Guide: an A to Z ramble through the peaks of great literature (abridged)

A is for Austen


by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged  that a single man in possession of a good fortune will not remain single for very long once he sets foot into one of my stories.
For there are only two ways in which a young lady of moderate means may hope to improve her financial status in this day and age. One way is to entice a rich gentleman into marrying her. The other is to write silly romantic novels like this.

For Mrs Bennet, the situation was indeed desperate. It was a difficult enough task to find one wealthy bachelor in the area around Hertfordshire in 1813, so how on earth could she be expected to find five members of that elusive species – one for each of her budding daughters. There was only one thing to be done.

“Come along girls!” she shouted, “Upstairs now and get those books written!”

So passed each afternoon in the Bennet household with the five girls busy scribbling away in their notepads while their mother patrolled the grounds of the house, inspecting the man-traps she had set to snare any unwary strangers. It was while they were thus occupied one bright spring day that the peace was suddenly disturbed by the rhythmic canter of an approaching horse. The ears of the ever vigilant girls pricked up at the sound.

“Who is it?” shouted Jane, the eldest and prettiest of the sisters.

Elizabeth, whose bedroom overlooked the front of the house went to her window to investigate. “It’s a man!” she exclaimed excitedly. This single observation concerning the gender of the rider was all that was required. “A man!” came the echoes from the other rooms. There was an immediate rush for the stairs and a terrible crash as the young ladies collided with each other on the landing, collapsing in a heap of frilly petticoats.

“I saw him first,” insisted Elizabeth as they struggle to their feet, but she was unceremoniously shoved to the back of the pack as the five went thundering down the stairs like hounds on the scent of a fox, each jostling with the others for the lead position.

Outside, the man had dismounted and was strolling leisurely toward the front door. He reached out a hand to pull the bell but, hardly had he taken a hold of the knob when the door flew wide open. His surprise lasted just a split second before he was buried under an avalanche of eligible females.

“He’s mine!” they chanted in uinison. “No he’s not, he’s mine!” they replied to the rival claims. Then commenced the tug of war as each girl began pulling at one of his limbs. There being only four limbs available for this purpose, Elizabeth was left to find an alternative protuberance on which to fasten her grip.

“Narrgg!” snarled the poor victim as his nose was very nearly torn from his face.

“Oh stop complaining,” retorted Elizabeth, “and be thankful that this is a Jane Austen novel, otherwise I might have grabbed a more suitable appendage. Unfortunately we’re not allowed to go to those extremities here.”

“Girls!” yelled their astonished mother as she beheld the fray, “what in heaven’s name is going on here?”

“We’ve got a man, mummy,” announced Jane with satisfaction.

“That’s not a man!” replied Mrs Bennet with disgust, “That’s your father!”

There was a groan of disappointment as Mr Bennet was dropped ignominiously to the ground.

“Where have you been daddy?”  asked Elizabeth though with little real interest.

“Visiting our new neighbour at Mansfield Park as a matter of fact,” he replied, while brushing the dust from his clothes, “His name is Bingley, he’s a bachelor and he’s holding a ball for the ladies of the district tonight.”

“Where exactly is Mansfield Park, daddy?” asked Jane

“Just past Northanger Abbey, dear,” he told her. No sooner had these words passed through Mr Bennet’s lips than he was sent spinning by the slip-stream of the girls who, dresses tucked up inside their knickers, went sprinting down the path towards the abbey.

“Remember girls!” called Mrs Bennet after them, “act with decorum!”

Inside Mansfield Hall that evening was gathered every unmarried lady from a fifty mile radius of the estate.
Around the room they sat, fans fluttering, bosoms heaving, every eye struck firmly on their young host, Charles Bingley, heads moving in harmony like spectators at a tennis match as they followed his progress across the dance floor. Charles was a fine looking and pleasant youth and he had taken an obvious liking to Miss Jane Bennet with whom he was now dancing. While attention was so rigidly fixed on Mr Bingley, another young gentleman went almost unnoticed on the other side of the room. This was Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, friend of Bingley. Darcy was tall, handsome, somewhat haughty person who was at that moment expressing his total distain for the proceedings by puking into the punch bowl.

After her second dance with Charles, Jane returned to Elizabeth’s side.

“Do you think he likes me?” she ventured to ask.

“Undoubtedly,” replied Elizabeth, “which means I shall have to turn my attention to his friend Mr Darcy ,over there. With a bit of luck, we might be able to get a double wedding out of this.”

“But Liza,“ began Jane, a little bewildered, “aren’t you jumping the gun a bit? There are hundreds of other girls here tonight, not to mention our own sisters. How do you know we will be fortunate enough to win the hands of these two gentlemen?”

“Because we’re the only two participants in this dreadful story who are anything like fully developed.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call you fully developed, Liza, “ sniggered Jane, “That’s mostly cotton wool you’ve got in there.”

“I was talking about our characterization, idiot! The rest of these people here are little more than two-dimensional caricatures; cardboard cut-outs with stereotyped personalities. As for our sisters, they’re so hollow that no-one will remember their names once this is over.”

“That’s true enough,” reflected Jane, “I don’t remember their names now.”

“How are things progressing, girls?” inquired Mrs Bennet who had just entered the ballroom disguised as a waitress.

“Fine, mummy,” answered Elizabeth, “Mr Bingley has danced twice with Jane already.”

“Twice!” said Mrs Bennet  with relish, “I’ll go and book the church for next month.” And out she sped with a tray of drinks still clattering in her hand.

“Right, it’s you and me then, sis,” said Elizabeth, “I’m going after Darcy now. Wish me luck.”

 “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll impress him with my sense and sensibility, and if that doesn’t succeed, I’ll give him the complete works.”

“You mean...”

“Yes, I’ll use a bit of persuasion as well.”

Darcy was discoursing with Bingley and some other acquaintances when Elizabeth joined the group.
“The trouble with people in the provinces,” proclaimed Darcy to his audience “is that they’re so provincial.”

“Are you enjoying the ball, Mr Darcy?” asked Elizabeth.

“See what I mean!” said Darcy, “Silly, supercilious people with no other interest beyond these petty social gatherings.”

“What else should we be interested in?” inquired Elizabeth.

“This is 1813, for God’s sake! England has been at war on and off for the last thirty years, yet you seem completely oblivious to the fact! You’re not even bothered.”

“At war? With whom?”

“Napoleon. You must at least have heard of him?”

“No I haven’t. Is he married?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so,” conceded Darcy.

“Then why should I be interested with a married man, may I ask?”

“Typical!” exclaimed Darcy, “Exactly the sort of frivolous attitude I’ve come to expect from such small-minded country wenches.”

“Would you like to dance with me, Mr Darcy?” asked Elizabeth smiling.

“Stupid girl! Don’t you even realise when you’re being insulted?”

“Of course I do. But look, there’s two possible ways that this plot can develop. Option one, I can storm out of here boiling with indignation over my injured pride, play hard to get for a couple of hundred pages, and wait till you come crawling to me on your hands and knees, begging me to marry you. Or, option two, I can play easy to get and save the poor readers the unnecessary misery of ploughing through any more of this turgid rubbish only to arrive at a totally predictable conclusion. Well, which is it to be?”

“Miss Bennet,” said Darcy with an admiring smile, “You have disarmed me with your argument. I will marry you at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Elizabeth paced proudly back to her sister and broke the good news.

“That’s marvelous,” concurred Jane, “Then this must be the happy ending.”

“Have you ever wondered why the men in these stories are so utterly passionless, lack any uncontrollable emotions, and are never consumed by burning desire when in the presence of us nubile young ladies?”

“I’d never really thought about the sexual side of our relationship,” admitted Jane.

“Neither have they. It doesn’t worry you, does it?” asked Elizabeth.

“Oh no. Anything’s better than writing books all day. That idea was too far-fetched in any case. Who ever heard of a group of sisters all becoming famous novelists?”

Elizabeth and Jane chuckled at the ridiculousness of anything so absurd.