“Life, my dear boy, is composed of a thousand mundane moments and may be equally dispersed between joy and trouble. Each, though, like a small pebble resting in a river’s current, contributes to the grand arc of existence, bending it toward its ultimate end.”
Lydia Fitzwilliam, Dowager Countess of Matlock (8th), letter to her Great-grandson, Viscount Henry Fitzwilliam, November 3, 1883
The world of #Austenesque stories is replete with hundreds…no, thousands…of books with epilogues.
A staple in romance writing is the concept of “Happily Ever After.” Such a satisfying resolution is a response to an underlying human need that resonates through 120 generations of storytelling. We pray that, while none of us escapes alive from this life, we do, none-the-less, have the opportunity, the agency, to organize our corporeal existences in such a manner that the future resting just beyond that far horizon toward which the flow of time is carrying us will meet our fondest dreams and expectations. That is the space into which Epilogues step.
Yet, is that what life truly is? Or are we, as readers and authors, demanding and delivering escapes instead of compositions that challenge notional behaviors?
Are loves blinding, scorching across the heavens? Or, are they a slow-simmering pot of a particularly delectable soup? Are they a blend of both and fraught with pitfalls and detours? Are deaths noble and uplifting? Or are the majority simply sad endings: wheezes rather than shouts? Are they only reminders of the transitory nature of all existence?
The power of Jane Austen rests in that she explores the human condition, admittedly from her somewhat bucolic platform of a country gentlewoman, by sketching universal truths and personality archetypes. She then serves them up to her readers, perhaps not in quite as moralistic a manner as Milton or Pope, but still implicitly asking readers to learn from the actions of her characters. There is joy, sadness, merriment, and boredom.
But, she offers lessons for those perceptive enough to ‘see’ not ‘look’ at the portrait she paints. Do not make flash judgments. Be skeptical of “unchangeable” truths. Listen to advice but decide for yourself what is in your best interest. Reflect. Re-assess.
In Austen, readers gaze into her mirror and wonder if this is how they appear to others. I am convinced that authors #InspiredByAusten ought to seek to emulate the good Lady and provide their readers more meat and less gravy: essentially, to elevate our prose and plots by placing tired tropes onto the shelf and reaching deeply into our writing toolboxes. If we are serious about creating literature, then we need to challenge our readers to stretch themselves, their tastes, and their imaginations against the possibility that the field becomes stale and predictable.
I am not suggesting that authors abandon the HEA. Miss Austen herself composed several paragraphs, if not complete chapters, at the end of her works positioning her major players in the firmament of happiness…or at least satisfactory outcomes (see Maria Rushworth). However, sending up works in which the only mystery is how the characters arrive at their Happily Ever After does, I believe, shortchange readers. If the HEA is the be-all and end-all of #Austenesque stories—and writers generally are constrained to use the one HEA as prescribed by Austen—are we in danger of creating derivative and duplicative work? Food for thought for which I have no easy answer.
Enigmatic endings, such as what Virginia Woolf composed for perhaps the greatest novel of the Twentieth Century, Mrs. Dalloway, where readers are left wondering if Clarissa ever discovers herself, may act to energize our genre.
If not the HEA, then what? I believe the solution is to be found in building the rich tapestry of lives fully lived within our books, laid out upon pages—either digital or clay-finished. Those colorful threads can be found in offering our characters the opportunity to act like recognizable human beings. In the process, we readers are provided a glance behind the curtain to apprehend the constellation of moments that make up a three-dimensional life lived in the present (although written in the past) tense.
In the year since their arrival, the Bennets had begun—contrary to Tom’s earlier practice of avoiding large terpsichorean gatherings—a weekly habit of venturing out onto parquet expanses. While their efforts at some of the Latin dances were laughable—although both Tom and Fanny were the first to chuckle and giggle—their Viennese and traditional waltzes were acknowledged to be particularly compelling. The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament, Ch. XXXVI
The Bennets, by this point in The Avenger, have once again found comfort in each other’s company. For many married couples in the late 1940s dancing was a welcomed activity. Obviously, I was using them stepping onto the floor at the Netherfield Harvest Ball of 1948 to illustrate how Thomas Bennet had changed. However, where before the Bennets had been abnormal to the extreme, now they are behaving in a normal and unremarkable way.
As the letter from Lydia to Henry Fitzwilliam quoted above (yes, another fragment of the Bennet Wardrobe Universe crossing into this one) suggests, lives are not composed of great events but rather are an amalgam of tics, observations, happenings, and comments. Each, when taken individually, may be interesting. When taken as a group, though, they establish a context that allows another to ascribe a deeper meaning. Ultimately, the collection creates a life.
Are not some of the “best” moments in #Austenesque fiction found in a breath-taking hot air balloon ride, the whimsey of a ghostly woman bound to a flesh and blood man, or the tickling of champagne bubbles beneath the nose of a young lady at her first ball?
Thus, I arrive at the idea of the Happily Ever Now. Again, Tom and Fanny Bennet are enjoying (and seen to be enjoying) a waltz. They are happy—in this moment, in the Now far removed from the Regency in which they exist. They are demonstrating human resilience and are happy.
They likely will be happy again, but their lives will also be punctuated by sadness. The path from joy to grief and, through recovery, to joy again is, I am convinced, the cycle of human existence. At any stage of our lives from the moment of birth to the instant of that last breath, we exist solely in our own Present which is the only plane of existence available to us in this universe or to our characters in the fictional frames created first by Miss Austen and then ourselves.
“The meeting of two eternities—the past and the future is precisely the present moment. Henry David Thoreau
Perhaps we might look at life…and this assuredly includes the fictional lives of our characters…like a string of pearls. Each orb adds something essential and interesting to the choker or triple strand. Length is not the determinant but rather quality: the more lustrous the pearls, the more intriguing the necklace. Thus, white and pink can and should alternate with black or purple. Life is not unremittingly cheerful, nor is it thoroughly grim.
On the contrary, ’tis possible to live on in joy when the camera and lights are turned off after the words “The End” appear. However, is it not more reasonable to assume that our characters will continue flickering between joy and sorrow to the end of their days much as they have done in the segment of their lives we have chronicled? I do believe this to be the case.
T’was with this thought in mind that I ended the print version of In Plain Sight with a declarative sentence:
So saying, Fitzwilliam Darcy sobbed.
Those are literally the last five words of a 120,000-word novel. The HEA is assumed given what transpired in the first 119,995 (chuckle). But, Darcy (and in his arms, Elizabeth and Georgiana) are Happy Right Now. This does not suggest that more will not happen as our characters move through their lives beyond the back cover.
I am asking the readers to be satisfied with this ending.
I did write an Epilogue for In Plain Sight. The #Audible recording called for an explanatory coda…if you think in musical terms…to come after the crescendo. Thus, the #Audible performance (if you have not listened to Amanda Berry read the Wardrobe books because 70+ hours is too much commitment, try her in IPS–her Justice Hastings is chilling and then heart-warming) features all of the original content PLUS an Epilogue of sorts. Not the nearly-Biblical listing of ‘begats’ that are the shape of so many postscripts, but rather an extra scene which tells much and leaves an intimation that our characters have continued to live their lives.
(c)2020 by Donald P. Jacobson. In Plain Sight has been published in the USA by Meryton Press. Worldwide rights reserved. Any use without the expressed written consent of the author or Meryton Press is prohibited.
An Epilogue of Sorts
Watson’s Mill, Meryton, August 8, 1819
The bread line snaked past the trestle tables set up by the mill’s chained and padlocked iron gate. The counters were staffed by a patchwork of neighborhood notables leavened by folk whose hands showed the wear-and-tear of daily toil. The continuing economic collapse had left those dependent upon the now-silent spinning jennies and looms on the brink of starvation. Even in the midst of this privation, scarecrow children clad in rags gamboled around the flagged mews laid between the five-story brick edifice and the algae-covered millpond. The sturdiest mother’s heart palpitated when youthful exuberance threatened to overcome good sense as one little one or another streaked toward the greasy waters that usually fed the giant wheel powering the factory. The watercourse was still now, its force unnecessary. On the far side of the pool, the Lea-Mimram Canal was filled with a brackish sludge. The refreshing surges of Mimram water that usually swept through the channel were non-existent in this time of crisis.
Great cauldrons of soup steamed in the morning air. Freshly baked bread contributed a yeasty aroma that spoke of brighter days. Granaries controlled by Meryton’s squirearchy had been thrown open to feed the unemployed. Estate mistresses turned out their attics to fill the levy for Longbourn Chapel’s poor box.
Mr. Benton, an archdeacon for the St. Albans diocese, and Mr. Tomlinson, the town’s Methodist speaker, policed the queue, collecting tidbits of news from their female parishioners. Neither man engaged in tittle-tattle, but rather were taking the temperature of the neighborhood. Benton would gather tales of drunkenness, illness, pregnancy, and malnutrition and add them to his own wife’s burden. Mrs. Mary would take that intelligence and confidently march into Meryton’s four-and-twenty parlors of note and prod ladies to do their Christian duty. She was not above leaning upon her connections. Elizabeth Darcy, Jane Bingley, and Georgiana Cecil often would add their considerable social weight through gently worded invitations to cherished events in town. Those, however, were last resorts employed to motivate the most recalcitrant. Today, Mary Benton, her hair hidden beneath a kerchief, had turned to her two closest friends to manage the soup kitchen: Mrs. Wilson, now Pemberley’s housekeeper, and her husband, Henry, the estate’s steward. That worthy’s broad shoulders easily hefted kettles of stew from ground to table.
Tomlinson, lately a sergeant in His Majesty’s Army, used his earlier experience to winkle out the scent of discontent polluting the countryside. He had opened the Good Book when he had closed his military career. Tomlinson believed that a man served the Lord first, but he could also support the realm in a near-second place. Women this day told him of caravans filled with mill workers rolling north to Manchester to hear Henry Hunt speak. He knew that his former master, General Fitzwilliam, would take these threads and weave a tapestry that he would lay before Liverpool’s cabinet.
The general was settled on a chair leaned against the bolted doors of the tavern opposite the manufactory. His equine soulmate, Imperator, had been left gamboling in one of Purvis Lodge’s paddocks where four or five of his favorite broodmares competed for his affections. Fitzwilliam snorted as he recalled his old friend, nearly twenty he was, prancing about the stable yard, nipping at youngsters to remind them that he was yet king.
Like Impy, Fitzwilliam was no country squire. His usual bluff demeanor and partial deafness did give him an air of rusticated geniality. Yet, he frequently surprised regimental colonels as he explained the facts of political and military life. No officer would ever forget that the horse-breeder at Purvis Lodge regularly cultivated his connections in the rarified high country. The militia never gave Meryton trouble.
Comfortably tilted back next to Fitzwilliam was James Foote. Foote’s invisibility, growing from his time as a Longbourn servant, had served the General well as the earl’s son stage-managed the dark ballet that kept the Czar, Metternich, and Talleyrand in their respective boxes. The less said about the Spaniard’s and their unraveling American empire, the better. For his part, Foote was adjusting to fatherhood as his wife, the former Miss Tomkins, had recently birthed their second son. That lady was seated beneath an oak shading the town square. Mrs. Foote, along with Charlotte Fitzwilliam, kept a weather eye upon a dozen children from various branches of the Longbourn family.
Also enjoying the cooling shade were two old friends. The black and white board lay upon a portable table set between them. Moves were made, but both men, widowers now after the fever of in the year Seventeen had swept off their ladies, spent more time chatting with each other about the thing of which older men often do: the world as it was when their joints were supple and their heads were full of hair.
Sir Michael Hastings, now retired, when in the midst of his bereavement two years ago, had found himself taking advantage of a long-standing invitation to visit Pemberley. There he met his college friend, Tom Bennet, who likewise was draped in black. The pair would sit side-by-side in the great library, a stack of books, and a bottle of port between them. Before long, they reignited their ancient comity. Realizing that loneliness was the quickest path to the grave for men of their ilk, an unspoken agreement was reached. Hastings closed up his Derby house and moved into Longbourn with Bennet.
The judge’s hand hovered above his castle—always a staunch tory, Hastings favored his bishops and rooks. A snuffling sound distracted him.
Affecting a grim look, he speared the miscreant with a beam from beneath bushy brows. The curly-headed youngster, old enough to be out of leading-strings but not so grown as to have escaped the nursery, was unmoved. He had the courage of a child well-acquainted with the fact that the Moon and Sun revolved around him.
Hastings growled. “Well, son, who do you belong to? All of your cousins look like Mr. Bennet here.”—he waved at his opponent who unsuccessfully tried to stifle his guffaw— “and I find myself at a loss.”
The little fellow stood straight and confidently began, “Of course I take after Mr. Bennet. He is my Grandpapa, after all! I am a Darcy!”
Then Master Darcy leaned in and confided. “My Mama told me that we were not Darcys today, but rather Smiths.”
So saying, he scurried off to join his older cousin, Miss Amelia Benton who had her head bent over a copy of Mrs. Sherwood’s History of Little Henry and his Bearer. While Bennet Darcy had his letters, Amelia was becoming more comfortable with the shaping of words; a ripe old seven years she was.
“And where are the…Smiths?” Hastings quizzed his housemate.
Bennet pointed with his chin as his eyes returned to the chessboard. “Last I saw, Lizzy and Will were strolling on the towpath.”
The shingle crunched beneath their feet as they left Meryton behind and approached Longbourn. The lady was clearly with child.
Elizabeth looked up at Darcy and smiled. “You know how happy you have made Mary and Edward. They have been feeding and clothing the mill families for months. Usually it is only Charlotte and Richard manning the barricades.
“Mary knows that you would be loath to leave Pemberley in August with my pending confinement. I will own that I would have preferred the cooler Derbyshire climes to semi-tropical Meryton. However, you appeared in our sitting room one morning and stated, ‘You are yet able to travel. Edward wrote me telling of their work at Watson’s, and he was concerned that your sister was wearing herself thin. She needed our help.
“And, you were correct, dearest. Mary is like a terrier and will not let go or ask for aid.”
Darcy looked down at his wife. The toes of his worn work boots kicked out from beneath the simply hemmed cuffs of his canvas pantaloons as he strode along measuring his steps to allow for his wife’s shorter pace. He shifted his shoulders beneath the red-checked cloth of his shapeless shirt. These garments rarely saw the light of day except when Fitzwilliam Darcy wished to move about incognito, to be unseen by all except the crowd.
“Elizabeth,” he said, “I approached you because I knew that Mary’s silence was out of love for you. Her fear would be that you would become agitated with the knowledge and immediately rush to the stables to have the horses harnessed.
“My own motivation was in a similar vein. I knew that if you had learned of this situation, you would have worried yourself trying to encourage me to overcome my protective nature and allow us to travel. I stole a march on you by acting first.”
He placed his hand atop hers resting in the crook of his elbow. “I knew that Bingley would never leave Thornhill, not with Jane so close to her own confinement. I had hoped to console myself with the thought that Mrs. Denny and Mrs. Keith would be in town. Then we could let this opportunity to be of service pass us by. But I soon wondered if the militia had decamped to its summer quarters in Brighton.”
Elizabeth nodded, “Your instincts were correct. Kitty, as the Colonel’s lady, is installed in her Regency Square house lording it over the regiment’s wives. As for Lydia, she has gone to her home in Bristol to await Captain Keith’s return from the Orient. T’was sweet of Charlotte to gift my sisters their own vacation by taking their children for the summer.”
Darcy smiled. “Acting on impulse was the right thing to do. I vow, Elizabeth, I am becoming more like Bingley every day! Speaking of things Bingley, and I ask this for informational purposes only, have you heard anything about the Soamses?”
Elizabeth peered up at him from beneath her bonnet’s brim. “It has been seven years. Not once in all that time have you asked about that awful man and his wife.”
“’Tis a time I would prefer to forget, dearest,” he softly replied, focusing his eyes toward where the arrow-straight ditch crossed onto Longbourn.
His wife sighed and answered, “Sir Thaddeus’ son is at Cambridge. His eldest daughter turned seventeen in February. Jane tells me they wished to launch Miss Soames into society this past Season but had to wait until May when their freedom to travel was renewed. They took a house in Portman Square.
“Lady Matlock wrote to say that she assisted Lady Soames, not wishing to punish the daughter for the sins of her parents. The countess found one of her friends to sponsor the girl at court. That acquaintance also threw a small soiree where Miss Soames played and sang. Apparently, that and her £22,000 dowry won her an offer from a viscount’s second son.”
Darcy nodded as they continued walking. After several minutes he continued, “Lady Soames must have been thrilled with her stepdaughter’s success.”
Elizabeth could feel her husband’s arm tense beneath her hand. “William, it is ancient history. We have three darling children and another on the way. We are done with them.”
Darcy relaxed. “And how many children has Sir Thaddeus gotten upon his wife?”
Surprised at the sudden change in direction, Elizabeth replied, “Five.”
Darcy’s voice rumbled, shivering her entire being. “Hmmmpf. Five to your three, Mrs. Darcy. Miss Bingley, or should I say Lady Soames, is undoubtedly more accomplished than you.”
Elizabeth squeaked and slapped his arm in faux outrage.
William smiled for he knew best how to cool her ire—real or assumed. Although his wife would never admit it, her pride over her appearance, although burnished by her own experiences in Hedgebrook’s halls, still burned as brightly as when she was but a maiden spinning across the dancefloor.
“I spoke with Bingley who passed on news about his sister. Charles told me that Louisa Hurst offered up that five confinements had left Lady Soames—how did he put it?—square-shaped,” Darcy related.
Lizzy looked shocked and then a beguiling giggle bubbled from between her bow-shaped lips.
Darcy recaptured Elizabeth’s errant hand, rubbing the soft spot between her thumb and forefinger. She smiled and began to hum that siren’s song he had first heard all those years ago echoing through Oakham’s forest as it dropped toward the Mimram.
Then husband and wife, convict and housemaid, moved down the path toward the manor house, its gables barely visible above a copse of oaks.