A Deprecatory Note from the Author
I do not pretend to understand how I came to find myself in America, or in the twentieth century. Nothing of the kind has occurred to me before, or to any other person in the whole of my acquaintance. At one moment I was in our dear cottage at Chawton, opening a closet to search for my pelisse, and at the next I found myself deposited in an alien realm of bewildering speed and noise.
Fortunately, I soon encountered a kindly person—Miss H. Abigail Bok, the author of “A Dictionary of Jane Austen’s Life and Works”—who professed sympathy for my bewilderment and undertook to be my guide and protector in this foreign circumstance. She encouraged me to continue in my writing, assuring me that even in this future world my efforts would find an appreciative readership. She it was who arranged on my behalf the publication of the work before you.
It is my hope that one day I will return to Chawton and my beloved sister, Cassandra. In the meantime, I am determined not to repine, but to continue deriving pleasure from observation of the peculiarities of character that are to be discovered in any neighborhood.
“Created a nonprofit foundation? What was she thinking? What about her family? She can’t have been in her right mind. Nobody in their right mind would give their money to some charity—and not even a real charity, one she made up herself!—while ignoring their own family. It can’t be legal, we must have a claim. It’s clear what must be done, Mr. B: we’ll all go to California and challenge the will. Those lawyers will understand when they see how many children we have, and how needy we are. What about Lydon? Married, with a wife to support, and who knows when a baby will be on the way! What will become of all of us? We must do something! We have to go there and see this lawyer, and stay till we get justice!” Mrs. Bennet, in full cry over the breakfast table.
Mr. Bennet, hiding behind the newspaper, made no reply. John and Lizzy attempted to explain to their mother that Aunt Evelyn had every right to do as she pleased with her own money, that she had been perfectly clear-headed and knew her own wishes.
“But it wasn’t her own money,” protested Mrs. Bennet, “it was Uncle Adolphus’s money! If you had contested his will years ago, Mr. B, we wouldn’t be in this fix now! I hold you responsible for this. How she could have been happy all these years with money that wasn’t rightfully hers I will never understand, and now we have to go to all this trouble to get it back.”
Accustomed to his wife’s outbursts, Mr. Bennet continued to read. But the idea of going to California was fast becoming fixed in her mind, and soon she was to receive support from an unexpected source.
Her younger son and favorite child, Lydon, had recently been persuaded to marry the eighteen-year-old daughter of a brigadier general in charge of a hush-hush space project at the nearby Rickenbacker Air Force Base, after the general had found Lydon drunk and in bed with his equally inebriated daughter. Brigadier General Cromwell Hughes was not the sort of man to brook such an insult to his daughter’s virtue, no matter how frequently it might be offered nor with what complaisance it might have been received. His first idea was to beat the young man to a pulp and arrange for him to be shanghaied to some hot and dusty foreign land, but inquiries into Lydon’s family and background had induced him to think again.
The Bennets might not be well off and they appeared to be a cohort of civilian slackers, but the family name was old, and they did own a beautiful Victorian house near Short North. General Hughes was a practical man, and he was aware of the limits of what could reasonably be expected from his daughter Jenny. A marriage took place.
When Jenny and Lydon brought him the news about Aunt Evelyn and her will, they found the general in his study, examining a map. This being nothing unusual, they launched into their tale without preliminaries. The general only half attended to them until they reached the point of explaining that Aunt Evelyn had lived in Lambtown, California, and that Mrs. Bennet hoped to pursue her fortune there.
“Stop—did you say Lambtown, California?”
Lydon and Jenny were startled by this sudden interest in their narrative, for they were accustomed to talking in the general’s presence only for the pleasure of hearing themselves speak. But they dutifully repeated the location and then, as the general appeared to have nothing more to add, continued with their tale. They did not realize—because the general did not feel obliged to share his concerns with two such useless people—that they were offering him the solution to a dilemma.
General Hughes had recently been informed by Space Command that he was being transferred to Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California to oversee the testing phase of the rocket project. He liked to keep Jenny and, of necessity, Lydon under his eye, having no confidence in the Bennets to guide them into productive lives. And according to the map he had been consulting, this Lambtown they were speaking of was situated no more than half an hour’s drive from the base, separated only by a line of hills from the community in which he would be quartered. So he listened with greater tolerance than customary to the young couple’s gossip, and at his first opportunity dropped in on the Bennets.
Years of overcompensating for the prevalent military view of air force officers as effete hedonists had transformed Brigadier General Hughes into the kind of figure certain to terrify the likes of Mrs. Bennet. She was greatly in awe of Lydon’s father-in-law, and being largely ignorant of the distinctions of military rank, was certain that “brigadier general” sounded very impressive and must be more important than titles like “lieutenant general” or mere “general.” The scorn he made little effort to conceal did him no harm in her eyes; it merely further convinced her that this was a personage to be reckoned with. So she was effusively polite when he appeared on her doorstep, fluttering about him with offers of wine, whiskey, and the most comfortable seat in the living room.
Lowering himself instead into the hardest chair available to him, General Hughes got right to the point. “That scrub Lydon tells me you’re thinking of moving to California.”
Mrs. Bennet, overlooking the slight to her baby, launched into a voluble explanation of the circumstances, which was ruthlessly cut short.
“Do it. I’m taking a post at Vandenberg, just over the hill from Lambtown, and I mean to keep Jenny under my eye. She can keep living with you, but I’ll see she gets a civilian job on base.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Bennet smugly, “I’m not sure a job will be necessary. We’d be going to secure a family inheritance—”
“All the more reason to see young people properly employed. You should put that Lydon to work, since he’s too lazy to get an education and doesn’t have the backbone to serve his country.”
“Oh, I couldn’t bear to see my darling boy in harm’s way! My nerves wouldn’t stand it! I don’t know how the mothers of soldiers survive.”
“They survive because their children put themselves in harm’s way,” snapped the general. “But I’m not here for blamestorming. I don’t care whether he was born a useless puppy or taught to be one. I intend to keep the blowback from ruining Jenny’s life, and that means keeping them nearby. You can piggyback on my moving van and get your furniture redeployed for free, but you have to be ready to break camp in three weeks.”
It was not to be supposed that Mr. Bennet would readily accede to such a scheme, based as it was on thoroughly misguided assumptions and involving so much inconvenience to himself. Yet he found most of his family arrayed against him. Lizzy had to go; John would prefer to be where Lizzy was; Kitty was wild to meet a whole new set of flyboys; and Mrs. Bennet could not be persuaded that where she lived had nothing to do with the final disposition of Aunt Evelyn’s estate.
Of the whole family, only Mary raised any objection: California to her meant Hollywood, a cesspit of godless liberals who were all very much better looking than she ever would be. She paid as little heed to the representations of her elder siblings, that the Santa Ynez Valley was hundreds of miles from this Babylon and worlds away in lifestyle and worldview, as they paid to her sermonizing on the subject.
Lydon and Jenny thought California had to be an improvement over Columbus in January, and they might as well be there as not, especially if it meant skirting the wrath of General Hughes. It rapidly became a matter not of whether the move was to be made, but of how it was to be accomplished in time.
Mrs. Bennet was principally concerned with which items of furniture would make the best impression in California; Mary, outnumbered, retired into her tracts for fortification against the inevitable onslaught of vice. To Kitty, Lydon, and Jenny, imminent departure meant that every drop of pleasure must be squeezed from their friends at the base, so they were not often to be found at home.
Thus it fell to John and Elizabeth to corner their father and overcome his resistance to engagement with economic realities. He was reluctant to look beyond the tender packing of his precious library, but their united tact and persistence prevailed, and he was convinced at last that the most prudent course would be to lease the family home for a year under the supervision of a property management company and to rent a house in Lambtown for a similar period.
John gave notice at Starbucks and Lizzy notified all her landscape business clients, and they were left only, in the brief moments each night before exhaustion claimed them from their labors of the day, to reflect with a degree of chagrin on the shallowness of the roots that bound them to their hometown. Family members were cajoled and coerced into packing all but the last-minute necessities, and Lizzy’s gardening crew was pressed into off-season duty painting and sprucing up the shabby rooms.
In the end, Mrs. Bennet was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which the management company found a professional couple eager to pay a premium rent for an address with such cachet, and she felt confident that she was well on her way to becoming the toast of Lambtown society.
In vain did John, after some painstaking research on the Web, caution his mother that California’s real estate market was not the same as Ohio’s. “Oh, don’t be silly!” cried Mrs. Bennet; “Lambtown is no more than a village compared to Columbus! You can’t ask big-city prices in the middle of nowhere.”
“Perhaps not,” said John, “but by the same token, there are many fewer places available for rent, so the prices are not held in check by competition. And houses in general there seem to be not as large as in this neighborhood. We should consider ourselves lucky if we’re able to find anything big enough for all of us.”
“There’s no chance I’ll share a bedroom with Kitty, if that’s what you’re hinting at,” said Mary. “I won’t have her crashing around at all hours of the night, and playing that dirty music all day!”
Kitty jumped up to demonstrate her mastery of the latest moves to grace the hip-hop chart toppers on MTV, while Lydon and Jenny laughed uproariously at the outrage on Mary’s face.
John smiled, but pointed out that country-western dance styles might fit in better in Lambtown, where ranchers had been the leaders of society for a hundred years. “Perhaps we shouldn’t set our sights on becoming the toast of the town, Mother,” he suggested, “but instead settle for showing ourselves pleased with the company we find ourselves in.”
Mrs. Bennet bristled at his implication. “I’m sure my children are good enough for any company! If you and Lizzy weren’t so high and mighty, you’d have as many friends as Lydon and Kitty do. Young people who know how to have a good time will be welcome anywhere.”
“I expect so,” said John amiably, and continued packing china.