A Great Deal of Ingenuity

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Ever wondered about the minor Pride & Prejudice characters cooking, mending, flirting, walking and socialising in the background? These short stories shine a light on Netherfield, Hunsford, Rosings and Longbourn as you've never seen them before and relegate the major players to non-speaking roles.
First 10 Pages

Miss Gardiner

In some ways, Miss Gardiner needs no introduction. However, have one she must, since she would be the first person to complain of discontent if this were not the case. This story is the only one written from the point of view of a male character and the eagle-eyed reader will spot a myriad of tiny clues as to Miss Gardiner’s identity planted throughout the narrative. At this point in her life, she is pretty, merry, good-natured and carefree and it is through the enchanted eyes of her new husband that we now meet her for the first time.

My wife lies softly sleeping by my side. Up on one elbow, I gaze at her lovely countenance, her tumbled hair, her rosy cheeks, her cherry lips. Yesterday was our wedding day, this morning the first of many joyous ones yet to come. My heart is full.

As long as I live, never shall I forget when first I saw my dearest wife. I had occasion to drive to town on a bright January day to conduct some estate business. Having left my horse and equipage at the inn, I was making my way along the High Street when my attention was drawn by Mr Gardiner the attorney, walking towards me with a young lady on each arm.

We stopped to exchange greetings. ‘Allow me to introduce my daughters,’ said he. ‘Miss Gardiner and Miss Maria Gardiner.’ The two young ladies curtsied. The elder looked up at me through long, dark lashes and I fancied I discerned a faint blush on her rounded cheeks.

We walked on together to the haberdasher’s where we bade each other farewell. Miss Gardiner glanced over her shoulder as she walked into the shop, catching my eye and blushing again. Her pretty face and sparkling eyes remained in my mind all day and when I betook myself to bed that evening, her countenance was the last memory which remained in my mind before sleep overtook me.

The next week, I once again had reason to drive to Meryton. Walking from the apothecary, I espied Miss Gardiner on the other side of the street looking into the window of the milliner’s shop.

My heart beating faster, I approached her. I bowed. ‘Miss Gardiner. I trust that I find you well?’

She curtsied. ‘I am very well, I thank you, sir. A fine day, is not it?’ She laughed, charmingly, and my heart leap’t.

It was dirty underfoot, with mud on the road. ‘Shall we walk together?’ asked I, all daring, offering her my arm.

As she turned her face up to mine, I gazed into her fine, dark eyes and my heart beat faster. We talked civilly of the weather, the latest assembly and her family.

‘My elder brother has been from home for some time,’ said she. ‘He is apprenticed to a merchant in London. We all miss him most exceedingly. Our family circle is in sad want of his lively character and wit.’

We strolled on slowly, and by the time we approached the coaching inn, Miss Gardiner’s destination, I had learned that she had one older brother and a younger sister (Miss Maria, whose countenance was to me a perfect blank – I seemed to recall that her hair was light, but little else), that her father and mother lived in the house next to the parsonage, and that she was very fond of music and dancing.

‘And do you indulge your passion for dancing often, Miss Gardiner?’ I enquired. She laughed and shook her head. Her curls danced and her eyes sparkled. ‘No, indeed, sir! Indeed not! I find myself dull and without occupation when there is no dancing to be had at the assembly rooms.’

Greatly daring, although I do not often frequent these dances (full of chattering misses and their dumpy mamas), I asked if I might be so bold as to request her hand in a dance when next we met there.

‘Sir, I would be honoured.’ I felt her little gloved hand tighten on my arm and fixed my eyes on her glowing face, raised to mine. We were now nearly at the coaching inn and I found myself longing to learn what this beautiful young creature did to amuse herself.

‘With what do you fill your days? Are you a great reader? Do you play an instrument? I know that many young ladies are accomplished in such occupations.’

She coloured slightly. ‘I confess, sir, I am not a great reader. My father often reads to us in the evening, but left to myself, I would not take up a book when there is dancing or music to be had. I walk with my sister, we help my mother in the flower garden, we sing. We do not have an instrument.’

She hung her head as though ashamed.

I recalled that her father, although respectable, did not have an estate and that he could probably not afford such luxuries for his daughters. ‘My dear Miss Gardiner, forgive me! I forget myself. What do you do at the inn? Are you to meet your family there?’

She blushed and smiled. ‘Indeed, sir, I am. My dear brother is expected on the coach from London and my mother and father and I are to meet him there. My sister stays at home to make ready for his return.’

We had reached the door of the inn. I longed to spend more time with Miss Gardiner, but propriety forbade it. She turned around as she stood at the inn door, her pretty face smiling and her eyes dancing. ‘May I introduce you to my mother, sir? I know she would be delighted to make your acquaintance. And perhaps I might introduce you to my brother when he arrives.’

We walked in together where Mr Gardiner and his wife were sitting by the fire. After the introduction was made, Mrs Gardiner invited me to sit beside her while her daughter walked to the window to look out for the coach.

Mrs Gardiner’s voice was querulous, and the contrast between her person and that of her daughter was marked. She began to question me. I knew, of course, that she saw me as a potential suitor for her eldest daughter’s hand. I had often been quizzed by eager mamas. As a single man of good birth with an estate and a modest fortune, I was only too aware that I was an object of great interest for many single young women.

While there were many agreeable young ladies in the limited society in which I moved, none of them were handsome or charming enough to tempt me into marriage. My dear mother had begged me not to marry the first young woman I saw and I had borne this in mind, perhaps for too long as I was now nine and twenty and still single. My love of independence kept me from loneliness, but Miss Gardiner’s beautiful face and pretty ways were captivating and I found myself thinking of her almost constantly. I believed her to be only seventeen years old, but her position in the family as the eldest daughter had, no doubt, given her the mantle of responsibility, decorum and household knowledge that I would wish my own wife to have. It was from that day in the inn that first I began to picture her as the future mistress of my home.

I answered Mrs Gardiner’s questions with patience and good humour. As she was quizzing me about my parents, I heard the rattle of the coach bumping over the cobbles.

‘He is come! He is come! Oh, my dearest Edward!’ cried Miss Gardiner, clapping her hands prettily and running out of the inn. I was charmed by her impetuous manner and affection for her older brother. I began to make my farewells, but Mrs Gardiner entreated me to tarry and to meet her son.

For a few minutes, all was confusion as the coach stopped and the passengers dismounted. Miss Gardiner came skipping back into the inn arm in arm with a tall, sensible-looking young man perhaps a year or so younger than myself. Once he had embraced his mother and shaken hands with his father, he turned to me with a smile. His mother made the necessary introductions. ‘I am delighted to make your acquaintance, sir,’ he said in a pleasant voice.

After a few more moments of conversation, I bowed and made my farewells, but not before Mrs Gardiner had invited me to dine with the family in three days’ time. I professed myself delighted. I confess that I eagerly anticipated seeing Miss Gardiner in the bosom of her family.

I dined with the Gardiners three times that month. It was everything that was charming and hospitable. Mrs Gardiner kept a very good table and a well-ordered household. The young ladies chattered and made merry and I soon began to feel that I was a favoured guest. Sitting opposite Miss Gardiner at table, the soft candlelight reflecting from her bright eyes and pretty face, I was ever more captivated by her.

Alone in my library with the candle guttering in the draught from the window, I considered leaving the single state and entering into matrimony. My excellent parents had died within six months of each other, shortly after I reached the age of one and twenty. My home needed a mistress. Only a wife could bring me the domestic comfort and marital harmony for which I longed. I wished for a family of my own, a son to inherit my estate and perhaps daughters to laugh, and run around, and sing. If I could have a child as merry and captivating in manner as Miss Gardiner, I should have nothing of which to complain. No daughter of hers could fail to be lively, accomplished and sensible.

I resolved to approach her father the very next day and ask for her hand. I flattered myself that she felt real affection for me and would give me the answer for which I yearned.

After my solitary breakfast, I bade farewell to the housekeeper, Mrs Hill, and rode into town. Walking up the path to the Gardiners’ house, I saw a movement at an upper window. Looking up, I saw the curtain fall as though a hand had let it drop.

I was shewn into Mr Gardiner’s book room. He seemed not at all surprised to see me. I declared my love for his daughter and asked his permission to propose marriage. ‘My dear sir!’ cried he. ‘I am all happiness! Please do pay your addresses to my daughter. I have no doubt that she will receive them with pleasure. I think you will find her in the parlour arranging the flowers.’

I walked out into the entrance hall, my heart beating fast. I could hear a soft voice singing in the parlour. My love was standing there with her arms full of fragrant blooms. I will not sport with your patience, dear reader, with the words of passion which flowed from my lips. I will tell you only that after a few minutes, the flowers lay unheeded on the table and I was an engaged man.

What sweets then followed. I dined each evening at the Gardiners’ and walked with my love in the garden, arm-in-arm. She hung on my every word, fixing her eyes on my face as we talked of our forthcoming conjugal felicity. I had explained to her father the limitation on my estate. ‘Pish, sir!’ he laughed. ‘You will have sons, fine sons, to deal with that.’

I did not doubt it. My love was young, healthy and full of captivating sweetness. I was sure she would bear me many children.

Sometimes, a cloud would pass over her lovely face when I spoke of financial matters. ‘My love, do not bore me with such disagreeable things!’ she would entreat me, pouting and putting her pretty head on one side. ‘Do not you have news of how the house does? Shall we have new paper in the dining room as you promised me? Shall we have a wilderness in which we can walk? I long to hear of it!’

I could deny her nothing.

One day, walking in the garden as our marriage day drew nearer, I once again ventured to speak to her about my estate and its financial constraints. I persisted, gently, lovingly, in spite of her protestations. ‘My love, we must speak of this. I know ‘tis dull, but it is of great import to our life together.’

She pouted and frowned. She spoke pettishly. ‘Have you no concern for my nerves? How can you teaze me so?’

Tears filled her beautiful eyes. I tried again to explain to her, but she pulled away from me and ran back to the house.

I reminded myself that my own sweet love was very young yet and ignorant of the ways of the world. That evening, in a quiet moment in the parlour, we embraced and I begged her forgiveness. Never shall I forget the sweet pressure of her lips on mine. A plague on finances! Economy is perfectly useless when we are to be together for the rest of our lives.

My love of the country and of books will, I am persuaded, be added to my wife’s interests when we are married. The countryside in which sits my house and its grounds is verdant and lovely. I do not expect so young a lady to comprehend all the volumes contained in my library, but surely, we will sit together by the fireside while I read to her after dinner. How delightful it will be to have the opportunity to improve her mind and increase her understanding!

My wife will be settled only a mile or two from her family, so that we may visit them and welcome them to our house as she pleases. I have the carriage in which she may drive into town to carry out her commissions and I have laid in a stock of pretty trifles for her to amuse herself once we are married. I flatter myself that no young lady could wish for more.

I am by nature a solitary being, and I confess that the regular experience of feminine chatter and laughter at the Gardiners’ house was not something I wished to prolong. After dinner, Mr Gardiner and I would drink our port and talk of business and of politics while the ladies disported themselves in the drawing room. Mrs Gardiner and her daughters are very fond of fashion, and all three ladies would be amusing themselves by trimming bonnets and caps when we joined them. My own love and her sister would play spillikins[1], while Mr Gardiner and I engaged in games of draughts or backgammon. I longed to have my own dear girl as my wife in our comfortable drawing room, away from the snores of Mrs Gardiner and the shrill giggles of Miss Maria.

News has recently reached me of the birth of a healthy son to my fool of a cousin. His lady gave her own life for that of her child, leaving his father alone to bring up his son and heir. I shall be gracious and invite the child and his father to my house when we are married. Is it wrong of me to picture my own sons, strong and healthy, while my mewling cousin cowers inside with the ladies? My own dear love, I know, will welcome my family, however disagreeable they may be, with smiles and warm hospitality.

Mr Edward Gardiner is become a particular friend. He is a most sensible and agreeable gentleman, prospering in his trade in London and shewing every sign of becoming a successful merchant. He has been most helpful in arranging my dear girl’s trousseau and all the fol-de-rols which young ladies seem to require.

‘Edward knows all the best warehouses,’ said Mrs Gardiner to me, one fine morning as we sat in the parlour. ‘He has been most obliging.’

I trusted that she was not going to speak to me of muslins and ribbons.

She coughed and touched the lace fichu[2] at her throat. ‘My dear sir,’ she began, rising to her feet and walking to the window. ‘Mr Gardiner and me are both vastly pleased that you will soon be joining our family. I could not wish for a better husband for my girl. However, I feel it incumbent on me to mention that my daughter has not been used to being burdened with household cares. She is but seventeen years old and has not been used to thinking on serious subjects. She is the most good-natured girl in the county, but I fear – that is, I wonder …’

‘Madam!’ I cried. ‘Your daughter will never know a moment’s care when once she becomes my wife. Miss Gardiner is uniformly charming and I anticipate many years of domestic felicity ahead of us.’

‘Thank you, sir, indeed, I am excessively relieved,’ replied Mrs Gardiner, sinking back into her seat. ‘She is very young and inexperienced, but in all other matters, she is the sweetest and best-tempered girl who ever lived. I am sure that she will make you a very proper wife.’

The sweet season of our courtship was almost over. Hill and the staff prepared to welcome their new mistress. Each day, I walked around the grounds, overseeing the work of the gardeners whom I have directed to plant sweet-smelling shrubs and plants near the windows so that my love might enjoy their fragrance while we stroll together. Nothing is too much trouble for her.

And so, I lie here in our marital bed, gazing down at the sleeping countenance of my wife. Our marriage day was all happiness, all joy. Even my dolt of a cousin wished us well.

The trees are in blossom, promising a year of much fruitfulness and bounty. Flowers make everything lovely and my bride outshone them all in beauty, her arms full of sweet spring blooms. How my heart leap’t when first I saw her walk towards me on the arm of her father. Even Miss Maria made a tolerable bridesmaid, although her incessant chatter grated upon my nerves.

Never shall I forget the moment when first I sat with my wife in the chaise and four, her little gloved hand in mine. As the carriage began to move, we turned and waved to our family and friends. We trotted along the lane to our home, both of us as happy as ‘tis possible to be. ‘Well, my dear, and how feel you to be a wife?’ I enquired, as I looked down into my love’s pretty, blushing face.

‘My dear! I am quite overcome. I cannot wait until we reach the house. I am quite wild to see it.’

Indeed, I trust that my dear wife will grow to love my estate as much as I do myself and that many children will come to bless us. Of course, we will soon be blessed with a son to join in cutting off the entail[3] when he is of age, and my foolish cousin Collins will be no more than a family joke. I am filled with love for my dear wife – her youth, beauty and good humour have captivated me, I own. Domestic happiness full of respect, esteem and confidence must be ours for many happy years to come.

My love is stirring. Daylight peeps through the curtains. I smooth her pretty hair back from her forehead and kiss her cherry lips. ‘Good morning, Mrs Bennet.’

Harriet’s Story

Harriet Forster is first mentioned as the Colonel’s rumoured fiancée in Chapter 12. At this stage in the novel, no further information is given, and her very existence may be only the result of some unfounded Meryton gossip. However, shortly after Christmas, at a time when Jane Bennet’s spirits are dejected due to Mr Bingley’s return to London and the Gardiners have returned home, Mrs Forster, described only as, ‘a very young woman’ is brought to Meryton by her husband. From a narrative point of view, she is a new character joining a relatively limited society which already contains a number of excitable teenage girls. Kitty and Lydia Bennet, Pen and Harriet Harrington, Maria Lucas and Mrs Long’s nieces are all in need of new society and gossip in the dark days of January. Colonel Forster, about whom we know very little, is probably a man in his forties and since Mrs Forster quickly becomes best friends with Lydia Bennet, fifteen at the time of their meeting, she is very likely still a teenager herself. Austen tells us, ‘A resemblance in good humour and good spirits had recommended her [Mrs Forster] and Lydia to each other, and out of their three months’ acquaintance, they had been intimate two.’ This seems to imply that the Colonel’s new wife is as silly and empty-headed as Lydia. In the 1995 BBC adaptation of the novel, Mrs Forster is indeed very young and is given little to do except encourage her husband to give a dance. There are tiny clues embedded in the text that she is not as foolish as her friend, and we should also remember that Lydia’s elopement with one of her husband’s officers would be a disgrace for both the Forsters. The Colonel travels from Brighton to Longbourn as soon as he hears of Lydia’s flight, implying that he is a man of honour. In Chapter 47, as Jane is explaining to Elizabeth how they found out about Lydia’s elopement, she says of Colonel Forster, ‘His behaviour was attentive and kind to the utmost.’ He and Harriet are still newlyweds when the scandal erupts in Brighton, and I do wonder how it impacts their marriage.

It was but a few months ago that I was sitting in the parlour with Mama and my sisters, weeping, in deep mourning for dear Papa. Our grief was compounded by the certain knowledge that we would be thrown upon the charity of our family. With no brother to support us and only Mama’s modest widow’s portion, our future looked bleak indeed.

Now I am elevated by marriage, by rank, by, dare I say it, a growing affection for my husband. No longer little Harriet Richardson, I am now a married woman with a loving husband, I want for nothing and am able to assist my dear family.

But I am running ahead of myself.

‘My love,’ Mama said to me one morning. ‘I wish that you would put on your bonnet and walk to the apothecary for me. Eliza’s cough is no better and I would welcome some of Mrs Smith’s lozenges. The poor child has slept hardly a wink.’

I ran downstairs, put on my shabby bonnet and walking shoes and hurried to the apothecary’s. I had put on my bonnet in a great hurry and as I walked down the busy High Street, I did not notice that the ribbon had worked loose. A gust of wind tore it from my head and to my horror, I watched as it fell to the ground and came to rest in a puddle. Tears filled my eyes. Poor Mama did not have enough money to buy me a new one. I would have to be seen with a ruined bonnet until we moved to live with our hateful cousins.

I walked into the apothecary’s, my handkerchief to my eyes. As I struggled to choke back my tears, I was startled by a deep voice addressing me. ‘Madam, I fear that you are not well. Is there anything I may do to assist you?’ I looked up to see a tall, respectable-looking gentleman in full regimentals.

I was overcome with confusion. We had not been introduced[4].

I blushed. ‘Sir,” I stammered. “You are very kind. I thank you. I am quite well, only a little distressed over my poor bonnet.’

He bowed.

He was a great deal taller than myself, and as I looked up at him, I noted that he had a kind countenance, although not at all a handsome one. There were flecks of grey in his hair, and lines around his eyes as he smiled down at me. Confused, I approached the counter to order the lozenges and Mrs Smith promised to send them up to the house directly.

‘How do you all do, my dear?’ she enquired kindly, pressing my hand. I felt tears rise to my eyes, unbidden. The grief of losing dear Papa was still almost unbearable.

‘We are all well, madam, I thank you, but it is hard. So very hard.’ My voice shook. ‘We go to live with my uncle and his family after Christmas. He is very kind to offer us a home, but I will miss… I do wonder how I will ...oh, dear Papa!’ At this, I broke down altogether and covering my face with my handkerchief, I gave myself up to my misery. Mrs Smith continued to press my hand and did not irritate my feelings with inconsequential chatter. As my tears subsided, I became aware that the strange gentleman had moved over to the other side of the shop and was absorbed in gazing at lavender water and toilette preparations.

[1]A popular game played with sticks made of wood or bone. The aim is to remove a stick without disturbing the others. These days, it’s known as Pick Up Sticks.

[2][2] This was a triangular shawl, often made of lace, worn around a woman’s neck to keep out draughts. At a time when houses were heated by open fires, ladies would wish to avoid stiff necks and chills and thus the fichu became a practical, yet attractive feature of Regency costumes.

[3] An entailment is a legal way of restricting the inheritance of an owner’s property to his lineal descendants under estate law. Longbourn and Mr Bennet’s estate can only pass to a legally begotten male heir, but since he has no son, his nearest male relation is Mr Collins. Hence Mrs Bennet’s desire to marry one of her daughters to him, which, at a stroke, would ensure security for her as a widow and any of her unmarried daughters.

[4] At this time, it was vitally important to be officially introduced to a new acquaintance. The general rule was that the lower status person was introduced to someone of higher status. In this situation, Harriet is very much in the former category. She is a young, unmarried woman and the Colonel is an important man. That is why she is alarmed about speaking to him in the shop and why Mrs Smith acts as the third party in making the introduction. Once this has been effected, Colonel Forster is able to speak to her whenever they meet and be introduced to her mother, who is now the head of the family. Before the introduction has taken place, the Colonel is jumping the gun, socially. He knows the etiquette, but is clearly attracted to Harriet and wishes to know her better.