In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen leaves us to wonder what happened in Hertfordshire over Christmastide whilst the militia was stationed in Meryton. Take a behind-the-scenes peek with me at what might have happened.
December 28, 1811
“I do not know how my sister manages it.” Aunt Gardiner chuckled under her breath.
The morning sun framed her face in a nearly beatific glow as they walked through Mama’s rose garden. Only a few roses still struggled to bloom against the winter chill, but they were a reminder that come the warmth of the new year, the place would overflow with an abundance of color and fragrance.
“We have been here near a week, and not one night have we had a simple family dinner. Last night was the closest we came, and your mother still had what, four additional guests at the table? Two nights ago was the card party, tonight the theatrical at the Goulding’s home, tomorrow we are all to dine at the Phillips’s. Even talking about the pace your mother keeps is exhausting. We do not go out and about nearly so much when we are home. I fear that Jane will find us very dull company indeed.”
Elizabeth picked a dried and shriveled blossom off a woody stem, its shriveled petals raining to the ground. “Jane finds great contentment in all things. If you entertain, she will prefer that; if you make calls, she will relish that; if you stay at home, she will pronounce it all very agreeable. I wish I shared her very happy talent.”
“It is a happy talent to be rendered content in all circumstances. I give you leave to be envious of it. However, I should wonder if she is choosing to exercise that talent currently. There is something decidedly sad in her eyes, particularly when she thinks no one is looking.”
“I do not think it is a problem of her choosing correctly so much as it is Mama’s constant reminders that drive her from her place of serenity. It is difficult to set aside being unhappy when you are constantly reminded of being so.” Elizabeth kicked a small pile of leaves aside.
“Perhaps you are correct. I do hope a change of scenery will be good for her. I pray your visit with us in the spring shall not take on a similar character.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“All your commendations of Mr. Wickham have left me suspicious as to your mutual attachment. I have been observing you both very closely the last several times you have been in company with one another.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks prickled. “What have been the nature of your observations?”
“You are too sensible a girl, Lizzy, to fall in love merely because you are warned against it.”
“From you that is high praise indeed. I shall endeavor not to allow it to overtake my good sense.”
Aunt Gardiner paused and turned to catch her gaze. “Seriously, my dear, I would have you be on your guard. Do not involve yourself, or endeavor to involve him in an affection which the want of fortune would make so very imprudent.”
“So, then I am to believe you do not like Mr. Wickham?” If that were true, she would be the only one in Elizabeth’s acquaintance to feel so.
“I have nothing to say against him. He is a most interesting young man. If he had the fortune he ought to have, I should think you could not do better. But as it is—you must not let your fancy run away with you. You have sense, and we all expect you to use it. Your father would depend on your resolution and good conduct, I am sure. You must not disappoint your father.”
“My dear aunt, this is being serious indeed.” Did Aunt Gardiner believe her mistaken to have refused Mr. Collins?
“Yes, and I hope to engage you to be serious likewise.”
“Well, then, you need not be under any alarm. I will take care of myself, and of Mr. Wickham, too. He shall not be in love with me. If, of course, I can prevent it.” Elizabeth winked.
“Lizzy! You are not serious now.” Aunt laid a hand on her shoulder.
“I beg your pardon. I will try again. At present, I am not in love with Mr. Wickham. But he is, beyond all comparison, the most agreeable man I ever saw—and if he becomes really attached to me—I believe it will be better that he should not. I see the imprudence of it. Oh, that abominable Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth scuffed the toes of her half-boot into the dirt and kicked a clump of knotted roots. How many lives had Mr. Darcy the privilege of interfering with?
“I am not currently concerned with the character of Mr. Darcy. While I trust your character, I do have concerns about your heart.”
A chill breeze rattled the barren rose canes surrounding them.
“My father is partial to Mr. Wickham.” Elizabeth turned aside, the eye contact was just too much.
“Partial to Mr. Wickham? I find that rather surprising.”
“Even more so, Mama is as well. Shocking, is it not, to find them in agreement about something concerning myself?”
“I would not go so far as to say that. I find it difficult to believe that your mother is unconcerned as to his lack of fortune?” Aunt Gardiner often used that expression when one of her boys was offering her a half-truth.
“She herself suggested that I would be imprudent to ignore his attentions as I have done for a far more eligible gentleman.”
“In that choice, I can find no fault. As advantageous as a match to Mr. Collins might have been, it would surely have been your undoing. Mary might have done for him, perhaps even Kitty, but surely not you.”
“I cannot tell you how relieved I am to hear you say that. Mama has been so very vexed with me since I acted thus, I had begun to question myself.”
“I am troubled to hear that. It would be a shame if you ceased in trusting yourself. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” Aunt pulled her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders.
“Thank you. I should be very sorry to be the means of making any of you unhappy. But we see every day, where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune from entering into engagements with each other. How can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow creatures if I am tempted? Moreover, how am I even to know that it would be wisdom to resist? All that I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a hurry. I will not be in a hurry to believe myself his first object. When I am in company with him, I will not be wishing it to be so. In short, I will do my best.”
Aunt Gardiner sighed, a special disappointed little sound that pinched Elizabeth’s heart far more acutely than any of Mama’s scoldings ever did. “Perhaps it will be as well, if you discourage his coming here so very often. At least, you should not remind your mother of inviting him.”
“As I did the other day,” Elizabeth smiled a little self-consciously. “You are correct, it would be wise in me to refrain from that. But do not imagine that he is always here so often as he has been recently. It is on your account that he has been so frequently invited this week. You know my mother’s ideas as to the necessity of constant company for her friends. But really, and upon my honor, I will try to do what I think to be wisest; and now, I hope you are satisfied.”
“I am indeed. More so, I am relieved that you have not found the need to quarrel or resent me for what I have had to say.”
Aunt Gardiner returned to the house, but Elizabeth continued on in the garden.
Aunt said she might not do better than Wickham, except for his lack of fortune. Mama thought little of that obstacle. Papa as well. They thought him most agreeable. So did she.
Was it wrong to have hopes for the most agreeable man of her acquaintance?
Why did Aunt’s opinion have to be so very different from Mama’s and Papa’s? Why did it have to matter so much?
December 29, 1811
Elizabeth slept fitfully. Between her conversation with Aunt Gardiner and the knowledge that Jane would be leaving with the Gardiners in the morning, Morpheus was kept at bay.
She rose just after dawn. A walk would probably not be very helpful, but she may as well take one. She buttoned her pelisse and snugged her hat just over her ears. That and a warm pair of gloves should keep the early chill at bay well enough.
She slipped into the hall, her half boots whispering along the floor. No sense in disturbing the rest of the house.
Elizabeth jumped. “Jane! What are you doing up?” And already dressed, wearing her pelisse.
She smiled weakly. “I could not sleep either. May I join your walk?”
“I would relish your company.”
They tiptoed down the stairs, nodding to Hill as they ducked out the kitchen door and into the neat rows of the kitchen garden.
The last of the fall harvest had been brought in and the soil turned and readied for its next plantings. Elizabeth would probably help with that. Something about fresh soil and new growth was very soothing.
“What disturbed your sleep last night?” Elizabeth asked. “You have never been anxious about going to London before.”
“I cannot help but think…is it wrong of me…I mean I cannot forget that Mr. Bingley is in London. Aunt Gardiner warned me that they go out very little, and they certainly do not mix in the same circles as Mr. Bingley …”
“You still hold out hope of meeting him there?”
“I know I should not, but I cannot help it. Every time I think I have the thought dispelled from my mind, it returns again with such force it cannot be denied.” Jane turned her face up into the golden morning sunlight and bit her lip. “I am a fool, am I not?”
“Oh Jane, how can you say such a thing? You are a dear, affectionate creature. That you would be hopeful is little surprising.”
“But is it wise, Lizzy? I fear I am only … no, no, it is foolish. I have determined not to think of him any further, and I will abide by that. I know I shall enjoy the company of my young cousins and my aunt. That and thoughts of you shall be enough for me.” Jane dragged her feet in the dirt.
“Thoughts of me? Whatever for?”
“I shall think of the pleasant times you must be spending with Mr. Wickham.”
“Oh Jane. In truth I hate to even speak of it now, but you are to leave me soon. I do not know who then I shall be able to talk with. Charlotte has her wedding and new life to plan and things are rather…”
“Both. I do not know what to say to her. Such a decision she has made. I do not know how to wish her well without feeling a hypocrite.” Elizabeth gazed into the sunrise until its brightness made her squint and turn away.
“She is not you. Be happy in her happiness, that is all you need do”
“But is she happy? Can she be with such a man?”
“Just because you are not does not mean no one can be. Not all can enjoy your good fortune to draw the attention of a man like Mr. Wickham.”
“What do you think of him?” Elizabeth bit her lip and held her breath.
“He is everything a young man should be.”
“Have you not said there are not nearly so many wealthy men as there are young women to deserve them?”
“It sounds like something Papa would say. I do not recall saying anything of the kind.” But Jane was right, it did sound like something she might say.
“Whomever said it was quite correct. If expecting a man to be wealthy and agreeable and in love with us may be setting the bar far too high,I suppose we must decide, as Charlotte has done, which one of those is most important to us and hope to obtain only that that.” Jane pursed her lips and looked around. “Do you like him very well?”
“I do not know. I think I do. I very much enjoy spending time in his presence. He seems to seek me out whenever we are in company. I think perhaps that he might like me, too.”
“Then I am very happy for you, and I wish you—”
“But do you think it right for me to like him?”
“Right? I do not understand. Do our parents not approve?”
“They both do.”
“Then what is your concern? Where there is affection and support from friends and family, then an attachment will doubtless be celebrated and supported.” Jane studied her carefully. “Oh, I see.”
“Mama has been so distraught over Mr. Collins and … and Mr. Bingley. You fear seeing her upset once again. You are all that is kind and thoughtful.”
Was it deceitful not to correct Jane’s opinion of her?
“It will be well. I am sure of it. With no opposition on either side and no concerns but his fortune, I am certain that obstacle can be managed. You look so well together, that cannot be for nothing. Promise you will write me very often and tell of everything. I shall take my joy in yours.”
“I think perhaps you think too much of things. He has by no means declared anything to me.” The question was, would he?
“Then I shall be silent on the matter until you give me leave to speak. But know that in my heart, I shall be awaiting your good news.” Jane’s smile was ever so hopeful.
“I shall miss you very much whilst you are in London.”
“And I you, but knowing how happy you will be here will ease my spirit every time I think of it.”
Surely Jane was right. It was safe to enjoy Mr. Wickham’s friendship. More than safe, it was quite agreeable. She bit her lip to manage the smile that threatened to reveal too much. How lovely it would to be able to please Mama, Papa, herself and Jane all at once.
Aunt Gardiner would surely reconcile herself to it all when everything worked out as it should.
Wondering what Darcy is up to at this point? Check out Darcy & Elizabeth: Christmas 1811
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