Longbourn, January 1813
Matters matrimonial had long been the focus of Miss Catherine Bennet’s world. How could it be otherwise? The absolute necessity of finding a husband – a respectable husband, of course, but one whose chief recommendation must be his wealth – was the very cornerstone of her education. Her tutor and adviser in this winsome endeavour was none other than her indefatigable mother, Mrs Bennet, a woman whose sole aim in
life was to see her five daughters married, and married well. Catherine had accepted this doctrine, taking it as her own.
Now though, with three sisters all wed within half a year, mildly disturbing thoughts were forming in her nineteen-year-old mind. Those sisters had all three married for love. Catherine hoped – expected – to do likewise but, young and inexperienced as she was, even she had begun to see that love was an indefinable commodity and certainly not one that guaranteed a life without care. Inchoate questions clamoured for answers she did not have. What if she were not to find a suitable husband? Where would she live? What would she do? What would she like to do?
Mrs Bennet burst into the parlour, dispelling any possibility of further introspection. ‘Oh Kitty, there you are. Where is Mary, where is your sister?’
If she wanted a reply, Mrs Bennet did not wait for one. Instead, she peered at Kitty. ‘Really, what is to become of you?’ she said, shaking her head and unwittingly echoing her daughter’s unvoiced concerns. ‘You don’t look well, child. What is the matter with you? Are you unwell?’
‘I am quite well thank you, Mama,’ said Kitty, wondering what was wrong with her appearance now. It really was very hard to please her mother. ‘I am just a little tired.’
‘You are not lively these days,’ declared Mrs Bennet, subsiding into a chair. ‘You and Mary should walk into Meryton; it is days since we heard news. The day is bright, there is no rain. Perhaps the militia are returned? Aunt Phillips will be waiting to see you. She will know if the oficers are back. How I long to hear from your dear sister Lydia. Not a word from her since Christmas. I am sure she will have much to tell us.’
‘Mary is not given to walks into Meryton, Mama,’ said Kitty. ‘If you can persuade her then so much the better, but I fear she will not give up her books.’
‘Books,’ said Mrs Bennet, investing the word with disdain. Since the early days of their marriage, a somewhat disillusioned Mr Bennet had treated his library as a refuge, both from his wife and the clamour of family life. Mrs Bennet had become used to this arrangement and tolerated books insofar as they could provide some form of entertainment, but that they should be preferred to social intercourse was, to her, quite unnatural. Her husband must read his books, of course, but for her daughter Mary to shut herself away reading her sermons and treatises was not to be borne. It was not as if the girl was blessed with uncommon beauty; she really must learn to smile more and lose those dour expressions. In that, at least, she could learn from her younger sister, Kitty. Books, indeed! Mrs Bennet contemplated these unpleasant traits for a few moments and then, with surprising rapidity, rose, collected her skirts and left the room, calling out for Mary to attend her. Kitty stared at the closed door, sat back in her own chair and let the silence surround her. Did she look tired? She got up and went to study herself in the glass over the mantel.
Like young women everywhere, Kitty found much to worry her. She was not fair like her sister Jane; her expressions were not as pert and pretty as Elizabeth’s; she was not robust like Lydia; her features were not good enough… and so on and on. To anyone else – anyone, that is, not prone to measuring every attribute of womanhood against a supposed ideal of physical perfection so that it can be found wanting – Kitty’s looks were very pleasing. Some young ladies attain their fullest bloom at fifteen or sixteen years, and often fade fast thereafter; others have features that slowly and subtly change to reach their fullest perfection at one and twenty or thereabouts. Kitty was one such. Slender, but without any loss of feminine form, her figure was graceful. She appeared delicate. Her face, framed by an abundance of dark brown hair, could, in repose, seem rather too serious but when animated threw off any melancholic or grave aspects. Her eyes were clear and blue; her nose was straight and unassuming; her mouth neither small nor large. Nature had given her all the necessary attributes of attractive womanhood and if, when she entered an assembly room, she did not command as much attention as others less fortunate physically, this was more to do with a lack of confidence in herself (and, of course, a lack of fortune).
There was no sign of Mary; presumably Mrs Bennet had not been successful in persuading her of the merit of exercise over books. Kitty settled back into her chair, wondering how to amuse herself for the next hour. It had been some time since she had read a book. She had suffered poor health as a child and spent weeks confined to her room and her bed. During those times, books had offered some solace but when she had recovered her health she had not wanted to stay seated, still less reading. How she had envied Lydia’s energy and high spirits. It had not taken long before the older sister had been in thrall to the younger and anything Lydia did or wanted to do was endorsed by Kitty.
And now Lydia was Mrs Wickham, living in Newcastle and all but estranged from her family. Jane was become Mrs Bingley and removed to Netherfield House; and Elizabeth was Mrs Darcy, mistress of a fine estate in Derbyshire, and far away. A Christmas had come and gone without the accustomed noisy family cheer. For Kitty, left behind in Longbourn with only her parents and Mary for company, life was dull and not a little lonely.
She did not much feel like meeting any new oficers either, an unusual admission for Miss Catherine Bennet and one which, if articulated, would have produced an incredulous tirade from her mother. Marriage and money, livings and love… what else was there for her to think about? Kitty’s thoughts returned to her sisters.
That Jane, the beauty of the family with a character and disposition perfectly in harmony with her pleasing appearance, should be married to an amiable, handsome gentleman of good fortune was, without question, exactly as things should be. Kitty held Charles Bingley in high regard and was exceedingly ready to like and admire him. Not only was he in love with her eldest sister but his personality was such to find pleasure in, or at least tolerate with benign countenance, the company of all his wife’s family. Kitty was not in the least afraid of him.
Elizabeth’s husband was a different matter. Whilst unfailingly correct and polite, the taciturn Mr Darcy was a figure of some awe to Kitty. In truth, she had been amazed when Lizzy had announced her betrothal and still did not fully comprehend her sister’s choice – though she was in no doubt that it was an excellent match. Who would argue against a man with ten thousand a year, especially one of sound body and mind? Certainly not Mrs Bennet! Even so, to choose to spend one’s life with a man such as Fitzwilliam Darcy, rich though he was, seemed to Kitty something of a sacrifice, although she had to own that Lizzy seemed not to consider it so.
With regards to George Wickham, Kitty scarce knew what to think. The circumstances of Lydia’s hasty marriage to the dashing Captain Wickham, who with his red coat and easy manners cut such a debonair figure, were no longer discussed in the Bennet household, as if silence could eradicate the taint of scandal the elopement had occasioned. This suited Kitty very well. While not complicit in the couple’s infamous plan, some censure had fallen on Kitty who had been in correspondence with Lydia during her stay in Brighton from whence she and Wickham had fled – the one to escape his debts, the other to pursue an ideal of romantic love. Kitty pouted as she remembered her father’s unspoken wrath. Long since derided by him as one of ‘the silliest girls in England’, she feigned indifference but felt aggrieved. She was not the only one to succumb to Captain Wickham’s charm. Why, even Lizzy, her father’s favourite, had enjoyed his company, and Lizzy could do no wrong in her father’s eye.
A petulant sigh escaped Kitty. It really wasn’t fair. They had all been deceived as to Wickham, and this was another of the unwelcome thoughts troubling Kitty. How could one ascertain another person’s character? What if another handsome young oficer presenting as a perfect gentleman should turn out to be a blackguard? Kitty’s confidence in mankind had been severely shaken.
Meanwhile, she was dissatisfied with both her appearance and her plight. In the wake of Lydia’s ‘shameful and deplorable antics’ (her father’s words), Mr Bennet had, at last, sought to exercise his parental control: he expected nothing less than perfect behaviour; he saw no need for his daughters to be at every social gathering, at every ball; henceforth any young men showing even a passing interest in his daughters would be the subject of his careful scrutiny; he required at least two hours of useful study every day. Mr Bennet did not mean these instructions to be taken literally, although Kitty interpreted them so.
For Mary, ever studious and serious, quite uninterested in such frivolous pleasures as flirting and dancing, life continued unchanged, but Kitty felt the strictures keenly. Why should she suffer blame for Lydia’s indiscretions? Why was it all her fault? Why did no one ever listen to her? It was all so unfair!
‘Ah, what delight,’ announced Mr Bennet at breakfast the following morning. ‘I do so enjoy receiving a letter from our dear cousin, Mr Collins.’
‘I wish you would not vex me so, my dear,’ replied his wife. ‘What possible delight can Mr Collins afford us, pray?’ Had he been one of the most eligible and well-mannered bachelors in England – and Mr Collins was neither – it would not have been enough to endear him to Mrs Bennet. Had his bearing been elegant, his fortune grand and his wit eloquent, nothing could overcome the man’s impudence in being the heir to her family home on the demise of Mr Bennet. Nothing, moreover, could induce Mrs Bennet to understand the laws of entail; the subject had been explained to her and subsequently denounced by her on occasions too numerous to quantify and there was no point in further effort. Mr Bennet certainly saw no reason to try.
‘I hope he is not coming here,’ continued Mrs Bennet, who could foresee no reason for Mr Collins’s attendance on them except to see himself the future master of Longbourn, estimating the placement of furniture and furnishings and demolishing her domestic felicity. Within an instant, her imagination had occasioned Mr Bennet’s untimely death, swiftly followed by indignity, shame and destitution as the cruel Mr Collins ousted her from the comforts of her home. With a shudder of relief, she remembered she was fortunate in having three married daughters on whom she could rely for solace and accommodation. Happily for Mrs Bennet, her projections did not include predeceasing her husband.
‘Well, my dear,’ said Mr Bennet, recalling his wife to the present, ‘I am sorry to cause you any unhappiness but I must inform you that we are to be blessed with Mr Collins’s company within a se’nnight. He writes to say that he and his dear wife Charlotte will be paying a visit to Lucas Lodge – no need to worry, Mrs Bennet, the good people of Hunsford will not be left rudderless in his absence, he writes to assure us all that “my most excellent and kind benefactress, the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has once again graciously condescended to allow me this temporary absence, yet another instance of her ladyship’s incomparable courtesy and grace, and I have, as you will no doubt surmise, spared no effort to alleviate my noble patroness of any inconvenience by engaging another clergyman …”
‘There is more on this hapless replacement, I shall not burden you with it. Now, what else does he wish us to know?
‘Ah, yes. He looks forward to enjoying the company and ascertaining the welfare of his most dear cousins, “not forgetting of course, my dear cousin Elizabeth, now so fortuitously allied to the family of Lady Catherine herself. Were I able to be any of any service in ameliorating the dificult and unhappy situation between Mrs Darcy and her ladyship then, given my situation in life, I should be most happy to step into the breach and offer my services and advice…”
‘What a fine fellow he is! So willing to help. We could all learn from him. No doubt you agree, Mary?’
Mary pursed her lips and nodded in assent. Mrs Bennet tutted her irritation and Kitty hoped Mr Collins’s visit would be brief.
Mr Bennet turned back to his letter. ‘He will not trespass on our hospitality long but, given our close family connections, he would feel it remiss of him… He sends his “most respectful compliments to your lady and the delightful Misses Bennet”, etc. etc.
‘So Mrs Bennet. There you have it. Are you not keen to hear news of the beneficent Lady Catherine? Mr Collins is sure to have the most minute intelligence of her ladyship’s concerns. Why he is better placed than our own dear Lizzy and son-in-law to know how things stand with our illustrious relation.’Conflicting emotions stirred within Mrs Bennet. On the one hand, it was gratifying to count Lady Catherine de Bourgh a relation, through Lizzy’s most excellent marriage to her nephew Fitzwilliam Darcy; on the other hand, her ladyship was not disposed to think well of the new Mrs Darcy and her less than satisfactory family. Indeed, her displeasure was so keen and her communication so voluble that even Mrs Bennet could not fail to notice it.
‘I know quite enough about Lady Catherine,’ harrumphed his wife. ‘Why, pray, should I want to know more about her doings? Really, Mr Bennet, you do perplex me.’
‘Is Mr Collins come for the ball at Sir William’s, do you think?’ wondered Kitty aloud. ‘I do not think he is fond of dancing.’
‘He danced at the last ball,’ observed Mary. ‘He is of the opinion that dancing, in the correct company and with appropriate partners, is not evil. I am of the same opinion.’
‘Are you indeed, Mary,’ said her father. ‘I am of the opinion that young ladies such as you and your sister derive no benefit from such events. What need have you to go to balls?’
‘Oh, Mr Bennet, how can you say such things,’ exclaimed Mrs Bennet at once. ‘Of course Kitty and Mary must go the Lucas Lodge ball. What would people think if they did not? How will they come by suitable young men? You would have them shut up for ever.’
‘No, my dear. I simply pose the question. Will there be eligible young men at the ball? Is that why they must go? I have three daughters married; am I to lose the remaining two by their attendance at this occasion? I had no idea the situation was so urgent.’
More than twenty-five years of marriage had not alerted Mrs Bennet to her husband’s sardonic humour. In consequence, she railed against his lack of understanding and he professed not to understand her meaning. Kitty waited; she had no wish to try her father’s patience or endanger her presence at the ball, the only diversion on her calendar at present. It would be too dreadful if she could not go; she could not bear the thought.
‘Jane is calling for us tomorrow morning, Mama,’ she ventured at last. ‘She sent word that the new shoe-roses are in; she says she will take Mary and me into Meryton with her. We will call upon Aunt Phillips, too.’
‘And I will call on Marianne and Mrs Gregory,’ added Mary. The Gregorys were a family of good standing but little wealth, who had lived in Meryton for many years. Mary, who was of a solemn disposition and unfailingly disapproving of her younger sisters’ perceived predilections for carefree and therefore unworthy pursuits, had found a friend in Marianne, who was fond of discussing ‘matters of importance’ and making extracts from worthy tracts.
‘Well, my dears, I see all is settled. I shall look forward to seeing Jane again,’ said Mr Bennet, excusing himself from the table. ‘Meanwhile, I shall be in my library.’
As expected, Mrs Charles Bingley arrived at Longbourn the following day, looking serenely happy and exudingcontentment. Her presence was a source of delight to all her family – even Mr Bennet emerged from his library to embrace her, while Mary put down her books and Kitty danced attendance. All were outdone, of course, by Mrs Bennet’s effusions of delight and concern, but within a very short while it was confirmed that Mr Bingley was in fine health; his wife, also; that the journey to Longbourn that morning had been unexceptionable; that no fault could be found in the running of the household at Netherfield; that the servants were everything they should be – indeed, even the livestock were thought to be content, although their welfare was not specifically inquired after.
Jane was eventually allowed to divest herself of cloak and bonnet, and the women of the family were soon seated in the parlour. It was but the second time Jane had been at Longbourn since her marriage the previous November. She and Mr Bingley had been obliged to visit his mother and aunts for the Christmas period, which, according to Jane, had passed delightfully for all parties, and a short sojourn in London had followed before the pair had returned to Netherfield.
‘You are looking well, Kitty,’ said Jane as the ladies made themselves comfortable and tea was brought in.
‘Am I?’ Kitty stood up to look at herself in the glass. She supposed she was. Her blue eyes were clear, there was some colour in her cheeks, she had arranged her hair so that her dark curls framed her face. It would all be for nothing, she thought; there is no one to see in Meryton. She turned back to her sister.
‘How liked you London?’ she asked. ‘Where did you go? Who did you see?’
‘I liked it very well, though I am pleased to be out of it for a while. There is much gaiety, to be sure. So many galleries and concerts, and we made so many new acquaintances that it was, I confess, a little too demanding at times.’
‘One can have a surfeit of gaiety,’ remarked Mary, her expression as sententious as her tone. ‘It is as well to remember that time spent quietly—’
‘I should adore London!’ interrupted Kitty, causing no one surprise. ‘Concerts and galleries! So much to do and see! And the shops, too! I adore that lace on your gown; it is so becoming. It is from London?’
Mary’s advice was left unfinished as Jane allowed her finery to be examined by Kitty and there followed a sisterly discourse between the two on the latest fashions as worn in town and by whom and for what, augmented by tales of the best shops and milliners, the most sought-after invitations to the most exclusive salons, as well as the more egalitarian pleasures of the city, including visits to St Paul’s, the Royal Academy and the new Drury Lane Theatre. That Jane and Mr Bingley were not blind devotees of the social set was of secondary importance to Kitty; she took vicarious pleasure from their proximity to it all and no talk of crowded pavements, dangerous roads and noisy environs could dampen her enthusiasm.
Mary, who was making a great show of reading the learned book she held, looked up and seemed about to share some observation on the evils of the capital but was once again interrupted, this time by her mother, who declared it the greatest shame that Mr Bennet would never take a house in London for the season, how ill-used she was in this respect and – for the moment – quite forgot how much she disliked travel and being removed from the milieu and hierarchy in which she felt comfortable and where her own opinions, even when disliked, were rarely challenged.
The journey back to Netherfield via London had afforded Jane and her husband the opportunity to spend a few days with her favourite aunt and uncle. Mrs Bennet’s brother and his wife lived in Gracechurch Street and Jane was able to give good account of both Mr and Mrs Gardiner, and her four little cousins, all of whom she had seen the day before her departure for Longbourn. Both Jane and Elizabeth loved and respected this branch of the family, feelings that were reciprocated. The Gardiners, in fact, had spent Christmas at Pemberley and were therefore well placed to provide all manner of information as to the goings-on at that grand estate and of its principal inhabitants. Jane had been the eager recipient of their news. That all was perfectly well with the new Mrs Darcy and her husband was no great surprise but good news is most usually welcome among family, and it is as well to have such assurances confirmed and spoken aloud. Simply hearing the words ‘Mrs Darcy’ and ‘Mrs Bingley’ still sent a frisson of delight through Mrs Bennet and she never tired of speaking those words herself. Her neighbour Lady Lucas was the unwilling and unhappy beneficiary of much of Mrs Bennet’s joy. ‘Mrs Darcy has written to tell me that their new carriage has been delivered,’ she would inform her. Or, ‘My daughter Mrs Bingley will be in London for the season.’ Lady Lucas, kindly and well-mannered, was not easily provoked, but a half-hour with Mrs Bennet on the heady subject of matrimony and well-married daughters was a test of patience even for the saintly. ‘I have half a mind to call my new poodle Pemberley,’ she had remarked to her husband, Sir William Lucas, after one such lecture. ‘I would do so, but Mrs Bennet would most likely take it as a compliment.’
Jane, meanwhile, had her own account of Pemberley to pass on. ‘Lizzy says she is becoming quite used to being mistress of so grand a house and takes the wrong direction and loses herself but once or twice a day!’ she smiled.
‘I long to see Pemberley,’ declared Kitty. ‘London and Pemberley are the places I most want to see in the world!’‘That is all very well, Kitty,’ said her mother, ‘but your sisters don’t need you getting in their way. I don’t know where you get these ideas. Last week, it was too much trouble to go into Meryton and now you want to travel all the way to London.’ Mrs Bennet wagged a disapproving finger at Kitty as she spoke. ‘Do continue, Jane.’
‘Lizzy talks of new furnishings and making the house more her own,’ said Jane, throwing a sympathetic glance at Kitty, ‘but in truth I think it is all for show. Aunt Gardiner says she appears very content with things as they are.’
‘Indeed, why would she not be?’ returned Mrs Bennet. ‘She is mistress of Pemberley, and Mr Darcy has ten thousand pounds a year!’
Her mother’s abrupt shift to financial assessments brought the conversation to a momentary stop, a most welcome pause as it gave Jane the necessary space to remember the hour and the reason for her visit. She would come again soon, she promised, but now she and her sisters must hasten into Meryton to purchase the new ribbons, bows, and other accoutrements so necessary to young ladies, married or single, when engaged to a ball the following evening. Mary’s avowal that she had no need of such fripperies and that she was only going to visit her friend Miss Gregory, was lost in the bustle of their departure.
Longbourn 7 February
My dear Lydia,
I hope this letter finds you well. How I missed you at the Lucas’s ball last night. What fun we would have had, just as before. Except now the militia is gone from Meryton and so there was not a red coat to be seen – and you of course have your Wickham, so perchance there would have been no entertainment for you.
Oh Lydia, all is so dull here now! I long to see you but I know not when that will be so you must write and tell me of your life at Newcastle. Are the Assembly Rooms very grand? Have you found milliners and dressmakers to your liking? With whom do you socialise?
Mary is as you remember her. She barely speaks to me, unless of course she has some advice that she feels will be of benefit for my immortal soul. Papa watches me as if I were about to elope with an oficer – and how is that to happen now all the oficers are gone away and I am hardly allowed out of Longbourn? Mama says she will speak to him about it but I think I will be shut up here for ever. And really, it is so unfair. I have done nothing wrong!
Should I say that? thought Kitty. Will she think I am saying she has done something wrong? She let it stand.
I wore my pale blue muslin to the ball, which I think suits me very well and Jane said so, too. I forgot to tell you, Jane and Bingley are back at Netherfield.
We made some new acquaintance at Sir William’s. His brother John Lucas, the vice-admiral, is staying with them, and his two sons, Edward and George, were at the ball. I danced two dances with each, and I prefer George as he has more conversation and is by far the more handsome of the two. He is not following his brother into the navy and thinks of a life in the clergy. I must say he dances very well for someone who means to become a vicar! I would have found out more about him except that our conversation was interrupted by our beloved and loquacious cousin Mr Collins – yes, he was in attendance – who insisted on talking to him about his own living in Kent and simpering about that awful Lady Catherine. So strange, is it not, that Lizzy is related to her now, which means we are, too! And to think, Lizzy could have been Mrs Collins and we could have counted him brother. It is a wonder – and a blessing! – that he did not make his suit to Mary, for I believe she would have accepted him. They would be a perfect pair. Oh Lord, Lydia! Imagine that! Mr Collins at all our family gatherings. It was bad enough that he prevailed upon Mary and me for two dances. Of one thing you can be certain – I will never marry a vicar!
As for Mary, you will be amazed to learn that she danced two dances with the same partner last night. You will not be too surprised, however, when I tell you that it was only Marianne Gregory’s brother, Timothy. He has been away at Oxford – I know not why – but is now returned to Meryton and is helping
Uncle Phillips. He is as serious as ever and scarce spoke two words to anyone save Mary and his sister. No doubt they have weighty matters to discuss, la la! She is welcome to his company, I should not know what to say to him.
Jane and Bingley are as happy as can be but now they are going away to London for several weeks. Everyone is leaving me! I am to lose my two most beloved sisters…
Kitty put down her pen. Was it true that Jane and Lydia were her two most beloved sisters? Jane, five years her senior, thought well of everyone and was not wont to chastise her or Lydia – unlike Lizzy, whose tongue was sharper and admonition more readily dispensed. Lydia, closest in age to Kitty, had always been her confidante and closest companion; they had been inseparable, sharing all their little triumphs and disappointments – until Lydia had deserted her for Brighton.
Yes, Kitty felt deserted, even a little betrayed, by Lydia. Despite what her family thought, she had not been privy to Lydia’s plans to elope and had been as shocked and alarmed as everyone else at that part of her sister’s reckless and damaging plan, the more so as she had imagined she was in her confidence. As for Lizzy, Kitty was surprised at how much she missed Lizzy, with her ready wit and perspicacity. She even missed her criticisms and attempts to tame her more flamboyant behaviours. It was odd, thought Kitty. As a small child she had adored Lizzy, trailing after her and seeking her attention, but her older sister had found her tiresome. At least that was how Kitty remembered it.
She read her letter through. Really Lydia did not deserve to be told her news when she barely wrote more than six lines in reply, usually at the bottom of a letter to their mother. ‘My sisters may write to me,’ Lydia had said airily on the day she and Wickham had departed for Newcastle. ‘They will have nothing else to do.’
Now that she is Mrs Wickham, she does not share very much with me any more, thought Kitty. She has become so very important just because she is married. She will tell me how boring Longbourn is and pity me – while she talks about dances and oficers and her wonderful Wickham!
Kitty frowned and was on the verge of crumpling up the letter. Instead, she put it to one side, took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote a briefer note to Lydia, omitting everything except details of the Lucas Lodge ball, what she wore and who danced with whom. She would not give Lydia the satisfaction of knowing she was unhappy. Besides, she had been more candid than was polite, and Kitty did not want her behaviour called into question. Things were quite bad enough already.
She looked around her room, a room she had once shared with Lydia. There was a desk where the other bed had once been, but otherwise everything was the same. Except that everything was so quiet now! There was no fun. No chatter. Kitty felt her eyes well up and pinched her nose to try to stop tears rolling down her cheeks. Stop it, she told herself. It will be even worse if you cry. You will look terrible as well as feel terrible.
Standing up, she took a deep breath, smoothed her dress and folded the letter she was going to send. The longer version she put in her desk drawer and then went downstairs. The library door was open but for once there was no sign of Mr Bennet. Feeling rather like a child who was not supposed to be there, Kitty entered the room and scanned the volumes around her. Theirs was a comprehensive library; Mr Bennet prided himself on keeping abreast of the newest works and keeping Jane and Lizzy up to date with the literature of the day. Her hand rested on a Radcliffe novel she had heard Jane speak of and she stood on tiptoe to pluck it from the shelf. As she did so she dislodged its neighbour, which fell noisily to the floor. In her confusion, Kitty picked up both books and fled. She was perfectly at liberty to read any of the books in the library but she could not bear to have her father find her there, to see his sardonic smile, his wonder that she, Kitty, should trouble herself with a book.
True to his word, Mr Collins called on the Bennets a few days after the Lucas Lodge ball. His obsequious and unendearing manner was met with the required mix of resignation, respect and, from Mr Bennet at least, an expectation of amusement.
He was shadowed by a young man in travelling clothes. ‘Mr dear cousins,’ began Mr Collins, greeting each in turn. ‘Such joy, such great joy to see you all. My dear Mrs Bennet, I trust you are well? My dear Miss Bennet, Miss Catherine.’ Turning to his companion, he continued: ‘Forgive me this liberty, but allow me to introduce Mr Robert Jones. He has today arrived from Warwickshire and my esteemed patroness Lady Catherine has given me specific charge of his journey to a living she has generously bestowed upon him.’ Mr Collins paused, the better to allow his cousins to remember the munificence and largesse of her ladyship.
‘You are to live in Kent, Mr Jones?’ enquired Mr Bennet, as the party proceeded into the parlour.
Any reply was cut short by Mr Collins, who was keen to explain. ‘Lady Catherine has seen fit to offer Mr Jones a living at a parish near Canterbury. Her ladyship feels this is both necessary and advantageous, and has been gracious enough to involve me in all her communications with Mr Jones.’ Again, Mr Collins paused so that all might enjoy his success. ‘He will accompany me and my dear Mrs Collins into Kent tomorrow.’
His protégé nodded, giving proof to the veracity of the speech.
‘You must not think,’ instructed Mr Collins, allowing himself a small laugh, ‘that I should travel to Lucas Lodge for the mere frivolity of a ball. No, no! Although of course Lady Catherine would not forbid me such entertainment nor deprive my dear Charlotte of this opportunity to visit her relations.’
‘How does Mrs Collins?’ asked Mrs Bennet, tired of all reference to her ladyship and wishing to steer the conversation elsewhere. ‘I am sorry to see that she is not with you this morning.’
Mr Collins clasped his hand to his chest and drew in his breath. A mixture of pride and confusion twisted his mouth into something between a smirk and a moue. Kitty watched in some small amazement as his face suffused with colour before he announced: ‘Mrs Collins is, ahem, in a most delicate condition. She asked me to convey her good wishes to you, nothing else would have kept her away, I can assure you. My apologies if I am being indiscreet in front of the young ladies.’ A small cough concluded his speech.
Kitty very much wanted to laugh, but kept her eyes down and contained herself. When she raised them, she saw her father looking in her direction. Once again, she assumed his displeasure, but Mr Bennet held her gaze and with the smallest raise of an eyebrow gave her to understand he shared her feelings. A small surge of happiness filled Kitty. Notice and approval did not go hand in hand in her world.
Having divested himself of this information, Mr Collins beamed at them all, ran his finger around the edge of his collar and, seemingly at a loss as to what to do or say next, took himself to the window where Mr Bennet was standing in silent contemplation of those assembled, and sought to engage him in his plans for improvement to his humble dwelling in Kent. Mr Bennet, whose interest in fireplaces, dado rails and appropriate colours for wall coverings was nothing if not scant, listened intently, amusing himself every now and then with an astonished ‘Indeed?’
Mr Jones was entreated to join the ladies, who were seated around the fireplace. ‘Do you know Kent well sir?’ Mary asked him, when he was settled into his chair. Mr Jones was happy to respond and, within a few minutes, they had learned that he did not know that county at all but had every anticipation of finding the neighbourhood agreeable; that he had until recently been intended to go into the army and that events (he did not elaborate) had convinced him that a life in the clergy would suit him better; that a distant relation who had known Sir Lewis de Bourgh had been providential in procuring him the living; that he had a sister and a brother-in-law living in London, but that their timetable did not permit him anything other than a brief visit en route to Kent; and that he had heard that one of the Misses Bennet had recently visited Hunsford.
‘My sister Elizabeth is a particular friend of Mrs Collins and spent some weeks at Hunsford last year,’ Kitty informed him. ‘I have not travelled outside of Meryton and its environs, though I should like the opportunity one day.’
Mrs Bennet made a small clucking noise.
‘I hope one day to spend some time with my married sisters,’ said Kitty, ignoring her mother, ‘one of whom now lives in Derbyshire.’
‘Ah, yes, so I have heard,’ replied Mr Jones, his knowledge of the de Bourgh family having increased a thousand-fold since meeting Mr Collins, whose enthusiasm on the subject could not, he found, be quelled either by enquiry or silence. ‘That would be Mrs Darcy of Pemberley,’ continued the new recruit. ‘Mr Darcy is related to Lady Catherine; she is his aunt, I think?’ Kitty agreed that this was so, but here the conversation was interrupted. A discourse containing the words ‘Darcy’, ‘Pemberley’ and ‘Lady Catherine’ had alerted Mr Collins, who felt the need to be part of it. He hastened across and his oficious interjections were such that all discussion ceased soon after save that of speculation on the state of the roads and whether rain was expected that evening or on the morrow.
Mr Collins, a man of little sense but great pomposity, was exercising unusual caution in his dutiful attendance upon the Bennets. Lady Catherine had, it was true, given her permission for him to visit, but this was partly in order for him to bring any news he could ascertain about her now estranged nephew and the impertinent woman who had become his wife. Thus far, Mr Collins had little to offer her ladyship in this matter and he did not think it would sit well with her if the only information he could take back concerned the new vicar’s conversation with another of the Miss Bennets.
Mrs Bennet meanwhile, freed from Mr Collins’s attentions, began to consider the eligibility of Mr Jones, and to speculate on the size of his living and what his income might be. Of course, she knew nothing of his family at this point, but such details could be gleaned. The dinner hour was approaching and she was toying with the idea of inviting the two visitors to dine. Accordingly, she quit the room in order to make enquiries of the housekeeper, Mrs Hill; it would not do to offer a meal that was not suficiently impressive, even though, she assured herself, she had no desire whatsoever to impress Mr Collins. Her efforts were in vain, however. Upon returning to the parlour a few minutes later, it was to hear Mr Collins announce that, most regrettably, he and Mr Jones must depart. They were expected at Lucas Lodge within the hour.
Bows and curtsies were made and the pair took their leave. ‘Well, Mary,’ said her mother, as the door closed behind the
visitors. ‘What think you of Mr Jones? He seems a good sort of young gentleman. And with his own living. Canterbury is a fine place, by all accounts. I was glad to see you speaking with him. What did you speak of when I was gone? What is his income, do you know?’
‘Mama!’ said Kitty. ‘You know Mary would not ask him such questions!’
‘It is as well to know these things,’ countered Mrs Bennet. ‘Especially if he is looking for a wife.’
Kitty sighed, igniting her mother’s ire.
‘Do not get so high and mighty with me, Miss. What is to become of you if you do not get married? You two are not so pretty as your sisters; you cannot expect important matches.’ She clasped her hands in her lap and looked from Kitty to Mary, her point made.
‘That may be so, ma’am,’ said Kitty, her voice rising. ‘But we do not know that Mr Jones is looking for a wife; and if he were, let us not assume that that wife would be me or Mary! Must we always be looking for husbands?’ It was an unexpected outburst, to all parties.
Mrs Bennet found herself momentarily taken aback. Mary took advantage of the silence to observe, ‘Well, sister, if I am not mistaken, I rather thought that was your chief preoccupation. Certainly, it is the impression you give.’ She bent her head back to her book.
Kitty glared at Mary and at Mrs Bennet, then excused herself to prepare for dinner, leaving her mother exasperated, her father mildly surprised and Mary somewhat smug.
In a small fury, she flounced to her room but stopped mid-stairs and wondered at herself. Mary’s barb had found its mark. Dancing and conversing with red-coated oficers and other dashing young men had long been her sole aim, and with Lydia by her side she had not thought to question it. Now the rules seemed to have changed. What was she supposed to do? What did she want to do? Why was it all her fault? She stamped her foot. Kitty didn’t have answers to any of these questions, but she was beginning to comprehend that they needed to be asked.