December 16th is the birthday of Jane Austen, so to celebrate, here is a short story inspired by one of her more over-looked characters.
That is my husband, the one in the middle. His position gives him pre-eminence, though they all look equally grand in their judge’s robes. The others lean inwards to confer with him, and he raises his head, gazing afar as if mulling over deep matters. I alone know that he is gazing up at me, in the gallery, looking for guidance.
That is sufficient. He quietly delivers his judgement to the justices on either side, and there they sit, all three of them, nodding in agreement, at my command.
‘You have a sagacious husband there, Lady Turvey,’ says Sir John Courtney, deigning to turn my way. ‘You will not understand the significance of the judgement, for these weighty matters are of no interest to you ladies, but I assure you, its import is great indeed.’
I smile. Sir John’s nostrils pinch and his gaze moves on, hurriedly.
My smile does have that effect on men. Even my husband, at times. He is studiously not looking at me now, pretending that he is unaware of my presence in court.
I do not mind. I am content to see him there, in the centre, my puppet, ruling the roost. I? I am Lady Turvey, wife of Lord Turvey, the first Baron Turvey, of the Court of Chancery. Wife of. My duty in this busy world is to lead the ladies to the drawing room after dinner. The men in their wigs and gowns smile and bow politely as if we ladies occupy lofty pedestals far above them, but behind the smiles they believe me to be a mere appendage, raised from obscurity by my husband’s erudite skill and social standing. I do not complain. I did, after all, choose this invisibility.
I will not say it was my choice when I first entered this world. In my initial mewling state, I doubtless hungered for a small fanfare and gasps of wonder. Instead, my arrival was greeted with a groan. Like my husband I was the one in the middle, third of five daughters in a family desperate for a son to defeat the dread entail. Without a boy child, our family stood to be ousted from our small estate on my father’s death and left virtually penniless. Small wonder perhaps that my birth earned no more than a sigh of disappointment as I was bundled off to a wet-nurse while my parents set to work on a more satisfactory outcome. It never came. Five daughters were their lot, and I was the one in the middle that both forgot to notice.
My father was renowned for his droll wit, which he exercised constantly, mostly at my mother’s expense. It was, in truth, the only thing he did exercise, for my father was gentleman enough to disdain any serious exertion. He was a dilettante, given to toying with projects purely for his own amusement, and one such project was the education of daughters. He applied himself to the first, who was promising enough. Jane had all her mother’s beauty, combined with a moderate understanding, and a willingness to smile silently, so he was free to suppose her intelligent. His second, Lizzy had a quick wit to match his own and a readiness to talk on his level, usually in jest. Between them he created, I believe, the woman he might have chosen as a mate, had he been less hasty in his choice of my mother.
Jane and Lizzie were enough. By the time I was seen and heard, my father had grown bored with the construction of ideal daughters. I was not destined to be examined and dissected for signs of intelligence or sparkling wit.
His loss for, as it happens, I do have a very strong sense of humour, though no-one has yet understood it. I would call it dry. So dry, my father failed to recognize it at all.
I was abandoned to my mother’s care, and she was pre-occupied with my younger sisters. ‘Don’t bother me now, Mary,’ was her constant refrain, when I craved attention. ‘Can you not see I am ill?’ Or ‘Can you not see I have Kitty to attend to?’ or ‘Can you not see that Lydia is teething and my nerves are in such a state.’
I was taught to read, of course, since daughters of gentlemen were not to be utterly illiterate, but beyond that, I was left to my own devices. I confess that for many years I nursed a weak flaw in my character; a hunger for my father’s respect. I plunged deeply into every subject on our bookshelves, in the vain hope that he would notice my understanding or my application. I applied myself to the piano-forte, with endless tedious hours of practice, in order to excel. Personally, I detest music, but since he smiled and applauded every little jig that Lizzie attempted, in her occasional flirtation with the keys, I persisted, hoping to win a word of praise. My father merely winced and smirked.
‘Mary is hammering the muses again, for our delight,’ he’d say, before retreating to the library and firmly shutting the door.
‘Well, well, I am sure she is very talented,’ my mother would call after him. She set no personal value on talent, but she understood it to be a virtue and I had to have at least one, so she fixed on that.
Poor mother. She was never sure what to do with me. Kitty and Lydia, abandoned by my father, like me, were my mother’s delight and joy, being possessed of the one thing my mother did value. Good looks.
I am frank on this score. I lack any form of beauty. These days, I am occasionally described as ‘stately,’ or even, in desperate flattery, as ‘handsome.’ But then, I was at best ‘plain,’ or ‘sadly undistinguished,’ but mostly I was ‘and the other one.’ Because I did not please her eye and had neither a tendency to giggle, nor an interest in bonnets, my mother, like my father, put me out of her mind.
As did my sisters. Without actual malice, I believe, but there you are. Lizzie had Jane and Kitty had Lydia and I had – myself. Well well, I would be enough. I learned to watch. To observe. To amuse myself with their absurdities. To provoke their shrieks and groans with sad ease.
So I continued, somewhat aimlessly, until the arrival of Bingley.
Bingley was an affable and, to my mind, excruciatingly shallow, young man, who had taken a local house for the season, just as my mother was becoming desperate to find a suitable match for Jane.
‘What a great thing it will be for one of our daughters, if he should think of marrying her,’ squeaked my mother, in hysterical excitement of the news of his arrival.
So my father must make mock and pretend an unwillingness to provide the necessary introductions. He despised my mother’s sole preoccupation with getting her daughters married. Perhaps he considered she would have been better engaged, like him, in shutting herself in a library with amusing novels, while the family fortunes dribbled away and her daughters were left paupers. While I confess to feeling mentally bludgeoned by my mother’s foolish twittering, her matrimonial stratagems did, at least, acknowledge the bleak future awaiting us if something were not done.
I was fortunate in being spared the loudest volleys of her battle plans, as she thought so little of my chances. ‘Jane, my love, chin just a little higher. And Lizzy, yes you look very well, but don’t run on so. Gentlemen do not like it. Kitty – a little more colour. Pinch your cheeks. Lydia, my darling, just rearrange that curl and you are perfect. And Mary – oh, never mind.’
Indeed, I did not mind. I have never hankered after a household, a linen cupboard and a dozen hens, like our neighbour, Charlotte Lucas. She was as plain as I, with equally slight hopes of romance, but she had her list of expectations and she intended to fulfil them. I admired her for that, if not for the poverty of her ambition.
So, I return to Mr. Bingley. He obediently fell for Jane and she smiled a great deal and said nothing at all, which we took to be a sign of her pleasure. My mother was making wedding plans before their first ball was through.
It was a memorable ball, if only because Bingley’s arrogant friend Mr. Darcy insulted every woman in the room, including Lizzie, on whom his insults had a peculiar effect. She turned it into a jest of course, but she took it as permission to indulge an obsession with him, which she declared to be intense dislike. Strangely, others took her at her word on this subject, although, watching with dispassionate amusement, I could not but help notice that she behaved, in his presence, like a tabby queen on heat at the approach of a particularly rampant tom.
Lizzie was a blatant flirt, and a very successful one by virtue of the fact that she was unaware of it. Unlike Bingley’s poor sister, whose calculations were painfully obvious as she scampered round Darcy like a deranged puppy, and who received nothing but contempt in return. Lizzie sizzled and purred in blissful ignorance of her own intent. Or did she? She was, after all, a clever girl.
My younger sisters, too, were soon panting at the slips when a regiment was quartered in our district. To my mind, most of the officers were over-sexed oafs and scoundrels, despite their scarlet uniforms, but scarlet was enough for Kitty and Lydia. And, it appeared, for Lizzie, who increased the stakes in her flirtation with Darcy by singling out Wickham, an officer whom Darcy cleared detested.
Since all my sisters were setting their eyes firmly on the altar, with my mother in an ecstasy of preparation, I considered it time to take my own future in hand.
‘Lord knows who we’ll find for Mary,’ I overheard my mother saying to Aunt Phillips.
My aunt replied, ‘If Jane should marry well, perhaps it will suffice to ensure a small pension for the girl.’
There, in a nutshell, was my destiny. I must marry, or live off the charity of my more successful sisters. Ideally, my husband should be a gentleman, with land and labourers to provide a civilised income, so he, like my father, need never stir from his library or his butterfly collection, and I could have babies, gowns and occasional balls, which is all a lady could possibly desire. Failing that, a husband could follow one of the gentlemanly professions. Law or the church or the army. If even that proved unattainable, there was always (say it with hushed breath) trade. There were merchants who could pass as gentlemen, despite the disgrace of their calling. Beyond that, I was a lost cause.
When I questioned my own desires, I concluded that what I really wanted was a profession of my own, and no husband at all. I had the wits, the understanding and the application to succeed in any field I chose. I could easily have rivalled my merchant uncle Gardiner in the City and run rings around my uncle Phillips in law. But women of our class could not be permitted to fend for ourselves. No matter how great our personal resources, we must be the property and responsibility of father, husband or brother.
I have heard tales of women passing themselves off as men, and becoming doctors, or even soldiers. I did toy with the idea. But then, I observed the folly of men around me, the sex supposed to be my superior, their vanity and gullibility, and I thought how much easier it would be to take a man willing to be guided by me, marry him, and make my own way in the world by directing his toil and sweat.
The first candidate for my consideration was Mr Collins, the cousin destined to expel us from our home when our father died. He thought to make amends by marrying one of us. I observed him diligently and considered his potential. Here was a man of very limited intelligence, ambitious without any sensible means of meeting those ambitions and, judging by his obsequious respect for his patroness, Lady Catherine de Burgh, quite capable of being governed by a female hand.
Needless to say, he was set upon Jane or, since she was unavailable, Lizzie. This did not greatly disturb me, as her feelings towards him were equally plain. She thought him pompous, humourless and overfull of himself. Amusing, is it not, that she fell for Mr Darcy, who had precisely the same failings? I was left free to assay our cousin and weigh up his potential. He was a clergyman. Had I been permitted to enter the church, I have no doubt I would have finished up a bishop. I would have sat in the House of Lords, and dealt with the iniquitous matter of tithes. Could Mr. Collins be raised to a similar eminence under my control?
I listened to his reading of Fordyce’s Sermons To Young Ladies, and concluded not. He was a stupid man who fancied, as did the Reverend James Fordyce, that young ladies should be pretty, weak, silly and conceal any hint that they are possessed of a brain. I would be able to do nothing with such material.
‘He is a most profound and thoughtful young man,’ I observed wryly, to the family, looking up from my copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Kitty and Lydia were too busy squabbling over ribbons to listen, but Lizzie and my father raised their eyes, as they inevitably did whenever I spoke. My irony was always lost on them, perhaps because I was so skilled at keeping a perfectly straight face. My father repeatedly led Mr Collins by the nose into intellectual absurdities and expected us to appreciate his mockery, but my responses were met with pitying disdain. A streak of singular perversity prompted me to voice the most provocative opinions, just so that I might delight in their winces of irritation.
I had a perfect opportunity to irritate, when we all attended a ball at Mr Bingley’s residence. It was Lizzie’s fault. She was clearly in a state of nerves, and whenever I glanced her way she was cringing with embarrassment at some unfortunate display by my incorrigible mother and younger sisters. I had, long before, concluded that the only response should be inner laughter. I had remarked to Lizzie that we had a duty to regard ourselves as nothing more than sources of amusement for our neighbours. She tutted at my words, but later appropriated them for herself, at which point, of course, they were considered witty.
Observing her pained distress at the ball, and seeing the many smirks and looks of derision directed at the rest of my family, I thought it only right to stir the pot. When I was invited, politely, to play, I obliged, choosing an exceptionally complex and unspeakably dreary piece, which I executed in a deliberately heavy-handed and soulless manner. It was extremely long. At the end, observing the looks of relief all round, I immediately launched into another, and would have kept them all in a state of agonised endurance all evening, if my father had not intervened. He, at least, appreciated the humour of the situation, though he was unaware I shared his glee.
After that evening, our family life was thrown into a great deal of confusion. Mr Bingley vanished from the parish without proposing to Jane, while Mr Collins proposed to Lizzie and was turned down. My mother, with all her matrimonial hopes falling around her, tried to steer our hapless cousin at me.
‘You think he is a sensible young man, do you not, Mary? Just make him understand that he will do you very well.’
‘But he will not do me very well, madam. He is a feeble-minded ass.’
‘Well, what of that? It is no matter. You cannot pick and choose, you know, Mary. Speak to him, I insist. Convince him that he will find a most suitable wife here, without looking further afield.’
So I did speak to him. I convinced him of the virtues of our neighbour, Charlotte Lucas, and thus we were soon rid of him. Charlotte married him and quit our parish.
Before much longer, our household dwindled, too. Jane was packed off to heal her disappointment in London, Lizzie went off to Kent, and later to Derbyshire with our aunt and uncle Gardiner and, when the regiment departed for Brighton, Lydia went with them.
My mother had Kitty still, so I was left free to pursue my studies unhindered. I immersed myself in theology, law, medicine, natural science and the works of Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Malthus and other such writers as would give me a serious grasp of the world governed by men. Thus, I was the only one who could see my future continuing along its intended course, when Lydia’s unexpected elopement with Wickham brought the sky crashing down on the rest of my family.
I was thoroughly diverted by the extreme distress occasioned by the event. Our flighty sister had contrived to mislay the virginity our mother was so desperate for us all to lose as soon as possible, and it was greeted as an irredeemable disaster. I was, I believe, the only one to recognise the ironic hilarity in the situation.
‘We must stem the tide of malice and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation,’ I remarked to Lizzie, convinced that she, at least, would share my inner mirth. But no, she was too intent on bewailing her loss of credibility with that bore, Darcy, even when I hammered the joke in, even deeper. ‘A woman cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.’ The undeserving, you understand. How one might behave with the deserving was another matter. But Lizzie simply refused to laugh.
Of course it turned out well in the end. Lydia got her Wickham, Jane got Bingley and Lizzie got Darcy. Virginities were lost without further scandal and large fortunes were acquired. I did not pay much attention as I was busy with my own plans. Plans that no one else had any cause to notice, until Kitty was set fair to be palmed off onto a curate under Darcy’s patronage. Then, at last, my mother began to notice me, the forgotten fledgling in her nest.
‘Come, come, Mary, bustle yourself. You cannot expect me to go into town on my own and you must not be about your books forever. So many words and ideas; it is not healthy for a young woman,’
She hoped that if she trailed me around the shops, some sort-sighted widowed tradesman might consider me a suitable catch. I obliged and accompanied her, because I had already made my choice.
My uncle Phillips, an undistinguished country attorney, had two clerks. One, Mr John Fairbrother, was a fine young man, with a fine opinion of his own charms, eager to make a good marriage and climb any greasy pole within reach. He was most definitely not for me. William Turvey, on the other hand, was perfect. A raw-boned, straw-coloured, clumsy idiot, who gazed with helpless envy on his companion’s social ease and ambitions. A man who would have loved to rise, but knew not how.
I knew how. Long before my mother began to parade me in Meryton, I had already made Mr. Turvey’s acquaintance and begun my campaign of encouragement. He marvelled at my grasp of the subtleties of the law, admired my cunning and obeyed my every direction, like a well-trained hound. With my hand guiding his pen, he began to shine. My uncle, of course, took all the credit, but Mr. Turvey had already ceased to be a target of ridicule when Mr Fairbrother caught his prosperous bride and departed the area.
In all my undertakings, the most difficult, by far, was persuading Mr Turvey to find the courage to ask for my hand, when I informed him that we must marry. His terror was quite unfounded. My mother was delighted at the thought of any match for me, and my father, so often away in Derbyshire, had no interest whatsoever in my future.
So we were to wed. I intended my husband to rise to the highest echelons of the law, but we had to begin humbly. More humbly than was strictly necessary. There was a decent house, at the far end of the village, with accommodation for a couple of servants, and an acre of so of land, which I thought would do us very well for our first year or two of marriage. But when Lizzie and Jane – or, I should say, Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley – visited the family home, shortly before my nuptials, I took them to see two damp garrets rooms, riddled with signs of rat infestation, above the butcher’s shop.
‘They are not all that one might hope for,’ I said. ‘But beggars cannot be choosers. The rent is very reasonable.’
I did not actually state that Mr Turvey and I intended to rent them, but so it was assumed by my horrified sisters.
‘Jane, I must speak with you in confidence,’ said Lizzy, taking Mrs Bingley to one side, while I gazed meekly at a pile of rat droppings. Within a week, thanks to the generosity of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, a sum of £4000 was settled on us. It would never do for us to embarrass our grand connections.
I had hoped for five, but four was satisfactory. I was an excellent manager of our finances. Within a year, we had quit Meryton and moved to London, where I – where William – soon ousted the lawyers handling Darcy’s London affairs. Our – William’s – reputation rose. Our – his – advice was sought by the most powerful in the land. We could not be content with the management of great men’s estates and petty disputes, so, using all my influence, I soon purchased a place in chambers for William and, once he was called to the bar, nothing could hold us back.
Sadly, not all has worked out as my sisters might have hoped. Lydia was abandoned by Wickham, and passed through several protectors until her looks faded. Bingley’s fortunes went into sad decline, thanks to some impetuous investments in the colonies. It is true that Mr Turvey, on my advice, had suggested the schemes to Bingley, had had he had a better head for trade, like his father, he would have chosen less foolishly. Darcy’s fortune was severely diminished when Pemberley had to be demolished, due to subsidence. I bear some guilt, having invested in the abortive coalmine that brought about the collapse, but one cannot stand in the way of progress. Kitty has had to resign herself to obscurity, after the Reverend Boote was involved in an unfortunate incident with a choir-boy.
And I – well here I am. Here we all are. Mrs Bingley, Mrs Darcy, Mrs Wickham, Mrs Boote – and Lady Turvey. I trust my sisters share my enjoyment of the irony.
It is a topsy-turvy world, as they say.