Quite Contrary – Chapter One: “Pink Ribbons”

Every now and again I put the current WIP to one side – it is not co-operating, and since I’m dealing with the aftermath of a family crisis, death and funeral, I have very few ‘spoons’ available for wrestling with a recalcitrant Darcy and Elizabeth – and as a way of dealing with the stresses and tension, I’m tinkering with another idea. I don’t know if it will go anywhere, as its tone is rather more bitter than I like, but I’ll share the first chapter here.

Chapter One: Pink Ribbons

I do not like my family.

Mary Bennet blinked at the words she had just inscribed at the top of the new page in her book of Elegant Extracts. Surely the good Reverend had not written that into his sermon? It made no sense, and did not follow the arguments the Reverend was making— and he had been a man at the pinnacle of clear and rational thinking.

She loved his writing. The sentences rolled like music, building up into a crescendo of glorious sound, and she could give no finer praise than that. When she read his words, she imagined she could hear his voice. He sounded oddly like her Uncle Phillips, who had a deep and mellifluous voice that people could scarce believe came from such an unprepossessing, ordinary-looking man. Papa always said that Uncle Phillips had become a lawyer precisely because the beauty of his voice, combined with the sheer unexpectedness of it, could persuade judge and jury that even the most heinous criminal was a gentle innocent. Mary had no view on that, but she could only admire the music her uncle created merely by speaking. And so, in her mind’s eye, Mary often imagined Fordyce leaning over the carved oak of his pulpit to fix his gaze upon the faces of his rapt congregation, calling the wicked to repentance with Uncle Phillips’s glorious tones pouring forth from his mouth in great, symphonious periods.

In turn, this reminded her of her one visit to London and the concert she had attended there. The music had… well, she always described it to herself as it ravishing her soul, transporting her to some place far beyond the mundane concert hall, so that when her sister Elizabeth had touched her hand to garner her attention, Mary had started, surprised out of a sort of ecstasy. Elizabeth’s form had been dimmed by the tears in Mary’s eyes. She had had to blink furiously to hide the joy the music had given her. Of all her sisters, Elizabeth was the most likely to share it, but still Mary’s tongue had stuttered and stilled as she tried to find the words. Elizabeth had squeezed Mary’s hands in hers, and, smiling, whispered, “How glorious that was, Mary! I was sure you, of all people, would find it so.”

One day, perhaps, her Aunt Gardiner would invite her back to London, and she could experience that joy again. Until then, she contented herself with the memory of that moment of harmony with her sister enhancing the overwhelming beauty of the music itself.

She turned back one page. Her own handwriting, giving the Reverend Fordyce a new voice through the thinly sloping, neatly looped letters:

“For my part, I could heartily wish to see the female world more accompl-
-ished than it is ; but I do not wish to see it abound with metaphysicians, histor-
-ians, speculative philosophers, or Learned Ladies of any kind. I should be afraid,
lest the sex should lose in softness what they gained in force—”

She had reached that point in her copying, and had turned the page to continue. Just as so…

She flipped the page over again, and there, indubitably in her own hand at the top of the left-hand page of her book, was that disconcerting sentence. Not the Reverend’s words at all. He, indeed, went on to say

“—and lest the pursuit of such elevation should inter-
-fere a little with the plain duties and humble virtues of life—”

—a sentiment with which Mary was in hearty agreement. But oddly, that was not what she had written when she had turned the page to continue her extract.

She picked up her cherished copy of the Sermons, and turned the pages back and forth, searching.

No. There was not one word about her family, or anyone else’s. Why, then, had she written that odd, disturbing sentence? She had been copying Fordyce, and she copied him with great exactness. Always. Where the text broke a word in two where it was spread between lines, Mary did so also; where there was a comma or a colon, Mary transcribed them with precision. For who was she to alter by so much as one iota, the immortal words the great sermoniser had bequeathed posterity? Modest and eager to learn as she was, painstaking faithfulness and accuracy were her watchwords. When she read her extracts, she would see them exactly as the Reverend had published them.

As was proper.

Of course, she had been thinking about her family when she decided to transcribe that particular sermon into her Extracts book. In particular—

The faint hub-bub of noise outside the closed door of Mary’s bedroom erupted into shrill shrieks and screams, interspersed with the clatter of feet on the landings and stairs. Here, on the bedroom floor of the family wing, out of sight of visitors, only narrow runners carpeted the hallways, rather than the thick, expensive Oriental rugs used for show in the public rooms downstairs. Her sisters’ hasty feet often missed the thin strips to slap angrily against the polished wooden floorboards.

Kitty and Lydia, that is. Her two younger sisters. Jane and Elizabeth were older, and too dignified to run. Jane had probably always been too dignified to run.

Her contemplation disturbed, Mary cocked her head to one side and listened. It would be a bonnet, or a spangled scarf, of perhaps an artificial flower, or—

Her door burst open. Lydia danced in to breach the sanctuary of Mary’s bedroom, waving a garish pink ribbon above her head. Kitty ran in after her, clutching hands held out to recapture her property.

—or a ribbon.

Of course, it was a ribbon.

“I shall take it to Brighton with me when I go with the Regiment, to furbish up my second best bonnet. It suits me much better than it will you, Kitty. Does it not, Mary?” And Lydia—so brash and bold, spiteful and selfish at fifteen that Mary could not conceive of her in any other light, no matter how old Lydia grew—laid the bright ribbon across her brow as if it were a diadem, and pranced up to Mary to thrust her face up close for inspection.

If Mary had not drawn back, her world would have shrunk into a panorama of Lydia’s peachy-pink cheeks and bright blue eyes. Lydia would have blotted out everything else—which would have pleased her immensely, of course. Lydia’s entire raison d’être was to blot out everything else and be the entirety of everyone’s world. Lydia was very pretty—not so much as beautiful Jane or witty Elizabeth, but more so than pale, delicate Kitty and infinitely prettier than Mary herself. Mary was well used to hearing herself described as the ‘plain Bennet girl’ and hearing the notes of slight disbelief in the speaker’s voice, as if such a creature was as exotic to Hertfordshire as an aardvark or a mongoose. To know this, and then to have that peach and blue prettiness pushed into one’s own face… it was too much. Mary sat back in her chair until Lydia’s face resumed its proper proportions.

“But it is my ribbon!” Kitty, despite being two years older than Lydia, was fretful and ineffective. “And so is the bonnet! I want them back!”

“The bonnet makes you look like you are wearing a coal scuttle, and the ribbon becomes me far more.” Lydia cast only a sidelong glance at Kitty. “Truly, Mary, does it not?”

Mary pushed up her spectacles. They had a most annoying habit of sliding down her nose. “I shall have to see Kitty wear it before I venture an opinion.”

Lydia unloosed the ribbon from around her brow and made a gesture as if to hold it out for Kitty to take, before shouting out a laugh and snatching it away again. “I am not such a ninny as to allow you to trick me as easily as that!”

Kitty, who had brightened, slumped again.

Mary blinked. Trick? Why would she attempt to trick Lydia? “I meant only that I cannot tell, when I have not seen Kitty with the ribbon.”

“A likely tale!”

Mary turned her head away, frowning. She did not lie, and Lydia knew it. There was no good, rational point to falsehoods, and even less of one to the sort of tricks and japes her younger sisters found so amusing. They were not amusing at all—neither the japes, nor her sisters. All of them pointless.

She slid her right hand under the desktop to rest it on her leg, and made her fingers tap out a melody, unseen and unheard. Something soothing to the heart. It soothed hers, until she could watch her sisters with more kindness than they might, perhaps, merit.

Neither would be receptive to the Reverend’s gentle admonitions on gentility and good taste, Mary was sure. They were too much Mama’s daughters for that. Their mother’s estimation of taste was measured in ells of lace and ribbon. Mrs Bennet thought only the poor dressed plainly, which was why she so often deplored Mary’s simpler taste: she was shamed by it. Mama was querulous and petulant now—a larger, older Kitty—but her sister, Aunt Phillips, always said she had been livelier even than Lydia. At sixteen, then, she must have been very like Lydia and Kitty combined.

It was a quite disturbing thought, and Mary shied away from it. She returned to Fordyce’s words, a little concerned that without the passage before her, she could not quote him exactly. She had no time to search out the relevant sermon, lest the moment pass. Instead she stopped playing Mozart on her leg, and lifted her hand back above the desktop to rest it on the book’s cover to bolster her fortitude. She would do her best.

“We are told that it is wrong for a virtuous lady to be overfond of finery, as it takes her mind from more serious matters and gives her over to an unpleasing frivolity.” Mary gestured at the ribbon, which was a particularly trying shade. “And that we must learn to distinguish, too, between what is glaring, and what is genteel.”

Lydia snorted. Not at all a genteel sound. “I do not know why we thought to ask you! You are such a… a… mopsy, Mary Bennet! You are merely eaten up with envy that you cannot wear such a thing without everyone laughing at you. I do not suppose you would ever think to wear a ribbon as pretty.”

Mary could only nod complete agreement. “I would not.”

“No indeed! You are all dull brown and greys… and your dresses are all so dowdy. Everyone can see you will soon be at your last prayers, just as Jane is, and you not yet twenty! I should be shamed to be such an old maid in waiting.”

Mary ignored that. It was a common enough jibe from Lydia’s mouth. “It takes a particular kind of brassy colouring to wear such a pink well.” She glanced at Kitty. “You should let her have it, Kitty. You are more delicate than Lydia, in figure and aspect. A softer, duskier pink will compliment you better.”

Kitty stared, her mouth dropping open a trifle.

Lydia stared, too, her eyes narrowing and her brows drawing down into a decided snapping frown. Then, her pink prettiness suddenly a brighter red that most definitely was not complimented by the ribbon, she let out a screech that hurt Mary’s ears. “What are you saying? Do you dare— Brassy?”

Mary swallowed, trying not to show her wince at the piercing nature of Lydia’s shrieking. How very like their mother! Mary could see the truth of Aunt Phillips’s words for herself, for what her mother had lost in liveliness she had retained in volume and, sadly, the same selfish spite that imbued Lydia. Any shrinking away on Mary’s part, any indication of hurt feelings or lacerated sensibilities, would have Lydia exploiting the weakness. Mary strove to show the bland, indifferent face she used to meet jibes about her looks, or her prospects, or her piano playing, or her desire to live a good and useful life. She would not recant. After all, she had spoken nothing but the absolute truth.

“I said only that it was not a colour for Kitty. I said nothing about you.”

Kitty, though speechless, preened and smirked.

Lydia was unappeased. “I will have you know that the officers all think that I am corky! That is what Lieutenant Wickham said, only yesterday evening at the Lucases’ reception, when he and the other officers were so pleased I am to go with them to Brighton. Corky! How dare you say I am brassy? The two are not the same!”

Mary tried to smooth out her frown. “What is ‘corky’?”

“I am bright and lively. That is what Wickham meant. Oh, you are such a stupid! How can you not know things like that? I suppose it is because your precious Fordyce does not talk of corky girls.” Lydia snorted again.

Mary rather thought he did, only in less vulgar terms and in order that he might hold up his hands in horror and deplore them and their immodest behaviour. She contemplated saying so, but had no opportunity. Jane and Elizabeth appeared at her door to shush Lydia’s freaks and tempers. That in itself was not an uncommon occurrence. Lydia required frequent shushing.

“Girls, girls! What is all the commotion? Our mother is laid down—”

At that point, in the quiet safety of her own mind, Mary found herself chorusing the words along with Jane.

“—with one of her nervous fits and headaches, and this noise is all too much for her. You must be quieter, for her sake.”

Mary nodded, satisfied that she had correctly anticipated Jane. Of course her mother was having a nervous fit. Such maternal paroxysms filled up the hours between nuncheon and visits to and from their social circle. If Mama were not planning on visiting neighbours in the nearby market town of Meryton, they would come here to Longbourn. In either event, Mama would be miraculously restored to health, rejuvenated by having a new audience to condole with her on her latest nerve spasm.

“Oh, poh!” said Lydia, with a dismissive wave of the hand still clutching the ribbon, which fluttered through the air with the same sense of gay indifference to decorum that Lydia herself showed. She and the ribbon were well matched in every way. “There is nothing new in that.”

“No matter, Lydia. Please have some compassion for Mama.” Which was as severe as Jane could possibly be.

“Or at least shriek in more dulcet tones,” suggested Elizabeth.

“But Jane, you do not understand! Mary said I was brassy!”

“Our Mary has a commendable fondness for truth-telling.” Elizabeth’s mouth was twitching in a very familiar way.

“I said no such thing.” Mary glanced down at her Extracts book and closed it gently, lest any of them read that damning sentence. “I said that only someone with a brassy colouring could wear that particular shade well.”

“And that I was too delicate to wear it.” Kitty had found her voice. “You may keep the ribbon, Lydia. As Mary says, it suits you better than it does me.” And with an added burst of resentment: “But you shall not have my bonnet!”

Lydia let out a noise like the steam hissing out of the housekeeper’s largest kettle, and tossed the ribbon to the floor. “I do not want it!”

“Shush, Lydia!” Jane said. “Remember Mama.”

“As if anyone should care what Mary thinks! She is a bracket-faced old tabby with more hair than wit! And Lord, her hair is dull enough! No ribbon could improve that.”

Jane’s eyes widened. “Lydia! Lydia, that is very unkind.”

Gratifying as it was to have the beauty of the family protest against Lydia’s spite, Jane made no attempt to deny any of the jibes. Mary would have preferred a sharp denial, an acerbic riposte along the lines of Lydia’s eyesight being as defective as her moral character. But that, it seemed, was not to be. Still, Jane’s indiscriminate, gentle goodness was soothing.

Elizabeth was not so lacking in fervour. Her mouth still twitched, and she pulled her bottom lip in under her teeth. Mary thought that was to stop herself from laughing aloud. “Mary can no more help not being blonde than I can, Lydia, thank you very much! We are neither of us dull-haired!”

Mary glanced at Elizabeth’s bouncing dark curls, and almost raised a hand to touch her own smooth braids, held confined in their plain, workmanlike style. She stopped herself, just in time. When she had started making the extract that day, she had been considering Elizabeth. A year Mary’s senior, Lizzy was witty and intelligent. It would do her much good to reflect on Reverend Fordyce’s words, and consider the considerable softness she had lost in her desire to be a sparkling conversationalist. She attracted a great deal of attention, but at what cost? She was far too like their father.

It amused Papa, of course, to have his own hard, sharp wit replicated in his favourite daughter; Elizabeth’s eyes glittering with amusement, matching, somehow, the way their father’s mouth lifted always at the left corner in a crinkling sneer.

They had done it that very morning, just after breakfast, when Papa had been talking of the latest letter from his cousin and heir, Mr Collins, following Lizzy’s return that week from a visit to Mr Collins’s parsonage in Kent. He had turned to Mary and asked Mary’s opinion on some point their cousin had made about the proper reverence to be shown his noble patroness, and as she tried to think of something sensible to say that might garner her father’s rare approbation, he had laughed and added, “For you strive always to improve your mind, I know, by reading great books and making extracts.” Mary had stared, mute, while Elizabeth shared his sly smiles.

That had been unkind. But then, none of them, parents or sisters, was kind.

It was as well that Mary was used to it.

When they had all gone, chivvied out of her bedroom by Jane, and she was left to quiet solitude again, Mary returned to her Extracts book. She ignored the bright splash of pink silk lying huddled on her bedroom floor. Kitty or Lydia would retrieve the ribbon eventually. Or one of the servants would.

The old writing case she used had been her grandmother’s. A long polished walnut-wood box with brass corners, it just fit on the small table set in the window embrasure that Mary used as a desk. No one else in Longbourn had claimed it, and Mary had been happy to make it her own.

She reopened her Extract book and smoothed it out on the writing slope formed when the lid of the box was lifted. The wood of the slope was less good than the case, although thinly veneered with walnut and overlaid with tooled leather. She ran one finger down the tooling, feeling where the gold inlay was missing in the bumps and hollows, and considered the page.

Her first thought had been to strike through that odd sentence that, no matter how hard she tried, she could not recall writing. She disliked crossings out a great deal. They made a page so untidy, threw the whole extract into disorder, and muddled her reading later. Her eye would always be drawn to the thick black lines striking through the wrongness, and her mind would wander from Fordyce’s righteous truths and turn instead to contemplating what lay beneath the harsh black ink. The imperfection was never expunged.

Still, what else might she do? The words did not belong to Reverend Fordyce. They were all her own, however unconsciously done.

She hesitated, quill poised, a small drop of ink glistening on the point she had carved herself with the tortoiseshell penknife Jane had given her one Christmas.

She truly did not like crossings out.

The right hand page of the book was pristine. She would continue the extract there. This left-hand page she would leave alone. Perhaps…

Perhaps she would add more of her thoughts. For a moment she stared out over the garden, then bent her head. Now the only sound was the scratching of her quill.

I do my best to love them, in the way that the Scriptures demand. I honour my father and mother, and I love my sisters as I must love all my brethren in Christ.

But I do not always like them.

2 comments

  1. Another beautifully written passage – and hopefully book – from this author, whose first book (Mistress of Netherfield) I am re-reading now.
    I’m not always interested in Mary as a character because she’s often portrayed in a one-dimensional fashion, but this gives her much more depth and she is quite endearing in her shamefaced admission of occasional dislike of her family – one could hardly blame her at times!
    Many thanks for an intriguing start to my day when I opened this email!

    Like

    • Thank you, Jill! I’m glad you enjoyed this. I think Austen didn’t do much with either Mary or Kitty, tbh, and they would both be interesting characters to flesh out a little more. I do have one more chapter of this, which I’ll post in a few days. Then I think I’ll alternate between writing this and One Good Sonnet, and hope to kick the muse into behaving herself!

      Like

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