Jane Austen After by Sherwood Smith


  Sherwood Smith


  Book View Café Edition

  October 13, 2015

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-556-4

  Copyright © 2015 Sherwood Smith


  I suspect the proliferation of Austen sequels and related novels is partly inspired by the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice in 1996, and partly by the rediscovery of Austen herself.

  Her ironic wit and her sense of decency are both bewitching in anxious modern times. In Austen’s world, there are no terrorists, no bombs, no urban blight or global warming—all the anxious bits of modern life that we are helpless to fix.

  In Austen’s world, what a woman thinks and does matters. The deserving get good lives, the undeserving live with the consequences of their actions. But she only wrote six novels.

  So of course people are going to revisit that world by imagining what happened later to their favorite characters, or by placing new characters in the familiar world. According to James Austen-Leigh’s memoir about his aunt, Jane Austen herself talked with her siblings and nieces about what would happen to the characters after the books.

  It was fun for me to write these stories, three of them being Austen sequels, and one story about Jane Austen herself, giving her an adventure of the sort she never had.

  The first and last, “The Poignant Sting” and “Miss Austen’s Castle Tour,” have a bit of magic. The middle two, alternate postscripts to Mansfield Park (the third, longer one, is published separately as Henry and Fanny), have no magic. Both of these include characters from other novels whose future lives I tried to imagine.


  Inspired by a single line in Emma, spoken by Miss Bates, this story examines the early days of marriage for both couples, through the vector of Miss Bates’ unknown special ability . . .

  “Ay, very true, my dear,” cried Miss Bates, though Jane had not spoken a word—“I was just going to say the same thing.”

  Jane Austen, Emma

  Mrs. Elton had sustained three blows since matrimony had brought her to Highbury the year previous. As a bride she had enjoyed the right to lead the way in company, but one cannot be a bride for ever. Three weddings had superseded hers.

  Miss Emma Woodhouse’s favorite, the ill-born Harriet Smith, had gained a pretense of decency as a Mrs. Martin. “At least, I may take some comfort in observing,” Mrs. Elton said to her husband after he had performed the ceremony, “that Mrs. Martin, as I suppose we must call her, will not be introduced in Highbury’s first circles. Even Emma Woodhouse cannot thrust a farm wife out of her natural sphere.”

  “You may observe it to me, Augusta,” Mr. Elton replied. “But Mr. Knightley would not care to hear it said everywhere. Mr. Martin is his tenant. And I believe he was fond of the former Miss Smith, in his odd way.”

  “I would not be so ill-bred when he is in company,” she retorted, for she did not love to be checked.

  Her caro sposo did not venture a response. In his experience the subsequent vituperation could far outlast his memory of the original point. He consulted his pocket watch, discovered that the hour had advanced, and shut himself into his bookroom to pen his next sermon.

  No sooner had Mrs. Elton become accustomed to Harriet Smith’s pretense of respectability whence came the second blow, which was Jane Fairfax’s change of state to Mrs. Churchill of Enscombe. Though Mrs. Elton claimed the rights of friendship—even hinting she had made the match, talking everywhere of “Mrs. Churchill, Jane Fairfax before donning Hymeneal’s saffron robe”—nobody seemed to think it necessary to ask Mrs. Elton to give way for the bride, as she was very ready to do.

  Finally came the worst blow of all. Mrs. Elton was obliged to see restored to all the glories of precedence the new Mrs. Knightley, once Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield. Mrs. Elton did not like pretty young Mrs. Knightley, who (despite Mrs. Elton’s strenuous efforts since arriving as a new bride) was everywhere considered first in importance in Highbury’s best society.

  These marriages led to more irritations, beginning with the firm friendship between Mrs. Churchill and Mrs. Knightley. These were no mere calls of politeness, the strict etiquette of fifteen minutes or at most half an hour. The visits could last all day, from anything Mrs. Elton gleaned after very close questioning of servants who had connections there.

  “What can the Churchills be doing so often in Highbury?” she wondered aloud. “A fine thing, to inherit such a seat as Enscombe, just to never set foot in it. Why should they crowd so often into that poky house at Randalls, to be a charge on poor Mrs. Weston?” Mrs. Weston having once been Emma Woodhouse’s governess, Mrs. Elton’s tone added extra meaning to the word ‘poor.’

  Her caro sposo, to whom these questions were inevitably addressed, had come after a year of matrimony to believe it safer to return a mild answer. “As Mr. Weston is Mr. Churchill’s father, surely the claims of family must explain it.” The Eltons had begun their marriage in high glee, united in the abuse of certain among their neighbors. But when the disappointment and hurt pride that had driven him to marry so swiftly had diminished, leaving him to his customary wish for ease, he had discovered that his wife’s relish for strife was unlimited.

  Mrs. Elton must be silenced: her own sister, Selena Suckling, obviously did not rate the claims of family high enough to make her much promised visit in her barouche-landau.

  After a winter’s steady stream of fine fruits and recipes for delicacies ostensibly sent to the elderly, infirm Mr. Woodhouse at Hartfield, with mendaciously friendly messages that cost the sender more to write than they cost the recipients to peruse, Mrs. Elton gained the doubtful pleasure of intelligence: all three brides were in interesting situations. In fact, Mrs. Martin was expecting her first lying-in some time during summer.

  Mrs. Elton was not at all fond of children, but she did not like to be thought behindhand in any doings.

  “What can they be speaking of?” she said in discontent to Mr. Elton upon receiving another report of a long visit paid Mrs. Knightley by Mrs. Churchill. “One might be led to assume they are the only two young women ever to find themselves in child.”

  Mr. Elton, made uncomfortable on such a topic, vanished into his bookroom.

  That left her alone. Her last resort was to retire to the windows that looked out over the lane.

  A day later she was rewarded by the sight of a new gig rolling down Vicarage-lane, with one of the Randalls boys tending the horse. The summer foliage, never to be sufficiently detested, obscured the gig’s passenger so that Mrs. Elton, running along the front windows, could only obtain the briefest glimpse of a bonnet and summer shawl. Surely that would be Jane Fairfax going to visit with her aunt, Miss Bates.

  Mrs. Elton conceived a violent desire to call on the good Bateses as well. She had been lax in that quarter since Jane’s marriage to Mr. Churchill. Perhaps there might even be an opportunity to drop a hint about how a new barouche-landau at the vicarage might be as well put to use in a visit to Enscombe as in any exploring party.

  But when Patty conducted Mrs. Elton up the narrow staircase to the Bates’ tiny apartment, the vicar’s lady was too late to discover her error. The foliage had concealed two bonnets in the gig: Mrs. Knightley sat side by side with Mrs. Churchill.

  The sour surprise in Mrs. Elton’s sharp face caused Emma Knightley to look down at her gloved hands until she could trust herself not to laugh.

  Emma was spared speech by the gentle flow from Miss Bates, who could not utter even a simple welcome in under five hundred disjointed words.

  “We did not look to see you on this showery day, Mrs. Elton, is it not a surprise, Jane? Here we are, so cozy together, but where are
my wits? I shall just drop a word in Patty’s ear, to bring out the rest of the tartlets, which she had set aside for grandmamma, in case she—but good Mr. Perry assures us that tartlets are recommended for our dear Jane, the fruit being well boiled—are you certain you will not take any, Mrs. Knightley?”

  Emma had been about to voice her denial. “I thank you for my part, Miss Bates,” she said, a little disconcerted. “But I just sat down to a meal with my father before Mrs. Churchill called.”

  “And how is dear Mr. Woodhouse? Always so attentive—and Mr. Knightley! We must not leave him out. Really, we have such good neighbors, do we not, dear Mrs. Elton?”

  Once again Emma felt the urge to laugh. Mrs. Elton uttered the words “Very good-natured, I declare,” but looked as if she were thinking something else.

  Miss Bates hardly waited for Mrs. Elton to finish that much before she was heard again. Mr. George Otway and his new horse—Mrs. Goddard’s young ladies planning a recital to benefit a poor family—the Miss Coles still enjoying their London season—Miss Bates scarcely paused to permit anyone else to speak as deaf old Mrs. Bates snored softly in her chair over her carpet work.

  Still talking, Miss Bates went away to aid Patty in the kitchen, leaving the three ladies alone with the slumbering grandmother.

  Mrs. Elton had brought along her latest letter from her sister Selena to read aloud, in order to make way for the hint about the barouche-landau. But she did not quite like to drop such hints before Mrs. Knightley. So instead Mrs. Elton addressed the former Miss Jane Fairfax. “How does our favorite, Mr. Frank Churchill?”

  “He is well, thank you,” Jane said.

  “I trust we will all be meeting together pretty soon.” Mrs. Elton gave a little laugh. “He knows he is a favorite of mine, almost an old beau. I believe I am very nice in my tastes, and so my caro sposo says, when he teases me about my beaux.” After a little pause, “And so, my dear J—Mrs. Churchill—fancy my tongue slipping into old habits—when may we expect to see him among us?”

  “He is in London, Mrs. Elton.” Jane’s calm profile did not change as she looked toward the open window, outside of which came the patter of rain drops in the road below.

  “In London!” Mrs. Elton threw up her hands. “These young men—! One never knows what they will be at next. Though I must suppose that Mr. Frank Churchill has inherited extra cares of business along with so fine an estate. Better his head than mine, I always say. When I recall how much work it was for my sister to supervise the Maple Grove servants—! And Enscombe, I hear, is even finer, with grounds that might please the most discerning eye. My own tastes are too well known—I am teased everywhere for being too high in my requirements.”

  Emma listened, halfway between laughter and indignation, as Jane politely dealt with this loud hint.

  Mrs. Elton made a little business of listening to the rain, then again came on the attack, this time taking Emma by surprise. “Have you not wondered what might be done with extensive grounds, Mrs. Knightley?”

  This insinuation that Hartfield did not rate the term extensive made Emma smother another laugh. “No, I can’t—”

  Mrs. Elton did not give her the chance to finish, but hurried into speech. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be planning an extensive garden.” Another affected laugh. “How often have I said to Mr. E, that I wished the vicarage came with a garden on the scale I’ve become accustomed at Maple Grove? You know what his answer was, Mrs. Churchill?”

  Jane returned a polite answer.

  “In his own way, he can be as witty as Mr. Frank Churchill, who we are all agreed is a pattern for wit. Mr. E. insisted I ought to offer my services to any who might need them. ‘And your being a lady precludes your being offered a guinea a day, Augusta. Which goes to the benefit of your friends,’ is what he said.”

  She laughed alone as Mrs. Churchill was not a laugher, and Emma forbore making reply. An uncomfortable silence might have ensued had not Miss Bates’s step been heard again, her voice soon after, as she attempted to reassure Patty on some homely task and in the same tangled sentence to beg pardon of her callers for being gone so long. She reappeared, her thin cheeks flushed, uttering half-finished phrases about the joint to be dressed for dinner and her having to serve the guests herself, as she carried the tea things in.

  Miss Bates had once been an object of ridicule to Emma, who at the age of one-and-twenty had set up to be a savant. Emma had found herself proved thoroughly, even universally, wrong in her judgments, and lacking in the penetrations she had prided herself on.

  Mr. Knightley had reproved her for carelessness toward Miss Bates, who made so much of so little, and who turned every circumstance to good. But even when she had determined to reform, Emma found it difficult to smother a sigh as Miss Bates rattled the cups, lost the jam spoon and found it again in the beaufet, then trod upon her own hem, commenting and questioning and marveling the while on these and other tiresome minutiae. “Where is that jam spoon? Oh here it is—I just set it down here—I must have been thinking of grandmamma—fancy I don’t recollect at all—we must have been in want of jam at breakfast.”

  Jane rose to help her aunt, serving Mrs. Elton first, with her customary calm grace. Emma changed her mind and accepted a plate merely to have something to do with her hands, contributing her share of the polite nothings everyone must speak though no one listened. Emma reflected on a point her husband had once observed, that Mrs. Elton spoke to Jane very differently than she spoke about her. That difference was the more observable now that the vicar’s lady did not quite dare the former familiarity of ‘my dear Jane’ without an encouragement that Mrs. Churchill did not give.

  Outside, the rain slackened to a thin mizzle. When the tartlet had been eaten and the tea drunk, Emma declared that she must go. Her father would be looking out for her.

  Miss Bates interrupted to exclaim over the wetness; when Jane could edge in a word she soothed her aunt with the promise that Thomas would put up the canopy, and bring an umbrella to the door, so that they might enter the gig completely dry.

  Mrs. Elton did not like to see the two ladies leave together. She could not resist a comment. “You have relieved my mind considerably, with your talk of a good canopy, especially as you must be obliged to drive out of your way, my dear Mrs. Churchill.”

  Jane was nonplussed by so blatant an attack, but Emma always knew what to say. She shook out her skirts and smiled. “How comforting it must be to send a carriage for a friend!”

  Mrs. Elton suspected satire, but did not recognize the cause; Jane sent Emma a look of disapprobation, though its severity was reduced by the betraying quirks at the sides of her mouth.

  Poor Mr. Woodhouse! He had believed himself to favor the idea of grandchildren without once ever considering their coming into being, and each day brought an increase in worry about Emma, which he found he could not convince Mr. Knightley to share. He often summoned Mr. Perry on the pretext of his own unease, then tried to get the physician to convince Mr. Knightley of Emma’s danger.

  “No, no, Mr. Woodhouse, you are out there,” the medical man insisted. “Your daughter is as healthy as can be, and she takes my advice. Plenty of fresh air, a daily walk, good food, and a glass of milk drunk before bed time. Mr. Knightley knows what I believe to be true: Emma will not suffer the same fate as poor Mrs. Woodhouse.”

  Mr. Woodhouse was forced to submit, but he had his own experience to think of, and there was very little peace in his mind. It did comfort Mr. Woodhouse, however, to see Mrs. Churchill among them. Her quiet good nature was just what suited his nervous habit of mind.

  As Emma and Jane arrived at Hartfield under steadily increasing rain, Emma’s invitation to come within and wait for a break in the weather was gratefully accepted. Emma was glad, though she must postpone her walk to Randalls, where she could exclaim over Mrs. Elton’s latest doings with her favorite auditor, Mrs. Weston. Jane Churchill did not like laughing over the foibles of her fellow creature, so Emma ke
pt her amusement to herself, the moreso as Jane seemed out of spirits, as much as one could descry despite her habitual self-containment.

  At a word of invitation from Emma, Jane sat down to the pianoforte and began to play. Emma picked up her sewing as the ordered chords of Haydn measured step around them, and set a stitch in yet another baby cap. She had made several, first for Harriet, then for Jane, and now for herself. With each baby garment completed the idea of an infant—a being separate from herself—became easier to accept. As her needle made the future manifest, stitch by stitch, she turned her thoughts from those familiar channels, and reflected on the visit to Miss Bates.

  She considered again her odd impression—twice noticed, now—that Miss Bates had not only accepted an answer Emma had not voiced, but had anticipated the question. Or was it just the fancy of a woman in child? It was said everywhere that women near to confinement took to odd fancies. Emma tried to scold and laugh herself out of her own fancy, but when Jane at last lifted her hands from the keys, she sent so long and unhappy a look at the window, and the empty path beyond, that Emma resolved upon distracting her. She would dare her question, trusting to the protection of her father’s quiet breathing as he dozed in his chair.

  The words were forming when her husband’s familiar step was heard outside the chamber. Emma jumped up and flew to welcome her dearest George—for after one-and-twenty years of addressing him as Mr. Knightley, a plain George had seemed impossible, but ‘dearest George’ had somehow been easier, and had become a very good joke between them. She drew him in, glad to leave behind what surely must be a ridiculous fancy concerning Miss Bates, of all persons about whom to conceive a mystery!

  As Mr. Knightley saluted the top of her head, Emma said, “See who has consented to join us this wet day. Surely the roads are worse than usual with all this rain?” There, would that provide a happy excuse for Frank Churchill’s reason for not being among them?

  If Mr. Knightley was surprised to find Mrs. Churchill visiting yet again, there was no sign of it in his demeanor as he shook hands.

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