I hope you are all surviving during this difficult period of isolation and anxiety for the future. While we may not be able to embrace our social friends, at least we have the internet to keep us going. To be honest, I'd be completely devastated without it. For those of us who write historical fiction, at least it enables us to imagine more realistically the feelings of those who lived in small isolated communities in the past.
When we're talking about isolation measures, we're not talking about something new. Successive generations went through the same thing. Quarantine procedures were established in England during the 1660s as a defence against the plague. Like the cruise ships now, people on ships with outbreaks were stopped from coming ashore. Eventually, people who were infected were allowed to leave their ships, but they had to be quarantined. During the plague, as the case today, people in London stayed off the streets and shops closed. Movement out of London was allowed initially, then severely restricted. Those who wanted to leave the city had to have a document proving they weren't ill -- our equivalent of having a test showing that we have the antibodies.
With vaccinations and the arrival of antibiotics, we have been living with a sense of complacency here in the West. Scientists' warnings that the overuse of antibiotics will trigger antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria have been around for years, and dystopian novels and films about viruses wiping out the whole of humanity have been on the rise. So why have we been taken so much by surprise by coronavirus? Part of it, I think, may be a result of rather smug belief that, with our high life expectancy, we no longer need to learn any lessons from the past. But antibiotics don't provide protection against viruses, and we don't have any special immunity to the ravages of natural disease. We now know what it is like to be those people in history, who had to stand by and see their communities decimated, unable to do anything about it. Perhaps we can even begin to understand the reasons for the Victorian obsession with momento mori. At the very least, it enables us to empathise more with past generations in their struggle against uncontrollable destructive forces.
We, too, will be in the history books. The idea is very little consolation when you're going through something like this. Someone in the future will be writing a blog on a Historical blog site like this one. They'll be talking about the impact of coronavirus on the early 21st century. I wonder what they'll say about us? I really hope our brush with disease will be nothing more than a small blip, worthy of only a few sentences.
Meanwhile, with thoughts like this running through my head, it's been difficult to concentrate on writing. Even reading has been more scattered than usual. Thankfully, I'd already finished a rough draft of my latest novel before the storm hit, otherwise I would have been struggling.
I haven't published a new Jane Austen variation for a while, but here it is, finally.
Fortune & Felicity
As he crossed the lane and strode through one of the gates into Rosings Park, Fitzwilliam Darcy realized he was still holding his hat in his hand. He pushed it onto his head impatiently, adjusting the rim to shade his eyes from the setting sun. It galled him that Elizabeth Bennet might have seen him from the window, leaving the Parsonage with his head bare, looking like a laborer. It seemed like the last straw in a catalogue of humiliations the evening had to offer. He supposed it was a fitting image of what she had done to him, stripping away his pride bit by bit until he had become nothing, leaving him raw and exposed and feeling like an utter fool.
Rosings came into view and he checked his pace, seeking to compose himself in case he encountered anyone upon entering. Lady Catherine called out to him as he came in, asking him where he had been.
“You have missed tea, Darcy,” she said, peevishly. “The refreshment tray has been cleared.”
He threw her a quick greeting —some nonsense or the other— and bounded up the stairs before she had the chance to waylay him. It was an undignified retreat, but it was nothing compared to what had happened at the Parsonage. In his room, he shut and locked the door, then threw himself on his bed, his mind full of his disastrous encounter with Elizabeth Bennet.
A burning sense of injustice gripped him at the accusations Elizabeth had flung at him. He had stood there staring stupidly as she accused him of treating George Wickham abominably, too shocked at her rejection to make any effort at all to defend himself. And to think she believed George Wickham more worthy of her affections than himself! It boggled the mind. It filled him with a sense of intense outrage. He could not possibly let it go. He had to tell her the truth, to stand up for himself against any slander that the rogue had used to turn her against him, but it was too late to say anything. He had lost the opportunity. He could not very well intrude upon her again at the Parsonage.
There must be a way.
His gaze fell on the escritoire at the corner of the room. Of course! He would write to her. It was completely improper to write to an unmarried young lady, but he had no choice. Besides, he expressed himself better on paper. Not that he held out any hope that she would change her mind about him. It was obvious she would not. Nevertheless, Darcy could not allow Wickham’s falsehoods to go unchallenged.
He opened the escritoire, spread out a sheet of paper, and dipped the quill.
He stared down at the words for a few minutes, overcome. He had been certain, not too long ago, that by the end of the day, those were the words he would use to address her for the rest of his life.
It was all over now.
He took up the paper and crushed it. He had no right to call her by that phrase. In any case, it was a bad idea to address her by name in the letter, in case it fell into the wrong hands. If it did, she would be compromised, and would be compelled to marry him. His heart lurched as he considered this solution to his misery, but he dismissed it. No matter how appealing the idea may be, he did not want an unwilling bride.
Taking up a new sheet of paper, he set it down and stared at it for several minutes. He dipped the quill in the ink and began to write.
Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this letter.
It took him some time to grind out a few sentences. Everything he wrote seemed so inadequate to communicate what he wanted to say. He started letter after letter, crumpling the pages and tossing them to the floor.
It was almost impossible to keep his mind on the task at hand. His mind kept drifting to their bitter exchange. How could he have misjudged the situation so completely? He had been so arrogant, so self-absorbed, that he had not even considered whether she would be open to his proposal. He had believed it would be a matter of a few minutes before his future was resolved. Before they even noticed he was absent from Rosings – what a to-do there would be if Lady Catherine discovered that he was not in his room resting, but out of the house – he would be back, engaged to be married. Then he would wait for the appropriate moment to announce the engagement. He had imagined the expressions of disbelief, Lady Catherine’s insistence that he marry Anne, the cries of betrayal. He was prepared for every outcome. He had considered so many situations, and grimly planned for them like a commander going into battle – as Cousin Fitzwilliam liked to say.
Ironically, he had missed the most crucial element in the situation. He had made the most fundamental and self-destructive mistake any commander could make, the one thing that he should have considered the most: Elizabeth’s consent. He had made no plans to deal with refusal, nor had he shielded himself against possible attack. Consequently, he had been taken by complete surprise. Fortunately – very fortunately – the reserve that had been bred into him through the generations of powerful Darcy ancestors prevented him from completely falling apart in front of her. Somehow – he was not quite sure how – he had managed to be polite, to hold himself together and walk out of the Parsonage with some semblance of composure.
How could he not have harbored a single doubt that she would marry him? Even worse, how could he have burst into the room in that uncivil manner, blurt out all the things he had been thinking – all the reasons, in short, why he ought not to marry her – without any concern for her feelings? What must she think of him?
A bitter laugh escaped his lips. He knew exactly what she thought of him. She had told him what she thought, without mincing her words. When she first began to speak, it had taken him some time to make sense of what she was saying. The truth of the matter was, he had not really been paying attention. He had been thinking about when it would be appropriate to take her into his arms and kiss her.
This, then, is the answer I am to receive….
He groaned and leaned forward on the escritoire, resting his forehead on the hard wood, riding the wave of anguish that gripped him. Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner. That she could have said such a thing of him – when he had always prided himself on his impeccable conduct! He banged his head on the table. The ink pot jumped and splashed ink on the last letter he had written. It was the longest one – two sheets of frantically scribbled words, the handwriting uneven, nothing like his usual neat writing. The blot of ink had landed in the middle of the second sheet, and his sister’s name leapt up from the page.
He stared at the letter. What was he trying to do? Did he really mean to reveal Georgiana’s secret in some misguided attempt to make Elizabeth think better of him? Did he really think that revealing Wickham’s true nature would make Elizabeth love him? Did he really want to risk being seen accosting and giving a letter to a single woman for some futile attempt to make himself look better in her eyes? By giving her this letter, he would be risking the reputation of the two women he – heavens help him – loved the most in the world. And for what?
If anyone found his missive, Georgiana’s elopement would be made public. The scandal would utterly ruin his poor delicate sister. After all the trouble he had gone through to cover up the traces and to make sure no one could suspect that Georgiana had been on the verge of running away with Wickham, was he really prepared to jeopardize everything?
Thinking about Georgiana and everything she had been through brought him some sanity, enough to hold off the terrible churning feeling inside him and allow some coherence to return. What right did he have to use his sister to plead his own case? Revealing Georgiana’s scandal would not make Elizabeth Bennet love him.
It was a terrible realisation. It was like the stab of a sword in the belly, agonizing and indisputable. There was absolutely nothing he could say to make her love him. Nothing at all.
He rose to his feet and began to pace, ruffling his curls until they became wild. He stopped as he caught sight of himself in the mirror. He barely recognised himself. His disheveled appearance shocked him to the core. So this is what he was reduced to by love! Had he really stooped so low?
He was going about this all wrong. He was refusing to face the truth, which was that her dislike of him was too strong. He could not delude himself any longer. It was time to cut his losses. Perhaps it was just as well she had rejected him so cruelly. Perhaps he ought to consider it, not as a tragedy, but as a fortunate escape. Elizabeth Bennet’s harsh rejection might well be the best thing that could have ever happened. She had freed him from the terrible weight of his obsession by removing any possibility of hope.
He wanted desperately to believe that there was something he could do that might change her mind. Every fiber of his being refused to accept that it was all over, that it had ended before it had even begun, that the dream of a life with Elizabeth was gone. He refused to believe that it was just that – a dream, an illusion he had created from nothing.
He had to face reality. He had to take up his responsibilities to his family and his position in society. He had to become what he had been trained to be. He owed it to a long line of noble ancestors who were no doubt turning in their graves as they witnessed his foolhardiness.
He spent the night battling his demons, urging them to come under his control. Using her rejection as a weapon, he set about exorcising the feelings that had led him into such excruciating, uncharacteristic folly.
By the time the grey light of dawn appeared on the horizon, Fitzwilliam Darcy had won. The unruly impulses were vanquished. He rose from the hard chair of the escritoire and stretched his body, easing out the muscles that seemed to have gone numb. Surveying the results of the battle around him – crunched pieces of paper tossed all around, balled up like fists—he felt a grim sense of satisfaction. At least the words he had written –written in blood and tears – had acted like a purge, removing the fever from his veins.
Now he had to purge the words themselves. They were the ramblings of a madman, ranting of desire and despair. No one must ever know of this terrible moment of weakness. He went to the cold fireplace and started it up, waiting patiently until the coals began to burn. He then picked up the papers and threw them into the fireplace, one by one, watching the edges curl and blacken as the fire consumed them.
The battle had taken its toll, draining him of all strength, leaving him empty inside, and he wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. With steel will, he resisted that temptation, worried it would bring him dreams of her and cause him to weaken. He rang for his valet instead, peering out of the window and trying not to wonder if Elizabeth Bennet was out there, taking her customary walk. He would never walk with her again. So be it.
He had never been one to enjoy walking, in any case. Walking had been something he had done with her in mind. It would be easy enough to break that newly acquired habit and return to old familiar ones. Riding was his preferred exercise. A good hard gallop would clear the cobwebs from his brain and the bracing morning air would jolt him awake from the threads of a nightmare that had all but consumed him for the last few months.
He would need all his wits about him to execute what he planned to do next.