And now the Bennet Wardrobe Saga leaps backward into the Regency from where we left Kitty Bennet and her intended, Henry Fitzwilliam, the 11th Earl of Matlock. Part Two of “The Exile”…”The Countess Visits Longbourn”…answers critical questions that have been raised thus far: How was the Bennet Family Trust created? How did the Founder’s Letters come to be? What altered George Wickham’s path between 1812 and 1815? What was the true nature of the relationship between Lydia and George?
Of course, my conceit about “The Countess” is transparent to all of those who read “Lizzy Bennet Meets the Countess.” That said, I felt it was important to use that term to establish that, while the woman (no spoiler here) who returns that chilly day in December 1811 was the former Catherine Marie Bennet, she now was the Dowager Countess of Matlock (11th) much as her sister Lydia had served her time as the Dowager (8th). This lady certainly was the fourth Rose of Hertfordshire but she was no longer “the girl who coughed.”
As the story of the second and concluding portion of the Volume Two of The Bennet Wardrobe develops, readers will discover further nuanced pieces of the gigantic puzzle being assembled by the Wardrobe as it moves Bennets as if they are chess pieces in the most complicated game imaginable. New characters will be introduced to offer antecedents to others who have already walked onto the stage in earlier books. Their actions may be limited…but I do hope you will nod and go…now I understand.
For instance…while we know from “The Bennet Wardrobe: Origins” that Christopher Bennet purchased Longbourn in the 1690s using his wealth earned as a trader, we did not know much about how he gained it (did he pillage like so many? No…he is a Bennet…with as deep an honor as a Darcy!). Likewise, from the Canon we know that the Bennet’s and Longbourn were not dripping cash. However, it seemed impossible that Christopher had spent everything on the Estate. And that is where we are get a deeper introduction to his son, Benjamin (who is briefly mentioned in “Origins”). It is Benjamin who establishes the actual wealth of the Bennet family, although it is concealed) as a result of The South Sea Bubble (1720).
Oh, and we get a Wardrobe Universe Explanation of the entail which is put on Longbourn by Richard Bennet, Thomas’ Grandfather, after his eldest son is killed while logging on the estate, his youngest child, Samuel, is unheard from as he fought the French with Braddock in Pennsylvania, and the middle child, Maude, marries the first William Collins.
A lot to digest, here.
For that, please enjoy this excerpted morsel from my current work in progress “The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn.”
This excerpt of a work in progress is (c) 2017 by Don Jacobson. No excerpts of this work may be used or re-published for any purpose without the expressed written consent of the creator. Published in the United States of America.
The date is still December 11, 1811, the day after the double wedding. In “The Keeper,” Mary heard her father and sister, Kitty, arguing in the library when she had returned from her trek up Oakham Mount. What she did not apprehend was that the seven-and-ten year old youngster, in her anger, had struck the Wardrobe. Now, according to the Gibbons’ Rules of the Wardrobe, she has completed her cycle, after having spent over 40 years in the future. She returned to the bookroom in the same instant in which she departed.
Thomas Bennet was astonished at the confidence that his “coughing Kitty” displayed in managing Mrs. Hill. His sharp glance left Lady Fitzwilliam feeling oddly abashed, a sense she had not experienced since Uncle Reggie had passed away over forty years ago.[i] Although generally acknowledged by all to be a kindly man, the Tenth Earl of Matlock could be a positive Tartar when it came to adolescent variations from acceptable behavior. Now, again, Kitty felt the quavering in her abdomen that signaled her nervousness at adult instruction.
She quickly moved to forestall any reaction from her father.
“Please forgive me, Papa. I completely forgot my place and started to give orders in your house as if I were that old woman from Rosings!”
Bennet raised a hand, quelling any further apologies from Kitty. He thought to settle her further with a little humor.
“Trust me, daughter, although I must admit I am having difficulty considering you one of mine as you appear to have skipped a few decades in the past twenty minutes, I am used to women ordering my life.
“In any event, if you had really reminded me of Mr. Darcy’s aunt, I would have simply addressed you as Lady…”
Kitty jumped in quickly cutting him off before he could finish.
“Please, do not call me Lady Catherine. I cannot tell you why, but I utterly despise that name! My friends call me Lady Kate. The little ones when faced with more than one Grandmama in the room add ‘Kitty.’
“Only His Majesty King George and Her Royal Highness the Queen refer to me as Lady Catherine, and then just at court functions. Even the Prince of Wales calls me Lady Kate.”
Thomas drolly shot back, “And which King George might that be?”
Kitty laced her fingers across her midriff and chuckled, “Why Papa, the only George there is…the Fifth!”
Her father shook his head. In a moment, though, the laughter flew away from his face like seagulls streaking across the water in advance of a budding squall.
“I believe we have known one another long enough to lay aside conversational gambits. Perhaps you need to tell me your tale. All I know is that my daughter, all of seven-and-ten, was objecting to my decision to send her to a seminary in Cornwall.”
“Then I heard you strike the Wardrobe.”
“And, then you returned.”
“I translated to 1886, Papa, seventy-five years from now, to London, to Matlock House where the Keepers had placed the Wardrobe. That would be during the reign of Queen Victoria who has yet to be born,” Kitty explained in revealing her where/when.
The ice thus broken, Dear Readers, Kitty began to relate the entirety of her story; or, may we suggest, a thoroughly curated and edited version of her biography.[ii] Many highlights were revealed: her emergence at Matlock House, her schooling in Switzerland, her marriage to Henry Fitzwilliam, Lizzy’s visit, and the death of her husband in harness to the nation. What the Countess left out included her encounter with an aged Lydia, the unpleasantness with Junius Winters as well as other family history that she had learned over the years. She feared that her Papa, once aroused, would surely become an avenging angel and seek to pre-empt her trials. Far too many butterflies.
The longer she spoke, the more her father became engrossed in his own interior monologue. He sat stock-still staring at her, soaking up every word and pondering the implications. After a time, he was looking her way without really knowing that she was there.
He was amazed at the woman into which she had grown. Here was his child, the one who had been the most invisible, hidden in the glare that was Lydia, the inarguable excellence of Jane and Lizzy, and even the lowering greyness that was Mary. Kitty, now in the last innings of her life, one which had, by her account, far transcended the highest expectations held for a daughter of a modest Hertfordshire country gentleman. By dint of her own merit she had risen into the upper aristocracy.
True, she had married into a great family that had guided the nation for over a century. However, using that loving alliance as a springboard, Catherine Marie Bennet had taken control of the powerful levers afforded her. From what Bennet could determine, she, for her part, had stood astride Society and had become one of the arbiters of cultural norms. She had been consoled upon her husband’s death by the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, members of Government, and countless artists from painters to authors to composers. She was now, in his stead by over a century, the Keeper of the Wardrobe, comfortably having found her space in what was still a world dominated by men.
Questions began to form the more he heard of her span down the timeline.
Who are the Bennet Family Trust?
She refers to the Founder with curious familiarity. Who is he? And what are these letters?
What has she avoided telling me? That I probably will never know. Kitty, or Lady Kate, strikes me as being quite circumspect as Keeper. And we know that one of the most important tasks of any Keeper after protecting the Wardrobe is to safeguard the future.
The silence in the room suddenly struck him. He returned from his near-trance to discern Kitty gazing intently at him.
He cleared his throat, “Harrumph. My apologies, Kitty. Your story is remarkable. It brings to mind the story I heard of my Grandfather’s trip. T’is clear to me that the Wardrobe had some greater purpose in mind for you other than helping you escape those you rightly or wrongly condemned for your misery.
“I fear, though, that your dissertation has left me with many questions…some which I fear you will be unable or unwilling to answer.”
Before she could reply, a knock at the kitchen hall door disturbed their communion.
Two hours had flown by, unremarked by either occupant of the leather chairs in the bookroom. Upon being bade to “Enter” by Mr. Bennet, both Hills marched in, she to clear away the remains of the sweet rolls and coffee; he bearing a larger serving platter covered with sliced roast beef and ham, various cheeses, mustard pots, and freshly baked bread still steaming in the poorly heated library. Solemnly, as if he was presenting the monarch with a special memorial, Mr. Hill lowered the great silver salver on one end of the table.
In short order, clean plates and silverware had been laid in front of the lady and gentleman. Then both servants made their respective obeisance and swiftly departed.
Thomas poured his daughter a glass of wine. She raised it in a silent toast. Once Thomas had recognized that salute, the two Bennets created sandwiches. Those savories were quickly demolished before any conversation resumed.
Kitty leaned back in her chair, tapped her stomach, and a satisfied smile illuminated her face. She cast her eyes around the library, seeing books overflowing from shelves onto counters and stacked against the walls. Without thinking, and without returning her eyes to Bennet, she reached down by her leg and brought forth her small black clutch. Popping it open, she rummaged for a moment before pulling out a cigarette that she inserted in her onyx holder. Then she reached back into the bag and removed her sterling silver-cased lighter. A quick flick on the striker ignited a flame she held beneath the Gitane and inhaled a long draught, eyes closed to enjoy the nicotine surge that calmed her.
She murmured to herself, “Should probably pace myself since I will not be able to stock up for a while.”
Then her eyes snapped open and she beheld her father looking at her, aghast.
Again, she felt like a maid of seven-and-ten rather than a doyen of over sixty!
She slumped in her seat like that long-lost teenager before find the entire situation thoroughly amusing.
She defiantly took another pull on her cigarette before saying, “Now Papa, I imagine you want me to believe that you have never before seen a woman smoking. You are acting just like Mr. Darcy when he saw your two youngest cavorting like wild hoydens at the Netherfield Ball. Honestly, though, I doubt that you are such a naïf. You do know that Mrs. Hill favors a pipe with Mr. Hill every evening when they take their walk while we are in the parlor.
“I have smoked for years, although never in Henry’s presence because of his lung condition. However, since his death two years ago, I have become quite addicted to cigarettes. Dr. Campbell despairs of me ever cutting back. He says they will be the death of me.”
Then she leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial tone, “But, between you and I, given that we both have reached a certain age, what Campbell does not know will never hurt me. Anyway, women now have the vote and the right to kill themselves with cigarettes! Would you care to try one?”
[i] Reginald Thomas Fitzwilliam (1838-1890) 10th Earl of Matlock. He and his wife, Elaine were designated as guardians through a Founder’s Letter for Kitty Bennet when she arrive in the late Victorian Age as a minor.
[ii] For the unexpurgated version, please see The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque.