Early on in my affair with the Canon, I became rather angry. Well, perhaps angry is incorrect: perhaps dissatisfied is a better fit.
I tend to read a book (modifying Mortimer Adler’s approach) three times.
The first is to enjoy the story: to sort of glide along the surface, being moved by the plot’s and actors’ invisible currents. The second is to consider plot elements and character traits used to create a context and allow readers to suspend disbelief and “go along for the ride.” Finally, I seek to uncover how authors reach into their “toolbox” of skills and techniques to offer compelling and realistically shaped stories and relatable characters. All three readings are often simultaneous. However, as with a great motion picture, multiple encounters with the author’s mind are needed to understand all the fillips employed to make a seamless narrative.
When I re-read Pride and Prejudice about ten years ago—having spent an eternity buried in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin saga and my annual fixes of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels—I found the story (first read) to be thoroughly enjoyable with two compelling protagonists engaged in a timeless love story. Then I began to dissect character and plot devices. Each seemed nuanced to deliver just enough to slide the narrative along.
Were they indeed that simple? Or were they crafted with ‘elegantly simple complexity?’ I opted for the latter. To my eye, for instance, Mr. Collins over-the-top toadying established his specific personality, played off Elizabeth’s, amplified Lady Catherine’s, and offered a general commentary about the un-reformed Church of England, still wrestling with the Great Awakening and the Wesleys’ dissent. Collins’ existence also served to aggravate Mrs. Bennet and provide proof, early on, that Elizabeth was not mercenary and would not simply ‘settle’ as did the pragmatic Charlotte. That is an immense amount of work (and I know there is more) undertaken by one of the ‘B List’ characters.
And, dear friends, that is where my personality began to grumble.
Honestly, I do understand that Miss Austen put her characters to work in service of the overarching love story. Throughout the pages of the majestic novel, Mary glowered, Kitty coughed, Lydia flirted, Mr. Bennet withdrew, and Mrs. Bennet fluttered. In P&P, these traits were necessary to create a contextual world in which Elizabeth lived and to which Darcy reacted.
However, during my third reading, I began to think as I watched Miss Austen masterfully deploy her soldiers in the service of her story. I pondered the Why of those characters. What circumstances led them to grow the way they did to become the exact persons they were when they appeared in the pages of Pride and Prejudice?
Of course, the answer was simple; Austen did not need them to be anything more than they appeared on the page.
However, I, as a reader, needed more.
And, I kid you not, that was the beginning of the Bennet Wardrobe series.
As InspiredByAusten readers and authors have all averred, we read and write Austenesque stories because Austen’s original six were insufficient. However, the quest to understand the Why-ness of Mary, Kitty, Lydia, and, eventually, the elder Bennets led me to postulate about what specifically shaped each. This search, by necessity, became the backbone of the series.
In The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament—inserted into the series as the sixth volume to explore the father’s development from the two-dimensional indolent man he is in P&P—I also tackled Mrs. Bennet’s potential backstory. I firmly believe that, as Austen led us to believe, the Mr. Bennet we see in Canon did not become that way without the dark power of Mrs. Bennet’s effusions.
What shaped Mrs. Bennet? Austen would have us believe that it was her frustration and desperation at failing to birth a son. I accept that. However, Austen leaves us with the impression that ’tis Mrs. Bennet’s fear of her own poverty that leads her to try to ally her daughters with wealthy men so that she will have a place more agreeable than a small house in the back of Meryton’s High Street.
Rosa chinensis: Mrs. Bennet’s rose in the Wardrobe
Looking at her, I was struck by another, albeit always off-stage, mother in Austen’s original: Lady Anne Darcy. As many Austenesque authors supposed, the ten-year gap between the births of Fitzwilliam and Georgiana had seen at least one, possibly several, miscarriages. These were devasting unto death for that good lady who expired from utter weakness immediately upon her daughter’s birth or within a few months/years. The losses had ruined her health.
Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, regularly delivered girl babies from 1789 through 1796 (based upon my assumption that P&P was set in 1810-11). Might it not be a logical assumption that she did increase a sixth time in 1800? We know there were only five children. Thus, Mrs. Bennet’s last pregnancy was terminated.
How would that have influenced the family?
In The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque (Volume Three), we discover how the event traumatized a six-year-old Kitty who came across her Mama in the immediate aftermath of her misfortune. In The Avenger, we examine how Thomas Bennet and Fanny Bennet recognize just how pivotal the miscarriage was in their lives. Both endured their grief in their own way: Mrs. Bennet became increasingly fearful for her daughters’ futures, and Mr. Bennet emotionally withdrew from his wife to not force her into another dangerous pregnancy. We assume that he could not tolerate her nerves and matrimonial machinations. I found a different why as I examined the entire portrait presented by Austen.
Mr. Bennet loved his wife! #Austenesque authors frequently suggest that Bennet was infatuated with a beautiful woman in 1787—that he did not truly love her inner being but rather her appearance as she held onto his arm. If Bennet did not love her—that portrait which inspired Elizabeth to vow only to wed for the deepest love—then authors must use some distinctly gothic tropes when contemplating the early days of the Bennet parents’ relationship. The most popular are either that young and flighty Miss Gardiner compromised the older and more staid Bennet or crafty enough to disguise her nature.
The first projects the socially reclusive Bennet backward to explain that she had used her arts and allurements to entice him into the parson’s snare. The second confers upon Mrs. Bennet a level of insight belied by every reference to her “mean intelligence” made in hundreds if not thousands of stories.
That, in my opinion, sells Thomas Bennet short. He was a man of great intellectual curiosity. Must Longbourn’s young master become the living example of love making fools of us all? I find it difficult to accept that he thought with nothing but his wedding tackle. Then again, to be believable, Frances Gardiner must have been grasping and conniving at a young age. That, too, paints Jane and Elizabeth’s mother, the woman who may embarrass them but is loved by them just the same, in an awful light.
How could they have grown up in that household and remained unaffected? Oh, wait, they often visited Aunt Gardiner, another pretzel-twisting plot explanation.
Occam’s Razor, people. That, though, is grist for another blog.
Okay: I did create an entire universe to explain things, but I offer that I believe that, as with many married couples, ardor fades over time. Yes, successive female children in an entailed household pressured Mrs. Bennet’s psyche. However, Longbourn’s mistress lost her husband’s support as both grieved a child’s loss.
The two great Loves which I identified as driving the Wardrobe’s Universe—Exagoras Agapis…the love which pushes us to become the best versions of ourselves…and Synchotikí agape…the love which forgives—can be seen as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet try to rediscover themselves and their love for one another.
We are now six weeks into the launch of my Pride and Prejudice/Persuasion crossover novel (115,000 words). The response has been gratifhying.
From an author’s perspective, I thoroughly enjoyed building a context in which the two pairs of lovers would logically meet, share an adventure, and find a thoroughly satisfying resolution. The novel length allowed a deeper exploration of the character and couple dynamics.
Senarios will be unfamiliar to regular readers of Austenesque fiction, for instance, the naval battle–a staple of Napoleonic literature–and the confrontation over cards in the Bagatelle, something examined in great films like The Cincinnati Kid (1965). In the end, the villains receive their just desserts and our couples enjoy their HEN (Happily Ever Now).
A 5-Star review (4/28/23) from Amazon by Rabbit: So angst-filled. Such a hard look at life during the Napoleonic war times. Such a hard-left-turn from the usual Austen mimicry. Hand wringing and heart wrenching reading – for sure. Be brave and read. This book is a journey of a community of love.
The book is available in Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, paperback, and Audible (performed by Benjamin Fife). Here is a sample of his work.
Please use this link for the book’s sell site on Amazon:
Books mentionned in today’s blog.
How to Read a Book (Mortimer Adler) https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Touchstone-ebook/dp/B004PYDAPE
The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque (Volume Three of the Bennet Wardrobe) https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09BYRZSP5
Five Star Review, 4/4/22, from Lifegiggles on Amazon: “I feel so sad for Kitty. Oh my, what she goes through. Don has really created a wonderful series. Must read!”
The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament (Volume Six of the Bennet Wardrobe) https://www.amazon.com/Avenger-Fathers-Prejudice-Variation-Wardrobe-ebook/dp/B09M3YNRRP
Five Star Review, 11/24/21, from Wendy Luther on Amazon: “If you love this collection as I have, it was wonderful the transition of Thomas and Frances Bennet the wardrobe continues to intrigue us, and we continue to learn what it is about and its powers. BRAVO !!!!!!”
This excerpt from The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament is © 2018 by Donald P. Jacobson. Reproduction without the written consent of the author is strictly prohibited.
Mrs. Bennet was not finished with him. “Through your truths and confessions, you have proven that you are my partner and are also, at long last, ready to hear me speak of my sorrow.
“Attend me now so that I may never have to repeat this, rather, putting it behind me as a past that brings me no pleasure.
“Tom, you have rightly seen me as an astonishingly flighty creature. You could have judged me irredeemable, so distracted I was after my misfortune. My outcries must have grated upon your most sensible soul. They surely must have impressed all who could hear with the unshakable belief that I was thoroughly self-absorbed.
“Yet, contrary to that, and perhaps this makes my behavior even worse, I was not unaware of how I sounded. On the contrary, I actively sought refuge in my nerves. I allowed them to become louder and even more strident as time went on.
“You see, I was ashamed of what had happened because I had lost you your heir through my failure to carry our babe to term. I took the guilt upon my shoulders, for is it not the woman’s fault that her body betrays her by ending the pregnancy prematurely?
“Because of that, I thought that I had no true cause to repine. You were the man who had lost his posterity with no boy Bennet to inherit Longbourn, to carry on your name. ’Twas my fault.”
Bennet made to demur, but his wife would have none of it.
“No, your manner after that day told me all I needed to know. How else could I explain your indifference toward me? From the moment the blood puddled around my feet, you drew away and hid yourself behind cryptic cynical remarks, your newspapers, and books. You never visited my chambers.
“You are so much more intelligent than I, Tom, and I trusted your judgment. If you believed me guilty, then I must have been!”
Bennet could bear no more of her self-recriminations. He pulled her close to his chest, muffling any more protestations that would have sullied the innocent lips of the only woman he had ever loved.
His tears wet her locks. “No, Fanny, no. NO! ’Twas not you. Never you.
“I was the fool who turned his back…putting himself first rather than seeing to your care. I left you to Mrs. Hill and your friends, arguing to myself that a woman would respond best to the efforts of other females, not the bumbling man who put her in the situation in the first place. And, I may have been correct in some manner.
“But, to abandon you entirely, to deny you your life partner, was unconscionable.
“I put you through years of agony, something no person should ever be condemned to by the one she trusts most.
“I am ashamed that I was the instrument of your pain.
“I may not merit it, Frances Lorinda, but will you ever be able to find space in your heart for one so undeserving? Will you ever forgive me?”
Bennet felt two tiny fists pushing against his chest. He realized that he had been clutching his wife as a castaway would a floating timber tossed upon the wine dark sea. His arms swiftly dropped away, freeing Fanny.[i]
Mrs. Bennet leaned away and tilted her head up, her widened eyes regarding his more somber ones. She realized that there was but one thing she could say that would relieve his suffering and clear their path forward. “Mr. Bennet: you, as do all men, take too much upon yourself. While ’tis true that you pulled away, I, too, could have changed my conduct.
“Rather, I wallowed in my despair, wearing my misfortune like a badge of honor making me supreme amongst all daughters of Eve. While I could not garner your favor by continually returning to our loss, I could play upon the knowledge of many ladies and the fears of all the women in my circle. That went on for years and years until it became second nature, and the original me vanished.
“You are an academic and a brilliant debater—no, do not protest, my love, for you are. In that spirit, consider this little thought experiment.
“How might you have acted if, say in ’03 or ’04, well before your hide had become thickened to my outbursts and, thus, left you immune to me, I had used my arts and allurements upon you? Would you not have likely responded much as you did when I first poured tea for you back in ’89?”
Bennet started at her words, staring at her, and then, with eyes gone slightly soft and dreamy as he imagined that which he would have done, broke into a wistful smile. His wife nodded in her victory. “You silly man. As in all marriages around the globe, we both bear our share of blame. Since ’tis clear that we women who marry for love often have their men at Hello, I was atop the box of our shared carriage. I could have brought you to my side at any time if I had only set aside my guilt and acted the wife to your husband.[ii]
“Instead, I chose to be selfish—to content myself with the thin gruel of chinwag sympathies rather than the hearty stew of a lover’s embrace.”
Her fervent assertion stirred Bennet to decisive action. He cupped her cheek and lowered his lips to hers. Two pairs of eyes drifted shut as heartbeats quickened in a sympathetic synchronicity. Time, already fluctuating in its invisible waves along this centuries-old trail, settled in its rush toward entropy as twin embers sparked brighter and created inevitable eddies.
Mrs. Bennet broke away first with an audible huff. “You, Tom Bennet, are an original! You virtually ignore me for years and then, at the first sign of my desire to be your wife once again, you break loose with bonfires and illuminations bright enough for Fireworks Night! It is simply not to be borne!”[iii]
Bennet tried to assay the blushing look of a gangling boy caught out by his sisters as he tried to sneak a look at the milkmaids bathing after their day’s labors. He failed miserably, ending up delivering something between stunned innocence and the knowledgeable gaze of the fifty-four-year-old that he was.
At his wife’s ‘I am trying to say something here’ glower, he regulated himself as best he could and signaled her to continue.
Fanny composed herself, fanning her flushed cheeks. “You need to understand that I mourn not only our babe’s physical presence—oh yes, I am sorely grieved by his never-life—but I mourn the loss of his possibilities. True, he would have been our salvation against Collins. He could have protected his sisters, our daughters. He would have raised us from the despair of your loss.
“Yet, a life unlived means so much more.
“Beyond the very real reasons, ones with which I have made you too familiar over all these years, I am laid low every time I try to imagine how he might have acted in this situation…or that. What would he have said as he watched Bingley and Darcy court Jane and Lizzy?
“Would our son have tried to be the young pup, all of eleven, and sought to engage those two in some sort of defense of his sisters? Would he have insisted on standing at your shoulder as Bingley fumbled through his request for Jane’s hand? How would he have interacted with Mr. Darcy? Would he have been convinced that this man of ten thousand a year thought he could purchase our Lizzy?
“Somehow, I think I know what he would have said to Wickham. I thank the good Lord that even that dissolute rake would have only spanked the boy with the flat of his sword and sent him on his way.”
Mrs. Bennet gathered herself for her final assault on the heights of Kitty’s story. In a voice fraught with emotion, she bored in. “And now you tell me my darling girl is gone? All I can do is cry—again for her lost possibilities, at least those lost to my knowledge.
“I never saw her grow into what was one of the most remarkable forces standing astride her age.
“I never met her beloved Viscount Henry nor watched her as she emerged into the Countess of Matlock, a worthy successor to Mr. Darcy’s Aunt Eleanor.
“I never saw her wed in what had to be the society event of the season.
“All my memories of Kitty end with me scolding her for her being a coughing, unschooled girl of seventeen.
“You, however, imperfectly and briefly, knew her both as a child and as an older woman. You can mourn her lived life.
“I have nothing but rapidly fading images of her china-blue eyes beneath that blonde fringe.
“You must be her biographer.
“And now you must tell me the end of her story.”
[i] The “wine-dark sea” is a traditional English translation of οἶνοψ πόντος (oinops pontos), an epithet in Homer of uncertain meaning. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wine_dark_sea_(Homer)
[ii] An inversion of the original. In my opinion, this was the best single line in the movie Jerry Maguire (1996) when Renee Zellweger allowed Tom Cruise back into her life.
[iii] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776 (p. 3) in which he suggests the way succeeding generations will celebrate the Declaration of Independence. https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760703jasecond
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