Sunday, November 25, 2018

AMELIA WEBSTER: Chapter 1 of a forthcoming novel

Here is the first installment of Amelia Webster—which, like my previous novel, Edgar and Emma, is based on a three-page story written by the juvenile Jane Austen.

The village of Rovedon, in Hertfordshire, was so small that there were limited means by which its residents might amuse themselves; the chief of which was devising who ought to marry whom. For many years, the young misses of the village were wagered to wed either Tom Pierce or Jack Fitzmark, until those gentlemen took up residence together at two-and-thirty, thus making it apparent that they would marry no one at all. At which interval the busybodies of Rovedon who had invested such interest in their nuptial fortunes, died off (though not all at once, and not all from disappointment), which left Tom and Jack themselves to take up the sport of anticipating the trajectory of Cupid’s arrows.
This endeavor was made the easier by there being at present only three marriageable daughters among the village elite (the others being as yet too young and green, or too old and overripe). This trio of ladies had initially been judged equally eligible by local consensus, but subsequently a distinct advantage was awarded to Miss Webster when her cousin-in-law’s son contracted to wed the grand-niece of a viscount. This gave her a family connexion to the nobility that must make her the village’s prize catch.
“It is Miss Webster’s good fortune indeed,” said Tom one morning as he polished off the last of his breakfast porridge, “for I fear without such exalted relations, her attractions must be considered no greater than those of the Hervey sisters.”
“If not their inferior,” rejoined Jack, as he tapped open the shell of his second boiled egg. For both gentlemen were highly partisan in the matter of the Hervey girls, and considered Amelia Webster excessively proud. (Tom had once famously quipped, “Were she to hold her nose any higher, a sudden rainfall might quite drown her.”) Both Tom and Jack attributed this to her having been an only child and shockingly spoilt by her parents, both of whom now appeared rather in awe of her.
The Hervey girls, by contrast, had grown up in a large family. Their eldest brother, Fred, had joined the Navy and risen swiftly through its ranks, and was now a lieutenant commander; their junior brother, George, had recently concluded his studies at Oxford, where he had read law with distinction, and been rewarded by his parents with a grand tour of Europe and the east from which he had but lately returned. With two such brilliant siblings, the Miss Herveys had learned humility; and its outward show suited them, as Tom now undertook to note.
“In matters of mere outward beauty,” he said, “I cannot but own that Miss Webster is as handsome as either of her rivals. But Miss Hervey embellishes her charming face and figure with an attractive earnestness of manner; how genuinely she takes an interest in all her fellow creatures, and devotes herself to their comfort and good cheer!”
“Ah, but in Miss Sally Hervey’s favor,” rejoined Jack, whose preference was for the younger of the sisters, “there is such an endearing demureness about her; she is the very soul of stillness and serenity. Were it not for the brilliance of her coloring, one might entirely overlook her in company, so quiet is her way.”
The two friends could not agree whether active or passive humility must take the prize; only that both were infinitely preferable to haughtiness and what Jack called “push”—by which he meant, Miss Webster’s insistence that her imminent connexion to the aristocracy be not merely acknowledged, but accommodated. At any assembly, she must be first in line to dinner, and lead every dance; and in shops, her custom must be given precedence over those who had come in before her. Amelia Webster was, as a result, much respected, but not at all admired.
This seemingly simple scenario—three eligible ladies; one of rank, two of merit—was complicated by there being but a pair of eligible gentlemen on hand. 
The first was the aforementioned George Hervey, whose eligibility was of no use to his sisters. He was thus encouraged by his parents to consider Miss Webster; but George was very much of a mind against that lady, on account of her having made some satirical remarks about his height some years prior, before he had departed for Oxford, at which time she towered above him by nearly five inches. (He had since enjoyed some gains in stature, despite which no one yet would think to call him tall.) In addition, George had been deeply impressed by the ladies of the Italian peninsula, whose comportment was of a more relaxed and companionable nature than he was accustomed to find at home—and who were the very antithesis of Miss Webster, who had yet to encounter a smile she could not account an affront. George did not openly rebel against his parents’ efforts to attach him to Miss Webster; but only because he harbored an intention someday to dishonor them more profoundly, by marrying abroad.
The other eligible gentleman was Mr. Benjamin Bar, who was an object of great curiosity and excitement to the villagers, in that he was the heir of a rich uncle who lived in nearby Carthworth, and who was reported to be in very ill health. Mr. Bar was thus in the thrilling expectation of being a person of no small consequence before the age of one-and-twenty. He was also the hero of the village’s romantic imagination, because he had previously been attentive to Miss Sally Hervey, so much so that an understanding between them was tacitly acknowledged; but alas, such an understanding could not be openly declared until Sally’s elder sister were betrothed. And before Maud Hervey could secure herself a match (in a village where, as noted, there was none to be had), Miss Webster’s cousin-in-law was accepted by the viscount’s grand-niece, and Mr. Bar’s uncle concluded that the best wife for his nephew was that newly socially superior lady. Mr. Bar could not disoblige his benefactor without the risk of being disinherited, and so he complied; though his heart remained wholly Sally Hervey’s.
Thus it was that Rovedon’s sole eligible bachelors were both in official competition for Amelia Webster, though neither pursued her with enthusiasm; and in the meantime, the two Hervey girls languished without beaux of any kind.
“What we are in need of,” said Tom after breakfast, as he donned his boots in anticipation of taking his morning walk up to the chapel and back again, to keep himself trim (he was very jealous of his slender frame), “is some new element that will alter the composition of this unhappy situation. But I do not know what that might be.” He appeared dejected for a moment, then rose briskly to his feet and summoned his spaniel, Blaze.
“You’ll think of something,” said Jack, who now donned his garden hat, whose wide brim would shield his brow while he pruned his cherished rosebushes—a duty he undertook with such diligent regularity that it was a rare bud that survived long enough to flower. “You always do.”
Bolstered by his friend’s confidence, Tom set forth on his walk—and commended himself on having chosen his thickest-soled boots, for the lane remained wet with mud even after two days’ respite from a drenching rain. Blaze, not at all minding the dirt, left him to seek some diversion in the woodland, and Tom made steady, if sticky, progress to the high street, where he encountered George Hervey as the latter descended the steps of the stationer’s shop, carrying a small parcel.
“I found myself in want of paper,” George explained, after greeting Tom with his usual open friendliness, “and just as I sat down to write my great friend Beverley—he with whom I shared rooms at Oxford, and who is as dear to me as a brother. I am sorry to say I have found no opportunity to correspond with him since I undertook my sojourn abroad.”
“In that case, I hope you have amply supplied yourself,” said Tom while nodding at his friend’s parcel, “for you will have much to tell him.” And as George expressed his agreement, Tom was struck by an idea of such unexampled cleverness that were it not for the grip of the mud upon his heels, he might actually jump up and down. “But tell me, Hervey,” he said, “if this fellow is so near to a brother to you, why not make him so in fact?”
George blinked, as though surprised by the question. “Why—because his parents are not my own,” he said with uncertain laughter. “Surely that is an end to the question!”
Tom shook his head. “You misunderstand me. I mean to say, you have two sisters at home, both in need of a husband. It would commend you to furnish at least one candidate for the post.”
George regarded him with a look of undiluted admiration. “How can that thought not have occurred to me? I daresay it is because the girls were so young when I departed for Oxford that I still think of them as children; but I must own that in the interval they have much grown up. How clever you are, Pierce; everyone says it of you, and now I know it to be so.” He raised his parcel in a gesture of resolve. “I shall include in my letter an invitation to Rovedon. Even if Beverley fails to engage my sisters’ hearts, it will do my own much good to see him.”
Tom thus continued his walk in high spirits (so much so that he was not even put out when Blaze rejoined him, at least two shades darker than she had been half an hour earlier). He was proud of having both gratified Jack’s faith in him and earned young George Hervey’s approbation. For he considered that the addition of a new bachelor in town might reorient the unhappy state of its current matrimonial outlook.
Though that outlook was far from unhappy for Amelia, who had risen this morning with a resolve of her own, and of a very different nature. The time had come, she decided, to choose between George Hervey and Benjamin Bar. Her cousin-in-law’s nuptials were approaching, and she had no wish to attend them without a fiancĂ© of her own on her arm.