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Excerpt from Part One: 1863
SPRING TOOK ITS TIME COMING to Hertfordshire that year. January and February had been cold and wet, providing little encouragement for anyone to venture out, unless it was absolutely essential to do so. Teresa and Cathy had been invited to their grandparents' home, Ashford Park in Leicestershire, and would not be back for some weeks. Anna Bingley went regularly, sometimes with her husband, to visit her parents at Haye Park and to Longbourn, to see her aunt, Charlotte Collins.
The Faulkners always welcomed their visits. In addition to the obvious pleasure of seeing their daughter and grandson, Dr Faulkner had found in his son-in-law a man after his own heart. Modest, amiable, and good humoured, with strong principles and a genuine desire to help those around him, be they his friends and relations or the men and women who lived and worked on his estates, Jonathan Bingley had pleased and surprised his father-in-law with the strength of his conviction that fairness was an essential ingredient of a civilised society.
As one who cared with equal solicitude for all his patients, rich and poor alike, Dr Faulkner was singularly impressed with a landowner who had been a parliamentarian and yet could put the interests of his tenants and labourers above profit, in an age that saw men grow greedier by the day. He was well satisfied that his daughter had married such a man as she could both love and respect.
As for Mrs Faulkner, so completely overwhelmed was she by the idea of her daughter being the mistress of both Netherfield Park and Longbourn, which Jonathan Bingley had inherited in its entirety after the death of his aunt Miss Mary Bennet, that she asked for little more than an occasional invitation to dine at Netherfield. With the arrival of their grandson Nicholas, her cup of joy was filled to overflowing.
Following the death of Mary Bennet, Charlotte Collins had continued to live at Longbourn, where on Anna's initiative and with Jonathan Bingley's encouragement, a School of Fine Arts for Young Ladies had been established. As the excellence of Anna Bingley's teaching of Art and Music and her aunt's reputation as a firm and scrupulous mistress in charge became more widely known, several new enrolments had resulted and there had been many more enquiries this year, from all over the district, as the daughters of the middle class sought artistic accomplishment. Mrs Collins believed they ought to consider taking on another teacher, in addition to Mrs Lucy Sutton, a widow who had moved to Meryton from London with her children, and was doing well teaching the younger pupils. Plans were afoot to resume after Easter for the new term, and Mrs Collins and her staff were busy making preparations to receive their new pupils.
Jonathan Bingley, having just returned from Longbourn, was divesting himself of his coat in the hall, when Anna came downstairs with their son Nicholas, who flung himself into his father's arms with the excessive enthusiasm of most energetic two-year-olds. Stopping to hoist his son onto his shoulders, Jonathan joined his wife on the stairs and, as he did so, noticed the letter in her hand. Recognising immediately Anne-Marie's handwriting and the notepaper from Standish Park, he asked "Does Anne-Marie write to say she is coming home?"
Anna nodded, smiling. She knew how much he had missed his daughter, who had been away in Kent since before Christmas. "Yes indeed, we are to expect them on Thursday. I believe, Emma, James, and their youngest boy will stay with us a week. Young Charles is back at school, and Victoria and Stephanie are in London, making preparations for the wedding," she said, glancing at the letter, as she told him the news.
"That is excellent news, excellent," said her husband, fairly beaming with pleasure, "and how does she write? Is she cheerful? Has she been well all Winter?" he asked and Anna laughed, "Oh, Jonathan, you know we would have been informed if she had been unwell. Of course she is well and what is even better, she seems well on the way to recovering her spirits, too. She writes of her determination to get back to work."
Then seeing the look of alarm that crossed his face, she said quickly, "Not at the hospital at Harwood Park, no, but she has a plan in mind for a children's hospital in Meryton. She says she has discussed it with Emma and James and is keen to get to work on her plans. I gather from her letter that she has accompanied Emma on some of her charity work in the back streets of London and has been moved by the plight of the children there. They get little medical attention and many die of neglect," said Anna, adding grimly, "It really is a scandal, Jonathan."
Her husband agreed that it was.
"Yes indeed, my dear, I am ashamed to admit that governments in England, and here I do not exempt my own party, have repeatedly shirked their responsibilities in this regard. Ever since 1848, decent people have demanded that the government take action to improve the health of ordinary folk, but despite the passage of the Public Health Act, very little progress has been made. Unfortunately, our governments prefer to leave it to the local boards of health and the religious charities to run health services. These bodies are usually far more concerned with other matters than the health of the poor. Both James and I have always believed the government must do more," he declared.
By this time, young Nicholas had become bored and impatient. He had hoped his father would play with him, but since that was not forthcoming, he demanded to be set down, so he could climb the stairs alone and demonstrate his independence. Conversation had to be suspended while his parents indulged him and praised his efforts. He was a lively child and was not often refused attention when he sought it.
Later, after his nurse had taken Nicholas away to the nursery, Jonathan returned to his daughter's letter. He wanted to know what more she had written and what impression Anna had formed of her state of mind. He was still desperately anxious for her.
In the long Winter months during which Anne-Marie had remained with her Aunt Emma Wilson at Standish Park, Anna had had the unhappy task of acquainting her husband with the whole truth about his daughter's marriage and the reasons for her anguish, which had been kept from him.
At first, he had been stunned by the enormity of it all. He could not believe that the Harwoods, who had been her special friends, had thought it right to persuade her into such a marriage. It seemed to him a heartless and unconscionable thing to have done. He was angry, too, that he had never been consulted.
"What right did they have to take upon themselves the duty of advising her upon such an intimate and important matter? Surely, if any one had responsibility, it was I? Anne-Marie should have been encouraged to confide in us before accepting Bradshaw. I cannot concede that the Harwoods had any greater claim to advise her on such matters. I should, at least, have tried to make her see that it was a decision fraught with danger for both of them. To make a mistake in love and acknowledge it is one thing; but to coldly agree to enter into a marriage without love is quite another matter. I am not surprised she has suffered terribly; she is too sensitive, too softhearted to accept such an arrangement and feel no remorse," he said and, hearing the anguish in his voice, Anna knew his resentment would not abate easily.