“Life, my dear boy, is composed of a thousand mundane moments and may be equally dispersed between joy and trouble. Each, though, like a small pebble resting in a river’s current, contributes to the grand arc of existence, bending it toward its ultimate end.”
Lydia Fitzwilliam, Dowager Countess of Matlock (8th), letter to her Great-grandson, Viscount Henry Fitzwilliam, November 3, 1883
A staple in romance writing is the concept of “Happily Ever After.” Such a satisfying resolution is a response to an underlying human need that resonates through 120 generations of storytelling. We pray that, while none of us escapes alive from this life, we do, none-the-less, have the opportunity, the agency, to organize our corporeal existances in such a manner that the future resting just beyond that far horizon toward which the flow of time is carrying us will meet our fondest dreams and expectations.
Are loves blinding, scorching across the heavens? Or, are they a slow-simmering pot of a particularly delectable soup? Are they a blend of both and fraught with pitfalls and detours? Are deaths noble and uplifting? Or are the majority simply sad endings: wheezes rather than shouts? Are they only reminders of the transitory nature of all existence?
The power of Jane Austen rests in that she explores the human condition, admittedly from her somewhat bucolic platform of a country gentlewoman, by sketching universal truths and personality archetypes. She then serves them up to her readers, perhaps not in quite as moralistic a manner as Milton or Pope, but still implicitly asking readers to learn from the actions of her characters. There is joy, sadness, merriment, and boredom.
But, she offers lessons for those perceptive enough to ‘see’ not ‘look’ at the portrait she paints. Do not make flash judgements. Be skeptical of “unchangeable” truths. Listen to advice but decide for yourself what is in your best interest. Reflect. Re-assess.
In Austen, readers gaze into her mirror and wonder if this is how they appear to others. I am convinced that authors #InspiredByAusten ought to seek to emulate the good Lady and provide their readers more meat and less gravy: essentially, to elevate our prose and plots by placing tired tropes onto the shelf and reaching deeply into our writing tool boxes. If we are serious about creating literature, then we need to challenge our readers to stretch themselves, their tastes, and their imaginations against the possibility that the field becomes stale and predictable.
I am not suggesting that authors abandon the HEA. Miss Austen herself composed several paragraphs, if not complete chapters, at the end of her works positioning her major players in the firmament of happiness…or at least satisfactory outcomes (see Maria Rushworth). However, sending up works in which the only mystery is how the characters arrive at their Happily Ever After does, I believe, shortchange readers. If the HEA is the be-all and end-all of #Austenesque stories—and writers generally are constrained to use the one HEA as prescribed by Austen—are we in danger of creating derivative and duplicative work? Food for thought for which I have no easy answer.
Enigmatic endings, such as what Virginia Woolf composed for perhaps the greatest novel of the Twentieth Century, Mrs. Dalloway, where readers are left wondering if Clarissa ever discovers herself, may act to energize our genre.
If not the HEA, then what? I believe the solution is to be found in building the rich tapestry of lives fully lived within our books, laid out upon pages—either digital or analog. Those colorful threads can be found in offering our characters the opportunity to act like recognizable human beings. In the process, we readers are provided a glance behind the curtain to apprehend the constellation of moments that make up a three-dimensional life lived in the present (although written in the past) tense.
In the year since their arrival, the Bennets had begun—contrary to Tom’s earlier practice of avoiding large terpsichorean gatherings—a weekly habit of venturing out onto parquet expanses. While their efforts at some of the Latin dances were laughable—although both Tom and Fanny were the first to chuckle and giggle—their Viennese and traditional waltzes were acknowledged to be particularly compelling. The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament, Ch. XXXVI
The Bennets, by this point in The Avenger, have once again found comfort in each other’s company. For many married couples in the late 1940s dancing was a welcomed activity. Obviously, I was using them stepping onto the floor at the Netherfield Harvest Ball of 1948 as way to illustrate how Thomas Bennet had changed. However, where before the Bennets had been abnormal to the extreme, now they are behaving in a normal and unremarkable way.
As the letter from Lydia to Henry Fitzwilliam quoted above (yes, another fragment of the Bennet Wardrobe Universe crossing into this one) suggests, lives are not composed of great events but rather are an amalgam of tics, observations, happenings, and comments. Each, when taken individually, may be interesting. When taken as a group, though, they establish a context which allows another to ascribe a deeper meaning. Ultimately, the collection creates that life.
Are not some of the “best” moments in #Austenesque fiction found in a breath-taking hot air balloon ride, the whimsey of a ghostly woman bound to a flesh and blood man, or the tickling of champagne bubbles beneath the nose of a young lady at her first ball?
Thus, I arrive at the idea of the Happily Ever Now. Again, Tom and Fanny Bennet are enjoying (and seen to be enjoying) a waltz. They are happy—in this moment, in the Now far removed from the Regency in which they exist. They are demonstrating human resilience and are happy.
They likely will be happy again, but theirs lives will also be punctuated by sadness. The path from joy to grief and, through recovery, to joy again is, I am convinced, the cycle of human existence. At any stage of our lives from the moment of birth to the instant of that last breath, we exist solely in our own Present which is the only plane of existence available to us in this universe or to our characters in the fictional frames created first by Miss Austen and then ourselves.
“The meeting of two eternities—the past and the future is precisely the present moment. Henry David Thoreau
Perhaps we might look at life…and this assuredly includes the fictional lives of our characters…like a string of pearls. Each orb adds something essential and interesting to the choker or triple strand. Length is not the determinant but rather quality: the more lustrous the pearls, the richer their hue, the more intriguing the necklace. Thus, white and pink can and should alternate with black or purple. Life is not unremittingly cheerful, nor is it thoroughly grim.
On the contrary, t’is possible to live on in joy when the camera and lights are turned off after the words “The End” appear. However, is it not more reasonable to assume that our characters will continue flickering between joy and sorrow to the end of their days much as they have done in the segment of their lives we have chronicled? I do believe this to be the case.
This excerpt is ©2019 by Don Jacobson. Reproduction—either electronic or mechanical—without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited. Published in the United States or America.
This excerpt from The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion is from Book One: Wickham. Here we see the Wickhams awakening at Longbourn in July 1813 the morning after the return of Wickham, Wilson, and Tomkins. Wickham had been wounded at Vitoria in June.
This is an example of small moments of which lives are made.
A gentle breeze woke him. The zephyr cooled his naked flanks, heated from troubling dreams that had roiled his peace; his restless kicking had thrown the sheet clear off his body. As he swam up into reality, he became aware of another draft, gentle and regular in its coming and going, against the shoulder pressed into the bed.
Breaking through the soap bubble film that had confined his mind, Wickham understood several disparate conditions that assailed his senses.
First, he comprehended that his long journey from the lines of Vitoria was finally concluded and that he had arrived at Longbourn. Even if he had not recalled that Hertfordshire had long been the goal of their five-week quest, the scented crispness of laundered linens that filled his nostrils would have placed him in one of the three estates that rose in his memory like the Channel Isles from the darkling sea: Pemberley, Rosings, or Longbourn.
Of course, he would not have been welcome at the Darcy family manor, and Derbyshire would have added several more days of hard travel. Lambton was out.
As for Rosings: Wickham remembered that the Colonel and Mrs. Fitzwilliam graciously offered his party bed and board. Kent would have been pleasant and the bedclothes beyond luxurious for a soldier used to dossing down fully clothed, protected against the Iberian pre-dawn chill only by a woolen cloak. However, there were ladies, women unseen for over a year, awaiting the three men just fifty miles up the road.
So, they pushed on toward Meryton, stopping at Horse Guards in Town only long enough for Wickham, gingerly entering those august halls, to gain a degree of notice for fulfilling his commission to deliver the Marquess’ dispatches.
They were home.
Next, the Leftenant quickly became aware of an early morning male rising that was evidence of a need to respond to a call of nature. He thought wryly that there were too many wags who would have suggested that his growing tree was evidence of a desire to satisfy a different sort of instinctive cry. This bit of lumber could only be cut down during a trip behind the screen to the chamber pot.
But, t’was the third situation which momentarily confused him…and then filled him with happiness. The calming presence, that slightly humid breath that warmed his shoulder and neck, could arise from one source—the delectable seven-and-ten-year-old beauty who had been wrapping her loving fingers around his heart since Christmas 1811.
His wishes had been fulfilled: he had survived to return to Lydia!
Now he rapidly began to catalogue his surroundings. He rested upon his left side. His wife was supine along his back. He could feel most of her except where his bandages insulated him from her warmth. Lydia’s steepled hands burrowed beneath his armpit, her face snuggled deeply into the gap between his body and the mattress. Her full bosom pillowed his dorsal region. That sensation did offer a new meaning to the pressure in his loins which was becoming unbearable.
Wickham needed to move before he unaccountably embarrassed himself.
The mattress, comfortable as it was, was also the barrier to him hoisting himself up unassisted. If he was to see a man about a horse, he would have to awaken the angel of his dreams.
Lord, I am thinking like Bingley! My younger brother becomes like a gap-toothed stripling boy when he speaks of ‘his dear Jane,’ a silly smile gracing his face as his eyes become unfocused. Odd as it may sound, I understand the man, at least when it comes to my fixation upon my own Bennet sister.
Wonder if Darcy acts like this when he considers Mrs. Elizabeth. Oh wait: he does. I remember that first time I saw Darcy react to her, when I was talking with the girls on Meryton’s High Street. My ‘old stick’ playmate was just as besotted as Bingley, but in a way which only someone who had known him over five-and-twenty years would recognize.
As Corporal Rosenthal would have succinctly put it, I was such an arshlocher in those days.
I cannot begrudge Darcy his wealth or happiness any longer: at least not since I have discovered the treasure into which Lydia has grown!
He cleared his throat, successfully disturbing his bedmate.
After a bit of soft snoring as she, too, joined her husband in the land of the living, Lydia raised up onto her elbow and looked over Wickham’s upper arm and softly asked, “Is aught amiss, George?”
Wickham chuckled. He had been longing to hear just that tone, so dappled and drowsy, colored by her time in the arms of Morpheus. Her hair, unbound, tickled his cheek.
His reply allayed any concerns, although, upon reflection, t’was full of serious elements.
“No, my sweet. I needs must relieve myself behind the screen. However, I am unable to rise from this delectable cradle, so much like an infant I must seem, without assistance. I fear the pain my awkward movements will bring. Wilson always found a way to get me on my feet. Of course, I have seen him lift a cannon limber so the gunners could replace a broken wheel.
“I worry that I may be too much for you.”
Immediately, he felt a flurry of linens as his wife leapt from the bed to scurry around the bedstead.
He beheld a vision in white with hands planted upon her hips. There in front of him stood Lydia Wickham, blonde curls haloing her head and shoulders. Her entire body was concealed beneath the folds of a snowy sheet, wrapping her in its pristine arms, creating an extra modesty-shield for which Wickham was oddly thankful. Her rich emerald eyes flashed—although whether t’was in anger, or not, he was unsure—at him as she prepared her rebuttal.
“Now, husband,” she cried, “you forget that you are speaking to a Daughter of Eve!
“We are constitutionally made to bend and lift, be it, for gentlefolk such as us, our babes or, for those of lower station like milkmaids, larger beasts and heavier tasks.
“You, dear sir, will pose little challenge for me, I assure you!”
So saying, she held out her hands to him in the process releasing her protective cover which slithered down her tall frame, puddling around her feet.
A pretty blush stained her features as Wickham frankly admired her womanly curves shaping her thin cotton nightrail.
Lydia grabbed his hands. Wickham clamped his eyes closed which led her to falter.
She urgently quizzed, “Did I injure you?”
Wickham snorted, but kept his eyes shut as he replied, “No, my good wife. The only pain you caused was one of anticipation when I considered how we both are clad for a less formal, but more enjoyable, greeting than we were yesterday on the front drive after I exited the carriage.”
The young matron shook her head in mock exasperation, enjoying the Leftenant’s teasing.
“George, you are incorrigible. Let me help you out of bed. Whilst you are relieving yourself, I will ring for coffee and chocolate,” she shot back, moving Wickham into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Her next move lifted him upright where he wobbled for only a moment, evidencing the amount of rest he had gathered from both Longbourn’s feather bed and Mr. Jones’ sleeping draught.
Taking one step and then another under Lydia’s watchful eye, Wickham shuffled behind the Chinese screen hiding the chamber’s chair of ease. Lydia stepped over to the bell rope and signaled for her maid. While George was occupied, Lydia padded over to her Wardrobe and pulled out her wrap, one of her treasures, an azure creation of the softest silk, a gift from her Aunt Maddie and Uncle Edward.
A soft scratching at the door alerted her. Bare feet crossing the walnut-stained floorboards, worn by over a century of Bennet soles, brought her into a hushed conference with the girl who served as lady’s maid for all the younger women. News was delivered, and instructions were given. Lydia closed the door, looking over to her husband who had emerged from behind the temporary wall.
She addressed the man, still pale, but appearing much more in form than he had after yesterday’s coach ride, “All right, George, back to bed with you. Sarah is fetching coffee. That is all you will be permitted until Darcy’s physician, Dr. Campbell, offers us other instructions concerning your diet. Sarah just told me that he is with Papa right now.”
She escorted Wickham back to the bed, settling him on his side once again. She knelt in front of him and said, “I you require nothing else from me, I am going to collect my things and step into Mama’s sitting room to get dressed for the day. I doubt if either Laura or Annie are in any position to help. Sarah will conduct Dr. Campbell upstairs and will leave James to assist.”
A firmer knock tipped the next draft of visitors. Her clothes bundled in her arms and her eyes modestly cast toward the floor, a barefoot Lydia stepped past a bluff redhead dressed as a gentleman and carrying a doctor’s bag and scurried down the hallway to the Mistress’ Suite.