Eliza’s DaughterJoan Aiken
Copyright © 1984, 2008 by Joan Aiken Enterprises, Ltd.
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Originally published in 1994 by St. Martin’s Press, New York
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Eliza’s daughter : a sequel to Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility / Joan Aiken.
1. Young women—Fiction. 2. England—Fiction. I. Austen, Jane, 1775-1817. Sense and sensibility. II. Title.
About the Author
I have a fancy to take pen in hand and tell my story, for now that I am arrived, so to speak, at a favourable hilltop, a safe situation above water level, I may look back on such mires, floods, tempests and raging tides as I have encountered with a tolerably tranquil eye; besides, my history should serve as a guide (or at least afford some diversion) to those who may be at present less favourably placed.
While, as to the dark that lies ahead, who can chart it?
In short – and without further preamble – I’ll begin.
I have no information as to the circumstances of my birth, or even in what county that event took place; indeed I doubt if there is any record of it.
My first memories are of the year 1797, when I must have been, I believe, about three or four years of age, and, from the circumstances of my life, already a shrewd and noticing child. As an infant I had been, I heard, somewhat frail and puny, and with the unlucky blemish that caused me to be scorned by some and feared by others. My foster-mother, Hannah Wellcome, having at that period several boys in her care greater in size than myself, and fearful that, among them, I might receive some fatal injury (thus depriving her of my foster-fee) daily dispatched me with a halfpenny, from the time that I could walk, to the vicarage and the decidedly questionable custody of the parson, Dr Moultrie. With the halfpenny I bought three cakes at the village baker’s for my dinner; and Dr Moultrie, to keep me from plaguing him with questions, for he was a slothful old party given to drowsing away many of the daylight hours in his chair, lost no time in teaching me to read, and turning me loose in his library. There, having run through such tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-Killer and Gold-Locks as remained from the days of his own children (long since grown and gone), I was obliged to munch on more solid fare, Goldsmith’s History of England, volumes of the Spectator, the plays of Shakespeare, and much poetry and theology, besides Berquin’s Ami des Enfants and some simple Italian tales (in consequence of which I acquired a readiness and taste for learning foreign tongues that has later stood me in good stead).
There was one volume that I read over and over, The Death of Arthur it was called, and I found the tales in it of knights and battles, Sir Beaumain, Sir Persaint, Merlin the enchanter and King Arthur himself, most haunting; they held sway over my mind for weeks together. But alas! one day, absorbed in the tale of the death of King Hermance, I dropped a great blob of jam from the tart I was eating on to the page of the book. When Dr Moultrie discovered this, he gave me a terrible beating, after which I could hardly crawl home, and he locked the book away; I never laid eyes on it again.
However, to his credit, it must be said that finding me an eager pupil Dr Moultrie was prepared to emerge from his torpor for an hour or two each day to instil in me the rudiments of Greek, Latin and Euclid, besides a thirst for wider knowledge.
But I run ahead of my tale.
Hannah Wellcome, my foster-mother, appeared good-natured and buxom: round red cheeks and untidy yellow ringlets escaping from her cap would predispose a stranger in her favour. I believe a certain native cunning had incited her to marry as she had done, thereby endowing herself with a propitious name and the status of a matron; Tom, her husband, kept in the background and was seldom seen; a narrow, dark, lantern-jawed ferret of a man, he scurried among the lanes on questionable pursuits of his own. But she, smiling and curtseying at the door of their thatched cottage, her ample bulk arrayed in clean apron, tucker and cap, might easily create an impression of kindly honesty, and had, at any one time, as many small clients as the house would hold.
The house, whitewashed and in its own garden, lay at the far end of a straggling hamlet sunk deep in a coombe. Our muddy street wound its way, like a crease through a green and crumpled counterpane, between steeply tilted meadows and dense patches of woodland, close to the border of Somerset and Devon. There were no more than twenty dwellings in all, besides the small ancient church presided over by Dr Moultrie. He had, as well, another village in his cure, perched high on the windy moor seven miles westwards. This was Over Othery. From long-established use and local custom, our hamlet, Nether Othery, was never thus referred to, but always, by the country folk round about, given the title of ‘Byblow Bottom’.
I write, now, of days long since passed away, when it was still the habit amongst all ladies of the gentle classes no matter how modest their degree, even the wives of attorneys, vicars, and well-to-do tradesmen, not to suckle their own infants, but always to put them out to wet-nurse. The bosoms of ladies, it seemed, were not for use, but strictly for show (and indeed, at the time I am recalling, bosoms were very much in evidence, bunched up over skimpy high-waisted dresses and concealed by little more than a twist of gauze and a scrap of cambric; what with that, and the fashion for wearing dampened petticoats and thin little kid slippers out of doors, very many young ladies must have gone to their ends untimely, thereby throwing even more business in the way of foster-mothers). Whatever the reason, it was held that the babies of the upper classes throve and grew faster when fed and tended by women of a lower order, and so the new-born infant would be directly dispatched, perhaps merely from one end of a village to the other, perhaps half across England to some baronial estate, to be reared in a cottage for two, three, or even four years, while its own mother, if so minded, need never lay eyes on it for that space of time. Of course I do not say this was the rule; many mothers, no doubt, visited their children very diligently,
very constantly; but many others, I am equally sure, did not.
Be that as it may, our village had for many years past been distinguished for the number and excellence of its wet-nurses. Perhaps, too, the superiority of the West Country cattle, the abundance and richness of their cream and butter, bore some share in this good repute. Also, during the last twenty years, an additional fame had attached to Nether Othery: that of a retreat, remote and secure from gossip or corruption, possessed of a balmy climate and healthy, unspoiled surroundings, where those random, unsought, but often interesting and well-beloved accidentals – if I may so term them – the natural offspring of public persons (who may bear great affection towards such issue, yet wish to avoid the disclosure of their existence) could be reared in wholesome, bracing privacy.
Lord S———, for instance, who fathered fifteen children on his lovely and obliging mistress Mrs R———, dispatched them all, one after another, to be reared in Nether Othery. So did the Duke of C——— and Mr G——— H———, and many another that I could mention.
As a consequence of this custom, the village boasted at all times a floating population far greater than any rural census would have recorded, and by far the larger part of this population would be under the age of twelve years.
Those infants respectably born in wedlock were, as a general rule, removed by their parents at around the age of three or four; while the bastards were seldom reclaimed under eleven or twelve, when the boys would mostly be dispatched to public school, and the girls, depending on their station, might be apprenticed as milliners, or sent for a few years’ schooling in Bristol or Exeter, in order to fit them for a career as governesses in great households.
By the time that I was three or four – the period when I commence my history – I had seen many such migrants come and go. I was already, as children may be, tolerably aware of the hazards and hardships that, for most of us, lay ahead. Among the youthful population of Byblow Bottom there was a certain freemasonry; we compared our hopes and fears, such scanty knowledge of our own parentage as we might possess, and such information as might drift back to us regarding the subsequent fortunes of our mates.—And when I say mates, I do not deny that sexual congress, among the older members of our group, was not infrequent: feeling themselves to be, as it were, cuckoos in the nest of Nether Othery, they were not greatly trammelled by the rules of a society which as yet had afforded them no benefits.
The fifteen side-slips of Lord S———, who frequently overlapped in their periods of residence, corresponded regularly one with another, and the elder ones, departed to London, sent back to their cadets cheerful accounts of the unorthodox existence of S——— House in Grosvenor Square. Here the owner’s wife and his mistress lived side by side in harmonious proximity and few distinctions were drawn between bastards and legitimate children, who all consorted together freely and gaily. But of course such good fortune was not to be expected by most of us.
As to my own progenitors, I held only the vaguest and scantiest notion. My mother, I was given to understand, had died in giving birth to me; and this (I was also given to understand) was the greatest piece of mercy that she might have hoped for, since she had run away from her friends at the age of sixteen, and had been heartlessly abandoned at seventeen by her seducer. And who might he have been? was the question over which I pondered for many, many hours of my childhood, watching the rain float by Dr Moultrie’s casement, until he summoned me to an hour’s Latin exercises; or as I walked alone in the mist over the Brendon Hills.
For, although there was always plenty of company in Byblow Bottom and, on the whole, a rude camaraderie and good-fellowship prevailed between the transient youthful population and that minority of children born in the place who had a right to be called natives – yet I felt in myself, at all times, a longing, a craving, if not for solitude, for a different kind of discourse from any that my mates could provide. And walking over the steep and blowy landscape by myself served, if only in small measure, to appease this craving.
My tale commences on a day in early autumn. The leaves, though they had not yet changed colour (and, in our salt-ridden, coastal country, would only fade to a rusty and tarnished brown), hung limp and melancholy on the trees, the sun gave out a mild warmth, the birds cheeped very softly to themselves and the sea lay hushed, as if autumn gales were a thing unheard-of.
Gross Dr Moultrie, suffering from a recurrence of the gout which every two or three months rendered him speechless and motionless with agony, had dismissed me with instructions not to return for three days. Of this edict I had not informed Mrs Wellcome who would, I knew, find copious occupation for me about the house. Small as I was, she already employed me to pick beans, feed the chickens, pull out weeds, chop suet for pie-crust and mend the boys’ stockings. There would be enough work to keep me busy until bedtime, which I regarded as wholly unfair, since the boys (Will, Rob, and Jonathan at the present time) were never put to such labour, but might fish in the brook, roam the moor, or go a-swimming at the shore, just as they chose. In fact they most often went off poaching with Tom Wellcome and were learning such arts as, probably, their families had never dreamed of. Intermittently, they attended the village school, since Dr Moultrie had rejected them as being too noisy and fidgety for his services.
Pleased with my liberty, I turned away from the village and struck off over the hill towards Ashett, the little fishing port which was our nearest town. There I planned to pass the rest of the day, idling on the narrow quay, watching the lobster-fishers mend their nets and the ships unlading. I had heard a tale that a Spanish vessel had been brought in, under suspicion of piracy or smuggling, and I was eager to see it.
Arrived at the quayside I prepared to take my station, perched on an upside-down fish-hamper but, to my disappointment, the Spanish ship had already been given its quittance and departed. The tide was low, and I observed Will, Rob, and Jonathan, with some fisher-boys, running and splashing naked on the muddy foreshore that lies eastwards from the harbour bar. Not wishful to join them, I wandered away westwards and loitered for many minutes on the high, hump-backed bridge that spans the rocky little river Ashe, at the point where it takes a steep plunge into the harbour, and its waters transmute from a clear topaz brown to a salt and cloudy green.
This bridge was always a favourite vantage point of mine; here I have spent hours together, gazing, sometimes upstream at the river threading its way through the quiet little town to the steep moor above, sometimes downstream at the tossing waves and lively harbour.
Today, as I stood tiptoe, so as to rest my elbows and chin on the stone parapet, I became aware, gradually, of two voices conversing above my head.
At first, single words began to filter into my notice – remarkable words, of a kind that I had never expected to hear spoken, but only to discover and pore over between the pages of Dr Moultrie’s books: glittering, blast, challenge, cataract, meditation, tyrannous, spectral, the star-dogged moon. . .
These words were to me like a spell, an extraordinary incantation. Indeed for some few minutes I entertained the mysterious impression that they had arrived from the depths of my own mind, as bubbles come sliding to the surface in a moorland marsh. But then I realized that two men were, like myself, standing at gaze upon the bridge, occupied partly by the scene before them, but more by the talk that ran between them even faster than the current of the little river below.
Both of the strangers were tall; so tall that I had to twist and crane my neck to study them. Who could they be? I was quite sure I had never seen them before; they certainly were not natives of these parts. Indeed one, the taller, conversed with a curious northern gruffness, which made it quite hard for me, at first, to comprehend some of his language.
The other man, the shorter (yet even he was by no means short) spoke with a more homely accent; his tones had the warm friendly burr of Devon or Somerset; but he was by far the more striking in appearance. In tru
th, I thought him wonderful! Not handsome, no; his complexion was pale, he had a wide mouth and fleshy lips; but his forehead was tremendous, and his eyes flashed with power. Long, rough, glossy black hair hung nearly to his shoulders. He and his friend were clad in the kind of jackets and trousers worn by the gentry; yet their garments were shabby and ill-fitting, decidedly so. Their neck-cloths were loosely tied, not over-white, their shoes were worn; both carried satchels of papers and their pockets bulged with books. The taller man, whom the other addressed as ‘Will’ or ‘Bill’, was gaunt and stringy and bony; he had a nose so enormously prominent that it seemed likely at any moment to over-balance him and topple him forwards on his face. There was also – these were my first impressions – something a touch self-satisfied about his air; his mouth was small and pursed above a receding chin; yet he too had a noble brow, and his eyes, though less dark and flashing than those of his friend, were bright with comprehension and intelligence. Like his companion he seemed filled with such fervent enthusiasm that, for a few moments, I wondered if both men were in liquor; but no; this, evidently, was their accustomed mode when together as I was soon to understand.
‘It is not from the metre, it is not from the order of words, but from the matter itself, that the essential difference must arise,’ the man called Bill was proclaiming in a loud assured tone. Indeed, he trumpeted through his large nose.
His friend laughed. ‘I put my hat upon my head, And walked into the Strand, And there I met another man, Whose hat was in his hand!’ he suggested.
‘Precisely so! Or, on the other hand, “And thou art long and lank and brown, As is the ribbed sea-sand.”’
‘Hey! Will, my dear fellow! That has it to a nicety! You singular genius – pearls flow continually from your lips! A moment, if you please, till I set that down.’
And he pulled a notebook from his satchel and wrote vigorously.
His friend, also laughing, observed, ‘Take care, my dear Sam! Our faithful Home Office follower is busy marking our actions from afar through his spy-glass; without the least question he now suspects you of making observations about coastal defences, so as to facilitate a French invasion.’