The Mistress of Pemberley by Martin Dodd

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a young girl in possession of a Jane Austen novel is captivated by romance. Delores “DeDe” Teller, being no exception, fell in love, irredeemably in love, a true love, a soul love, a seemingly impossible love. Through the gift of a book, he happened on her fifteenth birthday, and he sustained, obsessed, and haunted her through adolescence and into womanhood, always there, tantalizingly accessible, but untouchable. She fancied his embrace, his cool, aloof, almost haughty, maddeningly attractive, silent strength. There had not been, and would not be, another man that could match Fitzwilliam Darcy, Master of Pemberley.

On the first reading, the second, and even to the tenth, DeDe identified with, suffered with, and succeeded vicariously through Elizabeth Bennet. Once first impressions of Darcy’s snubbing pride and her reactive prejudice are overcome, Elizabeth marries Darcy to become the Mistress of Pemberley.

Ms. Austen’s lack of physical descriptions induced DeDe to rent the 1940 film rendition of her life interest to put faces and actions to Ms. Austen’s creation. Dismay! Misled and cheated, she couldn’t finish viewing that farce. Greer Garson, at near twice the age of twenty-year-old Elizabeth, contrived to turn the heroine into an eyelash-flickering flirt and, calumny withheld, Laurence Oliver delivered Darcy as peanut brittle: stiff, too sweet, and slightly nutty! Sir Laurence’s delivery of Austen’s lines oscillated between a suppressed sneeze and a hiccupping jackhammer. DeDe rejected these reel phonies and, quite propitiously, found Austen’s heroine in her very own vanity mirror. An untoward companion to this revelation was that Darcy took on the visage of DeDe’s current beau.

Her boyfriend at the time, Jug Durden, inquired, without receiving an explanation, why she referred to him as “Fitz,” which he heard as “fits,” assuming she meant his dark moods brought on by the frustration of being with her while she was somewhere else! In lazy verisimilitude, she lay upon her bed in a state of intense reverie recreating the novel, she as Elizabeth, Jug as Darcy. Alas, she could not hold her vision past the third chapter. Jug, despite DeDe’s mental manipulation, could not maintain a quiet, lofty, self-assured, arrogant pride. It may have been Jug’s acne that destroyed the moment.

DeDe resumed reading, attempting a faceless Fitzwilliam, but the mind abhors incompletion. At unexpected moments, Darcy of the pages turned to her, and she found herself face to face with the irrepressible Jug. There needed to be a replacement before her reading could once again carry her to Pemberley. Through the remainder of high school and college, she tried to match Austen’s figure of a “…fine, tall person, handsome features, [and] noble mien…” with a male, any male, within her limited world. She searched photos in magazines and newspapers, and kept two TVs going in her bedroom, channel-surfing both. Image upon image flickered through her consciousness, but a candidate for the matchless Darcy did not appear. Some were fine, but not tall; others were tall and handsome, but not noble. She developed a matrix of qualities for comparing unsuspecting potential nominees, without a clear choice revealing himself.

In desperation, DeDe enlisted the aid of online dating services. She worked hours to complete the profile for Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, as her desired mate. The result: Dabney Pemberton, III. The tall, very fine, very handsome, very rich emale was a 92% match! An unexpected attribute of her find was the fortuitous, if somewhat attenuated, linguistic similarity to “Darcy of Pemberley.” His shortcoming? An irritating, ingrained, seemingly insurmountable, humility.

Aggravatingly, totally opposite Darcy, Pemberton was self-effacing and eagerly attentive. On their second meeting, he asked her to marry him. DeDe responded “You can’t do that until chapter thirty-four,” a non sequitur, non pareil, that left her stand-in lover in quizzical stutterance. She tried a variety of behaviors seeking a dismissive response, believing there was surely a way to arrogant-up this St. Francis act-alike. She wrote a script for them, closely following Austen’s plot. Dabney was not up to the task; he could not perform. In desperation, she hoped that corporeal dissoluteness would displace cognitive dissonance. She would bed the deferential Pemberton. He ardently acquiesced and, without question, called her “Lizzy” in the throes of passion. However, ecstasy denied, DeDe knew the gritty underside of disappointment by realizing she was behaving like Elizabeth’s fatuous little sister Lydia, who subjected herself to the moral depravity of the horrid and deceitful Mr. Wickham. Worse yet, whereas one could feel sympathy for Lydia as, even though she was the architect of her plight, she was happily victimized as a result of brain lameness and the malefactions of a complete reprobate. In contrast, DeDe was not weak-headed and Mr. Pemberton was thoroughly and odiously nice. She found that no amount of sexual entangling would weave a seamless patch for the torn fabric of her fantasy. She found no surcease of sadness in puggy copulation. A failure, DeDe felt empty, not simply lacking content, but echoingly empty, aggressively unfulfilled, a yearning, burning, blackened void.

And then , the smothering darkness dissolved into brightness, a sense-gratifying, reason-seducing, spirit-joying brightness: the release of a full-length cinematic reproduction of her life’s single preoccupation. This time she found herself awash in a believable fiction that moved, spoke, breathed, and felt, capable of knowing and being known. Colin Firth wasn’t an actor, he was Fitzwilliam Darcy. But, as the Greeks warned, every gift carries a curse; an imposter portrayed Elizabeth, inasmuch as the feckless fake and the vivacious DeDe were as dissimilar as a toad and a butterfly.

DeDe could not watch this faux Elizabeth judge, rebuke, then revolve and marry the most wonderful creature on either side of death. How despicably she acted. What initially had been a three-dimensional excursion into wonderland became a nauseating defilement of her lofty desideratum. Surely, Darcy must be pretending love with this woman. Disdain for the neo-Elizabeth pupated to envy, then emerged as fleer-eyed jealousy. DeDe’s resolute and principled idol became, albeit privately, first “that little twit” then “that devilish bitch.” She parsed Miss (video) Bennet’s every word and observation, reveling in the blooming truth that she (DeDe) was more capable, more comely, more lovable, more deserving of the attention, the embrace, the name, the manor, and chamber of that singularly near-perfect expression of a man, her Darcy/Firth. She hated the celluloid Elizabeth as much as she adored Colin/Fitzwilliam.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but desire is the father of conception. If DeDe could not watch, she would read again! Therein recast as Elizabeth, and supplied with the face and mannerisms of the incarnated Darcy to flesh his worded character, their love would blossom lustily. In the novel lived her sweet, freakish father; her militantly meddlesome mother; her older, sensible sister Jane, and her other, silly siblings, including the looney Lydia; her obsequious and supercilious suitor, Mr. Collins; the woefully wicked Wickham; a list of lesser luminaries, and the bubbly Bingley, best buddy of the bodacious Darcy. She had memorized their tics and tuts, their entire vocabulary, their every movement. DeDe would be welcomed among them as one appreciates light: illuminating when present and conspicuous when absent.

DeDe anticipated the experience would be as sensational as any cherished memory. Page one! She inspirited the room, watching Mrs. Bennet pushing, poking, niggling the disinterested Mr. Bennet: “Have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?” Where the text merely reports that “Mr. Bennet replied that he had not,” DeDe, omnisciently present, watches as her story father rolls his eyes upward, and utters a “no” then compresses his lips and returns his concentration to the book in his hand (how neglectful that Ms. Austen fails to note these details). As a “fly on the wall,” DeDe listens as her paper parents discuss first the advent of the rich Mr. Bingley, and then their daughters. DeDe/Elizabeth accepts the fact her mother seems to favor the other daughters, but she basks in her father’s favor. Suffice it to say (as Ms. Austen has) that in three and twenty years of marriage, Mrs. Bennet has not been able to understand the many facets of Mr. Bennet’s character, while “she [is] a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.” Her sole occupation is getting her daughters married—preferably well and rich.

DeDe flowed easily through Chapter One, only to find herself dammed in Chapter Two. Mr. Bennet has paid a call on Bingley and returns to his home, Longbourn. He observes Lizzy trimming a hat. DeDe feels the hat in her hand, the straw texture, the ribbon, and the paper flowers as she twists them into the band. However, when her father speaks, “I hope Mr. Bingley will like it, Lizzy,” DeDe/Elizabeth feels queasy, thickly ethereal, as her mother inserts a response. When DeDe attempts to read/speak Lizzy’s lines, she feels crowded, squeezed, and hears that counterfeit Elizabeth speaking “But you forget, Mama…” The room tilts, although this doesn’t seem unnerving to the elder Bennets. A “snap” and DeDe sat in her favorite chair holding her only useful, and once favorite, book in her hand. She was outside looking in, reading not living.

Twice more she tried to immerse herself in the text, and found her way impeded by that impudent humbug. On the third attempt, through sheer will, DeDe/Elizabeth finishes her first line: “…Mrs. Long has promised to introduce him [Bingley].” However, DeDe/Elizabeth notices a puzzled look on her father’s face as if he were watching something out of place, such as a horse harnessed backwards to a chaise. She is distracted by his curiousness, until he addresses her: “When is your next...” Snap! His inquiry jumps from ear to eye, “…ball to be, Lizzy.” Again, DeDe is usurped, surprised and supplanted; from the page to her head, that actress replies, “To-morrow fortnight.” DeDe slammed shut the book. Barely one page into Chapter Two, and the pretender firmly inhabited the Bennet’s second daughter.

Despair claimed DeDe with sixty chapters to go. If she had been correct in judging that her wresting with that Hollywood hussy for Elizabeth’s being caused her father’s puzzlement, what would Darcy make of such struggles? Especially since her nemesis made the movie with him. For the first time in DeDe’s life, fear replaced fantasy as motivation. In novels and films, she experienced time as circular: Chapter Sixty-one led to Chapter One and Finis led to opening credits. DeDe could neither read nor watch as Elizabeth Bennet endlessly reaped unearned rewards. She needed a way in—or out, out of this cruel life.

Suicide, for those who have not achieved it, is deemed a coward’s act, a mortal sin. But, is it not cowardly to avoid the cup, the rope, the blade and remain in agony, claiming ecclesiastical doctrine as an excuse? What could be more heroic than to sacrifice one’s self on the altar of undying love? Perhaps, wistful martyrdom. She would become a nun, dead to the world, living out her days constructing magnificent mental monuments to her lasting and unrequited love. Alas, hapless fate: “…the Moving Finger writes, and having writ Moves on…” If only she could re-write history, she would not expose herself to Austenian titillation.

If only she could rewrite… That’s it! Rewrite! DeDe knew the future, every modest Longbourn to grand Pemberley twist of it, whereas Elizabeth lived out a script in textual blindness, absent foreknowledge. DeDe could insinuate herself, in a novel way, at the precise moment. She knows what Darcy desires; it is elicited in Chapter Eight, by Elizabeth herself:

"Then," observed Elizabeth, "you [Darcy] must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman."

"Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it."

"Oh! certainly," cried [Miss Bingley], "no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved."

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

And, three utterances later, blinded by bias, Austen’s darling un-suits herself.

"I never saw such a woman, I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united."

“Oh, Elizabeth,” savored DeDe aloud, “these qualities will be united in me! At least so far as Mr. Bingley is told, and in turn tells Darcy.” Her plan instantly gelled. No need for a pullulating plot, or vertiginous vagaries, no sixty-one chapters to become Mistress of Pemberley, she could be both the author and beneficiary of an immediate, and repeating, happy destiny.

DeDe caressed her book. It had to be early, as by Chapter Eight, Darcy is becoming attracted to Lizzy’s lively wit. She leafed to Chapter Three and scanned quickly, tracing the lines with her forefinger:

Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time, Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes to press his friend to join it.

``Come, Darcy,'' said he, ``I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.''

``I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.''

``I would not be so fastidious as you are,'' cried Bingley, ``for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty.''

``You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,'' said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

``Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.''

“Here!” DeDe planted her indexing digit on the passage, and uttered a breathy, “Here.” She would improvise as life progressed. She slid into the text, coming through the wide arch into the ballroom, just as Darcy is speaking:

“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room… except that most adorable creature who has just graced us with her presence. There’s something in her air, her manner of walking, her… Pray, Bingley, introduce me.”

Bingley turns to the focus of Darcy’s attention. “Oh, my good man, I urge you to carry your own acquaintance to her. She is not judgmental like Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who is not dancing, duefully slighted by other men. This I have been told of the one who has gained your favor. She possesses thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages.”

Bingley gives a hardy push to Darcy’s back. The fine, tall, handsome, noble Darcy crosses the room, almost shyly, humbled by the presence of the lovely newcomer. He stops a proper space apart and bows. She curtsies, and he says, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Fitzwilliam Darcy at your service. Now you have me at a disadvantage, Miss…?

“Oh, I have long known of you Mr. Darcy, I am De…lighted to finally meet you in person. I am—Felicity Newbody, late of Yorkshire, the place, not the pudding.”

Darcy’s reserve gives way to a bright smile. “Ha—the place not the pudding. Such a lively mind! And, a lovely tone, you express yourself marvelously, Miss Newbody. May have I have the pleasure of your company for this dance?”

“I am honoured Mr. Darcy. Perhaps you can speak of Pemberley as we take our turn. I have been told it is more beautiful and blissful than Elysium.”

“Ah, you have read the classics.” Darcy takes her hand and places his other on her back.

She thrills to his touch. “I find extensive reading improves the mind.”

“We have much to occupy us Miss Newbody.”

Yes! Yes! Yes! she erupts in silent exaltation, then upon regaining composure, “More than can be admitted in a single dance, Mr. Darcy.”

As they pass by Elizabeth, Miss Newbody imagines what a nice wife the second eldest Bennet daughter will make for the smarmy Reverend Collins. It can be worked out.

The rest is epilogue.

Martin Dodd