One of the endless fascinations of Pride and Prejudice is the interactions between the five, wildly different, sisters.
We have interactions including everything from Lizzy’s gentleness with Jane – when she shields her from the truth about Bingley’s desertion – to Kitty’s jealous fury at Lydia being preferred for that coveted position on the trip to Brighton, thanks to being rather closer friends with Mrs Forster. (‘But I am two years older!’)
I think I may always have had a fascination with sister relationships.
I recall being first drawn into Gone with the Wind by the interactions between the powerful Scarlett, the whiny Suellen and the saintly Carreen.
I noticed the same thing in Little Women, with the sensible Meg, the interesting Jo, the saintly Beth, and – spot the connection yet? – the flirtatious Amy.
Anyway, getting back to the five Bennet sisters, Austen teases us with everything from Jane’s being unwilling to distress Lizzy by even mentioning Darcy (post-rejection) to Lydia’s bossily pushing herself before Jane when going into dinner, after her outrageous marriage, saying, ‘I take place of you now, Jane, for I am a married woman!’ (!!!)
It was partly these little sibling tiffs that inspired my recent short story, ‘Valentine’s Day at the Bennets’.
First, I imagined how thrilled Lydia or Kitty would be, were they the first to receive a valentine, ahead of their more elegant, far prettier eldest sisters.
Second, I checked that valentines, like Christmas trees, didn’t appear rather later than the early 1800s.
They didn’t. Shakespeare himself referred to valentines, though there are doubts about exactly what St Valentine did, or did not, do… This kind of research is irritating but important, especially if, like me, one is married to a famous 19th-century historian and emeritus Professor at the University of London. (In other words… I can’t afford to screw up!)
Then I thought – my fav. two words – WHAT IF…
What if the proactive, impatient Lydia decided to steal a march on Jane and Lizzy – dragging the rather dull Kitty – yet again – along for the ride?
What if – well, really, there had to be – local clergy?
Because in P&P they have to be imagined, unlike being front and centre as in Mansfield Park, or Emma. In Pride and Prejudice they are faceless, formless and obliged to give way to the oily Mr Collins (a non-local clergyman).
What if there was an older rector, a widower, with a fancy for a second wife?… What if he had a sweet, gentle, slightly wimpy, curate… though curates play no part in Austen, weirdly enough. (Check out Barbara Pym to read tales of ladies with a fancy for curates!)
‘I am fifteen,’ said Lydia, ‘and I have been fifteen this long age – I am very nearly sixteen – and yet no one has yet troubled themselves to send me a single valentine.’
‘No one,’ Kitty reminded her, ‘has ever sent any of us a valentine. Not even Jane.’
So we already have the hierarchy established, and the jealousy hinted at. Next we move onto the wider circle:
They sat in gloom for a moment, meditating on the sorry state of their existence. Then Lydia said, ‘But that fellow in London wrote some verses on Jane, at least. At least she has had that!’
‘Perhaps, were we to go to London, some gentleman might write verses about us?’
‘But that could never happen, for Papa detests London.’
‘Yes, and Mama seems to have given over visiting our aunt,’ said Kitty.
‘I do not suppose I shall ever go to town, till I am dead.’
And they remained seated on the bench, meditating upon their parents’ unreasonableness.
Next the girls move on, not literally, but in thought. I had to imagine the curate (see note above) but it did not seem unreasonable to me to imagine that Mrs Gardiner might be kind enough to share a magazine subscription – and yes, there WERE ladies’ magazines at the time – with Mrs Bennet, her country relative.
Then Kitty said, ‘There is still the curate, Mr Thompson.‘
‘Yes, yes, we all know what the curate said to Mama! – But there is a very great difference between mentioning her “five fine girls” and sending even one of those girls a valentine… and it would be so delicious! There were some sweet ones in the magazine that our aunt sent Mama. The one with the little white lace fringe!’
Kitty clasped her hands. ‘And the one with the tiny, embroidered hearts… I should die of rapture should someone send me a valentine with embroidered hearts!’
‘One does not die of rapture, Kitty, not even in novels… But the embossed hearts were exceedingly pretty, and the verse!’ And she dreamily recited,
‘Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it should be you.”’
‘It should be you,’ repeated Kitty. ‘Oh! I should die of rapture should Mr Thompson – ‘
‘– or one of the officers –‘ added Lydia, temporarily suspending her objection to death by rapture.
‘– or one of the officers – send me a valentine!’
‘And if that officer was Wickham!’
‘I would not be quite so particular for all the world,’ said Kitty, ‘though Wickham is unusually well-looking, I should not mind any of the other officers, instead.’
‘But not Mr Lindsay, or Mr Bucknall.’
‘Oh, never! For they are wed already.’
I would not wish to be boring, but, for me, this little by-play does a surprising amount. It establishes, first. that Lydia is the dominant partner in the Kitty-Lydia pairing. Even though we probably knew that already…
Second, it establishes that, though (probably) every young lady in the area admires Wickham more than anyone, Lydia is far more enraptured than Kitty is.
Third, it makes it clear that the pair are not outrageously wicked, for married men are not to be thought of.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short introduction to my latest short story!
Here’s a link, if you’d like to find out:
…if Lydia and Kitty succeed in being the first Bennets to be sent a valentine
… if the curate can be enticed, or
… whether Wickham might be persuadable…
Get Your Copy of “Valentine’s Day at the Bennets” HERE