma rose. “Mr. Knightley! I think myself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement -”

“This conversation no longer has anything to do with Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, poor man! If you are not playing at matchmaking, why are you showing Elton such favor? Believe me, he will misconstrue your intentions. He will believe you give him encouragement.”

“Encouragement?” she repeated in disbelief. “Mr. Elton never forgets his place!”

“I assure you he had good reason to think highly of himself. He knows that he is a very handsome young man, and a great favorite wherever he goes, and from his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away. I have heard him speak with great animation of a large family of young ladies that his sisters are intimate with, who have all twenty thousand pounds apiece."

“Then he can have no possible designs on me!”

“Nonsense! If he can do better, he will.”

As she absorbed the full implications of Mr. Knightley’s words, Emma felt a wave of heat. She turned away from the ever present fire, which her father’s valetudinarian habits required, and went to the window, never daring to open it, in deference to those same requirements, but finding some relief in the coolness of the glass.

Mr. Knightley took her response as a dismissal.  “You would do well to consider what I have said. Good morning to you," said he, rising and walking off abruptly.

Emma dared not detain him. She desperately needed to be alone with her thoughts. Quickly she searched her memory for some evidence to the contrary: anything to quelch the sickly sensation that threatened to overwhelm her. His frequent praise of Harriet - all he ever did was talk of Miss Smith - but yet, did he not praise Emma almost as often? No. That was just his way: sighing and languishing, and studying for compliments. She could not be so deceived. His manner was so very particular regarding the portrait. “No husbands and wives in the case at present ...” is what he said, and if she had not been so selfish as to put her own gratification before her friend’s, they might already be engaged. She could not be mistaken.

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First published on this blog October 24-31, 2013

Your sister I also watched.  – Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening's scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. - Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

“The entire evening was not perfect: oh, no Mr. Bennet, it was not!”

“And what, dare I ask, could possible besmirch Mr. Bingley’s triumphant introduction to the neighborhood?”

“It was his horrible friend, Mr. Darcy! I care not at all for how handsome he is, nor for his 10,000 pounds and estate in Derbyshire, not after his ungentlemanly behavior towards poor Lizzy!”

“Oh? His sins must be grievous, indeed, for such a man to lose your favor so quickly. What did he do to you Lizzy? Need I call him out?”

“Little more than tell the truth, Papa,” Elizabeth replied with a mischievous smile. “He rightly observed that Jane was the only handsome lady in the room, and as I’m sure we all look quite plain in comparison, I cannot fault his taste.”

“Lizzy!” he mother admonished. “Mr. Darcy is not detestable because he admired Jane! You know very well he called you not tolerable enough to stand up with, when gentlemen were scarce, and more than one lady forced to sit down! You heard him yourself!”

Mr. Bennet’s eyes grew wide. “Is this true, Lizzy?”

“Not precisely,” she laughed. “Mr. Darcy said I was not handsome enough to tempt him to dance. Nothing worse.”

“Well! This is an adventure you’ve had, my dear! It’s not every lady who has the honor of being slighted by 10,000 pounds.”

“I can assure you," Mrs. Bennet interrupted, "that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy, for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, and not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great! Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set downs. I quite detest the man."

Jane Bennet said little of either gentlemen while they remained downstairs, but when she and Elizabeth found themselves alone, she had words on only one. "He is just what a young man ought to be: sensible, good humored, lively, and I never saw such happy manners! So much ease, with such perfect good breeding!" She confided, alive with the flattery and attention that had marked the evening’s assembly.

"He is also handsome," replied Elizabeth, "which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete."

Jane blushed at her sister’s pointed humor. She knew she was expected to signal her agreement, but as Mr. Bingley’s appearance seemed rather immaterial, she pointed the conversation in a more meaningful direction. "I was very much flattered by his asking me to dance a second time. I did not expect such a compliment."

"Did not you? I did for you. But that is one great difference between us. Compliments always take you by surprise, and me never.”

Presumptuous, Lizzy! Jane silently admonished.

“What could be more natural than his asking you again?” Elizabeth continued.

Why must she insist on making light of it?

“He could not help seeing that you were about five times as pretty as every other women in the room. No thanks to his gallantry for that. Well, he certainly is very agreeable, and I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person."

"Dear Lizzy!" Jane protested, though doubtful that the slight scold in her tone would be attended. Elizabeth was forever examining the characters of her fellow humans in a most merciless manner. Jane could only feel relief that her sister was reliably obtuse when it came to herself, for if she could penetrate that fair head, she would surely find far too much fault to tolerate.

"Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being in my life."

No, you never would hear me speak it, she silently replied. Out loud she prevaricated: "I would wish not to be hasty in censuring anyone, but I always speak what I think." She studied Elizabeth for a hint of doubt upon her trusting mien, a concern her next words totally nullified.

"I know you do, and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense,” Jane turned away in embarrassment, “to be honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candor is common enough – one meets it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design – to take the good of everybody's character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad – belongs to you alone.” Her sister not responding, Elizabeth tried another tactic. “And so, you like this man's sisters too, do you? Their manners are not equal to his."

"Certainly not,” she spoke too quickly and hastened to distance herself from the thoughtless outburst, “at first. But they are very pleasing women when you converse with them. Miss Bingley is to live with her brother and keep his house, and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbor in her."

Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced. Jane knew she had put an end to the inquiries. Lizzy would have to content herself with assumptions of her sister’s feelings, good or bad. They indulged in a few less meaningful observations from the assembly before bidding each other goodnight.

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Fist published on this blog October 25 - 31, 2015.

Between them, the Misses Ward had twenty-one thousand pounds, more than enough to cover the costs of their housing, feeding, and servants, and each year their uncle, the lawyer, presented the eldest with a tally sheet, detailing precisely why he was owed all of their interest earned. Miss Ward had learned not to question his figures, no matter how fantastic they might be. To do so would bring down upon her the dreaded charge of ingratitude, a sentiment Mr. Ward found particularly distasteful in his nieces, whose guardianship he only begrudgingly undertook. They made his inheritance, unlooked for and unneeded, more an encumbrance than a fortune. What good to him, for whom the country held no pleasure, was his elder brother's modest estate? He often swore he would rather his brother had lived  though he wished him to the devil often enough when alive  and not burdened him so, but the law declared the ladies his responsibility, and he was a strict upholder of the law.

In his eye, the three ladies were guilty of the unforgivable crime of being orphans. It was ludicrous to blame his brother: never intelligent and far too dead to feel his guilt. The two youngest Miss Wards were similarly vacuous, but the eldest was more capable. She alone was fully sensible of her culpability, and so for her did he reserve his most venomous complaints.

Knowing her privileged position within the household, Miss Ward did her best to protect Maria and Frances from his rage, and over the years, she had learned how to minimize his fits of temper. At twenty-one, having survived eleven years in his care, she knew how to best engage his meager supply of sympathy.

Knocking on the open door, she tentatively asked, "Sir? May I claim a moment of your time?"

He looked up through a cloud of pipe smoke and fixed her with an angry stare before consulting his pocket watch. "You have two minutes."

She stepped into the terrible glare emanating from the great windows behind the desk, but she willed her eyes not to blink. Better to water mercilessly than display such a weakness before her guardian. "I request your permission to invite a gentleman to dinner tomorrow evening. He is calling upon Miss Maria now. This is the third time he has called since they were introduced at last week's assembly."

He sneered, eyes still on his watch. "I suppose I shall have to bear the expense of feeding all the foolish gentlemen who are susceptible to a pretty face and empty head. Who is he?"

"Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park." She tried to hide the satisfaction in the words.

He looked up. "Mr. Norris' guest? The baronet?"

"The same."

"He should not be bothering with Maria. She is at least three thousand pounds short of being worthy of his interest."

"You underestimate the appeal of becoming manners and complaisance, Uncle."

"I doubt it," he snorted, "but if Sir Thomas fancies an empty-headed wife, I shall not be the one to throw a rub in his way. Invite him for Wednesday next, when Richards dines. That will minimize the expense."

"Yes, Uncle," she replied and retreated, before he had the opportunity to scold that her two minutes had expired.

Rejoining her sisters in the drawing room was like reentering another world from that which lay just down the passage, sulfurous and bright. Maria's gentle laughter, like the sound of the angel she was, rang forth. "My dear sister!" she cried with an unusual degree of animation. "You will not believe what Sir Thomas has been telling us! He has property in the West Indies, and he has actually journeyed all that way to see it for himself! Can you imagine?"

Miss Ward beamed at her sister indulgently before casting her eyes towards Sir Thomas, whom she saw was just as charmed by Maria's innocence as she had always been. With uncharted pleasure she replied, "A gentleman of honor and intelligence must wish to be in command of all his interests. To leave land in the stewardship of others, with no supervision whatsoever, would be negligent."

Maria shook her curls in negation. "But what of the danger? I am glad, Sir Thomas," she said candidly, "that no hardship befell you on such a journey, but I hope you will never have occasion to ever venture so far from home again. I do not know how I could bear the worry."

Sir Thomas looked as if he needed only the slightest urging to secure such a becoming display of concern as his very own. Miss Ward saw it all with an anticipation that bordered on pain. The prospect of such a match, and the liberation she associated with it, was like a wild fantasy come true.

It had long been brought to bear upon her how much depended on each of the sisters securing husbands. It was only the second evening she spent in her uncle's house, not a week following the death of both her parents, that she was first summoned into the forbidding office from which her uncle oversaw all his concerns. There was no sun to blind her then, but the multitude of tallow candles which her uncle deemed necessary to illuminate his domain had much the same effect, their smoke combining with that of his cigar to make the terrified ten-year-old cough and gag.

He watched her silently until the fit subsided, making it perfectly clear that he had no intention of offering her any comfort, and then said, "Edmund would saddle me with sickly brats. If you are all inclined towards colds and ailments, I shall have you off to school at once."

"No, sir! That is ..."

"I will not have my household disordered, do you understand? I can only guess what kind of liberality you are used to enjoying, but I will not have waste and idleness under my roof. The three of you will remain in my charge until you marry or reach the age of twenty-five, at which point you may undertake the guardianship of your sisters. Between this time and that, I suggest you busy yourselves in attaining those accomplishments that will secure my relief from your burden as soon as possible. The interest from your dowries may be used towards this end. I shall not fund such nonsense, of that you may be sure!"

A bewildered Miss Ward was abruptly dismissed and returned to her grieving sisters, still overcome by shock at the loss of family and home, and as determined to be married with the greatest possible swiftness as her uncle could hope. Their removal from Opperthorn had been a heavy blow so close on the heels of their parents’ carriage accident, but their uncle lived in Huntington when he was not in London, and having no affection for his familial home, he ordered the place shut up and gave the servants their leave. The house was put up for sale, but as no one ever emerged who was willing to meet Mr. Ward’s terms, it had now stood empty for almost half her lifetime, all of which had been devoted to the goal of finding husbands for her sisters.

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