Many of you have noted my movement from the term JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) to Austenesque fiction. Much of that evolution rose from my search for my authentic voice as an author. I frequently felt that I was engaged in some sort of tribute band mentality which limited my creative efforts as a writer. Hence my launching of the term #Austenesque fiction around two years ago. I felt that I—and other authors—could use elements of Jane Austen’s books in their efforts without being constrained by the fear of opprobrium at their deviations from Canon.
More recently, especially as I was involved in the writing of my next book, In Plain Sight, I have come to understand that I have been exercising my creative juices in pursuit of historical fiction. While I have previously suggested that Austen may be used for historical research, I did put strict limits upon employing her books as resources that explore the full terrain of Regency history. She offers us a narrow view of the bucolic life of the middle gentry. There is so much more to the story of those times that Jane Austen does not relate, mostly, I am convinced because her readers were not particularly interested in contemplating the broader social questions of the times. They left it to William Wilberforce to decry slavery, Charles Fox and Henry Hunt to assail the hidebound suffrage system, and Mary Wollstonecraft to take the part of women.
Over my history as a writer of #Austenesque fiction, I have been fascinated with less distinguished characters in the Austen panoply: lesser characters, soldiers, and servants—folks who moved through the Canonical stories more as props than as plot catalysts. As a result, many of my stories, while grounded in the interaction of the lead characters with the plot, feature much more meaty roles for the three younger Bennet sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and servants like Mrs. Hill and the Longbourn cook. I fully believe that strong literature builds upon foundation stones made up of secondary characters who reflect not only specific traits but also the society from which they grew. Consider what is arguably the greatest Twentieth Century novel, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. While Clarissa Dalloway is the eponymous reason for the book, Woolf’s sketch of a single day in a post-World War I woman’s life depends upon two other major characters and over a dozen minor ones.
Ignoring minor character development (I have frequently joked that servants appear in Austen only to lug tea trays, fetch smelling salts, and open doors. Well, not quite…I commend the two footmen in Emma’s home for a delicious performance in the 2020 film.) strikes me as unilateral disarmament on an author’s part.
In Austenesque fiction, I consider the constellation of characters through which the protagonists and antagonists move to offer significant texture and context that help the leads become understandable to the audience. Consider this brief excerpt from an early chapter in Volume 1 of the Bennet Wardrobe, The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey. These are the opening lines of Chapter 11, the day after the double wedding.
Mary quickly exited the library and grabbed her heaviest wrap. Shrugging it on, she turned toward the kitchen. She surprised Mrs. Hill and Cook who were settled over a cup of their morning coffee, a beverage for which Mary had little desire. Chocolate was her pleasure, rich, dark, and frothy, but a little less sweet than preferred by her mother, Jane, and Kitty. Lizzy was the other coffee drinker besides Papa.
Both older women regarded Mary with interest, as she was rarely the first Bennet daughter to appear for breakfast, let alone beat the serving dishes to the sideboard in the dining room.
Mrs. Hill greeted her cheerfully, “Why, Miss Mary, good morning to you. If we had not seen her off yesterday, I could have sworn it was your older sister Miss Eliz…Mrs. Darcy coming to test our morning rolls before she took her walk.”
Of all those living at Longbourn, Mrs. Hill had been the one who had paid attention to first the girl and then the young woman, Mary. Mama cared little for her once it became clear that she would never come close to Jane’s stunning beauty or even Lizzy’s more exotic looks.
While we do not see any of Mary’s lines in this excerpt, her interaction with Mrs. Hill and Cook reveals much about the third daughter’s inner woman. We are also treated to a new appreciation of Mrs. Hill’s personality. Longbourn’s Housekeeper has long been painted as the sorely tested and sometimes abused foil of Mrs. Bennet’s famous nerves. Now she is humanized and becomes a subtle explanation for why Miss Mary Bennet developed into a better person than she might have without the intervention of Alma Hill.
I carried my interest in the outlook of secondary characters forward by elevating them to the forefront while the main characters rested offstage. My paired novellas—Of Fortune’s Reversal and The Maid and The Footman—carried this forward when read back-to-back in Lessers and Betters. The maid, Annie Reynolds, and the footman, Sergeant Henry Wilson, stood as the bedrock upon which the Regency’s class system rested. Yet, they became important partners in General Sir Richard Fitzwilliam’s efforts to protect the realm for Continental enemies.
I have now expanded and more fully employed those who would otherwise be unseen in my next novel, In Plain Sight, which will be published by Meryton Press during the summer. In this work, I strip away the classist pretensions of ODC to give them the freedom to discover each other without the limitations imposed by incipient pride or blinding prejudice.
Please enjoy this excerpt.
This excerpt of a Work-In-Progress, In Plain Sight, is ©2020 by Donald P. Jacobson. Any reproduction without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.
Hedgebrook House near Lambton, April 22, 1812
“Smith? Smith? Now whur is thut top-lofty lay-about?” grumped Hedgebrook’s chief gardener, his hands upon his hips as he scanned the mews behind the manor house.
One of the grooms sat on a nearby stoop enjoying a bit of midday sunshine, its warmth stronger now as Spring had aged a month. The workingman had stripped off his jerkin and sat, shirtsleeves rolled up above his elbows, stitching fresh leather into a worn bridle. In its eternal return to the north country, the sun now spent several hours above the thatched peaks of the stable roof and poured its watery light into the courtyard. The rich yellow rays brought into stark relief the man’s sinewy forearms as he reseated the leather palm pad and drove the sturdy needle through the strap.
The servant chuckled and stuck his oar in the water, “Now, Mr. Walters, zur, I cain’t figure why ye take on so ‘bout Will Smith. Is it ‘cuz ‘e ‘as ‘is haitches?
“Th’ Master don’ care if’n Smitty talks like ‘e’s from th’ city. ‘e sez that the man ‘as paid for ‘is sins. ‘eard ‘im tellin’ th’ Mistress that when they wuz fightin’ o’er ‘im ‘irin’ on Smitty. She weren’t ‘aving none ‘o it sayin’ thur wuz no way Smitty could get right by ‘er. Master said any man ‘oo’s back were ripped up like Will’s is okay in ‘is book ‘til ‘e proves t’utherwise.
“Ye ever see th’ Master’s scars? Got ‘em in the Navy, I ‘ear. Smitty’s ‘nuther story, I ‘magine.
“But, if’n ye want ta track ‘im down, all ye need ta do is find thut new maid, Lizzy. ‘e ‘angs ‘bout ‘er like ‘e were an ‘ound and she a prime ‘aunch ‘o beef.
“I ‘eard th’ new under ‘ousekeeper, Mrs. Wilson whut is married to Mr. W, th’ new under-steward sayin’ they wuz goin’ ta air out the east-facin’ parlor. Wager that Smitty is rakin’ out the beds on thut side ‘o th’ ‘ouse ‘n peerin’ through the winders ‘opin’ ta catch sight ‘o ‘er. ‘e’s a right moon-calf o’er thut gurl.”
Walters groused, “Prolly th’ best-tilled piece ‘o earth in Derbyshire, I warr’nt.”
He stormed off to discover Smith raking and re-raking the powdery soil waiting to receive bulbs that had been safely stored against the nastiness of Lambton’s winter. His eyes, though, were not focused on tines but rather panes. Walters grabbed the tool from the man’s hands and sent him off to assist Mr. Wilson who was supervising some of the hands in one of the lower fields as they improved drainage before planting began.
Lizzy stood and knuckled her lower back and bent her complaining joints a few times until they quieted. She looked around the parlor’s denuded floor and absentmindedly swept her hands down her wax-stained apron, its grimy material snapping beneath her palms as they erased perceived and imaginary wrinkles. This was a habit that may not have been the wisest. Residual wax and dirt, ground into the cloth, quickly transferred itself to her ochre-stained hands. However, there was no other way to finish the task that she and the two other maids had been assigned except on hands-and-knees.
In the six months since she had arrived at Hedgebrook, her body had hardened, becoming leaner as she did that which maids- and men-of-all-work had done for centuries. Lizzy could tick off on mental fingers all of the different tasks that had fallen to her at one time or another: lighting morning fires in twenty different hearths, changing bed linens and tidying the family’s chambers, dusting away every mote, waxing hardwoods, hauling buckets of hot water up two and three flights of stairs, and striping floors.
Soon, though, the need to knuckle her back vanished: except for today.
In the early days after they had slid from beneath the straw and had bid Tomlinson and James adieu at the gates guarding the drive to Hedgebrook, her body screamed every night after she crawled beneath her thin blanket on her pallet beneath the eaves. She had always thought herself fit and hardy thanks to her incessant scampering…as Miss Bingley would say…around Hertfordshire’s countryside. ’Twas in that stygian gloom beneath the slate roof that her tears would come either from the unremitting pain that paralyzed her body or the unending ache of loneliness that plagued her heart.
Seeing William hovering about relieved some of the isolation her exile had imposed. However, thanks to Smith’s laconic nature…and the limitations of his position outside the house…they never relived their Hertfordshire encounters. This was to Lizzy’s satisfaction as the entire experience had morphed into a dark episode that clutched at her soul from time-to-time. She did not wish to avoid William, but the longing for what had been was powerful and painful. Better if she tried to stay clear of that particular blaze. As she was wont to say, she preferred to think only of the past as its remembrance gave her pleasure.
After the dust of their escape had settled, Lizzy, Smith, and the Wilsons had quietly met with Mr. and Mrs. Tomkins. Mr. Fitzwilliam had ridden over from Pemberley. By this time, Mrs. Tomkins had become reconciled to Smith’s presence near her home. She still glowered at the tall man and shot pointed glances at her husband’s bath chair whether or not Mr. Tomkins was in the room. For Mrs. Tomkins, Smith was tolerated in recognition of the close links now forged between the Fitzwilliam and the Tomkins families.
The seven had agreed that both Wilson and Smith, as they still had time left in their duly-declared sentences, would work off their contracts—Mr. Bennet had ‘sold’ Wilson’s for £1 to Tomkins and a forged document covered Smith’s presence—away from the women. Paths would cross at mealtime or as a result of staff interaction. This was more of a security precaution than a nod to any notion of propriety. Thus, Smith, while of the stature and strength to serve as a footman, was delegated to work outside of the house. Wilson would apply his schooling toward learning a new trade, managing an estate as a land steward.
Annie Wilson, as she was known after her marriage, would continue her training to succeed her aunt by working as an understudy to Hedgebrook’s housekeeper. She had also agreed to stand by Lizzy as she worked to blend into the grey-clad army.
According to the other maids, Mrs. Tomkins was as good a mistress as any around. Sally Tomkins was a genial and friendly woman of middle years and never mistreated the young gentlewoman hiding in her home. Mrs. Tomkins never put on airs as so many who had climbed atop mountains of gold converted from Jamaican sugar or Lancashire cotton cloth. They laid this to the fact that the lady-of-the-house had been born on a tenant farmer’s patch and knew what it was like to work for a living.
Lizzy’s direct superior, Mrs. Annesley, the housekeeper, had been trained by the legendary Mrs. Reynolds over at Pemberley. She was a fair overseer but brooked no lapses in discipline that might embarrass the house. The Tomkins family may have had their roots in Derbyshire’s rocky soils, but their boughs were now sending tendrils up into polite society. The continuing sponsorship of the Earl and Countess of Matlock ensured that the Master and Mistress of Hedgebrook House were tolerated if not exactly welcomed into the precincts of some of the county’s older homes.
For their part, Charlie and Sally preferred to limit their entertainment to their relatives, some of Lambton’s leading lights, and the Pemberley contingent: Mr. Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy who had taken to the Tomkins adolescents, all within a few years of her age. However, even though few calls were exchanged with the other gentleladies of the neighborhood, Mrs. Annesley was determined to be prepared should the Countess ever deign to bring her dear friend Lady Sefton to Hedgebrook. That august presence would find nothing to fault in Hedgebrook’s appearance or how the staff comported themselves.
All-in-all, Lizzy wryly thought, in light of Mr. Tomkins’ naval experience, everything about the estate was ship-shape and organized in true Bristol fashion.
Today’s exercise in removing all the furniture from the eastern parlor so that the exquisite Berber carpets could be rolled up was rooted in Mrs. Annesley’s fascination with gleaming wood. The floor coverings needed to be carried out and well beaten to remove winter’s debris. Then old and yellowed wax would be stripped from the wide plank flooring before a fresh coat was laid down. The arduous process demanded great care and ventilation as the mineral spirits used to dissolve the original wax mixture could incapacitate even the largest footman in minutes if encountered in an enclosed space. Every window had to be thrown open, a foolish idea in Derbyshire between November and the end of March. Now, to Mrs. Annesley’s obvious pleasure, the weather had shifted away from a wintery spring to offer up the perfume of damp soil and fruit tree blossoms.
Lizzy had seen William patrolling the terrace with his rake. She was relieved when Mr. Walters had dragged him off. Annie Wilson would have been loath to chastise her former patient for stirring up dust that would be wafted into the parlor making the maids’ labors all the more difficult. Lizzy often wondered why Annie treated William with such deference. When asked, though, the young matron housekeeper tightly clamped her lips and succinctly replied, “Not my story to tell, Miss Lizzy.”
A clucking sound broke through her reverie. Lizzy turned about expecting to be on the receiving end of one of Mrs. Annesley’s legendary stares. Instead, it was Annie Wilson who beckoned her over.
She softly said, “Mrs. Tomkins has received a note from Mrs. Benton. She is coming over from St. Margaret’s in the vicarage’s gig and requires a maid—you—to accompany her on her calls. In Mrs. Mary’s normal way, she writes little but says much. I believe she has news from the south.”
In a louder voice to smooth any feathers that might be ruffled by a gesture that smacked of favoritism, Annie continued, “Mrs. Benton was impressed with how you helped her when Mrs. Carney came down with a fever and could not care for her children. Now she plans to visit some of the parish families on the outer reaches of the estate. In her delicate condition, she needs someone to fetch-and-carry. She specifically asked for your presence.
“I will call off Sarah Small from cleaning the guest chambers to take your place here. Those rooms are spotless. The Regent himself could plop on any piece of upholstery up there and not raise a speck of dust. I will deal with Mrs. Annesley.
“You, Lizzy, need to hie yourself upstairs and pull on a fresh gown, apron, and your outerwear. Take your dirty duds down to the laundry shed. I will tell the girl to wash them immediately so they can be ready for tomorrow. Mrs. Benton’s letter says she will arrive at about half twelve. You have time to freshen yourself, too. Stop and get a bit of food in the kitchen as you pass through to the mews.
“Cannot have you getting peckish with the curate’s lady wife. Now go!”
Lizzy fairly skipped from the room, excited to soon be in the company of her sister.