- Saturday, September 29, 2007
It is a true thing everyone knows that—I scratch out the words, dip my pen into the well of ink, and try again. It is not the first time I have scribbled and scratched, obliterating one word or phrase while searching for another. I long for the correct word, the indisputable one-and-only connection of words that will capture the essence of my intention. Yet these unfound words tease me by hiding in the shadows of my mind, just out of reach, being naughty and bothersome and—
I quickly put pen to paper, eager to capture the phrase before it returns to hiding: It is a truth universally acknowledged ... Yes, yes, that is the phrase that has eluded me. I dip the pen again, finally ready to complete the part of the sentence that has never been in question.
... that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
I sit back in my chair of walnut, feeling absurdly prideful I have completed this one line. And yet, it is an important line. The first line of a book. Actually, it is not a book yet. Would it ever by chance be a book?
I peer out the window of the rectory. My mother is bent over her beloved garden, plucking weeds from her asters and lavender hydrangea. I should go help her.
But I do not want to venture out. Mine is not a penchant for plantings and pinchings, but for pronouns and prepositions.
Mother stands and arches her back. I suffer her moan without hearing it. She looks in my direction and I offer a wave, which she returns. A lesser—or would it be grander?—mother would observe the gaze of a child who possesses two able hands and immediately summon her outside to assist with the work. But my dear mother (and father too), in spite of having no necessity to do so, condone and even encourage my writing. That it will never amount to anything, that the eyes of family will be the only eyes that will fall upon my carefully chosen "truth universally acknowledged" is also recognized and accepted, yet ignored as unimportant.
"Express yourself, dear child" has always been an invocation in the Austen household, and my sister, Cassandra (two years my elder) and my six brothers (all but one older than I) have always been eager to embrace the unspoken possibilities enmeshed within our parents' entreaty. We do our best to be who we might be—in all our grace, geniality, and glib foolery. That some are more glib and fool than graceful and genial is also not considered a complete disgrace. A person content to be bland will never be anyone's first choice as a companion for an idle afternoon.
Mother goes back to work, releasing me from any hint of guilt. I return to my rich gentleman in want of a wife. If only it were true. We Englishwomen of 1795 have no recourse but to assume it is so. Pray it is so. For how else will we ever prosper? Cassandra and I often huddle together in our shared bed, whispering in the darkness about the inequities of inheritance. How unfair that only the male of the species is permitted to inherit. Alas, the females of our world—if they do not find themselves a willing rich man—are bequeathed a life of obligation, forever beholden to the kind heart of some charitable relative to provide a roof that does not leak, a fireplace that does not smoke, and a meal that might occasionally contain meat. Such is our lot if we do not marry well.
I myself can say with some measure of pride that at age twenty, I have prospects. Or at least one prospect. And after all, a woman only needs but one if he be the right one. His name is Tom Lefroy. He is a charming Irishman, the nephew of a neighbour I saw at a ball last Christmas. His eyes are as blue as the Hampshire sky. ...
We danced every dance. When he took my hand to instigate a cross, rather than merely letting my hand sit gently upon his own, he squeezed it with subtle meaning. And when we slid by, one past the other, shoulder passing shoulder, we did not look straight ahead, as others with less intent would do, but turned our heads inwards, our chins glancing upon our shoulders as our eyes glanced upon each other. With but an instant for conversation, we resorted to single words, words full of teasing. And entreaty.
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