“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner”
Chapter 34, Pride and Prejudice.
Elizabeth looked across at the rolling fields spread out beneath her, green squares interspersed with a vibrant yellow. The rising sun was warm on her face, and she felt a deep feeling of contentment spreading with the heat of the sun. The nature of Hertfordshire was beautiful in its own right, but made even more so by its familiarity. These trees, fields and hills had remained unchanged for as long as Elizabeth could remember, only altering with the seasons, but even then, remaining familiar. These early morning walks out into the countryside were one of the few things which had helped to keep her sane in the months since Jane had left for London. A victim of their mothers ever increasing panic over her daughters' marriage prospects, Jane had been sent for the season to the capital with no clear return date. The intent was clear; return with a husband or not at all.
Purely by virtue of being the second eldest daughter, Elizabeth had not borne the brunt of her mother’s attacks over the last few years. Yet these months since Jane’s departure had proven to Elizabeth what she already knew, that her sisters angelic nature was interminable, able to withstand such incessant attacks from all corners at all times of day and night. Elizabeth was not of the nature to peaceably stand by and be insulted, so the resulting weeks had led to more underhanded comments than Elizabeth usually allowed herself. She did not enjoy the arguments, as for all her flaws, Mrs. Bennet was her mother and she loved her. But that did not change the fact that Elizabeth was only a handful of comments away from something drastic. The situation had only deteriorated, not improved, in the last few days, as the arrival of the militia in town had fanned her mother’s flames.
The smartly dressed group had swarmed into the society of Merton like locusts, infesting every corner of Elizabeth’s life. Her only escape from the constant inundation of gossip and speculation about the militia was when on these early morning walks. Despite her frustrations with the increased matchmaking brought on by the presence of the militia, Elizabeth couldn’t help but be intrigued by their confidence, comparative freedom and sense of comradery. This group of men were not constrained to the house or by the unwritten rules of proper ladylike behaviour. There was a sense of crudeness to them which Elizabeth was both intrigued and deterred by; they were so open in their opinions and unafraid to offend one another. It was an environment which Elizabeth could only imagine being a part of.
Turning back to descend the hill, Elizabeth cast one final glance at the expansive landscape, taking a moment to imagine what it would be like to travel beyond its limits, beyond Hertfordshire, over the oceans to foreign lands. The best she could ever hope for was to follow Jane to London. She quickly repressed the daydream, readjusted her bonnet, and starts back along the path which would lead her home.
Later that day, Elizabeth found herself out walking again, this time in the company of her rambunctious younger sisters. They had set upon her in the parlour just a quarter of an hour earlier, determined that she would escort them into town in the unwavering belief that her presence would increase their chances of an invitation to the ball being held by Colonel Forster later that month.
‘You’re just such a favourite of his, Lizzie! It’s not that he wouldn’t invite us if you weren’t with us, just that your being there would certainly increase the speed of said invitation.’ Kitty linked her arm with Elizabeth’s as they started up the road to town, bag swinging in her other hand. ‘You recall how reticent he was last time Lydia requested an invitation to whist.’
Elizabeth did recall that interaction, and the sense of shame which came along with the memory was enough to have her lengthen her stride in an attempt to catch up with her taller, overly enthused, youngest sister. Lydia’s sense of impropriety had not yet been curbed by their mother, or by age, and so it was up to Elizabeth to reign her in. She had the unerring ability to flirt with any man she came across, no matter his age or station, which more often than not led to her getting her way. Unfortunately, Colonel Forster was not of the disposition to appreciate such gauche attentions and often left the encounters more flustered than bewitched, much to Lydia’s distress. Elizabeth had found he much preferred her more sensible conversation, and they had passed many a call contentedly discussing the state of the war, and the Colonel’s own memories of the battlefield. Not necessarily topics of conversation her mother approved of, but Elizabeth was fascinated, and found their talks the most anticipated part of her day, especially since Jane’s departure had left a sudden dearth of coherent conversationalists. Although able to find humour in almost any interaction, there was something refreshing in such straightforward, frank conversation. Unlike other ladies of her station, Elizabeth was not repulsed by the details of battle or bored by the minutiae of war. If anything, the thought of it excited her. The potential for the heroic, the freedom from polite society and the opportunity to place oneself on the line for King and country. It was the stuff of novels. And it wasn’t that Elizabeth was unsatisfied with her life as the daughter of a gentleman. Just that, in the darkest hours of the night, when Jane was sleeping soundly beside her, she would allow herself to imagine a life devoid of the constraints of propriety and wealth. She would be an outlaw, a poet, a shepherd, and not once would her mother pressure her into marriage or her aunt scold her for speaking too freely.
These fantasies most commonly came on the evenings where she was the sole recipient of her mother’s frustration at her daughters’ lack of prospects, where Elizabeth’s failings were picked apart and presented as the sole reason why the Bennet sisters had been so unlucky in love. Even Charlotte Lucas had married the year previous and was currently preparing for her first lying in. Elizabeth missed her dearly, but the knowledge that her friend was happy as Mrs. John Gillingham made up for the ammunition such knowledge gave her mother, and the lack of likeminded companionship. Charlotte also understood the desire to escape the constraints of their world, but she had taken the most pragmatic route out, marriage. That option was not one which Elizabeth revelled in. The prospect of selling oneself to a man, giving up name and self in pursuit of respectability left a sour taste in her mouth. Not that she allowed herself to voice such objections in the presence of her mother and sisters. Elizabeth had tried to reconcile herself her fate, as her mother’s happiness was something she did truly value, and she knew it would ease the burden of responsibility her father felt over the entailed estate. His death was not imminent, but declining health and the passing of years had caused many a sleepless night for those living under Longbourn’s roof. The spectre of the entail was an arduous one to live with, especially for those who had the means to banish it from their lives. Jane and Elizabeth had shouldered that burden when they came of age, and Jane’s passive agreement to travel to London was in many ways a product of that guilt. While Elizabeth understood her compliance, the circumstances which led to her sister’s departure were not ones Elizabeth found pleasure in. She objectively knew that a woman could not easily survive in this world without a man but disliked the knowledge all the same. Her dependence on her father and uncles for everything disturbed her, and the fact than unlike the men of her station, she could not assist in the management of her beloved Longbourn and help to ease her father’s workload was a constant frustration.
She forced her growing anger to the side as they approached the town, mentally preparing herself for the calls ahead of them. After a brief detour into the haberdashery at the supplication of Lydia, and a polite call in at their Aunt Phillips which lasted significantly longer than the expected fifteen minutes - Mrs Phillips’ scullery maid had been caught in flagrante with the Johnstone’s stable boy the night before, and their aunt was understandably flustered – they were able to make their way down the street to the Colonel’s apartments. He was frank in his welcome, and Elizabeth agreeably passed the call discussing Napoleon’s increasingly unsuccessful ventures into Russia. Elizabeth was always impressed by the level of understanding the Colonel had of the war and had grown unafraid of querying minutiae or tactics and actions she did not fully understand.
After successfully securing an invitation to the ball, the group of sisters departed Colonel Forster’s and spilled out onto the road. They were quickly held up by the sound of a commotion further up the street. There appeared to be a large party of soldiers gathered by the inn, wearing the familiar green fronted jackets of the King’s brigadiers. The soldier riding in front dismounted and strode forward to pin a notice on the wall of the inn. He turned and surveyed the crowd.
‘His Royal Highness, The Prince Regent requests the presence of one man from each household to present himself for service in the fight against the Corsican usurper, Napoleon Bonaparte. Take the night to set your affairs in order and present yourself at the Barnet barracks in London at dawn for official conscription.’ He scans the crowd, noting the large number of women congregated to his right. ‘Spread the word to your kinsmen, support your men and send them into this battle with valour! Conscription notices are being circulated around your households as we speak. I wish you well, God bless and God save the King!’ With that final remark, he remounted his horse and passed the Bennet sisters, leading the rest of his division up the street and out of the small town. The sounds of panicked cries and explanations rose up in a cacophony behind him, a disconcerting echo which spread in waves over the Hertfordshire countryside in the wake of the brigadiers.
‘Goodness Lizzie!’ Kitty shrieked. ‘Father, he’ll die! What will we do? How will we survive?’ She grasped onto Elizabeth’s hand, looking to her elder sister for an assurance Elizabeth was unable to provide.
Lydia interjected. ‘Do not talk so, Kitty! Father is not dead yet, and he could certainly survive this war. He returned after ’93, remember, after Hondschoote, when so many others perished. He is a good soldier. He is lucky. There is no need to upset yourself so.’
‘That may be true Lydia.’ Elizabeth responded. ‘It does not do to get overly emotional when we do not even know if they have called on him. They may not want such an aged man to serve. We can only bide our time and pray.’ She took a deep breath, pushing down her own growing sense of unease. ‘Let’s hurry home so we can be with mother before the news reaches her.’ She ushered her younger sisters away from the increasingly tumultuous crowd, determined to avoid being drawn into any further speculative conversation.
Inevitably, they did not make it home before the news. The sound of their mothers’ hysterics could be heard from the gateway, and as they passed through Elizabeth braced herself for the onslaught. She spied a discreet huddle of servants by the side entrance and turned a blind eye; there was no need for them to also be recipients of her mothers’ frenzy. As she was in the process of removing her pelisse and gloves, she noticed the open letter discarded on the hall table, His Majesty’s seal visibly broken. Her mothers’ voice echoing from the parlour, Elizabeth picked up the letter and scanned the contents. As she does so, Mary hurried into the entryway to greet them and, noting the letter in Elizabeth’s hand, did her best to explain.
‘It appears that there are fears of an invasion. Napoleon is returning westward, and it would seem that England is a much more accessible country than Russia. They want Father to fight. Mama is refusing to let him accept his commission. She will not listen to reason. I have tried. You may try if you wish.’ With that, she stepped aside to let them pass, removing herself upstairs. Kitty and Lydia exchanged glances and followed her, leaving Elizabeth to steel herself before going in hunt of her parents.
As she neared the parlour door, she was able to make out the content of her mother's exclamations.
‘…your blood will still be wet on the battlefield before we are removed from house and home. We’ll be in the hedgerows, unable to feed ourselves or afford you a Christian burial. Oh, why couldn’t we have had a son! A son would have been such a blessing to his mother. To this family in their time of need!’ She shifted the focus of her hysteria. ‘Oh, consider my nerves, Mr Bennet. Consider me! I could not do without you here.’ With that, she began to sob in earnest as Mr Bennet reached his arm around her shoulders.
‘Ah, do not concern yourself with me, my dear, I shall be just fine. You will have me back home safe and sound before you even notice I am gone.’
With that, Elizabeth interceded. ‘Yes Mama, Papa is not such a weak man as you suggest. He has fought well before and will do so again. Do not upset yourself mourning a man who still stands before you. And as for Longbourn, I do not think Mr Collins so cruel as to leave us with no roof if father lost his life in a fight for King and country.’
‘Oh, you may be right.’ She paused for a moment. ‘But you cannot be certain, for you see there is no certainty when relying on the charity of others. What would truly assuage my fears is a married daughter. Oh why was I so unlucky to be burdened with such headstrong, obstinate girls? With all the opportunities I gave you, all the dresses, the piano lessons, and still! Still I have no son to protect us when your father dies.’
‘But Mama, surely any husband we would have would also be called to follow the drum. At least this way there is no potential for two widows in the Bennet family.’
‘At least as a widow you would have the income stipulated in your dower rights. And fewer mouths to feed than I. Don’t delude yourself, Lizzie. Your actions have sealed the fate of this family. Your father shall die and we shall starve, all because you were too good to accept Mr Collins’ proposal.’
‘Mrs Bennet!’ Mr Bennet interjected forcefully. ‘That is enough. Elizabeth was only sixteen when he offered for her. Even if she had accepted, I would have been reticent to give my consent. You cannot blame a child for the failings of the father. It was I who was unable to break the entail, and it shall be I who ensures this family is not left destitute. There is money to be had in soldiering, and if I have to fight this war, I will not come out of it empty handed.’ He reached out to clasp his wife’s hand. ‘Do not concern yourself, Mrs Bennet, all will be well. Now, allow me to go and set my affairs in order. I will have to arrange for a steward to run the estate in my absence, and talk with our brother Phillips before the day’s end. Do excuse me.’ He withdrew his hand from Mrs Bennet’s grasp and turned to leave, briefly placing his hand on Elizabeth’s hair in passing.
Mrs Bennet quickly grew fractious without the steady presence of her husband, and swept out of the parlour within minutes, shouting for Hill. Elizabeth soon followed, removing herself to the library to mull over the events of the morning. As she walked into the room, her reflection caught her eye in the mirror, making her pause. She turned and stared into her own eyes, tracing the curve of her cheek and the slight wrinkle on her brow. She was not an ugly woman, she thought, turning her face to the side, but not a particularly attractive one either. Unlike Jane, it is not likely she would be able to find an eligible suitor and enter into matrimony before her father passed away, meaning her lifestyle would be entirely dependent on the generosity of her brother-in-law or uncles.
Maybe if she spent more time on her hair, she would catch the eye of a respectable husband who could save her family from poverty, she mused, arranging her curls unsuccessfully. Maybe not. She cast the fantasy aside and focused on the more immediate future. When her father went to fight there would be a real chance he would not return, no matter what she had previously told her sisters. When that happened, the family would inevitably be separated. Her Aunt and Uncle Phillips may be able to take in her mother and Lydia, and her other sisters would probably remove to London for a period and stay with her Aunt and Uncle Gardener, but all would be settled in overcrowded lodgings and desperate to remove their burden of care away from their financially stretched kin. Elizabeth worried that this would lead to poorly thought out and unhappy proposals to men who had no scruples praying on women whose families had fallen from grace. The Bennet’s would no longer be gentlewomen, and this removal from a class her mother and sisters valued so highly would be a hard burden for them to bear. If, with God’s grace, her father returned from the wars alive, they would have more time to find husbands of appropriate standing and respectability, while still settled in their family estate and benefitting from all that comes alongside that.
She turned from the mirror and sits on the chair looking out over the grounds. If only there was some way she could ensure her father’s safe return. Pulling her legs up onto the chair, she pondered the situation. The reality was, most families would not face ruin when asked to send one single man to fight. They would have at least one man able to stay at home and manage the affairs of the estate. If only she had a brother, as her mother loved to refrain, all their current concerns would be significantly less pressing. Or if she had been born a boy, her sisters would be safe and secure in the knowledge they would always have the option of having Longbourn’s roof over their heads. If she had been born a boy, her father wouldn’t be facing almost certain death, and her mother wouldn’t be left widowed. At that moment she knew what she needed to do. Elizabeth Bennet would be a lady no more. With her mind made up, she sat down at the desk to write to Jane.
Much has occurred in the last few hours, and I have many things to share. Father has received summons to conscript into his majesty’s army and intends to comply. They have requested his presence in London by tomorrow morn. Mother is inconsolable, and we are all very concerned for the future and father’s survival. Our sisters are also upset by the news and are convinced he shall not return from this war alive. I hope that he is strong enough to survive whatever horrors he must face and comes home to us as well in himself as he left.
It is thoughts such as these which have made me question our unwavering acceptance of this reality. Why must we send our elderly father to a battlefield where he is likely to die? Why must the livelihoods of seven people be put at risk to warn off an invader still many months from our shores? Our father was not blessed with a son, and as such must risk his life and his family’s wellbeing. What if one of us had been a man who could shoulder this burden for him?
She paused at this point, her pen resting on the paper. By the time she had settled on the words she needs to write the next section, a sizable ink blot had formed.
I have very recently decided to make a journey of an unknown duration. I hope that the results of said journey will prove auspicious for our family. I am certain that all shall be well, so you must promise not to worry overmuch about me, or come after me, for I shall be perfectly well.
I yearn for news of you.
Your dear sister,
With the note written, Elizabeth blotted the paper before folding and writing the address on the overleaf. Settled in her decision, she picked up the letter and leaves the library, shoulders squared and head held high.
Later that night, after her family had gone to bed, Elizabeth slipped out from under the covers and crept into her parents’ bedroom. They were both asleep, their hands clasped together above the sheets. Elizabeth hated to picture how difficult their goodbyes must have been that night, and hoped that her actions in this moment made the morning easier for them to bear. She lightly moved over to her father’s bedside table and picked up his conscription notice, leaving one of her favourite hair pieces in its place. Before leaving the room, she stopped at her parent’s wardrobe and removed her father’s military uniform, the red coat freshly laundered and hung in preparation for the following day. Folding it over her arm, she picked up the polished marching boots and headed for the door, determined not to wake her parents.
She made it back to her bedroom unnoticed and laid the uniform down on the bed, considering it. Her breasts would still be clearly visible in this outfit, especially without the support of stays. They would have to be bound. She pulled out an old underskirt and carefully tore the hem into a strip of cloth a hands width wide, repeating the action until she had a pile of shoddy bandages on the floor in front of her. She quickly retrieved her embroidery basket from the windowsill and made short work of stitching the lengths together into one long piece of cloth. Setting her homemade bandages aside, she moved over to her dresser and surveyed her hair. With her pin curls and long hair, she would never convincingly pass for a man. She brushed it back, smoothing out the ringlets around her face and merging them in with the rest of her hair, pulling it into an approximation of a queue at the back of her neck. Before she even attempted to fix it in place, she noticed one obvious flaw. Her hair was far too long for a gentleman. Not even a soldier on campaign would let his hair get significantly longer than shoulder length, in fear of looking too effeminate. There was nothing else to be done. Elizabeth retrieved the scissors from her embroidery basket and held them to her hair in an approximation of the fashionable length for men’s hair, closed her eyes, and closed the blades. Her hair fell to the floor around her in waves as she continued to cut until she was satisfied it wouldn’t be a cause of embarrassment. After tying it back in as close an approximation of a queue as she could, she stood and started to undress. She didn’t have much time before the servants woke and her absence would be noticed.
Starting with her breasts, she wrapped the length of cloth around her torso multiple times, ensuring her chest appeared flat. After pinning the cloth in place, she started to layer up; shirt, small clothes, stockings, breeches, waist coat and distinctive red jacket, before halting. She held the long rectangular cravat in her hand and attempted to recall the style preferred by the men of the militia. It was only after a series of failed attempts that she realised that the material needed to be wrapped multiple times around her neck before being tied off. She soon managed to fashion a somewhat passable cravat. She then pulled on the boots, strapped on her weapons and picked up the conscription note, tucking it into her bag alongside some other necessities. She scanned the room one final time. This could be the last time she ever sets her eyes on her beloved bedroom. The embodiment of her childhood, of late-night secrets whispered under the sheets, of new realisations and of tears shed. She would miss this room, this house, but more than that she would miss the person she was here. The respectable and scandal free Miss Bennet, who still had a respectable and scandal free future ahead of her. As soon as put on these men’s clothes she gave up on that future. She chose freedom and the life of her father over a husband and a well-situated seat in church, and couldn’t find it in herself to feel regret.
She crept down the staircase and out of the kitchen door, moving towards the stables located to the west of the house. She was not a proficient horsewoman, usually preferring to walk rather than ride when the choice was presented to her, but had been taught to ride like most women of her station. The biggest obstacle would be adjusting to the new saddle and stirrup combination which came with rising astride. She had a theoretical understanding of how to tack the horse, so after settling on her favourite of the animal, set to work. In less than an hour, Elizabeth had managed to wrangle the horse into the tack and herself onto the horse, settling in place and swiftly heading out into the night.
As she rode away from the only home she had ever known, Elizabeth felt an uncomfortable mix of terror and relief. She was taking her destiny into her own hands, choosing adventure over propriety and the enormity of that was hard to come to terms with. But she would be okay. She would survive.