Excerpt from Just Jane





                                                            
                                                                        
    It is a true thing everyone knows that—

    I scratch out the words, dip my pen into the well of ink, and try again. It is not the first time I have scribbled
    and scratched, obliterating one word or phrase while searching for another. I long for the correct word, the
    indisputable one-and-only connection of words that will capture the essence of my intention. Yet these
    unfound words tease me by hiding in the shadows of my mind, just out of reach, being naughty and bothersome
    and—

    Aha!

    I quickly put pen to paper, eager to capture the phrase before it returns to hiding: It is a truth universally
    acknowledged... Yes, yes, that is the phrase that has eluded me. I dip the pen again, finally ready to complete
    the part of the sentence that has never been in question.

    ...that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

    I sit back in my chair of walnut, feeling absurdly prideful I have completed this one line. And yet, it is an
    important line. The first line of a book. Actually, it is not a book yet. Would it ever by chance be a book?

    I peer out the window of the rectory. My mother is bent over her beloved garden, plucking weeds from her
    asters and lavender hydrangea. I should go help her.

    But I do not want to venture out. Mine is not a penchant for plantings and pinchings, but for pronouns and
    prepositions.

    Mother stands and arches her back. I suffer her moan without hearing it. She looks in my direction and I offer a
    wave, which she returns. A lesser—or would it be grander?—mother would observe the gaze of a child who
    possesses two able hands and immediately summon her outside to assist with the work. But my dear mother (and
    father too), in spite of having no necessity to do so, condone and even encourage my writing. That it will never
    amount to anything, that the eyes of family will be the only eyes that will fall upon my carefully chosen "truth
    universally acknowledged," is also recognized, accepted, yet ignored as unimportant.

    "Express yourself, dear child" has always been an invocation in the Austen household, and my sister Cassandra
    (two years my elder) and my six brothers (all but one older than myself) have always been eager to embrace
    the unspoken possibilities enmeshed within our parents' entreaty. We do our best to be who we might be—in all
    our grace, geniality, and glib foolery. That some are more glib and fool than graceful and genial is also not
    considered a complete disgrace. A person content to be bland will never be anyone's first choice as a companion
    for an idle afternoon.

    Mother goes back to work, releasing me from any hint of guilt. I return to my rich gentleman in want of a wife.
    If only it were true. We Englishwomen of 1795 have no recourse but to assume it is so. Pray it is so. For how else
    will we ever prosper? Cassandra and I often huddle together in our shared bed, whispering in the darkness about
    the inequities of inheritance. How unfair that only the male of the species is permitted to inherit. Alas, the
    females of our world—if they do not find themselves a willing rich man—are bequeathed a life of obligation,
    forever beholden to the kind heart of some charitable relative to provide a roof that does not leak, a fireplace
    that does not smoke, and a meal that might occasionally contain meat. Such is our lot if we do not marry well.

    I myself can say with some measure of pride that at age twenty, I have prospects. Or at least one prospect. And
    after all, a woman only needs but one if he be the right one. His name is Tom Lefroy. He is a charming Irishman,
    the nephew of a neighbour I saw at a ball last Christmas. His eyes are as blue as the Hampshire sky....

    We danced every dance. When he took my hand to instigate a cross, rather than merely letting my hand sit
    gently upon his own, he squeezed it with subtle meaning. And when we slid by, one past the other, shoulder
    passing shoulder, we did not look straight ahead, as others with less intent would do, but turned our heads
    inwards, our chins glancing upon our shoulders, as our eyes glanced upon each other. With but an instant for
    conversation, we resorted to single words, words full of teasing. And entreaty.

    "Beautiful," he whispered as his shoulder skimmed mine.

    "Rascal," was my reply next pass.

    "Determined." He offered a wink.

    "Ambitious."

    The dance proceeded to other movements, silencing our verbal banter. Two dozen couples rose upon their toes,
    then lowered themselves to just height as they swept up and back, not one step missed, all ably immersed in the
    elegance of a common sway and parry.

    To others it may have been a lark, an amusement on a cold December evening, but for Tom and me it was a
    sparring, a deliberate caracole, turning, ever-turning towards each other and away, despairing of steps that
    forced time and space between us. I became heady with the sustained implication, as well as the anticipation
    of more.

    But suddenly, as one dance ended and the musicians began the prelude for another, Tom took my hand and said,
    "Let us hide away."

    He pulled me into the foyer, to a bench leaning back against the wall of the mighty staircase but slightly hidden
    by a tall stand set with a porcelain urn. We fell onto the seat, a jumble of conspiracy, motion, and laughter.

    "There," he said, setting himself aright. "Now I have you where I want you."

    Before I had time to respond, he leaned forward and kissed me.

    Now...I put my fingers to my lips, hoping their light pressure will help me remember the one and only....

    I do admit that Tom and I behaved in a most shocking manner, dancing with no thought or eyes to another,
    sitting down together, head to head, knee to knee, discussing Tom Jones, and laughing in a way that caused
    many a matronly stare. That we did not care was shameless. Yet I would not change one moment of our time—
    which was too fleeting.

    Before the third ball, I visited the Lefroy home in Ashe on the auspices of visiting Tom's aunt Anne, a dear
    friend. Of course, I had hoped to see Tom...just to see him would have fed and sustained me, like partaking in
    one meal, all the while knowing there will be another.

    But Tom had fled the house—as if avoiding me? And though I enjoyed my visit with Anne, it did not hold the
    delicious delicacies I had expected. I now hold on to the hope that Tom was truly called away. Or did he flee
    because his family teased him about our attraction? Families can be relentless and cruel even as they try to be
    delightful.

    The next day, my feast was complete, as Tom came to call. The presence of his little cousin George was not
    the ideal—and was a surprise I did not quite understand—but I was so pleased to partake of Tom's presence that
    I told myself I did not mind. And yet...I sigh when I allow myself to imagine the meeting I would have desired
    versus the one that transpired with a thirteen-year-old chaperon who talked about nonsense when I wanted to
    talk about...other things of far more import.

    When a fourth ball was planned at Ashe, I held hopes that it was called to honour our upcoming match. In my
    anticipation I prepared many sets of dialogue that revealed how I would have the evening play out. Tom and I
    would return to our own special corner behind the urn. As he made his intentions known, he would combine his
    wit and charm with an eloquence that would impress me to such a degree that I would find myself willing to
    marry him just in hopes of hearing such eloquence again. And again.

    Ah, the burdens of imagination. When the evening did not play out according to my carefully created dialogue
    and staging, my disappointment grew to such an extent that others asked of my infirmity. I found a quiet hall
    and gave myself a good talking to, faulting myself, chiding myself. For in spite of my intense wishes, it is a
    known fact that people are not characters in a story, bidden by my whim to act and be according to how I wish
    them to act and be.

    A few days after this fourth ball, dear Tom was sent away to London to continue his law studies. He had spoken
    of them, so I was not surprised. Not completely surprised. He had also spoken of the pressures of being the
    oldest male of his generation. His father had married for love, lost his inheritance, and as such, had no fortune
    to pass along. But Tom's great-uncle Benjamin in London...ah, there is the fortune he needs to cultivate. It is
    the prudent thing to do for Tom's future—and my own. It is not unusual for the responsibilities and expectations
    of his gender to take precedent over the needs and desires of a young female with aspiring plans of her own.
    One's future must be nurtured and finalized to the best of one's ability, in fate's time, not our own.

    Yet even with my dashed expectations at the final ball, and my disappointment in Tom's leaving, I take heart in
    knowing that our initial banter had grown to include some measure of substance. Enough substance that a future
    together is more than just a girlish inkling or a plot in a story.

    And my expectations are recognized beyond my own hopeful wishes. My brother Henry's friend, who was here
    to visit over Christmas, presented me with a portrait of Tom, drawn by his own hand, assuming, of course,
    that I would delight in it. Which I do. I hold on to that portrait, as it is the only Tom I have seen since during
    these ten long months he has been gone. I expect him to visit our home in Steventon soon, with the proposition
    to share our future forthcoming. He will go far, my Tom, and I will be a good wife.

    I think of him, the oldest boy, the eldest son of twelve children, with five older sisters....

    Five older sisters, all in want of a husband.

    Female names interrupt my thoughts of Tom, listing themselves as though they are real and have but to make
    my acquaintance: Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Lydia, and Catherine—no, Kitty...I nod, accepting their introduction,
    for each seems just right.

    Five girls, each in want of a husband. Is this how I can dislodge my story from its hard-fought first line? I will
    begin with the sisters discussing their lot, chattering over the need for a gentleman who is, of course, in need
    of them.

    It is as good a place as any to begin. At a beginning...(continued)




                                                               Copyright 2007, Nancy Moser