From the 1600’s to just after World War I, infant and toddler boys started their lives wearing dresses. These feminine looking garments were thought to provide babies with the freedom of movement they needed to learn to walk well and to use their muscles freely. Most boys who were above the working class were “breeched;” that is, there was a brief ceremony when their dresses or coats were replaced with the breeches and jackets they would wear for the rest of their lives.
In this brief snippet from “The Rector of Hunsford,” Fitzwilliam Darcy grows from the age of about four years to about six in the loving embrace of his family. Because of the events of the larger story, that family includes a widowed Lady Catherine De Bourgh who has also lost her daughter, Anne, in infancy. This has left her a changed woman—markedly changed from the woman we find in canon. The small boy and his widowed aunt form an idyllic and firm friendship that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
Chapter 3. A Baby No Longer
Over the next two years, Lady Catherine spent the winter months with the family at Pemberley. She never moved into the dower house but had a large, private, and comfortable suite of rooms in the guest wing of the great house where she felt free to join the family or not, as she wished.
At Eastertide the family would journey south to Rosings. Catherine and George would closet themselves with the steward for several days carefully going over the books, reviewing progress and profits to date, and otherwise ensuring that the estate was on an even keel. Mr. Markham had begun taking an interest in Jeremy Thomas, and with Lady Catherine’s permission had begun the long task of training the intelligent young man to become his assistant.
The Darcys would return to Pemberley during the Easter season, and Lady Catherine would join them in the early autumn once the harvest was in. Life took up a pleasant rhythm, and Fitzwilliam was much loved by his widowed aunt. Anne and George Darcy began to feel more at ease about letting Catherine spend her summers at Rosings. At least for the time being, Matlock seemed to be keeping his distance.
Little Will did not see too much of his three Fitzwilliam cousins—the older boys and the little girl who had been born at the end of the epidemic. When she first married, Lady Anne had envisioned much joyful contact between the two families, whose estates were but 30 miles apart. But she could not overcome her mistrust of her brother’s ambitions nor his unkindness to her sister Catherine, and the Darcys kept their distance from the Matlocks. Will numbered many little friends among Pemberley’s neighbors, and his was not a lonely childhood at all even without his cousins.
At the age of four, he made a new friend when the new housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, joined the staff at Pemberley. She seemed to have a way with small boys, and as Lady Anne often said, Will never met a stranger.
At almost any time, Fitzwilliam could be found in the company of a groom, diligently learning to ride his pony. At six, it was time for him to leave his infancy behind and to don the breeches and coat he would wear for the rest of his life. A simple ceremony, called a breeching, would mark the occasion, and Lady Anne spent hours planning the occasion with Mrs. Reynolds.
“What do you say?” Lady Anne asked of her husband one evening. “Shall we invite my brother and his brood? It is a special occasion.”
“You have been very clever, dearest,” replied Darcy. “Parliament is in session, and they are in London for the Season. You may safely invite them because I can assure you, they will not come.”
The day planned for Will’s breeching dawned clear and fine, and though he tried to behave, he was beside himself with excitement. Families from neighboring estates began arriving, and Will greeted his friends and playmates with adult handshakes and subdued greetings. Still, his eyes shone.
When the time came, and everyone had gathered, Will was led into a small parlor adjoining the drawing-room. Papa and his valet Mr. Crowe were standing ready, and Will laid off the short petticoats he had worn for most of his life and dressed in the trousers and jacket of a boy’s “skeleton suit,” which he would wear until adolescence. Mr. Crowe cut his hair—to the sorrow of his waiting mama—and the young man was ready to meet his guests again.
The larger room was full of the sounds of congratulations. Will went to each group in turn, solemnly making his bow, shaking hands, and thanking his visitors for their presence. Papas all around the room clapped him on the shoulder and placed coins and notes in his new pockets until he jingled and rustled by turns. His Aunt Catherine, who had come up early for the festivities, solemnly acknowledged his bow, tucking a golden guinea into his pocket before saying, “You are taking the first steps to manhood today, Will. Promise me that you will always look after your mother and that you will always be an honorable gentleman.”
Will nodded solemnly and said, “I promise, Aunt Catherine. And I will look after you, too.” At that her heart melted, and she bent down to embrace him.
Older friends, already breeched, accepted him with handshakes. Younger boys regarded him with envy, while little girls murmured among themselves about how handsome he was.
There were cakes and lemonade for the children, stronger drink for their elders, and soon the swarm of boys had adjourned to play by the fountain in the sunken garden while the girls strolled and gossiped behind their hands. By mid-afternoon, the party had broken up, and Will was left to grow accustomed to his new haberdashery.
“When may I have a cravat like yours, Papa?”
“Son, be thankful you do not have to wear one, and put it off for as long as you can,” replied his father. “That is the best advice I can give you.” This brought forth laughing agreement from all the gentlemen standing nearby, and Will decided not to be so anxious for the starched collars and neckcloths worn by the grown men.
The days began to mellow out into autumn gold, a bountiful harvest was brought in, and the neighborhood gentlemen began to have the leisure time to go out shooting. Pemberley was always a delight in the autumn, and there was plenty for William to do, even though he was not yet permitted to go shooting.
Summer began to give way to early autumn, and Will received an invitation from one of his friends, Benjamin Wright, to attend Benjamin’s breeching and to spend the night at the family’s estate, Aspen Grove, a little less than ten miles from Pemberley. Will was beside himself with excitement. Molly, the beloved nursemaid, would accompany him, and he would return to Pemberley the next day. It would be the first night he had ever spent away from his parents, but he was unafraid. George Darcy sent along two outriders, discreetly armed, in addition to the coachman and footman.
On the appointed day, provided with a guinea as a gift for his friend, Will shook hands with his father on the steps of Pemberley and kissed his mother. Then he turned solemnly, assisted Molly into the coach, climbed in afterward, and they were off.
Benjamin’s father, Mr. Jonathan Wright, had a great deal on his mind with the ceremony and party. It did not stop him from becoming concerned about the Darcy boy’s failure to arrive. “They protect that boy from something,” he said to his wife. “I know not what it is, but they protect him more than is common. I confess I am concerned.”
“Send out two of the grooms,” replied Mrs. Wright. Let them be armed if you like. We must proceed with the party, but it will not be long.”
Two reliable men, armed and carrying lanterns in case needed later, set off on the road to Pemberley. They covered a little more than half the distance between the two estates. “’Ere. The carriage went off the road ‘ere. What’s up that way?” said the older groom.
“Naught but an old lambing shed,” replied his partner. “We’d best get up there because tis clear something has happened.”
They were unprepared for the sight that greeted them. There had been a swift and terrible fight, but the men from Pemberley had given a good accounting of themselves, and several unknown men had been killed. The men from Aspen Grove found the two outriders first, who had perished facing their unknown enemy in different parts of the clearing. The coachman lay where he had fallen, but there was no sign of the footman. Most pitiable of all was the nursemaid, sprawled on her front, hands grasping at futility, an expression of agony on her face.
Of the boy, Fitzwilliam Darcy, there was no sign.
“Ride for Pemberley,” ordered the senior groom. “Tell Mr. Darcy where I be, and I will stay behind and guard and search as best I may. The boy is missing.”
The author’s grandfather, James Keith Marshall Lee, who was born in 1893, the second youngest of a large family of mostly boys. Here he is about to lose his “Little Lord Fauntelory” suit as well as his wonderful head of blond curls.