The conventional picture of Jane Austen was based on an original but prettied up by the Victorians.
This is the original with some of the lines clarified. Note the folded arms and upright, assertive posture.
Here's a close up of her face. We can see the striking eyes that contemporaries noted, but also a mouth and expression that in my opinion didn't suffer fools easily.
Jane Austen and the Mistletoe Kiss
Christmas Eve, 1816
This story was commissioned to appear in the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper on December 27th 2004 as part of a tradition of short stories during Christmas week.
Elinor Carsholt thanked the servant, closed the cottage door, and frowned at the dressed goose, wine, and basket on the kitchen table. It was very kind of Sir Nicholas Danvers to regularly send gifts from his estate, but even after a year, her pride stung at being a charity case.
Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Amy, popped into the room. "Who knocked?" She ran to the table. "Oh, a goose! And oranges, and nuts. We'll have a decent Christmas now."
"I have a piece of pork, and a mincemeat pie,” Elinor protested.
"I know, Mama, but this is better. Almost like Fortling."
Memory of their home fell like a shadow in the room. Fortling Hall had been lost to them when Elinor's husband had died on the hunting field last January. Not a surprising end for rash, thoughtless, hunting-mad Barnie Carsholt, but it had left Elinor an impoverished widow at thirty-six. After almost a year reality hadn't sunk in -- it had been etched. To some extent they'd been cushioned by mourning, but soon that would be over and painful decisions would have to be made.
Amy would probably have to take one of the positions well-meaning friends had suggested. Lovely Amy, with her high spirits, generous heart, and glossy dark curls would become paid companion to some demanding old lady when she should have been dancing in London. It was unbearable, but sleepless nights had produced no miracle. Amy would have to work and send home part of her wages.
"Sir Nicholas is very kind, isn't he, Mama?"
Elinor picked up the goose to take it to the larder. "Too kind at times."
"Is there such a thing? And he provides this cottage rent free."
Barnie’s death without a son meant his brother now owned Fortling. As Toby had six children, there'd been no question of Elinor and her three daughters remaining even if they'd wanted to. He’d offered a cottage on the estate, but Elinor's pride had revolted at being poor where she'd been used to be mistress.
Instead, she'd accepted this haven offered by Barnie's distant cousin, a safe three counties away. Her small jointure barely provided survival here, however. As she put the goose in the larder, Elinor tried to face facts, to accept her darling daughters becoming servants. No. There had to be some alternative.
She'd marry again if a new husband would be kind to them, but what man wanted to take on an older woman with three daughters? She glanced in the mirror. Only last year she'd heard herself described as a fine-looking woman, but she looked her age. Her only hope was a widower looking for a mother for his children and there were none like that around here.
"Sir Nicholas has no need to be so kind if he doesn't wish to," Amy persisted, arranging oranges in a bowl. "No need to send gifts, or invite us to pick fruit in his orchard…"
Mother's instinct stirred. What was Amy up to?
"…or give us carte-blanch to use his library. Which I do wish you'd allow, Mama."
"It doesn't seem right to go up to Danvers Park when he's away."
"Or, apparently, to intrude when he's there."
"Amy, don't be pert."
Amy turned from putting the bowl on the sideboard. "I'm sorry, Mama, but he's there now. I heard it in the village. He arrived three days ago with his sister, Lady Whitstable, and her family. And his brother, Captain Danvers, the Waterloo hero."
Elinor pinned on an apron. "I wish you wouldn't gossip with the villagers, Amy. Come help me make a pie of the pork."
Amy obeyed, but muttered, "Who else am I to talk to?"
Elinor pushed over some carrots to be chopped, but she sympathized. Here in Chawton they were neither fish nor fowl. They could not pretend to be like the villagers, but couldn’t afford the gentry life.
Amy scraped a carrot. "Captain Danvers is a hero, but Sir Nicholas's work is just as important, wouldn't you say? In Parliament? As a magistrate?"
Elinor paused, an onion in one hand, eying her daughter. "Do you like Sir Nicholas?" she asked carefully.
Amy looked up, eyes shining. "Oh, yes. I think he's wonderful!"
Lord! Was this blessing or tragedy? Elinor wanted to protect Amy from a broken heart, but if she loved Sir Nicholas and he returned her feelings, well, it would be more than she’d ever dared dream. Amy, darling Amy, would have security, comfort, and the best possible husband, and the younger girls would be provided for, too.
"Wonderful?" Elinor queried, returning her eyes to slicing. "That's high praise."
"Don't you think so, Mama? So handsome and always kind, even to us girls. He's very well thought of in the village, too. It's not just us he aids, you know."
Afraid to make her hopes clear, Elinor tried to find a way to probe farther. But all of a sudden, it seemed so natural. What girl wouldn't fall in love with Nicholas Danvers? At thirty-one, he was in his prime, with all the virtues Amy had listed and more. And why wouldn’t he fall in love with the prettiest girl around. A girl, moreover, with charming manners and a generous heart.
Only think how often he’d escorted the Carsholts home from church on Sunday. And how often he’d dropped by to make sure they were comfortable at Berry Cottage. And how easily he’d been persuaded to stay for tea. Sometimes he’d even played family card games with them.
Fighting onion tears and a glow of hope, Elinor tried to remember if he’d paid particular attention to Amy. He must have done, but she couldn’t remember because she’d been enjoying his company. It had been a joy to talk of matters beyond the village. Barnie had been an MP, too, and that was the world she was accustomed to.
Elinor looked up.
"...would you say that Sir Nicholas would make a good husband?"
Amy was hardly breathing as she waited for the answer, and Elinor felt in danger of fainting with delight.
"Dearest, darling girl. The very best in the world!"
Amy's smile was like a lamp flaring in the dark. "Then I think we should get some mistletoe!"
"Mistletoe?" But then Elinor's brain caught up. Because Sir Nicholas would come to call. A mistletoe kiss was the beginning of many a fine match.
She looked at the half-chopped vegetables and flung them into a pot of water. "Yes, of course. Holly and ivy, too, as symbol of new beginnings."
"I'll get the others." Amy rushed upstairs for the younger girls, twelve-year-old Marianne and eight-year-old Margaret, leaving Elinor spinning.
She put a hand to her chest and tried to compose herself. She'd never dreamed of anything so splendid, but it all made sense. Sir Nicholas had fallen in love with Amy at first sight, but mourning had prevented him from courting her. So instead he'd taken every excuse to visit and be kind.
But as Elinor took off the apron and looked for scissors, she frowned slightly. To have reached this stage, Amy must have been meeting Sir Nicholas by herself. She was disappointed in Amy, but more so in him. All's well that ends well, she told herself putting on her cloak, but she’d keep Amy closer by her side until the wedding.
Soon they were out in the lane, where crisp air and bright sun suited Elinor's sparkling spirits.
"There's ivy along the fence at the bottom of the garden, Mama," Margaret said.
"What fun would there be in cutting ivy in the garden, silly?” Amy protested. “We should go to Danvers Park."
Amy’s bright eyes told Elinor that she’d planned an assignation.
Had she been reading novels on the sly? Romantic novels such as the ones written by a lady of the village, Miss Jane Austen? At Sir Nicholas’s insistence, Elinor had read one and it had confirmed her disapproval. The heroine had been pert and one of her sisters positively wicked, yet they were rewarded with marriage -- in one case, a brilliant match.
Visions of Lydia Bennet and her seducer, Mr. Wickham, flashed through Elinor’s mind. But no, Sir Nicholas would never behave so badly.
She’d given him her honest opinion of Pride and Prejudice. "Amusing in parts, sir, but as romantic as I feared. Penniless ladies do not in reality marry wealthy men."
She remembered his quizzical smile as he'd said, "Do they not?" Her anxieties melted. Even then, he had been intending to offer for penniless Amy.
A rattle and hooves made her look down the lane. Here came the novelist herself in her donkey cart. "Step aside a moment, girls, to let Miss Austen pass."
Elinor prepared to exchange a seasonal greeting in passing, but Miss Austen halted the cart. "A merry Christmas to you, Mrs. Carsholt."
Miss Jane Austen was probably in her forties and could never have been pretty, but her large, bright eyes must always have appealed. Elinor had thought she could like her very well if she’d not been an author of romantic novels.
"And to you and your family, Miss Austen."
"We're going to cut mistletoe!" Margaret interrupted, making Elinor wince.
Before she could reprimand her daughter, Miss Austen smiled at the child. "Are you hoping for a kiss, dear?"
Margaret went pink and giggled, but then said, "Amy is!"
"Probably from Sir Nicholas," teased Marianne.
"Shut up!" Amy snapped, turning bright red in a way that confirmed Elinor's hopes. "If he kisses anyone, he'll kiss mama."
Elinor laughed at that, turning to share amusement with Miss Austen. "I'm far past the age for mistletoe kisses."
Miss Austen cocked her head. "That seems a shame, for I must be older still." Miss Austen's eyes twinkled with amusement, but Elinor felt as if she'd committed a faux pas. "I believe Sir Nicholas said you were only thirty-six, Mrs. Carsholt. I don't think you should refuse the mistletoe its chance."
"Chance?" Elinor asked.
"Do you not know that tradition? If true lovers kiss beneath the mistletoe, they will instantly know it."
Elinor permitted a cool smile. "Charming, but romantical, I fear."
"Ah, but as you doubtless know, I believe in that form of magic. And what danger in testing it if you don’t think it real?" She looked at Amy. "The Danvers Park orchards are accepted to be the best place for mistletoe. I recommend going there. You will be well rewarded."
Miss Austen inclined her head and drove on, leaving Elinor out of sorts. She didn't like fancy and folly, and Miss Austen’s words seemed to have made her new hopes seem like a romance. Such things did not happen in reality. Reality was foolish husbands, inadequate jointures, and daughters with a bleak future.
Amy was over the stile and along the footpath toward Danvers Park, however, with the two younger girls following at a run. Elinor followed with more care for her clothes, wishing they’d all stayed at home. Why would Sir Nicholas court Amy when he could marry a young woman with a large dowry and powerful connections? Love? That wasn't how the world worked.
Oh, poor Amy, who would have her heart broken.
Even so, when they arrived in the orchard to find only some village children she felt let down. She looked toward the mellow, golden manor house with mullioned windows glinting in the sun – so different to gray-stone Fortling -- tempted to make an excuse to call. Just in case.
But no, she would not be so foolish.
"Mama!" called Marianne. "Here's a tree full of mistletoe!"
Elinor walked over and looked up. "Those certainly are splendid bunches, dear, but they're too high. Let's look for some that hang lower."
"All the lower ones have gone," Amy said. "There's a ladder over there."
Elinor grabbed her cloak. "None of us are climbing a ladder."
"But what are we to do? Oh, I wish we had a man to assist us!"
"I am summoned."
Elinor turned to stare at the dark-haired young man who had stepped out from behind a tree, his braided, scarlet uniform almost shocking against the winter landscape.
"Captain Danvers!" said Amy in a tone that crushed all Elinor's hopes.
Oh, Amy! How unfair a uniform and a dashing reputation were. The wretch had wiped Sir Nicholas from Amy's mind and made Elinor think again of Lydia Bennet and Wickham. She wanted to scream. Even if this dashing young officer’s intentions were honorable, he was a third son. What sort of a life could he offer a bride who could have Sir Nicholas instead?
All the same, she must be polite. "You are just in time to assist us, Captain Danvers.”
"I am entirely at your service, ma'am. Only point to the sprig you want and it will be yours."
"Then I will let the girls each pick one."
Marianne excitedly pointed to a high one, and the captain amiably carried over the ladder, climbed it, and returned to present it to her with a bow. He was as pleasant as his brother, Elinor admitted, but not a desirable husband. Then Margaret demanded an even higher one.
"Shouldn't you also choose one, ma'am?"
Elinor started and turned to find that Sir Nicholas had come into the orchard. To her eyes, his comfortable country clothes of buff breeches and brown jacket were more appealing than any braided uniform; his neat Brutus haircut more attractive than his brother’s longer style.
"You look lost for words," he said, strolling toward her, blue eyes smiling.
Her heart was pounding. "I'm hoping you don't mind us invading your orchard, sir." Or that Amy is flirting with your brother. Sir Nicholas had to have been wooing Amy with his gifts and visits, poor man.
"Not at all. But are you aware that you are stationed directly below a laden sprig of mistletoe, dear lady?"
Elinor laughed nervously as she stepped to the side. "I'm past the age for games like that, sir."
But Elinor was stunned by a shocking revelation. For a moment she had wanted that kiss, burned to be kissed by him, by the most handsome and admirable man she knew. She wanted Sir Nicholas Danvers for Amy because she wanted him herself.
How pathetic. She was five years older than he was, and a widow with three children. She stopped her tumultuous thoughts before she revealed them. "Miss Austen suggested we come here," she blurted, to fill the silence. "Miss Jane Austen, I mean."
"How kind of her. And my brother insisted we needed more mistletoe." He shot a questioning look at Captain Danvers, who merely grinned.
Sir Nicholas smiled back at Elinor. "Charles feared we'd run out of berries before the end of Christmastide, with the men plucking one for every kiss, and I’m giving a party for Twelfth Night. Can I persuade you to relax your mourning just a little, Mrs. Carsholt, and attend? You and Miss Carsholt?” Gently he added, “Life must go on."
Elinor searched his words and expression, but her bewildered mind could not find any particular feeling in them toward Amy. Instead, his eyes seemed fixed on her. Could she really believe what her heart whispered?
"You will not dance, I know," he said, "but I would very much enjoy your company." With great seriousness he added, "I have always enjoyed your company. Very much."
Elinor's mouth was dry and her heart pounded, but above all, joy was rising like sap in spring; a joy which had nothing to do with wealth and security, but only with him. She glanced once at her daughters -- especially at Amy, whose questions about Sir Nicholas now made sense. She'd been talking about Sir Nicholas as a future father.
Amy had indeed planned an assignation -- she, Captain Danvers, and perhaps even Miss Austen. A part of Elinor fluttered with doubt, with hesitancy and a fear of being hurt. But Christmas Eve greenery was all about new beginnings and new hope.
She met Sir Nicholas’s eyes. "We will attend your party with pleasure, sir." Then, shivering with anticipation and nerves, she stepped back beneath the berries. "And perhaps after all, I am not too old for a mistletoe kiss."
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