Early on in my affair with the Canon, I became rather angry. Well, perhaps ‘angry’ is not the correct word: perhaps dissatisfied is a better fit.
You see, I tend to “read” a book (modifying Mortimer Adler’s approach) three times.
The first is to enjoy the story: to sort of glide along the surface, being moved by the invisible currents of plot and actors. The second is to consider plot elements and character traits used to create a context and allow readers to suspend disbelief and “go along for the ride.” Finally, I seek to uncover how authors reach into their “toolbox” of skills and techniques to offer compelling and realistically shaped stories and relatable characters. T’is important to recall that all three readings are often done simultaneously. However, as with a great motion picture, multiple encounters with the mind of the author often are required to understand all the fillips employed to make a seamless narrative.
When I really read Pride and Prejudice about five years ago—having spent an eternity buried in Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin saga and my annual fixes of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels—I found the story (first read) to be thoroughly enjoyable with two compelling protagonists engaged in a timeless love story. Then I began to dissect character and plot devices. Each seemed nuanced to deliver just enough to slide the narrative along.
Were they truly that simple? Or were they crafted with ‘elegantly simple complexity?’ I opted for the latter. To my eye, for instance, Mr. Collins over-the-top toadying established his specific personality, played off Elizabeth’s, amplified Lady Catherine’s, and offered a general commentary about the un-reformed Church of England, still wrestling with the Great Awakening and the Wesleys’ dissent. Collins’ existence also served to aggravate Mrs. Bennet and provide proof, early on, that Elizabeth was not mercenary and would not simply ‘settle’ as did the pragmatic Charlotte. That is an immense amount of work (and I know there is more) undertaken by one of the ‘B List’ characters.
And, dear friends, that is where my own personality began to grumble.
Truly, I do understand that Miss Austen put her characters to work in service of the overarching love story. Throughout the pages of the majestic novel, Mary glowered, Kitty coughed, Lydia flirted, Mr. Bennet withdrew, and Mrs. Bennet fluttered. In P&P, these traits were necessary to create a contextual world in which Elizabeth lived and to which Darcy reacted. That job was well done.
However, t’was during that third reading where I watched Miss Austen masterfully deploy her soldiers in the service of her story that I began to wonder. I pondered the Why of those characters (and Wickham, too). What circumstances led them to grow the way they did to become the exact persons they were when they appeared in the pages of Pride and Prejudice?
Of course, the answer was equally simple…Austen did not need the characters to be anything more than they appeared on the page.
However, I as a reader needed more.
And, I kid you not, that was the beginning of the Bennet Wardrobe stories.
As we have all averred…the reason that we read and write #Austenesque stories is that Austen’s original six was not enough. However, for me, the quest to understand the Why-ness of Mary, Kitty, Lydia, and, eventually, the elder Bennets led me to postulate about what specifically shaped each…and since none existed in solitary confinement…how those forces and the concomitant results influenced the others.
In my most recent Bennet Wardrobe story, The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament, originally inserted into the Series to explore the development of the father from the two-dimensional indolent man he is in P&P, I tackled the potential backstory for Mrs. Bennet. I firmly believe that, as Austen leads us to believe, the Mr. Bennet we see in the Canon did not become that way without the annealing power of Mrs. Bennet’s effusions.
What shaped Mrs. Bennet? Austen would have us believe that it was her frustration and, then, desperation at failing to birth a son. I accept that. However, Austen leaves us with the impression that t’is Mrs. Bennet’s fear of her own poverty that leads her to try to ally her daughters with wealthy men so that she will have a place more congenial than a small house in Meryton’s High Street.
Looking at her, I was struck by another, albeit invisible, mother in the original: Lady Anne Darcy. As many #Austenesque authors supposed, the ten-year gap between the births of Fitzwilliam and Georgiana had seen at least one…and possibly several…miscarriages. T’was devasting unto death for that good lady who expired from utter weakness either immediately upon her daughter’s birth or within a few months/years.
Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, delivered girl babies on a regular basis from 1789 through 1796 (based upon my assumption that P&P was set in 1810-11). Might it not be a logical assumption that she did increase a sixth time in 1800? And did suffer a miscarriage?
How would that have influenced the family?
We discovered (in The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque) how the event traumatized a six-year-old Kitty who came across her Mama in the immediate aftermath of her misfortune. Now, in The Avenger, we examine how Thomas Bennet and Fanny Bennet come to recognize just how pivotal the miscarriage was in their lives. Both exhibited their grief in their own way: Mrs. Bennet by becoming increasingly fearful for her daughters’ futures and Mr. Bennet by withdrawing from his wife so as not to force her into another situation where she was so harmed.
Because he loved her! #Austenesque authors frequently suggest that Bennet was infatuated by a beautiful woman in 1787—that he did not truly love her. That, in my opinion, sells Thomas Bennet short. It also suggests that Frances Gardiner was grasping and conniving. That, too, paints Jane and Elizabeth’s mother, the woman who may embarrass them, but is loved by them just the same, in an awful light. And, frequently the film adaptations continue the trope. I, however, see a different image for the woman who appears in the pages of The Avenger. For me, although she is about four years older than Mrs. Bennet, Emily Watson offers the multi-dimensional woman I could imagine playing Frances Lorinda Bennet.
The two great Loves which I identified as driving the Wardrobe’s Universe—Exagoras Agapis…the love which pushes us to become the best versions of ourselves…and Synchotikí agape…the love which forgives—can be seen as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet try to rediscover themselves and their love for one another.
I look forward to your comments. Please enjoy the excerpt below.
And please be sure to enter the drawing for a copy of an e-book of The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament by leaving a comment below. The giveaway will end at midnight EDST, Monday, 1/7/19.
This excerpt from a Work in Progress is © 2018 by Donald P. Jacobson. Reproduction of this excerpt in its entirety or in part in any form—either print or electronic—without the express written consent of the author is strictly prohibited.
Mrs. Bennet continued, “Now, through your truths and confessions, you have proven to me that you are my partner and are also, at long last, ready to hear me speak of my sorrow.
“Attend me now so that I may never have to repeat this; rather putting it behind me as a past which brings me no pleasure.
“Tom, you have rightly seen me as an astonishingly flighty creature. You could have judged me irredeemable, so distracted I was after my misfortune. My outcries must have grated upon your most sensible soul. They surely must have impressed all who could hear with the unshakable belief that I was thoroughly self-absorbed.
“Yet, contrary to that, and perhaps this makes my behavior even worse, I was not unaware of how I sounded. On the contrary, I actively sought refuge in my nerves. I allowed them to become louder and even more strident as time went on.
“You see, I was ashamed of what had happened; because I had lost you your heir through my failure to carry our babe to term. I took the guilt upon my shoulders, for is it not the woman’s fault that her body betrays her by ending the pregnancy prematurely?
“Because of that, in my mind, I thought that I had no true cause to repine. You were the man who had lost his posterity with no boy Bennet to inherit Longbourn, to carry on your name. T’was my fault.”
Bennet made to demur, but his wife would have none of it.
“No, your manner after that day told me all I needed to know. How else could I explain your indifference toward me? From the moment the blood puddled around my feet, you drew away, and hid yourself behind cryptic cynical remarks, your newspapers, and books. You never visited my chambers
“You are so much more intelligent than I, Tom, and I trusted your judgement. If you believed me guilty, then I must have been!” she exclaimed.
Bennet could bear no more of her self-recriminations. He pulled her close to his chest, muffling any more protestations which would have sullied the innocent lips of the only woman he had ever loved. His tears wet her locks.
“No, Fanny, no. NO! T’was not you. Never you.
“I was the fool who turned his back…putting himself first rather than seeing to your care.
“I left you to Mrs. Hill and your friends; arguing to myself that a woman would respond best to the efforts of other females, not the bumbling man who put her in the situation in the first place. And, I may have been correct in some manner.
“But, to abandon you entirely, to deny you your life partner, was unconscionable.
“I put you through years of agony, something no person should ever be condemned to by the one she most trusts.
“I am ashamed that I was the instrument of your pain.
“I may not merit it, Frances Lorinda, but will you ever be able to find space in your heart for one so undeserving? Will you ever forgive me?” Bennet gasped.
He felt two tiny fists pushing against his chest. He realized that he had been clutching his wife as a castaway would a floating timber tossed upon the wine dark sea.[i] His arms swiftly dropped away, freeing Fanny.
She leaned away and tilted her head up, her widened eyes regarding his more somber ones. She realized that there was but one thing she could say that would relieve his suffering and clear their path forward.
“Mr. Bennet: you, as do all men, take too much upon yourself. While t’is true that you pulled away, I could have changed my conduct.
“Rather, I wallowed in my despair, wearing my misfortune like a badge of honor making me supreme amongst all Daughters of Eve. While I could not garner your favor by continually returning to our loss, I could play upon the knowledge of some ladies and the fears of all the women in my circle. That went on for years and years until it became my natural way and not my second nature.
“You are an academic, a brilliant debater…no do not protest, my love…you are. In that spirit, consider this little thought experiment.
“How might you have acted if, say in ’03 or ’04, well before your hide had become thickened to my outbursts and, thus, left you immune to me, I had used my arts and allurements upon you? Would you not have likely responded much as you did when I first poured tea for you back in ’89?”
Bennet started at her words, staring at her, and then, with eyes gone slightly soft and dreamy as he imagined that which he would have done, broke into a wistful smile. His wife nodded in her victory.
“You silly, foolish, man. As in all marriages around the globe, we both bear our share of blame. Since t’is clear that we women who marry for love often have their men at Hello,[ii] I was atop the box of our shared carriage. I could have brought you to my side at any time if I had only set aside my guilt and had acted the wife to your husband.
“Instead, I chose to be selfish; to content myself with the thin gruel of chin-wagger sympathies rather than the hearty stew of a lover’s embrace.”
Her fervent assertion stirred Bennet to decisive action. He cupped her cheek and lowered his lips to hers. Two pairs of eyes drifted shut as heartbeats quickened in a sympathetic synchronicity. Time, already fluctuating in its invisible waves along this centuries-old trail, settled in its rush toward entropy as twin embers sparked brighter and created inevitable eddies.
Mrs. Bennet broke away first with an audible huff.
“You, Tom Bennet, are an original! You virtually ignore me for years and then, at the first sign of my desire to be your wife once again, you break loose with bonfires and illuminations bright enough for November Fifth! It is simply not to be borne!” she exclaimed.[iii]
Bennet tried to assay the blushing look of a gangling boy caught out by his sisters as he tried to sneak a look at the milkmaids bathing after their day’s labors. He failed miserably ending up delivering something between stunned innocence and the knowledgeable gaze of the four-and-fifty-year-old that he was.
At his wife’s ‘I am trying to say something serious here’ glower, he regulated himself as best he could and signaled her to continue.
Fanny composed herself, fanning her flushed cheeks before continuing, “You need to understand that I mourn not only our babe’s physical presence…oh yes, I am sorely grieved by his never-life…but I mourn the loss of his possibilities. True, he would have been our salvation against Collins. He could have protected his sisters, our daughters. He would have raised us from the despair of your loss.
“Yet, a life unlived means so much more.
“Beyond the very real reasons…ones with which I have made you too familiar over all these years…I am laid low every time I try to imagine how he might have acted in this situation…or that. What would he have said as he watched Bingley and Darcy court Jane and Lizzy?
“Would our son have tried to be the young pup, all of one-and-ten, and sought to engage those two in some sort of defense of his sisters? Would he have insisted on standing at your shoulder as Bingley fumbled through his request for Janie’s hand? How would he have interacted with Mr. Darcy? Would he have been convinced that this man of 10,000-a-year thought he could purchase our Lizzy?
“Somehow I think I know what he would have said to Wickham…and I thank the Good Lord that even that dissolute rake would have only spanked the boy with the flat of his sword and sent him on his way.”
Mrs. Bennet gathered herself for her final assault on the heights of Kitty’s story.
In a voice fraught with emotion she bored in, “And, now you tell me my darling girl is gone? All I can do is cry…again for her lost possibilities; at least those lost to my knowledge.
“I never saw her grow into what was one of the most remarkable forces standing astride her age.
“I never met her beloved Viscount Henry nor watched her as she emerged into the Countess of Matlock, a worthy successor to Mr. Darcy’s Aunt Eleanor.
“I never saw her wed in what had to be the society event of the season.
“All my memories of Kitty end with me scolding her for her being a coughing, unschooled girl of seven-and-ten.
“You, however imperfectly and briefly, knew her both as a child and as an older woman. You can mourn her lived life.
“I have nothing but rapidly fading images of her china-blue eyes beneath that blonde fringe.
“You must be her biographer.
you must tell me the end of her story.”
[i] The wine-dark sea is a traditional English translation of ????? ?????? (oinops pontos), an epithet in Homer of uncertain meaning. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wine_dark_sea_(Homer)
[ii]An inversion of the original. In my opinion, the best single line in the movie Jerry Maguire (1996) when Renee Zellweger allows Tom Cruise back into her life.
[iii] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776 (p. 3) in which he suggests the way succeeding generations will celebrate the Declaration of Independence. https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760703jasecond