Authors: Cora Harrison
This book is dedicated to Rachel Petty,
editor, enthusiast, Jane Austen fan,
my companion and adviser through this
speculative excursion into the girlhood of
Jane and her cousin, Jenny (Jane) Cooper.
Monday, 11 April 1791
‘I hate Jane Austen! I really hate her!’
I stop. I know that voice.
‘Oh, Lavinia, Mama says that Jane Austen is just a vulgar, husband-hunting, affected little minx. She says you are to take no notice of her.’
I know that voice too.
It’s Lavinia and Caroline Thorpe. I remember them well from the time when Jane and I were at boarding school at Southampton. They made my life a misery there. I can still hear them
chanting, ‘Look at Jenny Cooper’s muslin – it looks like a rag.’ ‘Jenny Cooper has the snub nose of a servant girl, she’s such a little dwarf, isn’t
she?’; or else, to the owner of the school, ‘Mrs Cawley, Jenny Cooper has broken a school rule!’
And now here they are at the Assembly Rooms at Basingstoke.
I hesitate at the door of the ladies’ cloakroom. One curl has come loose from its knot at the back of my head during the hectic pace of the Boulanger dance, but it will have to stay like
that. I can’t go in there and face the two Misses Thorpe. I turn to go, but then something stops me and I turn back. Before my courage ebbs away I burst through the door, say to them icily,
‘Jane Austen is my best friend; I’ll thank you not to gossip about her.’
I push past them and examine myself in the glass, trying to appear calm. I pretend to look at myself, but I can see them sneering, shrugging their shoulders as if I am not worth a reply. I
carefully pin up the stray curl, and then decide to leave it lying there on my neck – it looks nice, I think. I half turn and with my head over my shoulder survey my gown, pure white and
sprigged with dainty silver flowers. The train is beautiful. A hundred tiny deep blue beads have been sewn to it and they twinkle in the candlelight. I smooth my long white gloves, making sure that
they fit snugly over the elbow, and then I sweep past the two Thorpe girls without another glance. As I close the door behind them I hear Caroline say, ‘Anyway, we’re going to Bath for
the season; he’s bound to be there.’ She raises her voice a little and says, ‘And the Austens and their beggarly cousin won’t be there to interfere.’
When I get back to the Assembly Rooms the new dance has not yet been called, but Jane is already hand in hand with Newton. No wonder Lavinia is so upset. The Honourable Newton Wallop is the
second son of the Earl of Portsmouth and it’s rumoured that he will be the heir to the Portsmouth estates as the eldest son, John, is strange and, according to Jane, it is feared that he is a
lunatic. Newton has been a pupil at Mr Austen’s house at Steventon, and he and Jane seem great friends, joking and laughing. They’ve been dancing together for most of the evening.
‘Your very humble servant, ma’am,’ says Newton, and Jane replies in very affected tones, ‘La, sir, pray do not be such a tease.’ And then she laughs as Newton
reminds her of the time that she and he made an apple-pie bed for Jane’s prim sister, Cassandra. Lavinia would be furious if she could hear how friendly they sound.
I don’t waste any more thoughts on Lavinia. I can see Thomas coming towards me. I don’t push my way through the crowd to join him. I just stand and look at him.
Captain Thomas Williams, the youngest captain in the navy – brave, handsome and noble . . . and in love with me! Tall – taller than most people at the ball; broad shoulders; black
hair gleaming like a blackbird’s wing under the candlelight from the chandeliers above; dark brown eyes, so piercing and yet . . . I think back to the little damp woodland and the bluebells
and tiny forget-me-nots at our feet and how those eyes were so soft and pleading then. And still I can’t believe that he has asked me to marry him.
He has reached me now.
‘You look so beautiful,’ he murmurs in my ear, and I smile and know that whether my curls are pinned up tidily or escaping down the nape of my neck, it makes no difference to him. He
loves me as I am and no matter what I do or say. We go and stand beside Newton and Jane.
‘Oh la, sir, you make me blush,’ she is saying to him, and Newton instantly responds with a deep bow and says loudly, ‘Madam, your beauty overwhelms me. No poor words of mine
are enough to describe you.’
‘Dearest Newton . . .’ Jane begins in a very lofty way, her voice so loud that several people turn to listen to her, and then she spoils it by hissing, ‘You’re on the
wrong side, Newton. You are such a ninny. Go and stand beside Jenny. Quick, the music is starting.’
I smile at Newton as he joins me. He’s quite handsome – not handsome in the same manly way as my Thomas, but he is large-eyed, curly-haired and fresh-faced. He stretches out his hand
to Jane, and Thomas takes my hand and we whirl around as the last dance of the evening begins.
I can see Lavinia and Caroline Thorpe now. Neither is dancing. They are standing in front of their mama and Lavinia is half twisted towards her, saying something. I can guess what. When she
turns back her face is full of rage, eyes narrowed as she looks at Jane.
‘Jane,’ I whisper, ‘look at Lavinia Thorpe, over there by the fireplace. She’s furious with you.’
Jane looks over her shoulder, a lightning look, but that is enough for someone with Jane’s quick wits. Newton dances back and Jane puts up her hand to hold his. She smiles sweetly into his
face and drops a demure curtsy and then they are off dancing rather closer than is usual, both of them laughing as the two rows of dancers clap them energetically.
‘Jane,’ I say when we are back in our bedroom at Steventon, ‘I think that you have made an enemy.’
‘Don’t care,’ she says, carefully hanging up her ball gown.
‘She’ll gossip about you,’ I say, hanging my gown beside hers.
‘Who cares about Lavinia Thorpe?’ Jane’s voice is scornful as she sits on the stool in front of our little looking glass and begins to take the pins from her curls.
‘Not me,’ I say, taking up the hairbrush. I will brush her hair a hundred times and then she will do the same for me. I don’t care about Lavinia Thorpe either. All I can think
of now is that my uncle, Mr Austen, will be coming back from Oxford tomorrow and that Thomas will ask for my hand in marriage.
And then we will live happily forever after.
Wednesday, 13 April 1791
It’s my birthday today. I’m seventeen years old.
And I am in love with the most wonderful man in the world.
And he is in love with me too – he wants to marry me.
I’m trying to draw him, to do justice to his tall figure, his broad shoulders, his dark hair and his lovely brown eyes, but I am crying so hard that my tears splash down and spoil my
drawing. Because we cannot be married. The match has been forbidden.
And to think that my own brother, the only near relation I have left in the world, should have done this to me. I know that it is his horrible wife, Augusta, who has prompted him, but he
didn’t have to obey her in that cowardly way that he always does. If only my mother were still alive, she would not have allowed it to happen.
I look across the room at the figure of my cousin and best friend, Jane; the curtains of her bed are drawn back, but she is still asleep. Not surprisingly really, as it must be very early in the
morning. There are no noises to show that anyone in the house is up. The birdsong sounds as if it’s not much past dawn. Jane has a smile on her lips. Just before she fell asleep her last
words were: ‘I’m definitely going to put your dreadful sister-in-law into a book. People will laugh at her in the years to come. You just wait.’
No doubt she is now dreaming of the great novel she is going to write.
Or is she dreaming of the Honourable Newton Wallop and what fun it was to snatch him from Lavinia Thorpe?
No, it’s probably her novel – writing is more important to Jane than anything.
I have to smile a bit at the memory of all the ridiculous things that Jane writes about this Augusta who is going to feature in her novel, but then my tears well up again. Soon I will run out of
dry handkerchiefs, so I try hard to stop.
And I will stop!
I’m not going to allow this to happen.
Thomas and I will get married just as we planned.
I will go to live in his house on the Isle of Wight and walk through the forget-me-not woods with him.