Sojourn at Donwell
This story, which was inspired by "Emma 4," is my first such attempt. It takes place during the Christmas season prior to the year in which the events in the book occurred. I have taken liberties with JA's work, most notably as follows: First, Emma been to Donwell Abbey than often than the book or any of the movies would lead us to believe. Second, Emma has one heretofore unknown accomplishment – she plays the violin very well. Finally, I have borrowed the idea of a young author writing a fictitious history (as was done in a Mansfield Park adaptation). If you have not read Jane Austen's parody, "The History of England," written when she was 15 or 16, I commend it to you. Very clever!
The day dawned cloudy and gray, but Emma's spirits were not dimmed. After church service she was to venture to Donwell Abbey to play her violin in a Christmas concert. Emma's talent on the violin simply came naturally to her; it was a gift. Of course, had this ability not come so readily, Emma likely would have let her violin playing languish, as she did all things in which she did not immediately excel, including playing the pianoforte, speaking French, reading the classics … The list was not a short one, but she did not apologize for it, even when Mr. Knightley admonished her. Fortunately, he need not reprove her when it came to playing the violin. She did not even mind the tiny calluses that seemed to be permanently embedded on the fingertips of her left hand, where they pressed the violin strings against the fingerboard. They were a badge of one of her few true accomplishments -- and one that even Jane Fairfax had not attempted to equal, let alone exceed.
Three years earlier, shortly after Emma's seventeenth birthday, Mr. Woodhouse had engaged a new maid for Emma. Sally Amos was the daughter of Andrew Amos, who had tended the vast gardens at Donwell Abbey for as long as Emma could remember. For generations Hartfield and Donwell had done their best to find positions for the offspring of their most trusted servants, and Sally, a shy but devoted young girl who was barely older than Emma, was delighted to have a situation at Hartfield, and as lady's maid to Miss Woodhouse, no less.
One morning, when Sally had been at Hartfield but a few weeks, Emma noticed Sally hovering near the door to the music room as she practiced. Uncharacteristically, Emma often enjoyed practicing the violin. Perhaps Jane Fairfax, unlike Emma, was capable of picking up a piece of music and, with but one glance, playing the notes with perfect grace on the pianoforte. But Jane Fairfax could not play the violin! True, Emma had to study the music carefully, but with just a little bit of patience – as much as even a fidgety Emma could muster – she played very well, indeed.
Emma had called to Sally to come out from behind the door that day, and Sally, in her shy but sincere way, had apologized profusely for having taken such a liberty. She had complemented Miss Woodhouse's playing, likening how her father, who so loved music and the violin, in particular, would have enjoyed Miss Woodhouse's playing immensely. Emma's vanity was, of course, flattered, and thereafter, Emma did not mind if Sally occasionally listened in for a few minutes as she practiced.
Even Mr. Woodhouse did not mind when he noticed Sally standing at the door, listening to Emma play. Mr. Woodhouse opined to Mr. Knightly that his younger daughter played the violin so delightfully, she might arrest all manner of work at Hartfield. "And you are lucky, Mr. Knightley, that Emma does not play at Donwell Abbey, for according to Sally, your gardener would equally succumb to Emma's playing," Mr. Woodhouse warned.
"Emma does, indeed, play splendidly," Mr. Knightley agreed with Mr. Woodhouse. "Emma, perhaps we should have you come play at Donwell. You could give a Christmas concert for the manor staff." It was common for the great landowners to host festivities for their tenants and servants at least once during the year, often at midsummer's eve, Michaelmas, or at the harvest. Mr. Knightley's harvest feast was considered among the most generous in all of Surrey. "They could gather all together at the Abbey and enjoy a festive afternoon of Christmas spirit. What do you say? Will you come play for us -- perhaps next Sunday, after church services? John and Isabella will be here at Hartfield by then, and they can escort your father home after the service."
Emma was flattered, but demurred, so as not to let on how much she might enjoy such admiration. "Oh no, Mr. Knightley. I simply couldn't! I don't play as well as that!" For added measure, she asked, "Don't you agree, Father?"
"Not play well?" Mr. Woodhouse responded, exactly as Emma had hoped he would. "Nonsense, Emma. You play beautifully! Donwell Abbey would be most lucky to have you perform!"
"Ah, then it is settled. Emma will perform for us at Donwell next Sunday. I'll have Mrs. Blakeley make the arrangements." Mr. Knightley gave a wry smile to Emma, as though he had read her mind. He well knew that she could not resist being the center of attention, and indeed, she could not.
At that first concert, three years earlier, Emma had been quite nervous when she entered the Abbey's great hall and had quickly counted six rows of six chairs – 36! – each soon to be occupied stiffly by a Donwell staff member in his or her finest clothes, face and nails scrubbed clean, hair neatly combed or pinned up. She noticed that Samuel, the stable boy, could barely keep his eyes from the side tables where piles of cold meats, pickled vegetables and sweets awaited. "Oh dear," thought Emma, as she watched Samuel. "They don't want to be here. They don't want to hear me play my silly violin. They are just here because the master of Donwell commands it. At least a hearty feast awaits them after I inflict my torture upon their ears." She instantly regretted that her vanity had put her in such a wretched situation.
When all was ready, Mr. Knightley had not sat, but rather had stood to the side, leaning against the wall, arms crossed, with a full view of his staff, as if to survey their reactions. When all were seated, he said, "I believe we ready to begin the concert," and the staff immediately quieted. "Please, Emma, do begin." And so she began to play, tentatively at first. It was a sad but elegant song that showed the full measure of her musical talents. She soon closed her eyes, as she always did when she let her heart take over her fingers and her bow, and she played splendidly.
When she finished the first piece, she lifted her bow and opened her eyes. For a brief moment, Donwell's audience sat silent, as though stunned. Mrs. Blakeley lifted a handkerchief to her eye to wipe away a tear and Sally's father, with a broad smile on his face, was the first to clap. He was immediately joined by one and another and in a moment, Emma was basking in the glow of a degree of flattery that even she had never known. She looked over to Mr. Knightley, who was applauding, too, a beam of approval spread across his face.
"Bravo, Emma, bravo. Well, Donwell," Mr. Knightley had called out to his group, "shall Miss Woodhouse play another?" To a chorus of enthusiastic "yeses" and "ayes," Emma had begun another piece, this one quite lively, outwardly diverting her eyes and smiling demurely, but silently reveling in her success.
"I wonder," she had thought, "what Jane Fairfax is doing at this very moment?"