Writing JAFF involves a great deal of ‘what-if’ in rebuilding our beloved Austen stories. There are some familiar what-ifs that are tried and true – what if the Netherfield Ball had gone differently, or the Hunsford proposal? What if the supporting cast shone a little brighter, what if the villains were more villainous? For me, the what-iffing phase can be a wonderful rabbit hole to dive down, and my favorite direction of speculation has always led me to wonder what possibilities may arise should the characters of one Austen tale interact with the cast of another. My Friends & Relations series speculates on a world filled with characters from across Austen all crossing paths, their lives weaving together over the course of the series. Since then I have done two purely P&P variations, but inevitably my mind drifts back to Austen’s other novels….
My new release, Outmatched, deviates from the world of Pride & Prejudice completely, instead leading the characters of Mansfield Park into the world of Sense & Sensibility. The base idea was a blackmail scheme that would draw all the characters together, but once I had them all converge at Norland, I had to decide what to do with them. A few obvious friendships emerged – Marianne Dashwood and Mary Crawford are both musical, Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price both earnest and kind. And what a veritable feast for Mrs. Jennings’ matrimonial speculations!
I did have some pause at what couples might emerge. The two resident rakes, Willoughby and Crawford, both attempt some measure of redemption, whose success only the reader can judge. The matrons and mammas have schemes of their own. As to Fanny Price, whom I have underestimated as much as any of the Bertrams, well – the better I understand her, the more I believe no one is quite good enough for her, least of all the cousin who made no secret of her being his second choice. Edmund himself is changed by the circumstances that bring him to Norland, making him uniquely perfect for – well… somebody 😉
Today’s excerpt features the pairing I am most proud of from Outmatched. Like Fanny Price, I have always felt Colonel Brandon deserved to be more than somone’s second choice consolation prize. As to Mary Crawford, I adore her equally as a villainess or a heroine, and in Outmatched she shifts from the former to the latter as her external circumstances spiral out of her control. Mary and Brandon have a moment of instant attraction, and their relationship progresses when they begin to confide in one another, as in the excerpt below….
As was her habit, Mary sought out where her brother was in the room. Henry was seated beside Lady Bertram, who was speaking with dear Mrs. Jennings; he was not attending their conversation at all, but appeared to be having a silent one from across the room with Maria. The two of them had, by all appearances, had a falling out, though Henry had been unusually reticent about it – but now he and Maria were brazenly communicating by looks, gestures, and words mouthed but not spoken aloud.
Mary scarcely knew what to think. She had been wary of Henry pursuing an engaged woman at Mansfield, even urging him to spend some time at Everingham when Sir Thomas returned from Antigua. She had felt a tremendous joy for Henry when Maria’s engagement was broken, though she rather doubted his constancy – perhaps this was why he had confided no further, for she seemed now to be rather correct. As much as Mary genuinely liked Maria, when Henry turned his attentions to Fanny Price, Mary did her best. Fanny was sweet and interesting in her own way, and though Mary might have preferred Maria as a sister, she was resolved to be supportive of Henry’s choice. She wondered now if he had made one at all – what could he be about?
Ere long, Colonel Brandon returned, his countenance stony. And yet, there was something in his eyes, she detected – something only for her. He came to her side directly, sitting very close. “Forgive me my abrupt departure. I had some urgent news – would that John Dashwood had recalled it sooner, for it is too late tonight – but I must go again tomorrow.”
Mary nodded ruefully. “I expected you to say so.”
He smiled sadly. “I hope you understand. I will come back again when I am able – or if you are gone from Norland, I might call on you and your brother in London.”
Mary sighed, glancing in Henry’s direction again. He perceived her this time, and pasted a smile on his face before crossing the room to speak with Fanny Price. Mr. Rushworth hastily moved away to speak with Maria, who never took her eyes off Henry. Really, what is going on? “I hardly know what Henry is about,” she sighed.
Mary had not realized she had spoken aloud, and brought her fingers to her lips in embarrassment. “Oh – I am sorry – I only meant – to be honest, I rather worry for him. Perhaps he ought to go back to Everingham again.”
He furrowed his brow. “Has he given you any particular reason to worry?”
“A little, perhaps.” Mary sighed again, and moved a little closer to him. Her voice low, she basked in the relief of confiding in him. “Maria Bertram was betrothed to Mr. Rushworth when we met the family at Mansfield last summer. We all had hoped that Henry might form an attachment with Julia, the younger sister, but he preferred Maria, and in time the preference became markedly mutual, though poor Rushworth had not the wit to see it. When her father returned from Antigua last month, the engagement was broken – and I am sure I have given my brother some offense by suggesting the attraction for him lay in the challenge of it – that with the obstacle removed, he may turn fickle. And yet I am sure he has, for since Fanny has come out, he has been so attentive, almost exaggeratedly so. But there is something still passing between him and Maria, I am sure of it. I only hope it will not come to some folly – that he will not bring some scandal on us. Our uncle, the admiral, is rather like that – that is, we were obliged to leave his house when he brought his mistress into it – and I have often begged Henry to take heed, and not follow such a poor example. And now I can only be cross with myself for muddying the waters, for I daresay he will not speak to me of it any further. But I am sure you have great cares of your own – this can be nothing to you.”
“On the contrary,” the colonel said gently. “I am very sorry to see you upset, though it speaks well to your character that you have a care for your brother and your reputation alike. Indeed, I must own to come little curiosity myself – I had noticed on my last visit….”
Colonel Brandon scowled for a moment as he looked about the crowded drawing room. “Perhaps we might return to your instrument? I am sure you could play some idle tune while I speak to you.”
“Yes, of course.” Mary took his arm as he led her to the music room, eager to hear his opinion of the matter.
Once they had seated themselves, and Mary began to strum, the colonel cleared his throat. “I believe your brother had begun to pay some attentions to Miss Price when last I was at Norland. I could not help but notice her surprise and discomfort, as well as Miss Bertram’s apparent resentment and hostility. But since I have been here today, I have noticed something more. Miss Bertram’s behavior varies from one occasion to the next, but I believe it has something to do with her father. He had dozed off when I quit the room before – he has even this moment woken up, and now Maria is laughing with Rushworth there, where before she looked very cross.”
“Oh!” Mary reminded herself to continue to strum at her harp, but she watched Maria and Henry with interest. Henry was imploring Marianne to play at the pianoforte, that they might dance, and Maria had leaned in to whisper to Mr. Rushworth in apparent approbation.
“I suppose that would make sense – Sir Thomas must have denied Henry his consent! He must wish Maria to have Rushworth – he is quite three times wealthier than poor Henry – and now Henry has turned to Fanny to forget Maria. But how tragic!” Mary plucked at the chords of her instrument with a sudden anger swelling in her breast – would that Sir Thomas had remained abroad!
Colonel Brandon’s look grew very severe – Mary really did fancy such a brooding attitude, and yet now it made her uneasy. “It is,” he agreed. “I know it all too well.”
But of course he must have a tragic history! It was written in all his morose and mysterious looks, and Mary was fascinated. “Oh?”
He gave a weak smile, and looked away. “Yes. Might I – that is, there may be some parallels, by way of fathers forcing their daughters – might I speak to you of it?”
Mary could see that he was feeling a great and intense agitation, and it touched her heart that he should return her confidence with one of his own. “Of course I will hear you.” She left off from her harp when Marianne was at last prevailed upon to provide some music; the other young people began to dance together, and Mary drew closer to the colonel once more amidst so much distraction.
He did not look at her as he began to speak, but by subtle measures caught the tips of her fingers in his. “My first love was one of my nearest relations, an orphan from her infancy, and under the guardianship of my father. Our ages were nearly the same, and from our earliest years we were playfellows and friends. I cannot remember the time when I did not love Eliza. At seventeen she was lost to me forever; she was married against her inclination to my brother. Her fortune was large, and our family estate much encumbered. My brother did not deserve her; he did not even love her. We were within a few hours of eloping together for Scotland, but my cousin’s maid betrayed us. I was banished to the house of a relation far distant, and she was allowed no liberty, no society, no amusement, until my father’s point was gained. She resigned herself at first to all the misery of her situation, and I was with my regiment in the East Indies. The shock which her marriage had given me was of trifling weight – was nothing to what I felt when I heard, about two years afterwards, of her divorce – even now the recollection of what I suffered….”
He could say no more, and for a moment he only listened to the pianoforte. Mary was so affected by his sad story, and still more by his distress, that she could not speak. He saw her concern, and leaning toward her, took her hand, pressed it, and kissed it. A few minutes more of silent contemplation enabled him to proceed with composure.
“It was nearly three years after this unhappy period before I returned to England. My first care, when I did arrive, was of course to seek for her; but the search was as fruitless as it was melancholy. I could not trace her beyond her first seducer, and there was every reason to fear that she had removed from him only to sink deeper in a life of sin. At last, after I had been six months in England, I did find her. Regard for a former servant of my own, who had since fallen into misfortune, carried me to visit him in a spunging-house, where he was confined for debt; and there, in the same house, under a similar confinement, was my unfortunate Eliza. So altered – so faded – worn down by acute suffering of every kind! I could hardly believe the melancholy and sickly figure before me to be the remains of the lovely, blooming girl on whom I had once doted. What I endured in so beholding her – she was in the last stage of a consumption. I saw her placed in comfortable lodgings, and under proper attendants; I visited her every day during the rest of her short life. I was with her in her last moments.”
Again he stopped to recover himself; and Mary spoke her feelings in an exclamation of tender concern at the fate of his unfortunate friend. “That is tragic, indeed,” she breathed, heartily sorry at lately thinking to romanticize his brooding ways. It also occurred to her that by way of a cautionary tale, it was utterly terrifying – if such an evil were to come of Sir Thomas’ attempt to separate Maria and Henry… Mary shuddered.
“I hope I do not add to your troubles by confiding this, Mary,” he whispered, his hair sweeping into his eyes in a look of deep distress. “A subject such as this, untouched for fourteen years – it is dangerous to handle it at all.”
“You do well to warn me of what might befall a young lady separated from one she loves – I do have such a care for my friend Maria, and Henry – but I think there must be more,” Mary said; every moment fearful that they would be interrupted, she urged him to go on.
“Eliza left to my care her only child, a little girl – the offspring of her first guilty connection, who was then about three years old. It was a precious trust to me, but I had no family, no home, and my little Eliza was therefore placed at school. I saw her there whenever I could, and after the death of my brother, which left to me the possession of the family property, she visited me at Delaford. Three years ago, I removed her from school to place her under the care of a very respectable woman who had the charge of four or five other girls of about the same time of life, and for two years I had every reason to be pleased with her situation. But last summer, she suddenly disappeared. Her caretaker and companions alike would tell me little, wishing more to absolve themselves of any guilt in her disappearance, than to provide any useful information. In short, I could learn nothing but that she was gone; all the rest, for nearly five long months, was left to conjecture. What I thought, what I feared, may be imagined. It was only last month that some new information came into my hands – a friend Eliza had previously visited in this area wrote that Eliza had been to see her again, but when I arrived to recover her, she had vanished once more. I have remained in the county a fortnight now, searching daily for her, hoping somebody might have seen her, that I might uncover some clue – what little I have discovered only raises more questions, more fears….”
“Good God – and this is your business in Sussex!” Mary’s heart ached for him – and how selfish she had been to lament his going away! “I wonder you can keep your composure at all. I am sure I should be run mad.”
“It has been difficult, at times, but I have learned from my military days some degree of self-possession. Indeed, I have never confided in anybody so fully before.”
Poor, stoic man! Mary longed to offer him an embrace, for all that he had bravely suffered. The music behind them had ceased, and the dancers all stood about the room – Marianne was arguing against all their entreaties to play again – Rushworth citing he should wish an exchange of partners – his mother pressing another lady to play so that Marianne might dance – Marianne insisting she would do neither – amidst the chaos, Mary longed to escape before she was remembered and similarly entreated.
By some unspoken mutual agreement, she and the colonel had only to exchange a look, and they were on their feet in unison, eager to quit the room by a less noticeable exit. Mary stepped out into the dimly lit corridor, cherishing the tender hope that she may experience some reprise of their previous encounter. She took his hand, her fingers entwining with his; after such a conversation as they had shared, it seemed an easy, natural gesture, as did his arms brushing against her shoulders as they walked.
“The letter you received – I hope you have had some news of Eliza.”
“I have,” he said gravely. “It was not from the most reliable source, but an acquaintance wrote to me this afternoon – though John Dashwood might have done me considerable aid by recollecting it upon my arrival – well.” He let out a sharp exhale and shook his head. “At any rate, this fellow reports that Eliza was seen just last night in Devonshire, but was gone by morning. Had I known sooner, I might have been meeting with him even now, but by morning once I have heard his information, she might have gone anywhere!”
“Oh, Daniel.” Mary stopped and laid her head against his chest, her free hand clasping his shoulder. “You poor man. I know you would have ridden through the night to find her if you could! But I will not give up hoping for your success – you will find her.”
He let out a shaky exhale and wrapped his arms about her. “Oh, Mary.” His voice trembled, and he laid his head atop hers as they embraced. “You are too good – I cannot say what a wreck I should be at present without such a kind and generous friend.” He placed a gentle kiss atop her head as he drew away from her. “Indeed, I ought not to have suggested that I should desire to be elsewhere, when I came back only to see you – I had to see you again.”
“But of course you must wish to be elsewhere – I can hardly blame you for it! I am only happy that I can give you some succor – how petty my own problems must seem! But I have come to enjoy our conversations so much – I really quite rely on them.”
He kissed her hand again, and they resumed their walk upstairs and into the guest wing. “Do not trivialize your own concerns on my account – you are right to worry for your brother – should he experience one tenth of what I have, I should be heartily sorry for him. But I might speak with Sir Thomas about it – I might acquaint him with some warning of what might befall a lady forced against her wishes into an unhappy marriage.”
Mary felt a thrill of emotion – sympathy and gratitude and perhaps the first stirrings of love – such things as she had only ever imagined feeling for a man before. Unable to restrain herself, she threw her arms about his neck at once, and kissed him full on the mouth.