It is a truth universally acknowledged that on escaping an unhappy marriage, a young widow will be delighted to remove to the dower house and lease the marital abode to a single man in possession of a good fortune, provided he looks elsewhere to fulfil his want of a wife.
Five years after being forced into an unwanted marriage at the age of sixteen, and freed six months later by the death of her abusive husband, Elizabeth Grayson (née Bennet) has finally found a measure of peace. The inheritor of her husband’s estate, Netherfield Park, Elizabeth is now a wealthy young widow, independent and self-reliant. With an eye always on improving her four sisters’ woefully small dowries and providing for her mother, who will be homeless when her father dies, Elizabeth is pleased to lease out Netherfield to the Bingley family, making her home in the dower house in Meryton and vowing that she will never remarry.
Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire is rich and well connected, but reserved in company with anybody outside the very few he counts as friends. Towards those friends, he is loyal and steadfast, the staunchest of supporters. So when a young man comes to him with a tale of the clandestine marriage and mysterious death of Darcy’s old schoolfriend, James Grayson, and begs Darcy’s help to investigate the widow’s role, Darcy agrees. Visiting Charles Bingley, the new tenant of Netherfield, Darcy is very soon torn between his loyalty to his dead friend, and his burgeoning attraction to the widow.
Throw two unprincipled rogues and an elopement into the confines of Meryton, and how will Darcy’s dilemma over Elizabeth ever be resolved? And is she willing to put aside her misgivings, and trust again?
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28 June 2021
Detail from a portrait of Madame Philippe Panon Desbassayns de Richemont, Jeanne Eglé Mourgue, (1778–1855), painted by Marie Guillelmine Benoist in 1802.
(The Met, NY. Image in the public domain, available for unrestricted use.)
Pride and Prejudice variation | historical, Regency romance.
Actually, a scene cut from the chapter following Mr Collins’s inept proposal. Elizabeth has been forced to think back on her marriage to James Grayson, and thus revealing to her younger sisters that Grayson had been abusive and the short marriage had been desperately unhappy:
“May I speak with you, Lizzy?”
Kitty. Recovered a little from her shocked silence of earlier, she hesitated in the door of Elizabeth’s bedroom, not quite hopping from one foot to the other in anguished indecision but giving the impression she might start at any second. Either that, or flee outright. Elizabeth smiled, and stretched out her hand.
Kitty darted in and snatched at it. “Oh Lizzy, I never knew! Was it so very bad?”
“You were twelve, Kitty. Of course much of what happened was kept from you. Only Jane was old enough to know the whole.” Elizabeth went to the door to close it. Mary was hovering in the hallway, and Elizabeth gestured her to join them. Mary had given stalwart support earlier and asked no questions. Not with words, at any rate. Her eyes, wide and pained, had spoken for her.
They sat together on the bed, Elizabeth in the middle, with sisters each holding one of her hands.
“Lydia?” Elizabeth asked.
“She says, as Mama does, that you got a rich husband and Netherfield Park, you should not complain, and you obviously did not know how to keep a man happy. She says that she does, and she will never fare as you did.” Kitty twisted her mouth into its familiar, fretful moue. “Well, I would not protest a rich husband or a fine house, but I have never seen you so… I do not want that.”
“Well, you are wiser than Lydia. I will tell you a little of what occurred. I might have spoken earlier, perhaps, but you were so young…”
“You were only sixteen yourself, Lizzy, when you married him,” Mary said, dry as dust.
“I have been trying to remember.” Kitty’s expressive face mimed a frowning effort at remembrance. “I know Mama was displeased by rarely being allowed admittance at Netherfield after you married—”
Elizabeth did not doubt her mother would have been there every day, otherwise. She would have deplored that, yet the irony of longing for the protection such a daily visit would have bestowed did not escape her.
“—and we did not see you very often. I do not remember your husband very well, which is odd since he was a redcoat! Was he not injured?”
“At the battle at Maida, in Italy, six or seven months before we married.”
“He did not limp or anything, that I recall,” said Kitty, frowning.
“No. His worst injury was to his head. More, he was deeply wounded in spirit and that did not heal. He would never speak of the battle willingly, except once to say his company bore of the brunt of it and lost more than half the men. I learned more from his ramblings when he was most distraught. He was plagued by evil dreams, and his spirits were depressed and… and blackened by his experiences.”
“Was he not a hero, though?” Kitty’s pretty face scrunched up, most unbecomingly.
Elizabeth smoothed a hand over Kitty’s forehead until her little sister relaxed her expression. “I suppose he was. But even heroes may be damaged. It is also the case that men are very loath to admit to weakness. They think it unmanly. Dishonourable, even. James was angry much of the time. He disliked seeing people, particularly when the dreams were blackest. He…” Elizabeth stopped, pressed her lips together for a moment.
James’s voice, broken and choking, when she woke him from another nightmare, hammered into her memory… So many, so many… arms and legs shattered or blasted away… blood. So much blood. Screaming and yelling… Harry’s belly is torn open… God, I want to be sick… Shut up, Harry! Shut up!… He cannot hold his guts in… Not even both hands… Begging me. Begging me… I have to do it. I have to… He screams so loud! My pistol… where is my pistol… enough for him… Stinks and smokes, and men’s guts spilling out… There! There! See? Grapeshot. Bloody grapeshot! Tears a man to shreds, rips off arms and heads and legs….They are everywhere, the dead men, holding out their bloody hands… Begging me… I cannot shoot them all…
No. Kitty and Mary did not need to share those horrors with James.
Kitty’s eyes as round as pennies. “Was he a madman?”
“No. Not really. I think him very affected by the horrors of war.”
Kitty stared at her for a few moments, almost expectantly, then sighed. “You will not tell me more.”
“I find it difficult to talk about. But I do want you to understand some painful truths, Kitty. The law turns a blind eye to a man hurting his wife that way. There is no recourse for her. I was helpless, in his power, and even Papa could not interfere. No one could.” And seeing Kitty’s pallor and look of wide-eyed horror, Elizabeth hastened to add, “It was not every day, as some poor women have it. He hurt me when his dreams were at their worst. In truth, I do not think he saw me, but thought his enemies were coming against him, and he struck out as he would in battle to defend himself.”
“He was much larger and stronger than you, Lizzy! Only a coward would strike a woman so!”
“He was always sorry, after.”
“Not as sorry as you, I expect,” muttered Mary. She slipped an arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. Until that instant, Elizabeth had not realised she was shaking.
“Both of you, think about the reality of our lives. A gentlewoman must marry if she can, because there is no other course open to her. Most are not well educated, and even those who are, cannot follow any profession or earn her own living. The most she may do is be a governess, or a companion, and even that sinks her below any claim to gentility. Marriage is the only certain bulwark between her and poverty. It is true that my owning Netherfield means Mama and you girls need not fear the hedgerows, fond as Mama is of bewailing that fate. I will always take care of you all. But truly, marriage is likely to be your best future. Do not rush to it, though! Take time to understand your future husband, be certain of his character before you put your trust in him. A husband has complete authority over his wife. There is no escape afterwards if you choose awry, and only death will free you.”
“Lydia wants to be married,” Kitty said. “I do not believe she cares much about who her husband may be, so long as he wears a red coat and is handsome. She thinks it would be a fine joke to be wed before Jane can secure Mr Bingley.”
“Then I can only pray she realises how little she may laugh if she chooses the wrong man.” Elizabeth blinked back tears. “It is folly to wed too early.”
“You did. Why?”
“Oh, that, Kitty, is another story altogether. Suffice it to say, I was once much like you and Lyddie—”
“Not so loud, I suspect,” said Mary, with an admonitory glance at poor Kitty.
“I think Lydia and I are… were very alike. I was just as bright and lively, but I had the grace of our Aunt Gardiner to help me learn how to be lively without being shrill. Still, I learned in the hardest way that to be too open and boisterous gives the wrong impression, and that gossiping tongues can ruin lives in a heartbeat and think nothing of it.”
“A lady cannot be too guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the opposite sex,” was the Reverend Fordyce’s trenchant view, though spoken in Mary’s voice.
Elizabeth dropped a comforting kiss on Kitty’s hair. “Mary is right. Why do you think I always preach moderation to you? Do not blindly follow Lydia, but consider what you want from life for yourself. Promise me you will think on this.”
“I promise.” And after a few moments of soothing and petting, Kitty took affectionate leave of her elder sisters, closing the door behind her.
Cynical Mary sighed. “She will keep the promise only until Lydia next makes her siren call.”
“Perhaps.” Elizabeth allowed herself to slump in a way that no lady ever should. “I fear Lydia is beyond amendment, but there is hope for Kitty. She is not so ungovernable.”
“I hope not.” Mary gripped both Elizabeth’s hands tight. “I will not cause you more pain today, asking questions, but one day perhaps, you will tell me everything?”
“Then I will ask no more now. Thank you for trusting me.”
She stood to leave, but first stooped over Elizabeth and kissed her forehead, in just the same comforting, almost maternal spirit that Elizabeth herself had kissed Kitty.
Her mother had never done that. How humbling that her sister knew it.