A Question Character
Fleshing out Austen's Plot Devices
Quick Quiz: Which of Jane Austen’s characters do you want to wrap around you like a comforting blanket? Which faces float down your memory’s lanes? Which are so fully formed that there is little that you could add to make them all the more potent?
You are welcome to correct me, but I would suggest that in each of the six canonical works, there are relatively few finished, three-dimensional characters. Now, one could argue that none of the characters Austen created could have stepped from a biography. One of her bits of genius is that she leaves the reader room to infer the broader portrait of the forces that shaped her lead characters. She also allows readers to use their own lives as a background against which the major personages are projected.
Through it, we do begin to understand why Darcy acts as he does as well as why Elizabeth responds in the manner that she does. Austen has provided us with enough backstory to make some educated guesses about why they appear as they do in the pages of the novel. You could do the same with the other great binaries Austen composed. Yet, Austen’s casts are quite large. For every great character, there may be three side (barely supporting) players.
If we return to those initial questions for a moment: how many listed a Bingley (either Charles or Caroline) as the character they find most memorable in Pride and Prejudice? The point I am driving is that we know something about each of the siblings—Louisa Hurst is nearly a non-entity except as a foil for her sister (serving as either Kitty or Mary Bennet depending upon your bent)—but not enough to embrace them as significantly greater than the set caricature offered by Jane Austen (a young man not yet schooled in the ways of the ton and shrewish social-climbing woman who took the wrong lessons to heart).
What of the side characters: the Bennet sisters, their parents, and even George Wickham? What made them truly tick? Were they ever saddened or honestly happy? Did they like trifle? Did they despise boiled potatoes? What was in their lives that made them who they were in the moment that Austen laid them down on paper? Much of this contemplation runs through the background of my work. These puzzlings were also brought to the forefront in conversations with an author for whom I am doing a bit of editing.
From these questions—and my own insecurities—rose the Bennet Wardrobe series, Lessers and Betters, The Longbourn Quarantine, and In Plain Sight stories.
Over the years I have been writing #Austenesque stories, I have been circling around a conclusion that helps me explain why I write what I do: focusing upon the secondary characters. Perhaps it has to do with the idea that…as I write Pride and Prejudice variations…I feel constrained by the authority with which Jane Austen presented Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. How could I alter the nature of the eternal couple?
So, I stayed away from writing ODC stories. ’Twas easier to shape Mary Bennet to the Wardrobe’s purposes or to posit a fanciful future for Kitty. Then Lory Lilian and Joana Starnes challenged me to step into the arena to compose an ODC story.
And, thus, In Plain Sight was birthed. As many may know, I write other works to cleanse my palette between Bennet Wardrobe novels. That was the genesis for the character study Henry Fitzwilliam’s War which ultimately became the second book in the Wardrobe series. Likewise, Of Fortune’s Reversal and The Maid and the Footman bracketed The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque.
In Plain Sight, begun after I concluded Volume Seven of the Wardrobe—The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion—addresses the prospects of Darcy being relegated to penal servitude where he is “sold” to a labor battalion. After five years (of his seven-year sentence), he has worked his way south through Great Britain to arrive in Meryton where he is digging the Mimram-Thames Canal.
That’s the general context.
What I am seeking to address is my ongoing fascination with lessers and betters. To me, that is the social hierarchy that is overthrown by the Industrial Revolution. It is also the milieu into which Austen thrust her story. However, the romance of gentle life always has seemed to leave an odd taste in my mouth. The romanticizing of an oppressive economic system bothers me.
To explore that, I decided to cast the ultimate son of privilege—Darcy—as a prisoner subject to the will of others. What better than to have him begin the story as one who was so beneath the notice of Elizabeth Bennet that his existence never registered upon her consciousness? This topsy-turvy beginning opened a new door into the duality that will drive the story. The inversion of character forces us to reconsider the underlying nature of the two characters…beyond what has been imprinted in print or on screen.
Remember that Elizabeth Bennet was a member of the gentry. She was expected to conform to the expectations society held for women—persons—of her station. While she certainly was a child of the Enlightenment, she was, nonetheless, also one of the twenty-four families that were Meryton’s upper crust.
Much of the first half of the book was occupied by the development of essential characters: Mary Bennet, Edward Benton, and Richard Fitzwilliam. Each, in their own way, is important in Elizabeth’s journey toward a better understanding of the foundations upon which her character has been laid. Oh, and Darcy, although he is known to her as only Smith, offers schooling that opens her eyes and moves her along the path to a new and more glorious woman.
This is a moment between the two of them in Longbourn’s Dower House where an injured Darcy (as Smith) has been sequestered away from prying eyes by Mr. Bennet and Mr. Fitzwilliam (he had resigned his commission per court order in 1806).
“Mr. Smith,” Elizabeth began, but he interrupted her.
“Just Smith, Miss Bennet.
“In fact, many of your class would deign only to address me as a child,” he added bitterly, “by just my first name...William.”
Elizabeth’s head snapped back at this. He clearly had not intended his statement as a reproof, but there it was; his anger bubbled just beneath the surface.
She cast her thoughts back over her life of dealing with those of the lesser classes, the ones who toiled so she did not have to. Only upper servants ever earned the privilege of surnames. Sarah, a maid, tended the five Bennet girls, but ’twas Mrs. Hill who most often waited upon Mama. Mr. Hill loyally stood by his childhood playmate as Longbourn’s butler, but Lizzy realized that, until his father had passed on, this Mr. Hill was known only as George much as the manse’s current man-of-all-work simply was called James.”
Darcy in the second half of the novel begins to process a new personality growing from his time in the wilderness as a nameless, faceless soul. Much as Lizzy uses her own reflections of her treatment of her sister Mary (nearly as faceless and nameless as the servants bringing dishes from kitchens across the country) and her lack of awareness of the travails of the convict coffles moving through Hertfordshire’s dust, so, too, does Darcy use that experience to transform himself from the prideful scion of Pemberley to a man proud to serve as Pemberley’s master. He has his own helpers: Richard Fitzwilliam, young Henry Wilson, and even a maimed sailor (I had to get Darcy convicted!), Charlie Tomkins.
I decided to use Austen’s framing of the Darcy and Elizabeth characters as the starting point, not as the enduring matrix through which the plot must move.
I hope you will enjoy a different example of the way in which I plumb my characters’ depths. This excerpt is from ‘Cinders and Smoke,’ found in the Meryton Press edition of “Henry Fitzwilliam’s War” and also the ‘North and South’ anthology, ‘Falling for Mr. Thornton.’ Here we see my John Thornton delving into what has shaped his personality, especially in light of Margaret Hale’s injury at the hands of the mob attacking Marlborough Mills.
Here are the universal links (all Amazon stores worldwide) for both In Plain Sight and Falling for Mr. Thornton
This excerpt of ‘Cinders and Smoke’ is © 2019 by Donald P. Jacobson. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form is permitted without the expressed written consent of the holder of this copyright. Published in the United States of America.
Those influences lived beyond the outward-facing transparent fence, formidable yet fragile in its silica simplicity. The glassy sheets prevented him from falling—leaping—into the mews four stories below.
This was the world where Thornton had no control.
He had tried to exert his authority to compel the men and currents outside of Marlborough’s walls to respond in the manner he wished.
Thornton had failed before…as he had tonight.
Old Hale would have laughed at my inability to grasp that which the Greeks had known of so long ago…the sin of hubris. My pride combined with my arrogance has ripped and crushed the most delicate of flowers.
Thornton rested his forehead against the window, its surface cool against his fevered skin. The night frost deepened as the overcast vanished. His breath, inhaled and exhaled in gulps, fogged the glass. He had not been able to regulate himself and calm his tremors since she had been slapped to the ground as if by a giant’s invisible hand.
One moment she was appealing to the mob. The next, Margaret Hale was a pile of rags at his feet.
After-images flickered through his mind. Those memories were not transitory wisps, but rather were profound impressions that echoed down the corridors of his awareness.
How positive he had been in his ability to break the strike. How convinced he had been that the workingmen of Milton were weak and undisciplined, that they would willingly accept his actions as being as inevitable as a fire’s heat.
Once word of the Irish arrivals had reached the Frances Street warrens, the crowds boiled out in their hundreds, angry and restless. Thornton had watched the black wave approach from another outpost, the upper floor of his house. The women were safe behind iron-strapped oak shutters…or so he thought.
Hands and arms rose from the dark mass as it restructured itself, roiling inexorably against lesser edifices as it coursed from source to the delta of its discontent. Torches and lanterns flickered within the mob, illuminating disparate features until they coalesced to become individual men. So, too, did the rumbling outcries eventually resolve themselves into articulated grievances. Any questions of interpretation were thrown aside as words were framed by the distorted expressions that reshaped the faces of men whom he had been aware of, if not actually known, for years.
This was an anger that Thornton recognized, although he was surprised that these men possessed it. He had always believed this primal emotion to be that which had fueled his rise from the obscurity of a draper’s assistant. He had proven his mettle by dint of the fact that he had scaled the heights from which he had been thrown by his father’s disgrace. Others would have failed.
He was different from those men who had marched to his mill, his monument. He had to be. If they had possessed the same impetus, the same innate urge, would they not have risen from their lesser status to fight for space higher up the ladder? Or was it something more, something which prevented them from taking their place much as he had? And, if outside influences were holding these men back, what would happen to him, John Thornton, should these powers choose to pay closer attention to him, upstart that he was?
Anger and fear are handmaidens. We do not react in anger toward what we do not fear. This is a survival instinct as old as Adam. Our ancestors feared the lion and, while they would run from one to climb a tree, if they were faced with a parlous crossing of a featureless plain, they would use anger, much like the Norse berserker, to work their will when resisting the big cat.
The men were angry, but they were angry because they were afraid.
There was a darkness that surrounded all who worked the mills in Milton. The cloud, mostly hidden, but sometimes taking the form of choking, cinder-filled smoke, was freighted with a foreboding that told all who passed through its mists that exposure spelled a doleful outcome. This was a miasma that sucked men and women dry. This after they poured their lifeforce into those caverns from which men like Hampers, Slick, Watson…and Thornton…extracted their wealth.
But, John, too, was frightened…
Of being found out, of being judged as not being up to the mark.
Cold terror tinted with anguish gripped his guts. He felt more fear now than ever before in his life. More than when he found his father slumped atop his desk, bloodstained certificates his final bed. More so than in that same moment when he realized that his labor was the only way that his mother and little sister would survive. Even more than when he took it upon his young shoulders to repay his father’s debts.
At each step, he had transformed that fear into the anger which led to his perseverance. He could not turn what he now felt into anything productive.
The threat of the strike to the mill–that manifestation of his intangible self–only served to strengthen his resolve.
Each time, he had known he had the power to prevail. His fear had been forged upon the hard anvil of his life into a billet radiating fearsome intent, scorching all who dared resist.
Thornton wielded his anger against all and sundry. And they would buckle, if not out of respect, then when their own anger was weakened by rising tides of fear like impurities in a poorly-furnaced bloom. When the world was measured in feet and yards, pounds and pence, orders and shipments, he was in his element and could force any outcome he desired.
At this moment, in this time where the Irish were locked into the work shed, bent above looms filled with delayed orders, the mill’s future was assured by his ingenuity yet again. Much as old Watson had decamped to London to petition the entire Government for assistance after the Great Meryton Fire had leveled his mill back in the Year Eleven, Thornton could have –should have, perhaps – looked back upon his efforts with pride.
But Thornton was undone by fear.
He could rail against the unfairness of the Universe. He could mount angry protestations to the Almighty. He could smash the very windows against which he rested his head.
But not one of those outbursts would undo that which had been done.
Margaret Hale had interposed her delicate body between his and those who would have avenged their situations upon him.
Her selfless act showed her compassion for both him and the mob. Thornton she would protect from physical harm as the brickbat flew from the night. As for the rioters, that inchoate crowd of snarling faces, she demonstrated that she was a vicar’s daughter and sought to prevent one or all from being stained by the sin of violence.
She succeeded in the first and failed, although one might argue that a martyred saint who did not prevent her murderers from completing their crime was equally successful, in the second. Those who raised their hand against the purest of hearts would be condemned forever.
Thornton absently rubbed a bruise darkening the back of his left arm. How he had received it, he did not know. Whatever its source, this was no badge of honor, for she had been laid low within inches of his protection.
His miserable attempt to exercise the sheer force of his will to prevent the marchers from breaking through his gates had illustrated just how thin was his influence over the broader affairs of men.
He was a fraud.
All that he had believed in…that bare-knuckles was the way of business and, thus, life…was counterfeit. Where he had attempted like King Canute to hold back the tide, she had floated above those cobbles like Eve, Venus, or Mother Mary, her hands lifted toward the crowd in the eternal gesture of supplication.
He had shouted in anger, in possession, grounded in his rights as Master. She had barely lifted her voice above the roar, begging men who had been subjected to the worst cruelties to rediscover their humanity.
A tiny woman proved in a minute of indescribable courage as she leaped from behind his protective bulk that a life without love was thin porridge. Her ardor was not the idealized romances of men and women but rather of that unique charity that had resonated through every organized faith for the past eighteen centuries.
For her efforts, because of her love for all who that night had crowded the mews between factory and house, she lay small and helpless on the divan in his office, her blood staining her dress.
His life was in tatters. His anger did not flutter high above his putative turrets. Rather it lay in the gutter, cast down after its shaft had been snapped by other weapons. His unworthiness in the light of her towering perfection left him bereft of any anchor in the swirling tides that pulled against his limbs. …