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Chapter the First
The summer of 1791 is so firmly fixed in my memory that I believe I can never forget it; every detail is as fresh and vivid as if it occurred only yesterday, and looking back, there are times when it seems as if my life never really began until that moment—the moment when I first met him.
It was a letter which instigated this fond remembrance—a letter I wrote to my sister Cassandra many years past, which she came upon the other day by happenstance. It was a cold morning in late November, and we had recently returned to our Bath apartment following a lovely, all too brief holiday at Lyme. I was setting the table for breakfast, when I observed my sister seated by the window in the drawing-room, deeply engrossed in reading. An open box of old correspondence lay at her feet.
“What are you reading, Cassandra?” inquired I.
“One of your old letters,” replied she, smiling. “I came upon this box while I was tidying the wardrobe, and could not prevent myself from taking a look inside.”
“My letters? Why do you keep those old things? Re-reading them can hardly prove to make lively entertainment of a morning.”
“Oh, but it does. You wrote this one in September 1796 when you were in Kent. Here you speak of a Miss Fletcher: She wore her purple muslin, which is pretty enough, though it does not become her complexion. There are two traits in her character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea.” Cassandra laughed softly. “You are a most candid and amusing writer, Jane.”
“I am flattered that you think so, but I still say: what is the point of reading my old correspondence? It is full of nothing but useless details which can no longer be of interest to anybody.”
“I beg to differ. Reading them is a source of great pleasure for me, dearest.” Turning the letter over, she continued, “Look what you write here: We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of him, on whom I once fondly doated.”
I paused, the spoon which I had been holding forgotten in my hand. That single sentence caught at my heart, of a sudden bringing back to mind a person, and a time and place, which I had not thought about in many years—and an attachment which I thought I had long since got over.
Cassandra looked at me, empathy in her eyes. “You are thinking about that summer, are you not?”
“How many years has it been?”
I did the mental calculation. “Twelve and a half years.”
She carefully refolded the letter. “They say that memories fade in time—but where particular people and events are concerned, I have not found that to be the case.”
I knew that she was thinking of Tom, her own lost love, who had tragically died so many years before. Our eyes caught and held across the room.
“Nor have I.”
She came to me, removed the spoon from my hand, and set it on the table; then she took me in her embrace. “You are older and wiser now, Jane. But it is only natural that you should think of him. I know what he meant to you.”
So saying, she kissed my cheek, handed me the letter, and left the room.
I sank into the nearest chair, immediately opening and scanning the letter until I found the phrase which was of such interest to me. Then I held the missive to my chest, as a hundred memories came flooding back.
At that point of my life when this history occurs, I had attained my fifteenth year. I was young, I know it; but does age matter? Did Juliet, not fourteen, love her Romeo any less? What of Pyramus and Thisbe’s burning passion? Ought we to discount their raw and overpowering feelings, simply because of their youthful age? I think not. When he was near, at times my heart did not beat to its regular rhythm; in so many ways, I thought he was my perfect match.
To my mind, particularly when one took into account my education and the manner in which I was raised, I was, at fifteen, a grown-up person in every way; indeed, I felt as mature and worldly as my sister, who was three years my senior. I was not beautiful, like Cassandra; my hair was far too curly, and neither fashionably light nor dark, but a shade of brown somewhere in between; even so, I received compliments on my hazel eyes and clear complexion, and was often told that I bore a strong resemblance to my father and my six brothers, whom I believed to be handsome.
I lived in the house where I was born, Steventon Rectory, in the county of Hampshire. Although not grand or elegant by any means, it was a dwelling worthy of a scholar and a gentleman and had provided me with all the comforts and joys of a happy childhood. It offered more accommodation than many parsonage houses, making it possible for my father to augment his income as rector by taking in boarding pupils—as such, my sister and I had the benefit of growing up in a house of rowdy boys and being educated at their side. Since Cassandra had finished her studies, and all my brothers were grown and gone except Charles (the youngest, at nearly twelve), the size of the school was much depleted; yet Papa gave it no less attention than before.
We had a lovely garden and a big old barn, where for years my brothers and sister and I had enjoyed holding home theatricals. I had done very little travelling outside of Hampshire, other than two brief intervals away at school, and one family excursion to east Kent to visit my elderly great-uncle at Sevenoaks. I was anxious to see the world.
I had been taking dancing lessons since I was a child and loved nothing more than the idea of a ball; but an idea was all it had been, for as much as I perceived myself to be an adult, my mother still forbade me from attending the assemblies at Basingstoke. This was the greatest cross I bore at the time, for I dreamt of three things in life: doing something useful, writing something worthy, and falling in love—and how could I ever fall in love if I had to wait nearly two years before Mamma would allow me to come out?
On Thursday morning, the 18th of March, 1791, I was in my dressing-room, a smallish chamber which communicated with my bedroom and had been especially fitted up for my sister and me. I adored every inch of that room, from the chocolate brown carpet, blue wallpaper, and comforting fireplace, to the painted bookshelves and cheerful striped curtains, for it was a place of quiet and refuge, where I could write in privacy and peace.
I was seated at the small table between the windows, above which hung a looking-glass and our Tonbridge-ware work-boxes, thoroughly engaged in composing a little play I had entitled The Visit, and was just considering the next line to be spoken, when I heard the tread of footsteps on the stairs and my mother’s voice ringing out:
“Jane! Jane! Come down! You are needed!”
“I am writing, Mamma!” I doubted very much that my reply would hold much weight with her, and sadly this proved to be the case.
My mother entered the room and stopped beside me, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. “Look at you, bent over that table like an interrogation point—do sit up straight, Jane!”
Like myself, my mother was of middle height, and spare and thin; I never understood her personal assertion that she had never been handsome, for with her bright gray eyes, her aristocratic face and nose, and her shiny dark hair (which had retained its colour, although she was two-and-fifty) I thought her attractive. Although at times her behaviour mortified and infuriated me, I loved her dutifully, for she was a clever, honourable woman who worked hard to manage our busy household. However, to my everlasting distress, although she doted on her other children, she seemed to have singled me out as the one with whom to persistently find fault.
“Jane, put down your pen and come downstairs; we have work to do.”
“What kind of work?”
“I told you at breakfast! We still have all those shirts to make for Charles, and two new pairs of breeches, and who knows how many handkerchiefs. Cassandra and I have been working all morning, and with only two pairs of hands, it is slow going.”
My brother Charles was a cheerful, sweet-tempered, affectionate boy, who had chosen to follow in my brother Frank’s footsteps, and was to start at the Naval Academy at Portsmouth a few months hence. We had been sewing his new clothes for months, and although I was very happy to assist in the occupation, I saw no reason to interrupt my writing at that precise moment for such a task.
“Mamma: Charles is not going away until July. We have plenty of time.”
“The time will fly by, Jane. Even if we sew every day between now and July, we will be lucky if we finish it all before he leaves.”
“May I come down in an hour, Mamma? I am right in the middle of the most amazing scene: eight people are crowded into a tiny drawing-room which only has chairs for six. Two large persons will be obliged to sit on the laps of others—only imagine the hilarity which will ensue!”
“That can wait, Jane; this cannot.”
“But, Mamma! I have the whole dialogue in my head. If I stop now, I will forget! Did Shakespeare’s mother interrupt his efforts with a pen? Did Mozart’s father oblige him to sew gowns for his sister?”
My mother raised her eyes heavenward. “I know how much you enjoy your writing, Jane. Lord knows, we all love a good laugh now and then, and if anyone understands the pleasures of composition, it is I—I flatter myself that my poetry is not entirely unreadable—but it is only a hobby, Jane: an amusement for the family. We are neither of us Mozart nor Shakespeare.”
I could not argue with that assessment. The short stories and plays I had written were only fluff and nonsense which I composed to amuse myself and my family. When it came to literary talent, that honour belonged to my brothers James and Henry, who had demonstrated their brilliance by editing a newspaper while at Oxford.
“I write because I cannot help it,” said I.
“I understand; but that does not make it important. What is important is that you improve and perfect your needlework skills, Jane, for they will be of infinite value when you have a family of your own one day.”
I turned in my chair to face her. “How do you know I will have a family one day?” We had always been allowed—nay, encouraged—to speak frankly within the confines of our family; outside the home, it was a different matter. Perhaps this was to my detriment, for I often spoke without sufficient consideration, regardless of the setting; but my mother and father said they wished to know what was on our minds. “That will only happen if I marry, which requires that I meet an eligible gentleman—which seems highly unlikely given that you will never allow me to attend a real ball!”
She sighed. “We have been over this too many times to count, Jane. You may come out when you are seventeen, just as your sister did. Your father and I do not wish you to enter society or marry at too early an age.”
“Dancing does not necessarily lead to matrimony.”
“No, but dancing facilitates the means by which one might meet her life’s partner, and is one of several, certain steps towards falling in love. I met your father at a ball.”
“I know; but Cassandra has been out more than a year already, and she is not in love, nor even close to engaged. No doubt we shall both be required to attend many balls before we each find our perfect match. What is the harm in me starting early? Cassandra and I have done everything together since the moment of my birth; our progress in everything we have learnt has always been the same. Cannot you forget our age difference in this one, particular matter?”
“No, I cannot. Now go wash your hands—your fingers are all black—and come downstairs at once.” So saying, she quit the room.
With a deep sigh, I returned my aborted manuscript to my writing-box, washed my hands at the basin, and joined my mother and sister in the sitting-room. I threaded my needle and worked beside them in silence, struggling to keep the conversation between the characters in my play alive in my mind; but my mother’s and sister’s chatter, and the sounds of my father’s Latin lesson issuing from the adjoining parlour, forbade it.
After two hours thus employed, I felt I could sit still no longer. Glancing out the rectory window, I observed that the sun had made a bright appearance, and there was nary a cloud in the sky. After a frigid and dreary winter, the last dusting of snow had at last melted away, and the fields beyond, covered in a sparkling frost, beckoned to me. “Mamma, I have finished the long seam on this sleeve, and made good progress on the cuff. May I stop working now and take a walk?”
“You wish to go out in this weather?” She was incredulous.
“The post will not deliver itself. Someone has to go to Deane and fetch it,” replied I lightly, adding to my sister, “Would you like to join me?”
“I would, very much,” answered Cassandra, lowering her work. My sister, a prudent, well-judging young woman, was generally less demonstrative of feeling than I—a characteristic which I struggled in vain to emulate. She was also my dearest friend in the world; I valued her advice and counsel above anybody else’s, and loved her more than life itself.
“Well! I, too, am ready to do something else for a while,” mused my mother, putting her work in her bag, “but to go out? The roads and fields are all covered in frost. You will catch your death of cold!”
“It is nought but a light frost, Mamma,” countered I.
“There is nothing worse than a light frost, for it will soon melt away, and then you are forced to walk over wet ground. I had a childhood friend whose death was occasioned by nothing more—she walked out one morning in April after a hard rain, and her feet got wet through—she never changed her shoes when she came home—and that was the end of her! Have you any notion how many people have died in consequence of catching cold? There is not a disorder in the world except the smallpox which does not spring from it!”
“Mamma,” said Cassandra gently, “you are very right to be concerned, but I do not think there is any danger of the frost melting away today. The fields are still quite frozen.”
“We have walked for miles over fields far frostier than this,” added I. “We have been stuck inside such a long time this winter. I am dying to get out.”
My mother stood, and said, “Well, I can see there is no point trying to talk sense into either of you. If you catch cold, it will not be myfault. But see to it that you put on your boots, change your shoes the minute you get back home, and then it is back to sewing for the three of us.”
Cassandra and I donned all the essential accoutrements, and as we were about to leave the house, my mother cried, “Jane! That shawl will never be warm enough! Take it off and fetch your cloak! Why cannot you be more sensible, like your sister?”
Exasperated, I ran back upstairs and did as bidden.
As we stepped outside, I savoured the taste of the crisp, winter air and the refreshing bite of the breeze against my cheeks. “Is not itglorious to be outside? It is cold, but not too cold. Sunny, but not too bright.”
Cassandra agreed. “It is the perfect day in every way.”
“Yes—well—nearly perfect.” As we struck out along our usual shortcut—the well-travelled path carved across the half-frozen field in the direction of Deane Gate Inn, where the mail was delivered—I could not help but sigh. “Cassandra: why is Mamma so harsh where I am concerned? She is ever so sweet to you, yet constantly finds imperfection in me.”
“I think it is because she admires you more, Jane.”
“Admires me more? That makes no sense!”
“It does. You are ever so much brighter than I am, Jane.”
“That is not true.”
“The point cannot be argued. It is not in my nature to invent clever and witty stories, and relate them aloud in such a manner as to have the entire family laughing into stitches. Mamma perceives how very clever you are; so naturally, she expects more from you.”
“That is kind of you to say, but I fear it is not so. I know you all indulge me only because you love me. Mamma insists that my writing is not important. It is expert needlework, she said, which is to be the hallmark of my future.”
“Every woman needs to be skilled at needlework, Jane; but regardless of what Mamma says, she knows you are capable of far more than that; I feel certain of it.”
“If that is true—what do you think she expects of me?”
“I do not know,” replied she, troubled. “It is possible that even she does not know.”
“How confusing this is! How I wish I could oblige her! How I wish I could do more, Cassandra; more than darning stockings and making shirts and writing nonsense for no ears other than our own. Nothing of interest ever happens to me. I should dearly love to be useful somehow, to do something which might make a difference in the lives of others—but what that might be is a mystery to me.”
“You will discover it in time, Jane. You are still young.”
“Young! How that term exasperates me!” My footsteps crunched noisily against the hard, frosty ground. “I am not so very young, Cassandra. And what does age matter, in any case? How often have you said that you consider me your equal in every way? Oh! If only I were seventeen and out like you!”
“Do not wish your life away, Jane.”
“I am not wishing it away; I only wish to be out. Do you have any idea how hard it is to sit home while you go off to the assembly rooms without me?”
“I understand how you feel, my dearest; and I am sorry for it.”
“There are so few real amusements in the world. Dancing is such a glorious activity! It exercises both the body and the mind, all while moving with spirit and elegance to lively music.” Holding out my arm as if to an imaginary partner, I curtseyed, then practised my dancing across the field, making several turns.
Cassandra smiled. “You are an excellent dancer, Jane—so much more elegant and animated than I could ever be.”
“You are too modest. I love nothing more than watching you dance, dearest; except, perhaps, dancing myself. Oh! We know of parents who allowed their daughters to come out at fourteen, when accompanied by their mother or an older sister. Why must I be denied the same pleasures? How I wish I could powder my hair and put on a new gown, white gloves, and satin slippers with shoe-roses, and make my debut at the ball at Basingstoke with you tomorrow!”
“It is not all that agreeable to powder one’s hair, Jane; I only do it when I absolutely must, and because Mamma insists upon it. And with regard to your debut—you know Mamma will never bend on this matter. I wish you would not continue to let it vex you so.”
“How can I do otherwise?” The breeze whipped the strings of my bonnet, and I pulled my cloak more closely about me as we walked along. “It is so unfair. I am tired of dance lessons with Catherine and Alethea, improving my skills for nothing more than children’s balls at Manydown, or snug dances in our own parlour with pushed-back furniture and our brothers and neighbours’ sons for partners. How I long to converse and dance and flirt openly with gentlemen I have never met!”
With a little laugh, Cassandra said, “What appeals to you more? The flirting or the dancing?”
“The flirting, absolutely!” We had reached the opposite side of the field now, and holding up the hems of our skirts, we made our way up the mud-encrusted lane, past the tiny village and the church of St. Nicholas, over which my father presided. “Oh, Cassandra! Every night I dream of meeting a worthy young man who incites all my passions—a gentlemanlike, pleasant young man who is intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and accomplished, who shares my enthusiasm for literature and music and nature, with whom I can converse on any topic at length with spirit and debate—if he be good-looking, all the better—”
“Where are you to find this paragon of virtue?”
“I have no idea—but I have conjured him in my imagination. He must exist.”
“I fear you expect too much, Jane. No one man can be all these things to you.”
“But he must be! For he is the only man I shall ever marry. Were I to meet him tomorrow, I should fall instantly and happily in love with him.” With a deep sigh, I added, “But that can never happen until I am out. Why cannot Mamma and Papa be more liberal-minded on this subject? Can they truly expect me to wait nearly two more years?”
“You reflect a maturity well beyond your years, dearest. Perhaps Mamma will allow you to come out next year, at sixteen. In any case, the time will pass more quickly than you think—and there is much sense in waiting.”
“Do you really think so? I cannot agree. I think a girl ought to be introduced into company in a more gradual manner, so as to slowly become accustomed to the alteration of manners required of her. Was not it difficult, Cassandra, for so many years, to be allowed only to smile and be demure, and say barely a word except to friends and relations, and then suddenly at seventeen to be introduced to society with no real preparation?”
Cassandra coloured slightly; it was a moment before she replied. “I suppose it was unsettling.”
Our discourse was at that moment curtailed by the sight of two friends, Martha and Mary Lloyd, who were just emerging from the Deane Gate Inn with their own daily mail.
Martha and Mary, who resided at Deane parsonage with their widowed mother, had moved to the neighbourhood two years before. Although Mary, at nineteen, was closer in age to me than her sister, it was the kind, intelligent, and sympathetic Martha, ten years my senior, with whom I felt a deep connection, and who had become my own particular friend. Martha had generously finished my new cloak for me the year before, when my fingers had been suffering from chilblains, resulting from a particularly cold winter; and in return, I had dedicated a short story and poem to her.
We exchanged greetings; and upon learning that the Lloyds had no engagements that afternoon, I inquired as to whether they might like to return with us to the rectory.
“We are making clothes for our darling Charles, for the Naval Academy,” explained I.
“Oh! I would be happy to help,” announced Martha with a smile. “The endeavour will be more enjoyable if we work together, and—” (with a twinkle in her eyes) “I am certain your mother will not mind.”
I laughed. My mother, more often than not, embarrassed me by mending clothes and darning stockings when people came to call, insisting that it was an excellent use of her time. Mary also agreed to join us, and while the Lloyd sisters dashed up to the parsonage to get their work-bags, Cassandra and I retrieved our mail. There was only a single letter, addressed to my father, from our brother Edward.
Edward was my second-eldest brother, and he had led a charmed life. At the tender age of twelve, he had so impressed my father’s wealthy cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Knight, with his charm and sunny disposition, that they invited him to accompany them on their wedding trip, and to visit several times at Godmersham Park, their manor home in Kent. When it became clear that they were not to have any children of their own, they expressed their desire to adopt Edward and make him their heir. My father had initially been reticent to the idea, but my mother wisely insisted that Edward should go if he wished it—and wish it he did. The move had elevated Edward’s status into a world of wealth and privilege which he could before have only imagined.
“A letter from our Edward! Why, we are starved for news from him!” cried my mother, when we returned to the rectory. “He is so good, so amiable and sweet-tempered. Any letter from him is always a high point in the day for me. Do read it, Mr. Austen, without delay!”
My father, an intelligent and amiable man of nearly sixty years of age, adjusted the fashionable white wig which curled above his ears, and disappeared into his study. Not long after, he came out to the front parlour, where we ladies were at work, and after calling my brother Charles to join us, said,
“This is a most interesting letter. I see no reason why Mary and Martha should not hear it.” He gave me the letter, then sat down in his favourite chair. “You may do the honours, Jane.”
I opened the letter and read it aloud.
Chapter the Second
Godmersham Park, Kent
11 March, 1791
My dearest father,
I trust you are well. I have news which I had hoped to share sooner, but Mr. Knight has kept me much occupied since my return from the Continent with matters of business on the estate, with a view to furthering my education in such matters—and we have just returned from a brief trip to town. Both you and my mother will be pleased to learn, however, that in my moments of leisure, I have had the opportunity to involve myself again in the social activities of the neighbourhood—which brings me to the purpose of this letter. I have developed a strong regard for a particular young lady: Miss Elizabeth Bridges, the third daughter of Sir Brook William Bridges, 3rd Bt, of Goodnestone Park. She will soon be eighteen years of age and was educated in town. She is an elegant, graceful, accomplished, beautiful young woman.—I am honoured and gratified to say that she returns my affections; for I have asked her to be my wife, and she has accepted.
Here my reading was interrupted by a great cry of thrilled astonishment from my mother. “Engaged! Edward is engaged! Heaven be praised! My first child to be married! I thought it would be James, but no, it is Edward after all, and to the daughter of a baronet!”
“I am so pleased for him,” said Cassandra, beaming.
“Did not I tell you all those years ago, Mr. Austen,” continued my mother, “that it was for the best that we let him go to your cousins? That it should elevate him beyond any expectations we could ever have for him?”
“You did indeed, Cassy my dear.”
“And now I have been proved right! Such a match! It is a great blessing that he is to one day inherit all that property, with Lord knows how many mansions and houses, but to see him happily married, that has always been my greatest wish.”
“Mine as well, my dearest.”
So delighted was I by this news, and so eager was I to read the rest of the letter, that I could yet vouchsafe no comment; but my sister added, “She sounds a most appealing young lady.”
Martha and Mary offered their congratulations, and Charles exclaimed his own excitement; but all were silenced when my father held up a hand and announced in a firm voice, “Let Jane finish the letter, if you please.”
All eyes turned to me in expectant silence, and I read on:
Sir Brook and his lady have approved the match, as have Mr. and Mrs. Knight; and my dearest hope now is that you will be as forthcoming with your good wishes. No date has yet been set for the nuptials, but it is Mr. Knight’s wish that, (in his words) as we are ‘both very young, the event should not take place immediately.’ When we do marry, he thinks to give us his small house at Rowling, where we shall be quite content, although our income will be small.
16 March, 1791
Please forgive the interruption in my writing; I received a summons to Goodnestone Park where I spent the past several days, and I have even more good news to impart: Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Fanny, is now also engaged! She is to marry a Mr. Lewis Cage, a propertied gentleman thirty years of age of excellent character. It has been decided that both weddings should not take place until the end of the year. However, Lady Bridges feels such happiness at the good fortune of her daughters, that she does not wish to wait so long to celebrate the impending unions. There is talk of a fortnight or more of parties at Goodnestone during the month of June, the details of which are not yet final, but which will almost certainly include an engagement ball, a picnic, a strawberry-picking party, and a Midsummer’s Eve bonfire. To these events, a number of relations and neighbours will be invited; and I have been graciously allowed to extend a special invitation to my family at Steventon. I sincerely hope that you, my mother, my sisters, and Charles will be able to attend. Sir Brook generously offers you accommodation at Goodnestone for the length of your stay, and furthermore, invites you all to arrive a few days ahead of the other guests, in order that our families might have time to become acquainted.
Charles, I believe, will particularly enjoy a visit to Goodnestone, as the Bridgeses have three sons still living at home, one of whom is exactly his age; and my sisters will also be in good company with their six amiable daughters. I should mention that Lady Bridges is a woman who, while strictly adhering to the rules of society in general, has somewhat lenient views where her daughters are concerned; as such, and particularly since these festivities are to include only family and close friends, all her children older than ten are to be included in everything (the ball as well); therefore, Jane and Charles are free to do the same.
I could not prevent a little shriek of delight at this last remark; but my mother and father both waved their hands impatiently at me to continue.
Father, I suppose it may be difficult for you to get away in June; indeed, on your account, I would have preferred the festivities to be held in July or August. However the Bridges family leaves for Bath at the end of June, for a stay of many weeks; and I have long been scheduled to take a Scottish tour with Mr. and Mrs. Knight and a few friends, departing 4 July. The timing, however, may prove to be a benefit to you with regard to travel arrangements: for at the end of May, Mr. Knight is obliged to oversee certain matters at his properties at Chawton, and he offers to bring you home with him to Godmersham, where I trust you will be very comfortable for some days until we remove to Goodnestone. This means that you will only incur travel expenses on your return trip. Should it prove possible for you to come, I will put you in touch with both Mr. Knight and Lady Bridges. Please know that all here would be very pleased to have you join us here in Kent in June for what promises to be a very pleasant and memorable summer.
I look forward to hearing from you. Please give my love to my mother, sisters, and Charles. With every good wish, and the greatest affection, I remain your son,
My spirits, while reading my brother’s letter, can scarcely be described. Two weeks of parties, and an engagement ball—to which I was invited! I would get to see Godmersham Park at last!
“It is a thoughtful invitation,” said my father, leaning back in his chair. “What a shame we cannot go.”
With those words, it seemed as if all the light and energy had drained from the room.
“What do you mean, Papa?” cried I. “Of course we must go. This is an important occasion. Edward is the first person in our family to be engaged.”
“And I have six other children to follow. Let us hope that they will choose partners who live closer to our neighbourhood.”
“Papa,” said Cassandra, “if it is the expense of travel which worries you, it cannot be very great, as we shall only be obliged to travel post on our return.”
“It is not the cost, child. As Edward so astutely points out, I cannot get away in June. School is in session until the first of July. I could never think of leaving a month before my pupils’ studies are finished.”
My mother looked up from her work and sighed. “If they truly wished for us to come, they would be holding all these parties during our holiday from school, instead of gadding off to Bath and Scotland for their own amusement. It is too bad, for I would have truly liked to go. We have not seen Thomas and Catherine Knight these many years, and we had only those few, short days with Edward when he came back from the Continent. It would be gratifying to be in his company for several weeks on end. If only Kent were not so far away.”
“What matters how far away it is?” exclaimed I. “Kent is Edward’s home now! Are not you keen to see where he has been living all this time? Do not you wish to see the great house and lands that he is to inherit?”
“I do,” answered Cassandra quietly.
“I have always longed to see them,” said Charles.
“As do I,” admitted my mother, “but may I remind you: duty comes before pleasure.”
“My first duty is to the school,” insisted Papa, “for those boys’ fathers do not pay me to go off on a pleasure trip whenever it suits my fancy.”
“But Mamma, Papa!” cried I. “Edward is engaged to be married! How can you give your approval of the match unless you meet Elizabeth Bridges for yourself?”
“That is a dilemma, Jane,” replied my mother. “But whether or not we approve is of little importance, I fear. Her parents have approved him, and the Knights have approved her. They have all the consequence in this matter; our feelings will not make any difference.”
“Edward is three-and-twenty now. We must trust his judgement and his choice. And you cannot afford to miss a month of school, my boy.” Papa patted Charles’s knee. “Think of the consequences of so many weeks of idleness; you would fall behind in Latin grammar and all your other studies.”
A forlorn look descended on Charles’s countenance. “I suppose I shall never see Godmersham now.” Asking if he might be permitted to join the other boys outside, and receiving permission, he quit the room.
My heart went out to Charles, and when he had gone, I said, “Papa, after all these years under your tutelage, Charles must be far ahead of the boys at the Naval Academy where Latin grammar and his other studies are concerned. To miss these last few weeks of school would surely do him no harm.” I directed a silent, pleading glance at my sister, who took up my cause and added:
“Think how much it would mean to Charles to go.”
“We would be back before he departs for Portsmouth,” added I warmly. “It would be a last hurrah for him before he leaves us for so many years. You saw how dearly he wishes to go to Kent! And oh! So do I! Papa, Mamma, we never go anywhere. Am I doomed to waste all my days of youth in this humble spot? The Knights live in grand style at Godmersham (or so we are told)! I can only imagine the grace and refinement we should find at Goodnestone Park! It would be thrilling to see their houses and to meet the Bridges family and to live amongst them, as one of them, even if only for a short time. I am certain if I were so fortunate as to experience a month in such company and in such surroundings, I should never forget it!”
As I spoke, my mother and father exchanged a discomfited glance. I suddenly felt all the impertinence of my remark; for although it was true that we had rarely travelled, and did not have a great deal of money, we lived comfortably enough. Before I could voice my remorse, however, my mother said solemnly:
“It would be lovely to indulge in that way of life for a little while. We may have given up Edward all those years ago, but he is still our son, and I am still his mother. He has invited us, after all; if I could, I should like to see where he lives, and meet the woman he is to marry.”
My heart leapt with hope and possibility. My father, reaching out and taking my mother’s hand, said:
“Would you, Cassy?”
“I would. But how can I?”
“Just because I am obliged to stay behind, do not let that stop you. If you wish to go, then go; and take the children with you.”
“And be gone for a month entire? Mr. Austen, this Mansion of Learning cannot run without me here to manage it! You do not realise all the work which is required to run a household of this size. There are the meals to plan, the bread to bake, the beer to brew, the cows to milk, and the butter to churn—the work in the poultry-yard is never done—and my vegetable garden is at its most productive in June. Were I to leave, who should supervise all that? Who would make sure all those hungry boys are fed, and that they and their linen stay reasonably clean?”
“You are indeed the indisputable leader of this establishment,” concurred my father, kissing my mother’s hand, “but you would only be gone a month. I feel confident that, for so brief a period, I can find a way to cope. I could perhaps hire a woman from the village to help.”
Martha, who (like her sister) had sat in respectful silence throughout this entire conversation, now spoke. “There is no need for you to go to that expense, Mr. Austen. If you wish, I should be happy to take on Mrs. Austen’s duties in her absence.”
My heart quickened and I sat up on my chair. “Would you truly, Martha?”
“It would be my pleasure—” (adding to my father) “if you and Mrs. Austen are amenable to the notion, sir. I am sure my mother and sister can manage at home without me. I am experienced at supervising a kitchen and poultry-yard. I could stop in every day and do what is needed, and I could look after the boys as well—I do love children, sir—and my sister and I could take care of the vegetable garden—would not you be willing, Mary?”
“I should be glad to oblige,” returned Mary with a nod. “Your garden is always ever so much more bountiful than ours, Mrs. Austen.”
“Oh!” cried my mother, tears dancing in her eyes. “What a generous offer!”
“You are very good and dear friends,” said Cassandra gratefully; and I concurred.
“Martha, Mary, thank you,” said my father with affection and appreciation; and turning to my mother, added, “It seems our friends have made it possible for you to go away after all, Mrs. Austen. What say you? Have you any more reservations?”
“Well—I do not like the idea of being parted from you for so many weeks, Mr. Austen, or travelling all that way without you.”
“You will be so occupied every day in Kent, you will not even miss me,” replied Papa dismissively, “and as you will be conveyed there in the Knights’ own coach, you will be perfectly safe and comfortable.”
“How can you vouch for our comfort and safety?” cried she. “We are to have the benefit of a private carriage in one direction only; and they are as prone to accident and overturns as any other vehicle. The roads in this country are very bad; the turnpikes—as they have the assurance to call them—are such a disgrace, it is a crime to make one pay for them! Some are full of stones as big as one’s horses, and abominable ruts and holes that threaten to swallow one up, particularly at the end of spring, after a hard rain, when they are floating with mud. And there are constant other dangers: highwaymen are everywhere on the long stretches of country-side. Have you forgotten? Did not we read just the other day about a post-chaise which was stopped by a vile criminal, and its passengers robbed of their watches and rings and all their money? Not to mention how prone I am to sickness while travelling—it is such a long journey, I do not know if I should survive it—and the inconvenience of stopping the night at inns which will no doubt be drafty, dirty, have hard beds, and serve bad food.”
During this speech, my sister and friends sat with lowered gazes over their work, but the look on their countenances echoed my own silent amusement and impatience.
My father, whose eyes conveyed similar feelings, adopted a grave expression, and said, “My dear, everything you say is true. It sounds to me as if you have talked yourself out of going.”
“Oh! But I want to go! My heart is set upon it!”
“Well then, if that is so—I cannot guarantee that your journey will be free of incident or mishap—but these are the risks you must be willing to take.”
My mother frowned, then let out a sigh. “All right, then.”
Thrilled, I cried, “Do you mean it? We can go? Oh, Mamma! Papa!”
“Jane,” interrupted my mother, “do not get too excited. Just because I have agreed to go to Kent, do not imagine that I will allow you or your brother to attend every party they mean to hold, particularly that ball.”
A crushing disappointment washed over me. “Not attend the ball? But Mamma—”
“Lady Bridges, it seems to me, has some very strange notions,” continued my mother. “To include children at such events—to allow one’s daughters such liberties before they are out—I know that some people do it, but I cannot approve. Girls should not mix with general company until they are of age.”
“Oh! Mamma!” Tears started in my eyes.
Cassandra, glancing at me, and seeming to gather her courage, said:
“You held me back in just such a way, Mamma, and I cannot think that it did me good.”
“Whatever can you mean?”
“I mean that—for a young lady to be immediately required on the day of coming out to be accomplished at everything, and to converse openly with strangers, when all the years before she was either kept at home or told never to speak—I found it very difficult, and would not wish the same for Jane.”
Silently, I cheered my sister’s remarks, and gave her a grateful look.
My mother looked very surprised. “Well, this is an opinion I have not heard from you before, Cassandra.”
“I never really questioned it before, Mamma; it is just the way things were. But looking back, I think it was too much to expect.”
My mother went quiet for a moment, as she seemed to turn over the matter in her mind. “What do you think, Mr. Austen?”
“Our daughter makes an excellent point,” responded he. “Although I still believe that seventeen is a better age to be introduced to society in general, I see no reason why someone of Jane’s or Charles’s age should not attend the events which Edward described. As for the ball, it is to be held at their house, not an assembly room, and is apparently to include only family and friends; therefore, how is it any different from the dances and parties we hold here at home, with our own family and neighbours?”
After some consideration, my mother nodded. “There is sense in what you say. I suppose we could make an exception, for this one visit to Kent.”
“Oh! Thank you!” I was delighted beyond expression.
“Now pick up your needle and thread, Jane,” continued my mother with resolution. “Some one ought to tell Charles that he is going on holiday with us in June; and if we are to finish all these clothes, we had best stop talking, and apply ourselves to our work.”
Chapter the Third
Since the arrival of Edward’s letter, hardly anything else was talked of or thought of other than our visit to Kent. Charles spoke so often and with such great excitement of every extraordinary thing which he expected to see and do there (conjuring Kent as a golden land of perfect beauty—a veritable Utopia), that the other schoolboys were soon fed up with him, and threatened to box his ears should he mention another word about it.
The next ten weeks were devoted to a fury of sewing and cleaning such as I had never before experienced in my life, for my mother insisted that if she was to turn over her house to Martha Lloyd to run, it should be nothing less than spotless.
An exchange of letters ensued between my brother Edward, Mr. Knight, Lady Bridges, and my mother and father, confirming all the offers made in Edward’s first letter, as well as the travel arrangements. My mother, sister, and I, with kind assistance on numerous occasions from Martha and Mary, completed Charles’s new clothes for the Naval Academy with such remarkable speed that when May arrived, we had time to pause and reflect upon our own wardrobes.
“Mamma,” said I over breakfast one morning, “what do you imagine the ladies will be wearing at Godmersham and Goodnestone? Will they be splendidly dressed?”
“I suppose they will,” replied my mother, as she thickly spread a piece of toast with butter and jam. “I shall never forget the elegance of Mrs. Knight’s gown when first I saw her all those years ago, nor her hat, which was the very height of fashion. I have no doubt the Bridges ladies will all be similarly attired.”
“What should we wear?” asked Cassandra, visibly concerned.
“Our gowns are all so old and worn.” I frowned into my dish of cocoa. “My green one in particular is so washed out as to appear almost gray.”
“I have always admired a gray gown,” commented my father from behind his newspaper.
“I owned a gray gown myself at your age,” said my mother, “a lovely dove gray it was, and very becoming.”
“Mamma!” I set down my cup in its saucer with a violent clink. “Papa! How can we attend all those parties and a ball, wearing our old gowns? We will be looked down on as the poor relations! At least my slippers are in good order, but I have mended my gloves so many times that the fingertips are merely strings.”
“Do not fret, Jane,” returned my mother. “I have given thought to the matter, and although we cannot afford new clothes, if we add some new ornaments to our present apparel, it will freshen them up. Your blue satin gown is still very pretty, and if we add a gold sash, it will do very well for this occasion. I have a piece of white lace from an old gown that will smarten it up even further—and there is a bit of satin ribbon in my work-bag which will be just the thing for your pink gown, Cassandra. We can trim up our best hats and bonnets as well.”
“That sounds lovely, Mamma,” responded my sister.
I nodded, for her ideas pleased me. “What about our hair?”
“Edward wrote that the Bridges ladies will powder theirs for the ball, so we must remember to bring pomatum and powder, Cassandra—we do not want to offend our hosts by appearing less than genteel.”
“Might I powder my hair for the ball as well?” said I hopefully.
“Jane!” My mother frowned at me. “You know better than to ask such a question. Hair powdering is a practice in which you may indulge only after you come out, and not one day before.”
I sighed. For nearly a month entire I should be in a circle of very fashionable people, many of whom were only a few years older than myself, but at the most formal event, I should appear like the merest child. Oh well, thought I with resignation, at least we were going to Kent, and that would be an adventure!
We followed my mother’s suggestions, adding such embellishments to our gowns as we could devise, so that in due order we all felt some semblance of pride in our wardrobe. A week before our departure, my father returned from Basingstoke with a surprise: he had purchased for each of us a new pair of gloves.
“You think to spoil us, Mr. Austen,” cried my mother, kissing him soundly.
Cassandra and I were profuse with our gratitude. He smiled and kissed me on the head, saying, “I could not think of you going with holes in your gloves, Jane.”
As we made the final preparations for our departure, my mother was in a panic, striving, for my father’s sake, to ensure that all would go smoothly in the household while we were gone; but after spending several days with Martha going over all the particulars, and witnessing that good woman’s skill, experience, and good-humoured attitude in managing such affairs, my mother’s anxieties were soon tamed.
The last days of busy activity passed away. On an evening in late May, Mr. Knight arrived as promised in his handsome coach, which was sizeable enough to accommodate all our party, and attended by several liveried servants. I had not seen Mr. Knight in many years, but he lived up to my remembrance as a well-dressed man of fifty-six with a kind smile who, although a bit stooped in stature, yet held himself with a regal bearing. According to the fashion, he wore a gracefully-styled, white powdered wig, like my father’s.
“Such a pleasure to see you, cousin. You are looking very well!” cried he, heartily shaking my father’s hand. After warmly greeting my mother and Charles, he turned to me and Cassandra, saying, “Who are these bewitching young ladies? How you have grown since last we met!” He proclaimed us both to be beauties, an utterance which, had it been made by a youthful rattle, I would have taken as disingenuous; but the look in his eyes was so sincere that I could only blush and laugh.
We were all delighted with Mr. Knight and passed a pleasant evening in his company, during which he and my parents were engrossed in conversation, going over all the minutiae of our lives during the past several years.
“From the moment my Catherine saw your son Edward,” said he to my mother and father, “age eleven I think he was, she fell in love with him, and insisted she must have him. I cannot express my gratitude to you both, for your generosity in allowing him to come to us. Since the very first day, he has been the sunshine in our lives.” Here Mr. Knight’s voice broke, and he wiped away a tear. “We count ourselves blessed by his presence.”
My parents’ eyes welled up as well; and for some time we all were too choked up to speak.
When my mother and I pressed Mr. Knight for information about Miss Elizabeth Bridges and her family, he only smiled and said she was a lovely young lady, and as for the rest of the Bridgeses, they were so numerous, and he felt so unequal to the task of describing them, that he would leave that information to his wife to impart, once we got to Kent.
The next morning, we all rose early to make ready for our departure. With great anticipation I watched our trunks being loaded on board the coach, and then climbed within to take my place beside Charles and Cassandra.
“We shall miss you, George,” Mr. Knight called out the window, “but I promise to take care of your wife and family as if they were my own.”
“I know you will,” agreed my father, “for you have done just so with our Edward; and we could not be happier or more grateful.”
As the vehicle pulled away, and we all waved at Papa one last time, my mother whispered tearfully, “Oh! This is very hard. I do not know what I was thinking, agreeing to go to Kent without your father! I dare say I shall miss him too much to enjoy a single minute of this holiday.”
For the sake of my mother, Mr. Knight planned a three-day journey, so as to spend less hours each day upon the road. Even so, the rigors of travel did not agree with her. Although the first day of our crossing was uneventful, the weather pleasantly cool, and the roads dry, Mamma felt unwell almost the whole way, and was obliged to eat some bread to settle her stomach, and to take bitters whenever we changed horses. The motion of the coach had a very different effect on my other companions, who fell promptly asleep. I was too excited to slumber, my mind occupied both with the prospects we passed by and all the delights which were before us.
On the second day, a heavy shower made the roads dirty and heavy. The rattle of the chaise caused my mother a violent headache and increased the sickness to which she was prone. Upon arrival at the Bull and George at Dartford, she went immediately to bed. Mr. Knight saw to it that the rest of us were well-fed with beef-steaks and boiled fowl; we slept reasonably well, and set off again early in the morning.
Although rain continued intermittently throughout the following day, we were fitted with a famous set of horses who took us speedily from Rochester to Sittingbourne. The final leg of our journey was accomplished with ease, and even my mother’s spirits seemed to revive as we traversed the green Kentish country-side, everyone eager to see those places towards which we were moving. We left the road, and soon crossed a bridge over a slow-moving river suffused with reeds and other vegetation, the length of which was gracefully lined with trees whose leafy limbs bent almost to the water’s edge. Moments later as we rounded a bend, I gained my first sight of Godmersham Park through the drizzle.
“Oh! Mr. Knight!” cried I. “Your house and park are very grand.”
My mother, sister, and Charles were equally enchanted. Green lawns spread in every direction as far as the eye could see, comprising an immense park studded with grazing sheep. Just as impressive was the house itself, a very large and handsome Palladian brick mansion which fronted a rise of wooded downland. The centre block of the building was flanked by two-storeyed wings on either side, and there were all the requisite windows, ornaments, and chimneys one could wish for, to provide a most pleasing aspect to the whole. Mr. Knight spoke with relish regarding the finer points of the house’s construction, including details about the masonry and ashlar window dressings, of which he was particularly fond.
“Is Edward really to inherit all this?” said Charles softly in my ear.
I nodded, and replied in a quiet voice, “This is just one of the many properties in Kent which belong to Mr. Knight. And you know he also owns another great house and an entire village not far from us, at Chawton.”
“I cannot imagine being so rich,” whispered Charles reverently.
Nor could I; but my heart beat with pride and pleasure for Edward and his good fortune. Soon after, we drove up to the house; as if by providence, the rain stopped, the front door opened, and a parade of servants emerged and lined up on the gravel sweep to greet us. The step of the coach was unfolded, the door opened, and when it came my turn to climb down, I caught sight of Edward and Mrs. Knight taking their place at the head of the line. My brother—with his slim but sturdy figure, dressed as he was in a dark, well-tailored coat, satin breeches, perfectly tied white cravat, and shiny black, buckled shoes—looked every bit the charming, aristocratic young gentleman.
“Welcome, Mamma.” Smiling broadly, he came forward to embrace her, and then greeted Mr. Knight and the rest of us in turn. “I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you all.”
Mrs. Knight was equally welcoming. A well-bred gentlewoman who still retained the beauty of her youth, her eyes were quick and intelligent, and her manners composed, friendly, and sincere. “We have so longed for you to visit,” said she, after we exchanged the appropriate courtesies. “I hope your journey was pleasant and free of incident?”
“The only pleasure it afforded me was its object,” said my mother wearily. “I have survived it as best I could, thanks in great part to the solicitous care of your good husband, and I confess I have never been more delighted to arrive anywhere.”
We were all glad, after such a journey, to be released from the confinement of a carriage, and ready to enjoy all the comforts that the house could provide.
Charles, Cassandra, and I looked on in speechless amazement as we entered the mansion. The high ceilings of the hall and drawing-room were splendidly decorated with intricate, white-painted plasterwork and carvings; white columns and other lavish embellishments surrounded the main doorways; and there were superb marble chimney-pieces. There was an excellent library in the east wing, which I looked forward to investigating further. My mother, who tended to find fault more often than to praise, was visibly moved by all she saw and keen to speak of it. We were all warm in our admiration, and I felt all of my brother Edward’s consequence; to be master of Godmersham, I thought, would be truly something!
“It is all so lovely,” said I to my sister when we were left on our own in our bedchamber, the yellow room, appropriately named for the warm colour of its paper and furnishings. “A week hardly seems long enough to explore the pleasures of this place.”
“True,” agreed she, “but the Bridgeses expect us soon at Goodnestone Park—which gives us something else to look forward to. I am sure their house will be very grand as well.”
The next day, I determined to satisfy my curiosity on particular points with regard to my brother’s intended bride. As we all sat down to an early dinner after church, with the butler and two footmen standing at the ready, I said:
“Edward, how did you meet Miss Elizabeth Bridges?”
“We have been acquainted with her family for many years.”
“It is only very recently, however,” put in Mrs. Knight, as she helped herself to a serving of roast goose from the proffered silver platter, “after Edward came home from his Grand Tour, that he and Miss Elizabeth became attached.”
“When I left for the Continent, Elizabeth was just a girl. When I saw her again, at an assembly at Canterbury last November—well.” A gleam came into Edward’s eyes, and his features softened. “Four years had changed her a great deal.” His affection for his fiancée shone plainly on his countenance; it made me smile.