While I have been writing for a half-century (reaching back to my high school newspaper days), I have only been involved with fiction since 2015: although many would suggest my decades in advertising well-qualified me to write fiction. This past twelve months have been my most productive thus far: two full novels, one novella, and one short story.
While working my way through these #Austenesque tales, I discovered that my writing itself has begun to change, to become more burnished, and to be an ongoing experiment in both form and function. There is no set formula as to how this evolution is undertaken. Perhaps the changes are so minute as to be imperceptible. My natural inclination is fiddle and try to find new ways to express myself in #Austenesque fiction, to bring readers to a different understanding of well-known characters and memes.
This is not pride, but rather explanation.
There is reflection upon observations that give meaning to what I absorb and store in my memory’s hoard. During this time of isolation, of quarantine, I—we—all have had ample time to watch and contemplate. Early on my muse, Pam, plunked me down in front of the hi-def and told me that she had found a Netfix’ documentary Five Came Back. This was a film about five great Hollywood directors—Ford, Capra, Wyler, Stevens, and Huston—who set aside their fame and put their careers on hold to aid the US war effort by doing what they did so well. I was so entranced with the four parts of the tale that I purchased the book from which it was taken.
While each story was compelling, that of William Wyler struck me…not for his remarkable œvre in the 1930s and later through the 1960s, but rather his first effort in 1946 when he had returned to California, broken and with a 75% hearing loss. The Best Years of our Lives is a masterpiece that could only have been accomplished by someone who understood. I will not dwell on the film. Instead, I will shift to the source material.
Wyler had approached MacKinlay Kantor, a noted author, to write something discussing the experience of soldiers, sailors, and airmen returning home to a society that had known war but had not experienced its horrors from which a film later could be adapted. Kantor created not a book but rather a 268-page poem in blank verse: Glory for Me. What is missing is reams of dialog. Robert E. Sherwood found the movie inside of the reflections and the odd and broken conversational exchanges.
He frowned from out predicament
He felt they were a lost battalion, huddled close-
The three who’d known destroying flame,
And still perceived its blisters on their hide-
The boy, the elder boy, the man
Who’d felt exploding flare of doom
That women only guessed; and yet
Imagined properly, as women may,
When spreading the tannic dressing of their tears. (p. 267)
Here is a writer in full command of his craft being willing to risk all by delivering a poem to a filmmaker rather than the book or story ordered up and paid for. He also gambled—or did not care—on the fact the reading public would not turn its back on this literary and uncommercial book. Kantor remained true to himself and delivered an honest story. He did so, I am convinced, because the structure of a poem reflected the Homeric qualities of the story of these three nearly nameless men. And having read it in this manner, I cannot imagine it giving us its verité in any other format.
The internal dialogue used by Kantor’s character, the middle-aged banker and infantry sergeant, reinforced his common experience with his two younger friends, the maimed Homer Wermels and the psychologically disfigured Fred Derry. Yet, this is 100% the ruminations of Al Stephenson: thought and not spoken. Try to imagine the above passage spoken as a conversation—or even a soliloquy—and you can see where great writing goes to die.
I follow my evolution as an author from my earliest outings in the Bennet Wardrobe to the soon-to-be-published In Plain Sight and the story to which I put “fin” on only days ago. I have moved from the playwright’s voice being heard through dialogue (some folks complained that my characters talked too much) to taking advantage of the power of the third person observer being more than a fly on the wall. Recall that, in a theater, the audience is not privy to the musings of any of the actors unless they are verbalized. A book adds another dimension to the experience of engaging with the characters; the reader becomes an observer of what happens on that great grey plane which stretches behind the eyelids of all characters.
Today I offer many moments where we move through Darcy’s or Elizabeth’s thoughts. We are able to enjoy indecision, confusion in counterpoint to resolve and clarity. The same holds for many of the secondary players: Bingley, Jane, Caroline, and Wickham. However, there needs must be a balance for humans are not creatures of silence. We voice our thoughts for they are like daubs of paint upon a canvas: each individually may be pleasant to look at but when taken in conjunction with others becomes a complete image. Thoughts contribute to the words spoken by one character which then inspires contemplation in another to bring more words to fill the void between two persons.
Here is where a master like Jane Austen found her strength: the articulation of impressions that contribute to behaviors that roll the story forward.
But it all begins with a worldview—a weltanschauung—through which our characters necessarily filter everything around them. And all of that begins with reflection and contemplation. I ask you to be patient with my own work as I explore and experiment to make my work the closest approximation of the truth as it exists in this amazing #Austenesque world.
Please enjoy the following excerpt from my latest Work-In-Progress.
Special Giveaway Opportunity for comments. Please reply to this post by midnight EST, Monday, May 25, 2020, for a chance to win an #Audible Code (one for the USA Audible and one for the UK site) for The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion. This is the 7th Bennet Wardrobe performance by Amanda Berry. Winner will be announced Sunday, May 31.
This excerpt from a Work-In-Progress is ©2020 by Donald Whitfield Jacobson. Any reproduction or other use of this excerpt is strictly prohibited. Published in the United States of America.
Chapter 5 (On Oakham Mount)
Darcy stepped forward and reached down to help the young lady stand. He stammered in embarrassment, “Miss Elizabeth! I am so sorry. Are you well? I fear you unintentionally became part of my morning exercises. Please forgive me.”
Once on her feet, Elizabeth cast a chary eye at the man who had been disturbing her thoughts since last autumn. She earlier had dismissed any notions that hinted at any romantic inclination toward the Derbyshire gentleman. Her heart was well softened with a maiden’s daydreams and open to fantasies of tall, dark-eyed men striding across a ballroom to capture her body and soul. While Mr. Darcy fit the physical requirements, Elizabeth had squelched any ruminations that accorded him such privileged status in her affections. His public manner—and she suspected his private behavior as well—left much to be desired. She harbored suspicions about his influence over Mr. Bingley: a control that had led the younger man to cancel his plans to return to Netherfield for the festive season. Elizabeth also believed that Mr. Darcy willingly had fallen in with Bingley’s sisters’ desire to separate the young man from Jane. To assume that Mr. Darcy was disdainful of Jane was no great leap for Elizabeth Rose Bennet.
Lizzy had no direct evidence for any of this, but she was proud of her ability to sketch the characters of those around her. Thus, she felt comfortable with indicting and convicting Mr. Bingley’s friend. Mr. Darcy had earned no points with her during the autumn when he spent hours silently glowering at her. His acerbic and public appraisal of her appearance made at the Assembly was the starting point for Elizabeth’s distaste for his company. Likewise, she transformed her embarrassment at her mother’s and sisters’ coarse behavior into the gentleman’s disapproval of her rusticated family. Wickham’s ballad of misfortune at the hands of the Master of Pemberley only confirmed her absolute belief that Mr. Darcy felt so high above all about him that he saw them like Defoe’s Lilliputians scurrying around his feet.
With all these debits laid against his account, his current contrite nature, even though a result of his antics that nearly injured her, seemed thoroughly out of. Yet, his words bore the hallmarks of a true apology, especially when delivered in such a heartfelt manner.
“Really, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth asked, “swinging sticks about like one of the Dervishes is part of your fitness routine? You came close to taking off my head. This is one of the few times I am relieved to be a lady of shorter stature. If I had been Jane or Lydia…
“But, no matter, you only grazed the crown of my bonnet,” she added lightly.
As she stepped from the puddle, she turned her back on Darcy. His eyes were drawn to the heart-shaped mud stain that graced her shapely bottom. Little was left to his imagination as the dampness penetrated her pelisse, gown, and shift, molding the cloth to her delightful contours. Fancies that had played on the backs of his eyelids and cavorted across his mindscape roared back to life after months of his best efforts to forget. His breath shuddered loudly in his throat. Elizabeth looked over her shoulder at him and then bent her right leg, unintentionally striking Eve’s immortal pose. The line of her body shifted and pulled her clothing even more tightly across her hips, further distracting Darcy. She twisted around as far as she could and looked beneath her raised right arm to focus upon the source of Darcy’s disquiet. She snapped a quick look his way, her mouth shaped in an “O.” He blushed, looked ashamed, and averted his eyes from her outraged features and fundament.
Elizabeth spun to present her undamaged side to the repentant gentleman.
Seeking to find a way to recapture a modicum of dignity, Elizabeth made a show of untying her bonnet. Doing so exposed lustrous locks threatening to escape their pins. On the scale of inappropriate behavior, allowing him to see my curls while shielding my derriere from his frank appraisal is excusable. The man had been subtle, but, none-the-less, obvious in his undisguised appreciation of her womanly curves. The process of resetting her chapeau, though, gave her more time to find a path forward. Ultimately, Lizzy decided that charging his barricades would be a fool’s errand. She would outflank him by implicitly ignoring the last two minutes.
She opened her assault by sweeping her arm across the Mimram and Lea River valleys stretching out from Oakham Mount’s southern slopes. “Is not the view before us stunning, Mr. Darcy? The prospect from the top of Oakham Mount is far superior to any other hereabouts, although I would imagine that Miss Bingley would suggest that it pales by comparison with vistas in the Peak District.”
Darcy used every second of her speech to recover his equanimity and regulate his racing heart, especially after her playful—at least he hoped it had been meant in jest—pun. His respite was brief as she now looked up at him expecting that he would shoulder his conversational burden.
“Ummm…,” he fitfully began, “Again, I must apologize, Miss Elizabeth, for I had not expected to encounter anyone this morning. While it is no excuse for endangering your person, I slept poorly having cut cards for the bed. Bingley won and, I wager, yet sleeps like a babe. I thought to shake loose the cobwebs that cluttered my mind. In any event, I fear that I am constitutionally unable to engage in drawing room bon mots like the weather or the roads either atop a pretty little hill like this or in a parlor’s confines. However, I concur that Miss Bingley would quickly and, might I add, joyously denigrate any view that did not include Pemberley.
“As for this prospect,” he encompassed it her gesture with his own, “I will also agree with you. It is thoroughly different from anything we see in Derbyshire. Beautiful, but different,” he concluded.
His gibe at Miss Bingley’s imagined effusions as well as his agreement with Elizabeth’s scenic observation earned him a smile. Her approbation drove off the morning chill and warmed him. It also purged the previous social disaster from his mind.
Her whisper caught his ear. “From here you would never know the terror and disease ripping its way across this bucolic countryside. How will we ever recover?”
Darcy coughed into his fist. “I do not know if you meant that last question for my ears, Miss Elizabeth, but I have seen this scourge burn through the land. People lose all sense of reason. Your town is fortunate that Mr. Angelo and Sir William seem to have their heads firmly planted upon their shoulders. Blocking refugees from town can only help.
“Eventually, though, smallpox will vanish, and people will settle back into their old routines, forgetting lessons learned until it comes again.
“Just twenty-four miles from here, the Lord Mayor and his minions have holed up in the Guild Hall and have ignored the entreaties of natural philosophers and churchmen alike. These fat-fingered burghers only care about their comfort and decry any attempt to relieve suffering as hurting business. They would unsee the pustules and scabs defacing the crowds. Such awareness is inconvenient and would demand humane behavior at no small cost to their fortunes. They imagine, no insist, that miasmas will not drift to the better parts of town. As we see with Mrs. Hurst, the well-off are not immune,” he added scornfully.
Elizabeth was surprised at Darcy’s forceful denunciation of those who were his economic, if not social, equals. While she did not consider him Voltaire flying under a false flag, these statements were atypical for a man of his class.
Just as Elizabeth’s earlier estimation of the man began to waver, he focused on a column of smoke rising in the southern distance. He snorted.
“There is another family’s home being reduced to ashes. I pray they were able to escape unharmed. The mob will have its way, just like at Netherfield.
“What of Netherfield, Miss Elizabeth? Why was not more done to prevent such wanton and indiscriminate destruction? Where were the other landowners? I would have expected Sir William and your father, as Netherfield’s nearest neighbors, would have mounted some sort of defense. Where was the militia? Is not this…this…pillaging…exactly the reason Horse Guards stations regiments around the country? I imagine Colonel Forster would have found a use for a wastrel like Wickham who would have been excited to turn his file’s muskets on a mob of pitchfork-bearing peasants.
“If there is one good thing that came of the reduction of that house, t’was that Bingley listened to me and leased it instead of impulsively purchasing as I am certain he would have done had I not intervened. I am sorry for the owner’s loss, but at least my friend will not have to bear the burden as it had been an act of rebellion, something spelled out in the lease I wrote with Attorney Philips and not an act of carelessness.”
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed open and she bristled. The gentleman did not see this as he was still focused on the dark pillar rising from the valley floor.
This is the Mr. Darcy I know: a haughty and insufferably proud man! He cares for nothing but the sound of ducats and crowns in his purse. He justly excoriates London’s town fathers for being concerned about money. Yet, he instantly reduces the Sack of Netherfield to an economic proposition while insulting a man already his victim?
Her cheeks were streaked with carmine as her blood simmered. “You ask ‘what of the other landowners?’ You wonder about the militia? You express disbelief that more was not done to prevent the destruction of Netherfield?
“You speak as if we were Egyptians unaware that the Angel of the Lord floated above waiting to smite the firstborn because nobody thought to paint a doorpost with lamb’s blood!
“A mob of frightened people boiled out of Hertford’s and St. Albans’s warrens and followed the river roads to Meryton. There were hundreds of them. Colonel Forster realized that he could not divide his forces to protect every one of the estates. He decided to concentrate on saving the town and Mr. Watson’s mill.
“The Colonel correctly assayed that four-room farmhouses could not slake the rioters’ thirst for riches. As for the estates, he was convinced that each would have enough servants and tenants to man the barricades.
“That is what we did at Longbourn and what Sir William did at Lucas Lodge, although he dispatched Lady Lucas and Maria to wait with us. John Lucas later told me that his father was willing to fight to save the Lodge but only if he did not have to worry about the women’s safety. And, that was what was on Papa’s mind, too. Not only did he have to defend our home, but he also had to protect us. Before Papa hid all the ladies and girls in the icehouse, he unlocked the gunroom. Every man big enough to carry a weapon got one freshly loaded. Old Mr. Hill collected my great-grandfather’s musket, the one he carried at Culloden putting down the Stuart insurrection.”
Elizabeth’s voice flattened and became distant. “Once the men were armed, my father gave Mama and Mrs. Hill three small pistols…and two each to Jane and myself. I never knew he possessed such an arsenal. I recall hearing Papa’s friend, Sir Thomas Bertram, talk about an uprising on his plantation in Jamaica. After he saw Jane and me eavesdropping, Sir Thomas just tapped the side of his nose and reminded Papa that the French gentry was caught napping in 1789. Maybe my father roused himself to prevail upon the gunsmith for the wherewithal to guard his home and family.
“I know what you think of Mrs. Bennet, sir, and until that moment, I would have seconded your every negative thought of her behavior. But, in that dreadful calm when we could hear the murmur of the crowd assembling at the junction on Longbourn Lane and the St. Albans Road, my mother calmed herself and simply nodded when Papa said ‘You know what to do if they break-in. Tell the girls.’
“When we had settled ourselves in the hole, Mama pulled the older ones aside. All she said was ‘If the door goes down, know that ice will be the last thing on their minds. Care for your sisters first and then yourself. Mrs. Hill and I will wait to be sure.’”
Darcy was stunned at Elizabeth’s account of the jacquerie. He had only thought of financial loss. He was comfortable with pounds and pence. Yet the young lady’s narrative provided an unconsidered dimension: the depredations heaped on the heads of innocents caught up in titanic forces. He pushed to the side questions about the scarring of their souls
His notions of the Bennet family tumbled before his eyes. Mr. Bennet was not an uncaring, indolent father, but rather a man who was deadly serious about his role as pater familias. Mrs. Bennet’s fluttering nature, suitable, if disquieting, in a placid parlor, was undergirded by iron laces. Mr. Bennet had tasked her to act contrary to her maternal instincts, to offer her daughters the final mercy if the manor had been overrun. Darcy tried to imagine his mother or Lady Matlock being prepared to act as Mrs. Bennet had been ready to do. Did he own the courage to gift Georgiana such escape? His mouth moved, but he could not find the words he needed to offer Miss Elizabeth consolation if that is what she sought.
Not that Elizabeth noticed. Her eyes were open, but their focus was turned inward, scanning the unthinkable that had not fallen to her.
She wrapped her arms around her waist and shuddered.
Her voice continued its almost unearthly, quality, “Dawn had broken before my father liberated us. We were chilled to the bone even though we had been bundled up in quilts. He sent the young ones into the house for warm baths before being tucked in by Mrs. Hill. Then he very carefully collected the weapons and stowed them away before ordering Mama, Jane, and me to join him, Sir William, and John Lucas in his bookroom. He served us some port before shooing everyone above stairs.
“When I asked him about the presence of the Lucas men, he told me that the crowd assumed that Longbourn was the only estate this side of Oakham Mount. They never even tried to head along the track leading back to Lucas Lodge, so Sir William and his men were able to abandon their posts and reinforce ours.
“And before you suggest that Sir William, John, and his servants should have thought to do for Netherfield what they did for Longbourn, remember that Lady Lucas and Maria sheltered with us.
“Still it was a long night. A mass of firearms poking out from Longbourn’s west front and aimed at the crowd encouraged even the worst malefactors to move on toward easier pickings. That would have been Netherfield Park.”
Throughout her discourse, she had not moved a muscle. Elizabeth ignored the black and gray column spiraling into the near sky and rather stared toward the dark smudge on the southeastern horizon beneath which London hulked. After she fell silent, Darcy watched her in profile. The thoughts which coursed through her agile mind flickered upon her pleasing features, darkening the countenance that had bedeviled his reveries throughout the intervening months from the first instant of their acquaintance.
As the sun lifted its upper limb above the edge of the world, bathing all before them in a roseate hue, Elizabeth roused herself and looked at Darcy. “I apologize if I offended you, Mr. Darcy, with my recitation of our troubles here in Meryton. The desperation we felt might be compared to what I read in Mr. Filson’s biography of the American pioneer, Mr. Daniel Boone.[i] More than once during that long night, I diverted myself with thoughts of a colonial lady hastily reloading her husband’s squirrel gun while savages surrounded their home.
“As for Lieutenant Wickham: we have not seen him in these parts for several weeks. He seems to have reconciled himself to his disappointment about his career in the church. Mr. Wickham resigned his commission and followed the young lady of his dreams, Miss Mary King, off to Liverpool where she had been removed by her uncle and guardian. It seems that Mr. King was none-too-well-pleased to learn that his niece had bequeathed her heart to a lowly and penniless militia officer.”
Darcy’s derisive snort interrupted her explanation, rekindling her ire. “Are you so cynical, Mr. Darcy, that you would begrudge Mr. Wickham’s attempts to follow love’s path?”
Darcy nearly laughed aloud, but he could see that poking this attractive creature could leave him with a sore head. “Knowing George Wickham as I do, I would venture to suggest 10,000 other reasons beyond the stirrings of interrupted ardor that led him to trail behind the young lady. A wag might posit that t’was his purse and not his heart that was engaged.”
At his oblique reference to Miss King’s fortune, Lizzy glanced at him knowing that while he might be a proud and disagreeable man, Mr. Darcy usually was correct in his observations. She expected that he would have said the last with a sneering look on his face, but she was to be disappointed. Instead of the ghost of his disdain, he looked impassive and said nothing. Darcy seemed little interested in continuing their jousting match about Netherfield, the tenor of the times, or Lieutenant Wickham.
Darcy had been deeply unsettled as her detailed explanation continued. Elizabeth’s intimation of self-murder after dispatching a sister, though, had left Darcy on the edge of nausea. Even his attempt at humor about Wickham did not relieve his discomfort. Every instinct screamed that he should have been in Meryton to protect this remarkable creature who had broken through his every reserve. His eyes smoldered like black cinders beneath lowered brows as he berated himself for every selfish move he had made since November. He longed to reach out to her, to soothe away memories of that harrowing night in the icehouse. Yet, he did not because he could sense that this lady bore him little goodwill. Elizabeth’s rejection would be too painful. Thus, his desire was overcome by fear, and his face became frozen in that familiar mask against which any attempt to engage him would be smashed to flinders.
Pulling himself even straighter, to tower above the diminutive young woman, he removed his watch from his waistcoat, popped the lid, and raised an eyebrow.
Saying not a word, he turned the timepiece so that Miss Elizabeth could apprehend the lateness of the hour. Longbourn was calling out. Drawing her lips into a tight line, she regarded his stern visage. Then she sighed and shook her head: seemingly reaching an ironic agreement with an inner voice revisiting something which had perplexed her for months. Lizzy took his proffered arm to be escorted down the hill toward Longbourn.
They would separate before becoming visible from the house lest too many questions are asked or a surfeit of assumptions made.
[i] Miss Elizabeth was likely referring to her father’s copy of The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, published in 1784 by John Filson. Electronic holding at University of Nebraska, Lincoln.