My Fascination With the Utility of Secondary Characters

Many of you have noted my movement from the term JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) to Austenesque fiction. Much of that evolution rose from my search for my authentic voice as an author. I frequently felt that I was engaged in some sort of tribute band mentality which limited my creative efforts as a writer. Hence my launching of the term #Austenesque fiction around two years ago. I felt that I—and other authors—could use elements of Jane Austen’s books in their efforts without being constrained by the fear of opprobrium at their deviations from Canon.

More recently, especially as I was involved in the writing of my next book, In Plain Sight, I have come to understand that I have been exercising my creative juices in pursuit of historical fiction. While I have previously suggested that Austen may be used for historical research, I did put strict limits upon employing her books as resources that explore the full terrain of Regency history. She offers us a narrow view of the bucolic life of the middle gentry. There is so much more to the story of those times that Jane Austen does not relate, mostly, I am convinced because her readers were not particularly interested in contemplating the broader social questions of the times. They left it to William Wilberforce to decry slavery, Charles Fox and Henry Hunt to assail the hidebound suffrage system, and Mary Wollstonecraft to take the part of women.

Over my history as a writer of #Austenesque fiction, I have been fascinated with less distinguished characters in the Austen panoply: lesser characters, soldiers, and servants—folks who moved through the Canonical stories more as props than as plot catalysts. As a result, many of my stories, while grounded in the interaction of the lead characters with the plot, feature much more meaty roles for the three younger Bennet sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and servants like Mrs. Hill and the Longbourn cook. I fully believe that strong literature builds upon foundation stones made up of secondary characters who reflect not only specific traits but also the society from which they grew. Consider what is arguably the greatest Twentieth Century novel, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. While Clarissa Dalloway is the eponymous reason for the book, Woolf’s sketch of a single day in a post-World War I woman’s life depends upon two other major characters and over a dozen minor ones.

Ignoring minor character development (I have frequently joked that servants appear in Austen only to lug tea trays, fetch smelling salts, and open doors. Well, not quite…I commend the two footmen in Emma’s home for a delicious performance in the 2020 film.) strikes me as unilateral disarmament on an author’s part.

In Austenesque fiction, I consider the constellation of characters through which the protagonists and antagonists move to offer significant texture and context that help the leads become understandable to the audience. Consider this brief excerpt from an early chapter in Volume 1 of the Bennet Wardrobe, The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey. These are the opening lines of Chapter 11, the day after Elizabeth and Jane’s double wedding.

Mary quickly exited the library and grabbed her heaviest wrap.  Shrugging it on, she turned toward the kitchen.  She surprised Mrs. Hill and Cook who were settled over a cup of their morning coffee, a beverage for which Mary had little desire.  Chocolate was her pleasure, rich, dark, and frothy, but a little less sweet than preferred by her mother, Jane, and Kitty. Lizzy was the other coffee drinker besides Papa. 

Both older women regarded Mary with interest, as she was rarely the first Bennet daughter to appear for breakfast, let alone beat the serving dishes to the sideboard in the dining room.

Mrs. Hill greeted her cheerfully, “Why, Miss Mary, good morning to you.  If we had not seen her off yesterday, I could have sworn it was your older sister Miss Eliz…Mrs. Darcy coming to test our morning rolls before she took her walk.”

Of all those living at Longbourn, Mrs. Hill had been the one who had paid attention to first the girl and then the young woman, Mary.  Mama cared little for her once it became clear that she would never come close to Jane’s stunning beauty or even Lizzy’s more exotic looks.

While we do not see any of Mary’s lines in this excerpt, her interaction with Mrs. Hill and Cook reveals much about the third daughter’s inner woman. We are also treated to a new appreciation of Mrs. Hill’s personality. Longbourn’s Housekeeper has long been painted as the sorely tested and sometimes abused foil of Mrs. Bennet’s famous nerves. Now she is humanized and becomes a subtle explanation for why Miss Mary Bennet developed into a better person than she might have without the intervention of Alma Hill.

I carried my interest in the outlook of secondary characters forward by elevating them to the forefront while the main characters rested offstage. My paired novellas—Of Fortune’s Reversal and The Maid and The Footman—carried this forward when read back-to-back in Lessers and Betters. The maid, Annie Reynolds, and the footman, Sergeant Henry Wilson, stood as the bedrock upon which the Regency’s class system rested. Yet, they became important partners in General Sir Richard Fitzwilliam’s efforts to protect the realm for Continental enemies.

I have now expanded and more fully employed those who would otherwise be unseen in my next novel, In Plain Sight, which will be published by Meryton Press during April/May. In this work, I strip away the classist pretensions of ODC to give them the freedom to discover each other without the limitations imposed by incipient pride or blinding prejudice.

In lieu of offering up an excerpt from In Plain Sight, please enjoy these first words from my next book…the eighth and final volume of the Bennet Wardrobe Series…The Grail: The Saving of Elizabeth Darcy. Please enjoy.  Look forward to your comments.

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This excerpt of a Work-In-Progress is (c) 2020 by Donald P. Jacobson. Reproduction in any form is prohibited without the expressed written consent of the author. Published in the United States of America.

Prologue

Pemberley House, Derbyshire, April 30, 1833

Elizabeth watched Mary walk toward the Wardrobe. Her sister, younger by seven-and-ten-years, never faltered and never looked back. To Lizzy’s eye, this Mary Benton, unmarked as of yet by Peterloo, gave a foretaste of the granite-jawed campaigner who even now was in London with her husband petitioning Parliament to regulate the hours children could work in the mills springing up across the country. Always a woman who championed the causes of the least fortunate, Mary had earned the richly deserved sobriquet of Britain’s Social Conscience.[i]

Mrs. Darcy drew the chamber’s richly stained oak door closed to afford the younger Mrs. Benton a modicum of privacy. Then Elizabeth laid both hands flat on the upper panels and rested her forehead on the first mullion in-between and waited for the sound which she knew would surely come.

The faint <pop> as a rush of air filled the woman-shaped void was all that Pemberley’s Mistress heard from the room beyond the closed door.

Standing straight, the great lady calmed herself, erasing the grief brought about by her sister’s departure. She was comforted by the knowledge that, once their agitation and lobbying could bear no more fruit, the Mary from this here/now would be coming North to gather Rory and Bridget—and the Wardrobe. Then she and Edward would take all and sundry back to the Kympton Vicarage.

Mama…and Lydia, too…would have said that that piece of fey furniture had a rather nasty sense of humor. Here it gives me a reminder of my beloved Mary when she was but a newlywed matron, but then sends her back to her where/when three years before she is nearly murdered by that slimy toad whose name I shall never think. The only joy which I have is that I know that Mary rose from Manchester’s dusty field to stand astride society. In that she is little different from Lydia. I imagine Miss Austen, the dour biographer of our family, would have professed surprise that both ladies have become forces in these late years of King William’s reign, each in her own unique way.

Pfagh: I prefer to ignore the musings of that thin-lipped spinster who never condescended to meet those about whom she wrote with such fervor, although I must admit she did have my Fitzwilliam down to a fault.

Elizabeth’s reverie was interrupted by the dinner gong. She spun on her heel and hurried along the richly woven runner leading to the top of the great staircase. Arriving at its top, she paused to regulate her breathing before proceeding downstairs. As she descended, she looked to her right and caught her reflection in the great mirrors cunningly placed to trick the eye into believing the well was twice its already gargantuan size. The glass afforded her a view of a woman of middle years, her rich brown hair yet lustrous and shot with a modicum of wise old hairs, still trim. Unlike so many ladies of her class and age, Elizabeth Darcy boasted a figure, if not girlish, still trim, its middle only slightly thickened and hips broadened in modest testimony to her having birthed her two darlings. Her face bore a few extra laugh lines, more prevalent today than even a few years ago. She refused to refer to them as wrinkles, although a woman of two-and-forty could justifiably claim such marks as honors awarded for a life well-lived.

All-in-all, Mrs. Darcy has managed to evade many of the pitfalls of having been married for more than one-and-twenty years to a man overly fond of lemon shortbreads. However, he has always been more than patient with my predilection, as Mrs. Johnson would have put it all those years ago, to scamper about the countryside. Pemberley’s paths and roads kept my girth under regulation. Thankfully none of my neighborhood friends and acquaintances would ever raise an eyebrow at hems and petticoats six inches deep…

Her indoor slippers touched down on the broad marble checkerboard that stretched from the manor’s front door all the way back into first floor’s shadowy reaches. After nodding at the footman patrolling the foyer against any unexpected arrivals, Elizabeth entered the parlor to cross to the dining chamber’s double doors. The footmen flanking the dining rooms double doors were matched to perfection; their simultaneous movements synchronized with her approach so precisely that she did not have to hesitate. They pulled the doors back to reveal a scene which never ceased to delight: her family at table, tonight one fewer from her brood but augmented by the Benton twins.

[i] Even Queen Victoria saw her as such. See The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey, Ch. XLVIII.

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1 Response to My Fascination With the Utility of Secondary Characters

  1. djacobson says:

    Look forward to seeing your thoughts on my ideas about secondary characters.

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