I realize that some readers may find The Bennet Wardrobe series to be too far away from the centerline (ODC) of traditional JAFF stories. I do love “Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam” tales and plan to write many once The Bennet Wardrobe is complete. But for now…
In 2014, well before I ever considered writing fiction (I had been earning my “keep” for 40 years as a copy and scriptwriter), a vale through which I was passing set my “what if” brownies to work. What if the other characters in Pride and Prejudice were as three-dimensional as Elizabeth and Darcy?
Perhaps it was one of the Caroline Variations I was reading at the time that inspired me to wonder if she had always been a grasping shrew, sneered at by all, lessers and betters alike. Honestly, I understood why Austen cast Caroline as she did (much as she did Lady C and Collins). She needed a literary device off which she could play Lizzy’s grounded self and Jane’s genial nature. A deeper development of Caroline Bingley was not required.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women resonated with me when I considered Caroline’s situation:
“Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence, that I do not mean to add a paradox when I assert that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannise, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantile airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire.” Wollstonecraft, Introduction (1792)
Reading Wollstonecraft’s words leaves us astonished at just how accurate Austen’s portrayal of an “accomplished woman” was. Could Caroline ever find redemption?
An excerpt from Volume 1 of the Bennet Wardrobe, The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey, offers a thought.
“…Your Excellency and Mrs. Adams, may I present Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, Mr. and Mrs. Bingley, Miss Bingley and Miss Bennet?”
Mrs. Adams brightened and reached out to Caroline. “Oh, Miss Bingley—you are Miss Bingley now, I assume because your sister has married—it has been far too many years since I saw you last. Addie will be thrilled to know that we met you. How are you doing, dear?”
Caroline visibly came to life at Mrs. Adams’ greeting. This was an unspoiled part of her life, laid down before Darcy ever came into her ken, before the considerations of the ton and its artificial expectations and snobbery had taken advantage of her sense of inferiority. With the Johnsons, Caroline did not have to fight to fit in. When she smiled back at Louisa Adams, years were stripped away from her face. She chatted briefly with her old friend.” The Keeper, Ch. XXXIII
Back to 2014. My first JAFF writing happened late one night in a motel room in Connecticut where I was staying with my family after a visit to my failing mother. The sheets of hotel scratch pad are carefully folded away. This fragment was a letter from Caroline Bingley to Jane apologizing for her behavior and thanking her sister-in-law for putting up with her for the past several years. Caroline had decided to change her life and leave Regency Britain to make a fresh start in the United States. As such, she was presuming upon her friendship with Louisa Johnson Adams, another daughter of trade, to accompany her as the couple returned to Washington City where Mr. Adams was to become Secretary of State in 1817.
Change—the heart of Pride and Prejudice—was what Lizzy and Darcy experienced in full over the course of the masterpiece. The letter from Caroline, thrown up by my subconscious at a difficult time, lit the way to the idea that all of the sisters (and Thomas) were actually heroes in waiting. Ms Austen just did not have the literary reason to create an epilogue to P&P that would tell their stories.
Thus, many characters, in my view, could be afforded the opportunity to change and grow in the time of the Wardrobe after the Canonical weddings.
I dealt with Mary’s transformation in late 1811 in Volume 1 of The Bennet Wardrobe Series: The Keeper. Kitty’s story is told in The Exile. Thomas will stand for his family in The Avenger while Lydia will wander the dusty paths of Northwestern France in The Pilgrim.
The Bennet Wardrobe is an alternative tale in the Jane Austen Universe. While the characters are familiar, I have endeavored to provide each of them with an opportunity to grow into more natural personalities, although not necessarily in the Regency. If they were shaped or stifled by the conventions of the period, the time-traveling powers of The Wardrobe helped solve their problems, make penance, and learn lessons once they had overcome the inner demons by giving them a chance to escape that time frame, if only for a brief, life-changing interlude.
Would it have been possible for them to do so staying on the Regency timeline?
Perhaps. However, something tickled my brain—maybe it was my youthful fascination with science fiction meeting my adult love for the Canon—that threw the idea of the Wardrobe up in front of me. Now my protagonists could be immersed in different time-frames beyond the Regency to learn that which they needed to learn in order to realize their potentials and in the process carry the eternal story of love and change forward to even the 21st Century.
The Wardrobe Series is currently projected as six books to realize the grand arc of the Wardrobe’s Plan.
One of the other works that fits into the Bennet Wardrobe Universe is that roughly sketched (at this moment) book taking Caroline from 1816 through 1836. That aforementioned letter serves as the opening. I have never memorialized that handwritten missive until this moment. But, I imagine this will be the Prologue of The Education of Caroline Bingley.
A Letter Found on the Mantel, April 1817
My dear Mrs. Bingley;
I fear that I must address you so formally in spite of the fact that you became my sister that day now nearly five years past when you married my beloved brother, Charles. I truly do not have the right, I believe, to address you as ‘sister’ due to the intentional harm which I inflicted upon you, a woman who bears no person ill-will and treats none with malice. That I delayed your happiest of days will be to my eternal regret.
As I was too blinded by years of frustration in pursuit of security and position—apprehensive as I was of the manner through which my worthy father earned his fortune—I failed to recognize that you and Charles shared that rarest of all treasures, a love born from true affection. Rather than allow my brother and you to live within that state so joyously described by the great King Solomon, I used deceit to condemn both of you to a time of sorrow and pain.
Certainly, and this is not written to justify any of my offenses, all that I did was driven by the circumstances in which women of our class must live. Without property, without rights, without position, and without prospects of maintaining or improving our lot, we must affiliate ourselves with men for all of that. I was molded to this purpose once I had matured enough to understand the nature of our world.
Over the past years of isolation, I have despaired at the manner in which the clay of my soul has been shaped by these forces. I fear that I have waited far too long to address these deficiencies—as I now know them to be—in my character. In the end, property, rights, position, and prospects mean nothing without love.
You and your sister, Elizabeth, were not so bent by these forces. Perhaps your upbringing in bucolic Hertfordshire by Mrs. Bennet was not so deficient after all. For you, the bright lights of the ton held no great allure. Rather, the light in your husbands’ eyes illuminates your existence. That glow is nothing less than the deepest love.
Would that my eyes could perceive such happiness in another’s visage!
So, Mrs. Bingley, Jane, Sister, this note is one of many layers.
First, I beg your forgiveness, but I also wish you to understand that I intend to earn that solicitude that I so crave. I will change that which has defined my existence these years past.
That leads to my second point.
I have resolved to leave England, to travel to a new land to seek that atonement. Perchance I will discover that love which has so blessed you and so escaped me. My brother’s interests are found far and wide, so I will be able to seek comfort, if needed, in the arms of family.
However, while it may strike you as unseemly for an unmarried woman of my age to leave all with which she is familiar behind, this is the only way I can discern to become the woman worthy of the approbation of you and my brother as well as your sister and her husband.
I will return when I am able to once again look in a mirror and smile back at that face which is now so distasteful to all.
With deepest regards for you and your good health,
Art Credit: Looking out to Sea (1873) by Ernst Ange Duez (1843-1896)