- 2007 29 Sep
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.
"Beautiful," he whispered as his shoulder skimmed mine.
"Rascal," was my reply next pass.
"Determined." He offered a wink.
The dance proceeded to other movements, silencing our verbal banter. Two dozen couples rose upon their toes, then lowered themselves to just height as they swept up and back, not one step missed, all ably immersed in the elegance of a common sway and parry.
To others it may have been a lark, an amusement on a cold December evening, but for Tom and me it was a sparring, a deliberate caracole, turning, ever turning towards each other and away, despairing of steps that forced time and space between us. I became heady with the sustained implication, as well as the anticipation of more.
But suddenly, as one dance ended and the musicians began the prelude for another, Tom took my hand and said, "Let us hide away."
He pulled me into the foyer, to a bench leaning back against the wall of the
mighty staircase but slightly hidden by a tall stand set with a porcelain urn.
We fell onto the seat, a jumble of conspiracy, motion, and laughter.
"There," he said, setting himself aright. "Now I have you where I want you."
Before I had time to respond, he leaned forward and kissed me. ...
Now ... I put my fingers to my lips, hoping their light pressure will help me
remember the one and only. ...
I do admit that Tom and I behaved in a most shocking manner, dancing with no thought or eyes to another, sitting down together, head to head, knee to knee, discussing Tom Jones, and laughing in a way that caused many a matronly stare. That we did not care was shameless. Yet I would not change one moment of our time—which was too fleeting.
Before the third ball, I visited the Lefroy home in Ashe on the auspices of visiting Tom's aunt Anne, a dear friend. Of course, I had hoped to see Tom ... just to see him would have fed and sustained me, like partaking in one meal, all the while knowing there will be another.
But Tom had fled the house—as if avoiding me? And though I enjoyed my visit with Anne, it did not hold the delicious delicacies I had expected. I now hold on to the hope that Tom was truly called away. Or did he flee because his family teased him about our attraction? Families can be relentless and cruel even as they try to be delightful.
The next day, my feast was complete, as Tom came to call. The presence of his little cousin George was not the ideal—and was a surprise I did not quite understand—but I was so pleased to partake of Tom's company that I told myself I did not mind. And yet ... I sigh when I allow myself to imagine the meeting I would have desired versus the one that transpired with a thirteen-year-old chaperon who talked about nonsense when I wanted to talk about ... other things of far more import.
When a fourth ball was planned at Ashe, I held hopes that it was called to honour our upcoming match. In my anticipation I prepared many sets of dialogue that revealed how I would have the evening play out. Tom and I would return to our own special corner behind the urn. As he made his intentions known, he would combine his wit and charm with an eloquence that would impress me to such a degree that I would find myself willing to marry him just in hopes of hearing such eloquence again. And again. ...
Ah, the burdens of imagination ... when the evening did not play out according to my carefully created dialogue and staging, my disappointment grew to such an extent that others asked of my infirmity. I found a quiet hall and gave myself a good talking to, faulting myself, chiding myself. ... For in spite of my intense wishes, it is a known fact that people are not characters in a story, bidden by my whim to act and be according to how I wish them to act and be.
A few days after this fourth ball, dear Tom was sent away to London to continue his law studies. He had spoken of them, so I was not surprised. Not completely surprised. He had also spoken of the pressures of being the oldest male of his generation. His father had married for love and lost his inheritance, and as such, had no fortune to pass along. But Tom's great-uncle Benjamin in London ... ah, there is the fortune he needs to cultivate. It is the prudent thing to do for Tom's future—and mine. It is not unusual for the responsibilities and expectations of his gender to take precedent over the needs and desires of a young female with aspiring plans of her own. One's future must be nurtured and finalized to the best of one's ability, in fate's time, not ours.
Yet even with my dashed expectations at the final ball, and my disappointment in Tom's leaving, I take heart in knowing that our initial banter had grown to include some measure of substance. Enough substance that a future together is more than just a girlish inkling or a plot in a story.
And my expectations are recognized beyond my own hopeful wishes. My brother Henry's friend, who was here to visit over Christmas, presented me with a portrait of Tom, drawn by his own hand, assuming, of course, that I would delight in it. Which I do. I hold on to that portrait, as it is the only Tom I have seen during these ten long months he has been gone. I expect him to visit our home in Steventon soon, with the proposition to share our future forthcoming. He will go far, my Tom, and I will be a good wife.
I think of him, the oldest boy, the eldest son of twelve children, with five older sisters. ...
Five older sisters ... all in want of a husband.
Female names interrupt my thoughts of Tom, listing themselves as though they are real and have but to make my acquaintance: Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Lydia, and Catherine—no, Kitty. ... I nod, accepting their introduction, for each seems just right.
Five girls, each in want of a husband. Is this how I can dislodge my story from its hard-fought first line? I will begin with the sisters discussing their lot, chattering over the need for a gentleman who is, of course, in need of them. ...
It is as good a place as any to begin. At a beginning.
Excerpted from: Just Jane by Nancy Moser. Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764203565. Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.