Countenance So Beloved
A few weeks before Jane Austen's death, she received a visitor from her past. SPOILERS and deliberate spin-off from 'Becoming Jane'. Notable gratitude for Rachel Kingston for the great beta (I mean it. She's great! And this is her first beta attempt, imagine!).
I do not claim to be an expert of Jane Austen at all. My passions towards her and her works were just ignited after my recent viewing of 'Becoming Jane' the movie. Hence, the creation of this one-shot fanfic, and as it is named, it is 'only' a fan-fiction for all to read. But for me, it is a tribute to Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, and their leading actor/actress, Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy. Reviews are very much welcomed, but please refrain from bashing me if you disagree with the premise (and please REVIEW me if you agree with the premise). My language and dictions are, of course, not a resemblance of Austen's 18th and 19th century styles, and I duly noted my insufficient understanding of British culture in the dawn of 19th century.
'…there could have been no two hearts so open,
no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison,
no countenances so beloved…'
'Persuasion', chapter 8, Jane Austen
Chapter 1. An Old Acquaintance
End of June, 1817
From her bed, she looked out the window to catch a glimpse of the tranquil, bright Winchester morning. She coughed a few times and then sighed, wondering how it would feel to finally be released of her relentless pain. It would be such a relief, despite the ghastly thoughts of leaving some manuscripts unfinished. She reached for water, sipped it and glanced at a stack of paper on the nightstand. She smiled. It is such blessings that this one is finished, she thought, thus I can leave in peace…
The door knocked twice and, without waiting for her permission, opened. Henry Austen stood in the doorway, his lips smiled but his eyes showed his apparent solicitude.
'Henry…' she cheerfully exclaimed despite her condition.
'Jane,' Henry walked in a few steps, entering Jane's immaculate sick chamber. 'I trust you are in a better condition today?' A rather vain hope, for Jane Austen would not have stayed in Winchester if there had been real hope of recovery.
'The best I can hope for a nice summer afternoon,' Jane kept the smile. 'Should you not be returning to London soon?'
'Am I not allowed to extend my visit, dear Sister?' Henry sat down by Jane's side and scrutinised his sister with his concerns. 'Cassandra is not here at the moment, so just consider me your aid. After all, you are still the most agreeable person to talk with after Eliza's departure.'
Showing her sympathy, Jane Austen reached for her brother's hand; the very hand which in its youth used to hold and tease her but now presented itself with wrinkles and signs of age. She looked this middle-aged man directly in the eye and saw such longing, a deep longing for his beloved wife, Eliza De Feuillide, who filled both of their minds with delightful memories of the times they had shared together.
'I missed her as well, Henry. But –' she tweaked another smile. 'Do you not think that at any rate I will be visiting her soon? I will be sure to send her your regards.'
Henry should have been used to his sister's rather terrible jests by now. But still, he could not bear it. 'Jane! Such unthinkable thought! How many times have I begged you not to say such a thing?! The doctors in Winchester are doing their best to help you. And you will be just fine before long, you will see. We shall attend the opera again, and I shall be listening to your reading once more…'
Witnessing her brother's pleading wrenched Jane's heart. She forced a better smile this time and tapped Henry's hand several times. 'Now… now… what did I say about happy thoughts? They will do you good, dear Brother.'
'Only if you stop speaking of terrible notions, Jane. Only if you do so.' They exchanged fond glances before he resumed, 'Now then. I have not yet been entirely honest with you –' he smiled to notice Jane's quirking her eyebrow. 'You have company, waiting outside.'
'Is that so?' she proclaimed. 'Then, why did you leave her…him…outside? Do let them in.'
Despite his sister's approval, Henry did not act upon it at once. Instead, he fidgeted with Jane's fingers in such a way that started to irritate her.
'Henry. Brother! What is it?' she inquired. 'It is exceedingly rude to have your friend waiting outside.'
'Yes, darling, but our friend is –' he hesitated, '– from Ireland. Dublin. Rather too far a place, I understand.'
It took Jane several minutes to overcome her shock, thoughts flooding her mind, before she murmured, 'Do you think that I shall forgive you this time?'
Henry nodded, 'Naturally. It is a truth universally acknowledged for such a delicate case. After all, you did forgive Eliza and me in London.'
'That was…unavoidable,' Jane squinted. 'And Eliza is not here now, so do not place her in your excuse. Good gracious, may she rest in peace.' Her inquisitive gaze caused Henry to continue,
'I actually did not think of bringing him here. I met him in London on my way here. He was on a business trip, you see, and he said that he would drop by –'
'Such nonsense!' Jane waived a hand. 'Just admit that you orchestrated this.'
'I did not. For the love of my dear Eliza, my actions are innocent. I met him by pure chance in Mayfair and, upon him enquiring after you, I spoke very little of your condition.'
'Of which he further explored, considering his detecting ability as a prominent lawyer,' commented Jane, with a tone of annoyance. She shook her head. 'I do not think I could let him see me in such a condition.' After contemplation, she added, 'He would find me quite distasteful.'
Henry Austen sighed and ceased his sister's hands. 'Jane…dear Jane. We are… we are older now…does it matter how we look? And why do you not let him decide how unattractive you are upon seeing you?' Upon detecting her reservations, he added, 'After all, it is but a typical social visit to wish you a better health, is it not?'
Jane's dark eyes pierced her brother's with such intensity before she replied, 'I honestly do not know, Brother. Why do you not let him in and we will find out?'
Upon her brother's leave, Jane asked her nurse, Martha, to assist her in changing into her more finer dress and help brush her hair. Her hair was not the thick, lavish dark tresses it used to be; her deteriorating health had reduced its glow. However, a lady must look presentable under all circumstances, and certainly Miss Austen did not wish to look remotely unattractive in the presence of her guest-to-be.
Martha had just finished fixing the last hair pin to Jane's greyish hair when the door knocked again. This time, knowing that Henry would not enter unless permitted, Jane said, 'Do come in!' almost inaudibly. Martha had to help her by repeating the words, for apparently Jane could not muster the strength for a second attempt.
A beam of sunlight brightened the room through the half-opened window as the door opened. Henry Austen re-entered the room with a different, almost respectful, manner and announced,
'Dear Sister, we have company. Late as ever.'
Subsequently, Henry entered further, making room for the visitor. A rather tall middle-aged gentleman gracefully approached. He was wearing a handsome black suit, towering hat and bearing an air of importance without noticeable effort to appear so. The man took off his hat to reveal his greyish hair and wrinkled face and, upon seeing her, froze in his step, almost unable to speak. After a moment of hesitation, he uttered solemnly,
'Miss Austen. How kind of you to receive my presence in such short a notice.'
Jane had to focus all her energy to refrain from trembling as she spoke, 'Mr. Lefroy. Not a trouble at all, Sir. In fact, it is very kind of you to drop by to see an old acquaintance such as I am.'
Thomas Langlois Lefroy smiled gravely as he brought himself closer. 'The pleasure is mine, Miss Austen. The pleasure is entirely mine.'
The man had travelled at least 60 miles from London to Winchester '…just to see an ill friend after business in the capital, en route to Southampton' as he had claimed.
'Truthfully, your brother's explanation was rather disturbing.' explained Tom Lefroy later as he sat down on the sofa in Jane's soft-white chamber.
'Ah, your friend might be exaggerating, Mr. Lefroy,' smiled Jane as she wrapped her shawl tighter to make herself more comfortable. 'I assure you, I will be just fine in no time.'
'And you are still in need of residing in Winchester for health?' The prominent Irish lawyer doubted her honesty on this matter. 'Miss Austen, you must do your utmost to convince me of your good condition.' Martha offered some tea and then left. Mr. Lefroy thanked her, took the tea and sipped it. 'And that you are taking care of your own health, for that matter.'
Jane softly smiled. 'I assure you, Mr. Lefroy, that I am doing everything in my ability to get better.' She also took a cup, yet she did nothing with her tea other than cupping it with her hand, trying to absorb the warmth. A few moments of complete silence passed between them; fixed gaze upon each other; overwhelming thoughts and feelings flooding their mind and soul, both eagerly trying to make sense of this emotive reunion. Noticing the palpable discomfort, Henry took initiative and asked the news of Lady Mary Paul Lefroy and their children.
'Oh, they are in fine, perfect condition,' said Mr. Lefroy, referring to both siblings. 'Nothing to complain, really. Anthony, the oldest, has been seriously considering a career in law.' He chuckled. 'He still thinks it an easy option.' Henry also gave a small laughter and was about to ask of Mr. Lefroy's business in London when Jane spoke up.
'And how is your eldest daughter? I trust that she is fine?'
'Jane?' Tom Lefroy tilted his head to the lady of the room. His face lit up at the acknowledgement of his eldest daughter, Jane Lefroy. He smiled. 'She is lively as ever. She was delighted to learn that I might be visiting you in England. She also asked of your latest work. Are you in the middle of writing another novel? When might she be able to read it?'
Jane exchanged a poignant look with her brother before replying, 'She might not need to wait for long, Mr. Lefroy. I have just finished my last novel.'
Resisting the temptation to mentally translate 'last' as 'latest' or 'newest', Tom inquired, 'Would you be so kind as to share with me the plotlines?'
'Oh… I do not know, Tom,' said Henry abruptly. 'My sister needs sufficient rest these days.'
'It is alright, Brother,' interrupted Jane. 'I feel fine today; I might like to read some passages for Mr. Lefroy.' Upon Henry's look of scrutiny, she smiled and reassured him once more. Indeed, her complexion was more alive since the arrival of her guest.
'Read?' Tom tilted his head. 'Am I to assume that you have the manuscript with you?'
Jane nodded and asked for Henry to bring her the stack of paper she had laid on the nightstand. 'It is very fortunate that both of you are here today, I have wanted to read some passages myself.'
'Are you sure you are strong enough for this, Jane?' Henry probed once more. 'Of course, it is not that I do not want to hear you reading.'
'No, I'm just fine, my dear. Rest assure, for you could always take over the reading if I am tired. Or –' she glanced rather affectionately at Tom Lefroy, '– Mr. Lefroy here would not mind doing so, I gather. Reading some of the passages, I mean.'
Detecting an element of cheerfulness in her otherwise frail body, Tom felt his spirit awakened. 'Of course. Contrary to the general opinion, we lawyers were taught how to read as well, you know. I would be truly honoured, Miss Austen.'
And in that instant, flashes of memories charged the minds of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy. Memories of their past and of their first acquaintance over twenty years ago. Memories of letters, books and passages. Of dances, banters and cricket play. Of laughter and cries. Of joy and sadness. Of love.
'He Captain Wentworth was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. – Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail.'
Their first meeting had been inside Jane's house in Steventon, Hampshire, when he had abruptly entered the room as she was reading her 'Advice from a Young Lady' for her sister Cassandra. His arrogant and debonair bearing had instantly stirred her internal harmony. Now, as Jane was reading the passages with suppressed memories, she glanced up to catch a glimpse of Tom Lefroy observing her reading. At that moment, she knew that the amber, if not fire, was still there between them.
'They were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love. It would be difficult to say which had seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest; she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted.'
The balls, the dances. Such sociable and grand events, yet she thought only of him, searched only for him. The feckless and arrogant young Irish rogue who had interrupted her reading…and her life.
Such beauty and opportunity, yet he sought only her, desired only her. They were surrounded by the world yet only saw each other. The outspoken Hampshire girl with ink marks on her fingers, the fine young lady who was always ready to counteract his opinions.
He would never forget the look on her face, the stars in her eyes, when he grasped her hands, sensitively but firmly, during that dance. He saved her from the boredom of poor Mr. Wisley. Such a sudden blossom in her, from despair and wilting to delight and happiness. From dismay to love. And at that moment, as he took her by the hand, floating around other couples, as she looked him in the eye and her bright eyes spoke of a thousand words…he knew that she loved him. O Lord, how he loved her so. How he wanted her so.
'Captain Wentworth had no fortune. He had been lucky in his profession, but spending freely, what had come freely, had realized nothing. … Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it, must have been enough for Anne.'
She had been standing idly by the pond in the rose garden, contemplating her future as a well-educated young woman without significant possessions when he approached her. He expressed his utter distress, 'How can you of all people dispose of yourself without affection?' of which she replied with 'How can I dispose of myself with it? You are to leave tomorrow.'
And they kissed. Slowly. Lovingly. The memory of that kiss would linger in their minds and their hearts for the rest of their lives.
'A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but not with a few months ended Anne's share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect.'
Jane remembered the letter she discovered falling from Tom's wallet. Was it fate? She had read the letter and learned of his duty to his Irish family; how he had always sent a significant amount of his allowance to his mother, and how his family would suffer without this generosity. Back to reality, Jane could not bear to read further, and asked Henry to read the next passage. As she passed the manuscript to her brother, she focussed on Tom, realising that he had been pondering similar thoughts. She caught the look on his still handsome countenance, and she remembered how he had been immensely hurt and deeply saddened when she had left him that day, despite the fact that she had done so to protect his family from deprivation.
'More than seven years were gone since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close; and time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him, - but she had been too dependant on time alone; no aid had been given in change of place, (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture,) or in any novelty or enlargement of society. – No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory.'
Her thoughts wandered; she remembered a marriage proposal from poor Mr. Bigg-Wither, the very proposal she had accepted and declined in just two days. Harris had been a very decent, agreeable gentleman. Yet, she could not bear the thought of marrying anyone without affection, anyone who was not Tom Lefroy. She looked at him and could not help but wonder if he had once learned of Bigg-Wither's proposal and, if so, what he had felt about it.
Tom captured the look in her deep eyes as he stole a glance at her; his heart sank. Had time reversed and given them another chance, could they make different choices? Would he be able to convince her that he could not live peacefully without her? Survive he would. Successful, he had. But be happy? He was not so sure. He was certain, however, that for over half of his life he had felt an internal comfort, entirely a result of his love for this woman in front of him, 'his' Jane Austen. He had reached this realisation at the opera house in London last year when he was so proud to introduce to her his own Jane Lefroy, his first daughter and an avid fan of Miss Austen. Since then Tom Lefroy had found no opportunity to express how delighted he had felt that day to be in Jane's company once more and to introduce her to his beloved daughter, a very special part of him that he had longed for Miss Austen to share. And, most importantly, he had not been able to disclose his true feelings, feelings for her that had remained constant and relentless since their first meeting in the woods of Hampshire all those years ago.
'…she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good. – She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home, and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it…'
Jane's thoughts were also straying. Would she have made a different decision? Jane pondered the thought as she resumed reading her manuscript. Would she have taken his hand in that tavern and resumed their elopement? Or… had their families shown a shred of support, just a single shred of comfort, could they have preserved their relationship, against all odds? Against tradition?
'How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been, - how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! – She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.'
Jane….Tom Lefroy let his mind wander around as he listened to the famous author reciting her own lines. She had chosen the path of a spinster on her own volition. She had opted to remain unmarried but on what advantage. She had shown such strength uncommon for women of her age then. Consequently, she had managed to express a different kind of beauty, a gentle inner beauty complimenting such strong assurance… yet she remained so out of reach, that he could admire but only from afar.
It's not finished yet! Click chapter 2 to read the next section…