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Sample (Preface and Letters 1 and 2)

Preface

Jane Austen is famously quoted as having said that Emma Woodhouse was a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like,”[1] and though the last two hundred years have proven that she seriously underestimated the public’s ability to admire the self-deceived, as I was trying to hammer this particular portion of The Merriweather Chronicles into a coherent narrative, and saw the way it was heading, I could not help thinking of this comment. Frequently.

Actually, I expect the implication of mild disapproval contained in the above phrase is insufficient to cover what many readers who attempt the following pages may eventually feel toward the poor girl.A hundred years ago—even fifty—they might have cut her more slack; but this is the age, not only of “strong female characters” who take charge of their lives and positively wallow in high self-esteem, but of heroines who go above and beyond: forget the whole “I am the mistress of my fate, the captain of my soul” thing—now your ideal female lead takes on the whole natural and supernatural world, slaying vampires, demons, werewolves and who knows what else, all the while apparently dressed in tight jeans and perky crop-tops.

You know that innocent bystander who cowers under the nearest desk while Ms. Crop-top saves the known universe? That’s my “heroine.”

It feels like false advertising even to use the word.

So be warned: even those of my readers who have an intelligent understanding of (or sympathy with) her 18th-century devout Church of England worldview are probably going to want to yell “Get a grip!” at her on occasion. As for the rest of you who venture bravely beyond this preface, you will doubtless be as mystified by some of her behavior as are secular biographers by the “morbid introspection” of many of William Wilberforce’s diary entries, or the history of the poet William Cowper—whose religious conversion is often confusedly judged to be the cause of his period of suicidal insanity, instead of its cure.

One final word to anyone who may be horrified by the length of this thing, which admittedly is more the twice as long as the manuscript of Friendship and Folly: I assure you, this is nothing. The original version—full of largely intact letters—rivaled War and Peace. You think I’m kidding, but hey, Tolstoy’s masterpiece clocks in with a count of 561, 093 words; this was 500,530. Now it’s only 325,417 (not counting appendices).

Doesn’t that make you feel better?

 [1] In A Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Austen-Leigh

Lady Frances:

September 11th, 1805

Half past ten o’clock

My dearest Julia,

Whatever your father may say, I do not think you will be astonished to find this delivered to your hand, for you may see by the superscription that it is quite six hours since you took your departure from us, and therefore that I should take up my pen to address you must be thought the most natural circumstance in the world. Indeed, I marvel at my patience, since before your carriage had reached the gate, I had recalled at least a dozen matters of which I had particular need to speak to you before you left, and had it not been for your father I might have called for a mount and gone chasing after you, ventre à terre![1] He, however, urged upon me various considerations, the most persuasive of which was the infelicity of taxing the patience of my very first son-in-law when he had not been possessed of the title above half a day. (Though I confess that your father’s arguments received considerable weight from the fact that by the time I had listened to all his points, and found a way to dispose of the dish of cake he had pressed into my hands, your carriage was so far distant as to render any pursuit largely impracticable.) My impulse then, of course, was to begin at once upon the instructive epistle that burned within my breast, but due to the number of guests who remained, looking pleased and congratulatory, I have not had the opportunity to do so until now—and lo! Not one of those matters which were so importunate six hours ago, has seen fit to present itself to my mind now that I am able to accommodate it.

Not, mind you, that their absence signifies, for there can be no lack of subjects on such an occasion. If nothing else, I am eager to set down in ink all my love, and my desires for your happiness, so that you might have them in tangible form, to be kept close and taken out whenever a particular need arises, like a bank draft. I made the mistake of confiding this fancy to your father earlier, and he replied that in some quarters it might be judged somewhat indiscreet, to be assuring a new bride that if she should find herself possessed of any deficit of affection, she could always draw on her parents’ account. I am confident, however, that dear Mr. Lenox is too sensible to take offense at my words, knowing that I count him very well able to supply you with everything you might need in that respect.Indeed, he is just what I should have chosen for you, had I ever bothered to sit down and make out a list of requirements for your future husband: except in this, that I should certainly have stipulated that he reside, if not in Warkwickshire, at least in a neighboring county! But God’s Ways are not our ways, and if He has no objections to make against Ireland (despite all that your grandfather can argue against it), why, “there’s an end of it”!

I do trust that all Lady Lenox’s prognostications concerning the journey proved entirely false, though one must agree with her, that there always seems to be far less room in a carriage at the end of a journey, than at the beginning of it. Tor always averred that the cushions basked in passengers’ discomfort, and were hardened by it over time, like bricks in molds. But then, he was always very bitter about carriages, having such long legs, and so much energy: always a dreadful combination in a travelling companion. I am persuaded of better things for Sir Warrington, however, despite his stature. In fact, I should be very much surprised to learn that he did not fall asleep almost at once, and remain happily oblivious to any inconveniences that might have arisen. (Not that he would have complained in any event: having succeeded in his Grand Object of adding you to his family, could any discomfort or disaster prove horrific enough to damp his present spirits? What, after all, is a mere overturned carriage, or bad roads, in light of his accomplishment?)

Your father was gratified to observe that Captain Beaver’s Memorandum accompanied Mr. Hayden, but I admit to having felt some unease, until I saw that Mary had both Popular Tales and Mrs. More’s Essays in her basket. Not that I have anything against Captain Beaver, but a book shared aloud shortens any journey—and Africa is not to everyone’s taste. Even Lady Lenox, however, must allow herself to be a little entertained by poor Murad.[2]

I am reminded of one of my “dozen matters”—but I have since learned from Ann that you took both Rasselas and Cowper with you. (Clive professed himself shocked by this revelation, and said that it demonstrated a deplorable lack of confidence on your part, in Mr. Lenox’s ability to keep you amused without having recourse to the printed page; an imputation which anyone who had listened to his masterful recitation of “John Gilpin” must decry.) What a pleasure it was to us, to discover that Mr. Lenox has already established the custom of reading to his family in the evenings; I admit I will be very curious to hear what volumes meet the approval of such a disparate audience as he will now have! Ann thinks you will soon convert him to the enjoyment of your “novelia absurdis,” but I cannot see it.

Perhaps you are wondering why I have not spoken of the wedding itself? To tell the truth, my feelings upon the subject are such a strange admixture, that I fear my comments would be similar to those of a dramatist, attempting an impartial assessment of his own play on the first night! To satisfy any curiosity you may have upon the matter, however, I will tell you that Lady Thomasin complimented us on the fact that “for once the lines were spoken in clear, intelligible tones, the costumes were most becoming, and even the farce was not without its merits.” I am not entirely certain which incident she took for the farce—perhaps that business with Augustus—but I think your grandfather may be right, and that she has become over-fond of reading reviews.

Clive claims that the most interesting scene was one the majority of the guests were not privileged to witness, it being that brief but exciting one which involved A Number of Wasps, culminating in the violent demise of The Most Impertinent Wasp.I understand also from Ann that it was your brother’s intention of appending another scene, involving the introduction of Tommy’s electrical machine into the festivities for the amusement of the children and the agitation of the unwary, but that she discouraged the notion with so much force that he gave it up. Dear Ann! (I still have not been able to obtain from Tommy his exact reasons for believing this device a good thing to bring to a wedding.)

Well, my dearest, your father has just advised me of the hour, and, somehow divining the recipient of this letter, found it necessary to offer a witty remark at my expense, which I shall keep to myself, as a wife should never proclaim the failings of her husband, even to her most intimate and beloved connections. (Behold, a First: Maternal Advice Offered, Unsolicited, to a Young Bride! Grow accustomed to it, my Julia, for I assure you that, in this instance, the first shall not be last!)

Your most affectionate Mama

P. S. Oh, my darling little daughter, my gracious, cheerful Julia—may “God, the best maker of all marriages, combine your hearts in one,” [3]and bless and keep you safe from harm in your new life, just as He has done so faithfully in your old!

 Ann:

September 12th, 1805

Dear Julia,

I determined not to be the first to write to you, but havingrestrained myself for a whole day, I am so confident that at least one member of your family will have been beforehand in the task, that I dare commence my own historical document, My First Letter to Julia Lenox.

To be sure, no one has a better right than I, to address the new Mrs. Lenox—for you know I take entire credit for bringing this matter to its happy conclusion, and that without doing one thing correctly from the beginning to the end of it. Without my machinations, you would not now be reading this, whilst sneaking fond glances around its edges at your Irish husband, whenever he comments upon some item in the newspaper with a particularly significant “H’mm.”Had I not exasperated my mother past bearing, you need never have been Presented; had I not encouraged Kitty to attend that lecture, and provided the requisite objectionable relations to issue that Fatal Invitation, a certain gentleman would never have had the opportunity to display his latent chivalric instincts, and thus win your attention. Furthermore, had I not subsequently meddled on every conceivable occasion, with the sole intent of preserving you in your single state, you might be content in that state this very instant; in fact, were it not for my humble self, you would have spent the entirety of this year quietly at Merriweather, wholly unconscious of the fact that such a person as Mr. Lenox even existed. So think on these things, pray, when you sit down to reply to your numerous correspondents, and always place my offerings at the summit of the epistolary mountain.

Of course, some persons, considering the subject of debts accrued, might be of the unamiable opinion, that it was rather I who owed you—or at the least, Mr. Lenox—some species of recompense for my sundry interferences: I place myself among them—and it was upon just this conviction that I acted, in the following two circumstances, which I am about to relate. The first was, that when, about halfway between ceremony and departure, Clive asked me, if I did not think it would be a fine thing if he were to fetch “Uncle Tommy’s electrical box” from the library, and set it up in a corner of the gallery for the entertainment of any of the guests who wished to add a spark of interest to the proceedings, I told him, very emphatically, No; and menaced him with various dire consequences should he persist in his plan—most effective, was my threat to tell Emmeline he had produced the thing because he thought it might amuse her. The second was, that I arranged, with the assistance of Mrs. Hunt, to have the remains of the celebratory feast removed to the Dower House, so that when your family returned home, all tottering on the verge of a horrifying realization of Julialessness, I was able to avert the peril by ushering them into a room fragrant with Jean-Paul’s succulent creations. Some protested they could not eat, but disquieted nerves are no match for an insistent stomach, and we very soon had nothing left but crumbs, and one distinctly overdone sausage, which, however, did not survive to return to the kitchen, due to the vigilance of Augustus. Nor was this the end of my labors, for afterward, without allowing them time for pensive thoughts about anything other than the wisdom of having eaten that last sponge biscuit, I produced Cecilia, and Major Merrion, per our agreement, read from it several passages, which I had marked out for him beforehand.

Cecilia?” you may be exclaiming. “Why Cecilia? Why not the Grandisons, or Pilgrim’s Progress, or some other, more universal, favorite?” Let me assure you, this was no random selection: I had decided upon this particular work after severe cogitations, and over the objections of your uncle, who protested vigorously against a book “in which there was depicted scarcely one male character who would not have been better strangled at birth.” I pointed out to him that this would answer the purpose excellently, for to have their attentions engaged by a novel, where even the hero was possessed of inferior qualities, could not help but recall to their minds the far superior gentleman to whom they had just entrusted their Julia. “We don’t want to present them with someone like Sir Charles,” said I; “because, for one thing, we don’t wish to drive Clive from the room.” This last, Major Merrion allowed, though I suspect he remained unconvinced about the rest. Luckily, his concurrence did not signify, as his disparaging tone, when he was forced to narrate some action of young Delvile’s he found particularly wanting in sense—for instance, your uncle has clearly no sympathy at all, for the miseries of young men who catch cold from sitting around in damp garments, when dry ones are available—was perfectly suited to my scheme. Your father soon made a comment of his own regarding that singularly useless youth, which won general agreement; whereupon I interjected a few encouraging hints, to guide their thoughts to the contrast between his behavior and Mr. Lenox’s, and this was enough: your mother continued from there, and after discussing among themselves your hero’s merits for the space of an hour or so, and the necessary contentment of your lot, I was able to see them lighted off to their beds in a contented enough frame.As for your grandfather, I heartlessly left him to assuage his melancholy as best he might, for I have little sympathy for his loss. Did he ever once, I wonder, pause to consider what must be the inevitable result of his thoughtless decision to put you in the way of so many unattached gentlemen, not all of whom could be counted upon to be totally ‘repellent’? (You will understand what I mean by that, only if you were attending to your Uncle Tommy’s lectures on electricity the other evening as you should have been.)

And thus, dear Julia, have I nobly quitted myself of every arrears of debt toward Mr. Lenox, for my attempts to meddle in his happiness. From now on, I shall meddle in your affairs only with the design of increasing it, since, as you are now ‘one,’ I suppose your joys must be intertwined as well.

On this head, I will just mention that Mr. Hayden and I were fully satisfied with our travel arrangements, and if you had not been so unnaturally selfless as to insist that Sir Warrington should take a seat in your carriage, Mr. Hayden might have been able to face his trial, heartened by the knowledge that he was performing an act of meritorious self-sacrifice. As it is, you condemned him to two hundred or so miles opposite her ladyship, without even the consolation of knowing that his sufferings enabled the Newly-wedded Pair to travel in peace and comparative comfort. Justice demands, that I should hope you were repaid by hours of your brother-in-law’s feverish recountings of the day’s delights, but my friendship for you will not allow it: rather, I hope Justice—and Sir Warrington—slept the profound and well-earned sleep of the child who has spent the last eight hours exhausting both himself and everyone around him.

But enough:I do not mean to speak ill of your new relatives. It is impolite—more, it may be irreligious, since the Law, rather unfeelingly, one opines, has performed a mysterious operation and made Lady Lenox your “mother,” thus causing her to fall inescapably under the heading of the Fifth Commandment, so that even to peruse the candid comments of a friend on the subject, may come perilously close to lawlessness. Well, I shall say no more. Lady Lenox is a very elegant woman, and rightly admires her second son, however little she understands him. I will add, that my mother approves her, and not only because of the siren call of her ladyship’s favorite phrase, “my grandfather, the Duke.” Indeed, my mother thought her the most handsomely-dressed person at the wedding, not excepting the bride, who foolishly cast aside this honor by refusing to completely sacrifice comfort for the sake of Dame Fashion—a goddess who inevitably decrees that females should always wear the garments least suited to the weather available at the time; thus we shiver our way through spring in thin muslins, wrapped in shawls; and thus you should have stood before the altar sweltering beneath ten yards of satin, and prickled about by clusters of lace. You will please recall that I attempted to remind you of this at the time, and that you brushed aside my concerns with a vaunting laugh; so you have no one but yourself to blame if, when Mr. Lenox stood looking down at you directly after the ceremony, he was not thinking—as Mrs. Chalmers breathed moistly and impossibly into my ear—that you were “the sun and the moon and the stars of his universe” but was instead silently musing within himself, “That dress! What was the girl thinking? I must have my mother take her in hand.”

Most sincerely and affectionately yours,

Ann, Only Daughter and Chief Meddler of the House of Northcott

Postscriptum: You will note that I refrained from heaping curses upon the Irish Sea, nor did I once refer to the Gaping Void left in my life by your departure, or the Hollow Wasteland which is now to be my future lot, without your benign presence to guide and encourage, and tell me kindly when I am being foolish, shrewish, or merely irritating. The absence of these sentiments is due to the fact that the last twelve years meant nothing to me: I have discovered in the wash-stand an admirable substitute confidant, and therefore do not miss you at all.

Postscriptum secundum: Naturally you noted, and were deeply distressed by, the fact that Mrs. Harwood dared to come and witness your nuptials under the auspices of her lilac Chip. I assure you this slight to your family’s importance could not have been felt more acutely by you, than it was by my mother: even the reflection that new ribbands had clearly been affixed to it in your honor left her unmollified. Unhappily, she chose to confide her outrage over the matter to Lady Gower whilst standing within earshot of Major Merrion, and the two ladies were busy agreeing that “it was no compliment to the Parrys to come out in a hat which has seen at the least five summers” and amiably speculating as to what impulse of ill-taste or ill-feeling must have led to Mrs. Harwood’s choice, when your uncle turned round upon them and said, in his direct way, “What nonsense! I daresay she wore the thing because it is her favorite hat!” He then strode across to the unsuspecting object of their scrutiny, and nearly sent the poor woman into five fits by his abrupt and inexplicable praise of the ancient chapeau.

Postscriptum the Very Lastum: Did not Clive dazzle the senses in his blue coat? One marvels that your mother prevailed upon him to wear it, even on such an occasion. A thousand curses upon that hen-witted tailor’s assistant—though, poor fellow, I daresay he could not help it: too many years of flattering spindle-shanked London beaus left him but ill-prepared for your brother.If only the fellow had had the wits to commiserate with Clive on the unbecoming color, and then added, “On the other hand, the fit is excellent: you will be able to put it on and off in a moment, with no difficulty at all. And just look at the strength of the stitching! Truly, it might have been designed for the express purpose of conveying injured hedgehogs.”

Postscriptum I Lied-um: Did you note that I never once referred to your husband by the agreed-upon soubriquet of “Lenox”? This was deliberate. While I concede that it has the merit of a sort of affable neutrality, unlikely to cause distress in either maternal or fraternal bosoms,it nevertheless strikes me as falling more appropriately from the lips of some hearty schoolfellow, than from the pen of his wife’s spinster friend. “Mr. Lenox,” however, is too tedious to be writing out for the next fifty years, and I therefore propose to adopt the denomination “Mr. L.” to refer to the gentleman in question.If this fails to meet with your approval, you may submit an alternate proposal, which I will have buried in placed before a select committee, so that after twenty years of discussion it will be at last returned to the House and adjudged entirely irrelevant.

 

[1] Fr. Lit: “belly to the ground”=at full speed

[2] “Murad the Unlucky”—one of Maria Edgeworth’s Popular Tales

[3] Henry V, Act 5, Scene 2

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