Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Surveying Catholics

 It's been quiet in these pages for a while, in part because of a series of guests over the Thanksgiving week, and in part due to other writing projects, but now that those are behind us I wanted to link to one of the things which has been taking up a great deal of my time lately. 

I had the opportunity to design, conduct, and analyze the Pillar survey of Religious Attitudes and Practices, something which start-to-finish took about three months.  

There are several large surveys which religious questions as well as other political and sociological ones, such as the General Social Survey and the Cooperative Election Survey, and other surveys occasionally touch on religious questions such as the often discussed result which Pew Research found in 2019 that only about sixty percent of Catholics who go to Mass on a weekly basis believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But there are fairly few surveys focused primarily on religious subjects. Via The Pillar's commitment to producing original data-driven journalism on the Church, I got the chance to make an original contribution by organizing and running one.  If you'd like to support the continuance of that kind of journalism (and get articles delivered to your email twice a week) it's worth subscribing

The Catholic Church is famously not a democracy, and more generally it seems clear to any serious believer that matters of doctrine are not set by majority rule, so doing a survey on religious belief and practice is necessarily diagnostic. We tried to design a set of questions which would help us understand the beliefs and practices of Americans in general, and more specifically the beliefs of Catholics and those who were raised Catholic but no longer practice the faith.

The high level result is a snapshot of a country in which 22% of Americans are cradle Catholics, 2% are Catholic converts, and 10% were raised Catholic but now describe themselves as belonging to some other faith (or none at all.)

Conversion turns out to be a major component of American religion.  Almost 30% of survey respondents now describe themselves as some other faith than the one in which they were brought up. But the Catholic Church has fewer converts, on a percent basis, than any other religious tradition.

In additional to the overview linked above, I wrote five detailed articles for The Pillar analyzing the results, and we also made the data publicly available for others who would be interested in using it for analysis. You can reach all of those via the overview here. I hope people will find it interesting.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 10


Autumn at Norland had always been a season of more than usual beauty — the wild leafy glories of Nature fenced by the delights of a well-tended estate. But Devonshire was a wet country. Lady Middleton might repeat at every opening that there had never been such a season for rain, never that she could recall, and Colonel Brandon regaled them all with such dreadful tales about the hurricanes in the East Indies, and Sir John declared that the hunting was as good sport as ever you’d see, but Mrs. Dashwood could find little relief from the hopeless drizzle. The cottage was new and tight, with never a leak in attic or at window. But one could walk each room with but a few steps, back and forth, back and forth. She had not the heart to refuse Margaret when she begged to go outside, though she watched with an anxious eye for the first croaks of an impending cold.

And then — oh, joy!— a bright ray of hope pierced the clouds. Marianne’s ankle was sprained, which was of course a lamentable affair, but in the most fairy tale manner a man had actually carried her right over the doorstep. And such a man! Even Margaret, who had witnessed the whole thrilling episode (and had related it to everyone who came to offer their sympathies), was captivated by Mr. Willoughby. He was just what a proper gentleman should be, so prompt to act when a lovely girl tumbled down the hill to land at his feet. According to Margaret, Marianne had been swooning when Mr. Willoughby swept her up in his arms and bore her heroically to the cottage door, with stride unchecked. Mrs. Dashwood could not quite credit that; she had seen Willoughby stagger into the sitting room and gratefully lower Marianne onto the sofa. But all slight awkwardnesses were as nothing compared to the elegance and sincerity with which he begged leave to call again. Mrs. Dashwood had not needed the hint from her daughter’s bright eye to invite him to inquire about Marianne the very next day, at his earliest convenience. 

From that moment the gray skies held no menace. If they were at home, Willoughby was there too. His presence was a tonic. Marianne, with her remarkable ability to set the mood of the entire household, was always in charity these days, moved to raptures at the least provocation. Often Mrs. Dashwood smiled over her work in the corner of the room, as she listened to Marianne and Willoughby discover that their views on all subjects were exactly in harmony. Well she remembered the bliss of her own first, instant love. Daggers of nostalgia stabbed her heart, as she saw her own happy story playing out once more. It was only natural; everyone remarked on how like Marianne was to her, and here was another proof. For it was love at first sight. Mrs. Dashwood knew how it would be when she saw her daughter, who had never even been touched by a man, in Willoughby’s arms. If she had had even the slightest hesitation over his character, she would have prevented him from returning, and so let Marianne’s first lightning shock of physical contact wear off before it could develop into obsession, but Willoughby was all that a gentleman should be, and spoke exactly as he ought.

Willoughby was not the only caller. During Marianne’s week of confinement, all the world, or at least the portion of it that visited at Barton Cottage, dropped in with fruit or flowers or a new book for the invalid. Margaret took to keeping watch at the window each morning, to give the first news of the day’s company.

“Mama, come see!” she exclaimed one morning. “Mrs. Whitaker is here, with her matched bays, and see, even Philip on his stick!”

A youth, leaning on what might have been a dandy’s cane, moved up the path with deliberate steps, accompanied by a tender woman, the careworn model of her son’s fragile beauty. 

Mrs. Dashwood hurried to place the most comfortable chair near the fire. 

“You shall sit here, if you please,” she said as she welcomed Philip Whitaker, who hesitated in the doorway of the sitting room under the smiles of a bevy of rosy-cheeked girls.

“Yes, we shall recline together, and refuse to let our mamas fuss over us for at least an hour!” cried Marianne, ready to cosset a fellow sufferer. “And you shall have my cushion. Elinor shall arrange it just so; she is an excellent nurse.”

Mrs. Whitaker and Mrs. Dashwood sat at the small table near the window, just far enough from the children that they could converse uninterrupted, if they spoke softly enough.

“I am so glad to see Miss Marianne in spirits,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “It grieves me to see young folk suffer. There is time enough for that when they are older.”

“You are very kind,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “Yet a sprained ankle is almost no suffering, soon comforted by thoughtful friends and healing day by day. In this case, youth is the best medicine.”

“But not medicine enough, I know, to prevent the the irreparable loss your family has already suffered. Forgive my want of consideration; I thought only of the difficulties of my own child. I would give much to see this light always in his eyes.” 

“There is nothing to forgive,” said Mrs. Dashwood, offering her guest a fragrant cup of tea. “How can one compare grief? It must be shared, not divided into shares.”

As she sipped her tea, Mrs. Whitaker gazed thoughtfully at the corner near the fireplace, where Marianne was in peals of laughter over some clever remark of Philip’s, while Elinor pressed him with sandwiches and blankets, and Margaret wriggled gleefully on the ottoman.

“Your daughters do you much credit, Mrs. Dashwood,” she said. “One does not often meet with such true amiability and taste in young ladies, even among what are counted as our best families.” 

“They are good girls,” said Mrs. Dashwood modestly.

“You must have great ambitions for them.”

“Not as the world defines the word. I would have them marry well; that is, with mutual love, with respect, with comfort but not ostentation. Happiness in marriage is not a matter of chance, I believe, but it has more chance to prosper when it is built on a solid foundation of friendship. Such friendship is my great ambition for them.” Mrs. Dashwood paused, but honesty forced her to speak. “My daughters, however, are fortunate enough to have nothing to tempt fortune hunters. Their character must be their dowry.

“I, too, wish such happiness for Philip,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “But he has neither the safeguard of poverty or of health to guard him from an adventuress who cares more for an advantageous match than for character.” She studied her cup as if the leaves held any wisdom. “But to a young lady who could be his true friend, he could offer great friendship in kind, as well as security for her —  and for her family. And the Misses Dashwood seem to have a talent for friendship.”

Both mothers now affected to read the tea leaves. By the fireplace, Marianne had pressed a volume of her favorite verse on Philip, saying, “There is but one poet today, Cowper. But I insist upon his being read with true feeling, or not at all.” 

“She is in deadly earnest,” Elinor said with mock terror. “If you do not come up to her standard, she will seize the book and show you how it should be done — if she does not first fling it at your head.”

Philip did not seem the least bit frightened. “I will submit with good grace to any penalty of your choosing,” he said. “But I must give fair warning that you could not have selected a trial more to my liking. When one is denied the opportunity to train the body, one must train the voice instead.”

He opened the book, found some familiar lines, and began to read:

"Candid and generous and just,
Boys care but little whom they trust,
An error soon corrected —
For who but learns in riper years,
That man, when smoothest he appears,
Is most to be suspected?"

His was no idle boast; his voice was flexible and sensitive, now dwelling richly on some poignant vowel, now playing lightly over rhyme and rhythm. Such power and grace supported by such a frail body drew the stinging tears to Mrs. Dashwood’s eyes. And not hers alone; Marianne gave a shuddering sigh as Philip shut the book.

“You have found Cowper’s very soul,” she breathed, with shining eyes. “I must hear the second stanza again.”

The general clamor gave the suddenly reticent Mrs. Dashwood the cover to speak in Mrs. Whitaker’s private ear.

“Dear Mrs. Whitaker,” she said, tracing the design of her spoon with agitated fingers, “You well understand a mother’s fondest wish for her daughters, and I am fully conscious of the honor you do my family. But I find I must mention, though I am not fully at liberty to say much, you understand, that Miss Dashwood and Miss Marianne have both already set their first foot upon that path. There is a young man that Elinor knew at Norland, a quiet, sensible, open gentleman, whom I am sure, though she has not confided in me, will make an offer when next he comes to visit. As for Marianne…”

A clamor outside drew both their attention to the window, as several visitors converged on the cottage at once.

“Well, you shall see yourself, ma’am,” Mrs. Dashwood concluded, in a diminished voice. Never before had she been conflicted at Willoughby’s visit, but she could wish that he had not chosen this moment to appear. However, his presence put an end to the necessity of explanation. At his entrance into the room, Marianne was transformed. Though her courtesy to Philip did not lessen, she took no pains to conceal that her entire being was attuned to Willoughby’s presence.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Whitaker with quiet regret. “I see.”

And so did Philip. And so did Colonel Brandon, entering with Sir John upon Willoughby’s heels, and so did Elinor, and she and the Colonel acknowledged one another, across Willoughby’s breezy banter with Marianne, with a narrowed, allied glance.


Friday, November 19, 2021

Archbishop Gomez on the non-Saving Power of Wokeness

I'm a natural contrarian, so when a number of people erupted in rage over Archbishop Gomez's address on "wokeness" last week, I pulled it up in a browser tab, determined to read it for myself.  It's been a long couple weeks, so it was only today that I finally got around to reading it.

It's a very short address, and as such it's necessarily very brief in its argument.  This necessarily means that one must read it on the assumption that it is brief and is not treating everything mentioned in the maximum possible depth.  I read, for instance, people who were outraged that in one sentence it mentioned Pelagianism, and in one sentence Gnosticism, and yet it did not provide an in depth analysis of the precise teachings of each of these heresies.  Well, of course not.  That's not what people do when they make one sentence mentions of a thing. But I did think that, as an overall outline of thought, it made some interesting and cogent points.  So I'll outline briefly here was struck me.

He breaks his talk down into three sections. The first speaks of secularization. He notes that the US has been secularizing for some time, but he argues here that the events of the last two years have hastened that move. He says that COVID and recent political/cultural turmoils have proved a turning point, but he says that this is not a sharp turning but rather an acceleration of trends that were already in motion. 

I think history will look back and see that this pandemic did not change our societies as much as it accelerated trends and directions that were already at work. Social changes that might have taken decades to play out, are now moving more rapidly in the wake of this disease and our societies’ responses.


he new social movements and ideologies that we are talking about today, were being seeded and prepared for many years in our universities and cultural institutions. But with the tension and fear caused by the pandemic and social isolation, and with the killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman and the protests that followed in our cities, these movements were fully unleashed in our society.

This context is important in understanding our situation in the United States. The name George Floyd is now known worldwide. But that is because for many people in my country, myself included, his tragedy became a stark reminder that racial and economic inequality are still deeply embedded in our society.

We need to keep this reality of inequality in mind. Because these movements that we are talking about are part of a wider discussion — a discussion that is absolutely essential — about how to build an American society that expands opportunities for everyone, no matter what color their skin is or where they came from, or their economic status.

The latter part of this is something which I think is essential to keep in mind when evaluating what Archbishop Gomez is saying. He clearly states that he believes that there is racial and economic inequality still deeply embedded in our society and that these factors led to the killing of George Floyd. This is, thus, not a "nothing to see here!" argument as some have portrayed it. What, then, is he critiquing?

Enter the second part, which is entitled "America's new political religions". Here Archbishop Gomez lays out in brief what he sees as two competing stories, that is, two explanations for our purpose and how we are to find meaning in the world we face.  Here is his brief summary of the Christian story:

We are created in the image of God and called to a blessed life in union with him and with our neighbors. Human life has a God-given “telos,” an intention and direction. Through our sin, we are alienated from God and from one another, and we live in the shadow of our own death.

By the mercy of God and his love for each of us, we are saved through the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. Jesus reconciles us to God and our neighbors, gives us the grace to be transformed in his image, and calls us to follow him in faith, loving God and our neighbor, working to build his Kingdom on earth, all in confident hope that we will have eternal life with him in the world to come.

In contrast to this, he summarizes what he describes as a rival salvation narrative which is presented under the guise of social justice.
We cannot know where we came from, but we are aware that we have interests in common with those who share our skin color or our position in society. We are also painfully aware that our group is suffering and alienated, through no fault of our own. The cause of our unhappiness is that we are victims of oppression by other groups in society. We are liberated and find redemption through our constant struggle against our oppressors, by waging a battle for political and cultural power in the name of creating a society of equity.

Clearly, this is a powerful and attractive narrative for millions of people in American society and in societies across the West. In fact, many of America’s leading corporations, universities, and even public schools are actively promoting and teaching this vision.

This story draws its strength from the simplicity of its explanations — the world is divided into innocents and victims, allies and adversaries.

But this narrative is also attractive because, as I said earlier, it responds to real human needs and suffering. People are hurting, they do feel discriminated against and excluded from opportunities in society.

We should never forget this. Many of those who subscribe to these new movements and belief systems are motivated by noble intentions. They want to change conditions in society that deny men and women their rights and opportunities for a good life.

Of course, we all want to build a society that provides equality, freedom, and dignity for every person. But we can only build a just society on the foundation of the truth about God and human nature.

Some people reacted oddly to the opening phrase of this section, "we cannot know where we are from" but I think it clearly indicates a view in which it is not clear how the world was created or what the meaning of the human person is. He is saying that according to the modern story, we do not know what the purpose of the human person is, but we know our identity and thus with whom we must ally during racial and class conflict.

I think it's also important to note that he says here that the attraction of this view is that it is correct about both the existence of injustice and the need for each person to be treated with justice and dignity. What, then, does he say is wrong? The key phrase, I think, is "find redemption through our constant struggle against our oppressors, by waging a battle for political and cultural power" and also "the world is divided into innocents and victims, allies and adversaries."

Indeed, I would expand this out and say that this has become the key story of both the Trumpy right and the woke left in our country. Both ideologies seem to define themselves increasingly by identifying enemies whom they claim to be utterly depraved. The only solution is to wage all out cultural, political, and sometimes literal in-the-streets warfare against the other side and to defeat them utterly because they are perceived as irredeemable.

And what corrective does he provide from a Christian perspective? He says later:

Our Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI warned that the eclipse of God leads to the eclipse of the human person. Again and again he told us: when we forget God, we no longer see the image of God in our neighbor.

Pope Francis makes the same point powerfully in Fratelli Tutti: unless we believe that God is our Father, there is no reason for us to treat others as our brothers and sisters.

That is precisely the problem here.
I think this is the key critique which Gomez is leveling at the 'woke' left. Like it's opposite movement on the Trumpy right, it is often focused on the destruction of its opponents as an end unto itself. The entire point of "cancellation" is to render someone unemployable permanently. Whether it's a right wing congressman running an animation showing AOC being killed, or protesters chanting "kill the pigs", the problem with these movements is both that they do not value the humanity of (and wish the good for) their opponents, and that they are willing to engage in wrong and destructive acts (the storming of the Capitol, the looting and burning of neighborhoods, the threatening of violence against their opponents) and justify those acts as somehow being all right because of the cause in whose name they are done.

What does Gomez propose instead? 
My answer is simple. We need to proclaim Jesus Christ. Boldly, creatively. We need to tell our story of salvation in a new way. With charity and confidence, without fear. This is the Church’s mission in every age and every cultural moment.

We should not be intimidated by these new religions of social justice and political identity. The Gospel remains the most powerful force for social change that the world has ever seen. And the Church has been “antiracist” from the beginning. All are included in her message of salvation.

Jesus Christ came to announce the new creation, the new man and the new woman, given power to become children of God, renewed in the image of their Creator.

Jesus taught us to know and love God as our Father, and he called his Church to carry that good news to the ends of the earth — to gather, from every race and tribe and people, the one worldwide family of God.

That was the meaning of Pentecost, when men and women from every nation under heaven heard the Gospel in their own native language. That is what St. Paul meant when he said that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. 
Of course, in the Church we have not always lived up to our beautiful principles, or carried out the mission entrusted to us by Christ.

But the world does not need a new secular religion to replace Christianity. It needs you and me to be better witnesses. Better Christians. Let us begin by forgiving, loving, sacrificing for others, putting away spiritual poisons like resentment and envy.
One critique I've heard of this is that Gomez is saying that Christians do not need to do anything different, that they can complacently ignore injustice in our country because they are already assured that as Christians they are good people. It seems to me, however, that this not at all what he is saying. He says that the Church has been "antiracist" from the beginning, in that all are included in her message of salvation. But he also notes that the Church has not always lived up to its principles and its mission. Indeed, one might go so far as to conclude that the reason why there has been injustice which has created the conditions in which the secular 'woke' movement has sprung up is that too often Christians have failed to follow the teachings of Christ. Thus, he sees the solution to racial injustice not in ignoring it but in calling Christians to actually act as Christians.

Does this mean that, as another critique I've seen claims, he is simply coopting the 'woke' message but refusing to acknowledge the movement from which he has stolen it? No, I think this is also clearly not correct either. He says earlier that while the secular social justice militants of the moment have correctly identified that there are injustices in our society which need to be remedied, that the actions they advocate are often wrong. The goal of justice is right, but the means are wrong. Justice will not be achieved by the destruction of others, but rather by their conversion and redemption. 

Yet another approach combines these two objections, and holds that the secular 'woke' social justice movement is simply an acting out of basic Christian teaching and that any wrongs or excesses that may occur are either the actions of outside bad actors or at, at worst, minor excesses which must be excused because the result being sought is good. This approach strikes me as being overly optimistic about the nature of the wider 'woke' movement, which is heavily secular and is both explicitly tied to movements obvious conflicts with Christian morality (abortion rights, gay marriage, trans ideology, etc.) and also with actions which are not moral regardless of their goal. While on the surface, those who argue that the secular social justice movement is identical in its aims to Christianity seem to at least be adhering to Christian doctrine, I think that the end result is much like those who look at a broader Republican movement and argue that since it's pro-life it's at core just Christianity and any bits which may not fit with that are just flukes. 

In the end, I think that the virulent attacks on Archbishop Gomez for having delivered this talk to some extent underscore his point. He worries, among other things, that the secular social justice movement is too focused on identifying enemies and not focused enough of the conversion and salvation of each person. And indeed, the reaction to Gomez's speech seems often enough to have been that people identified him as an enemy and proceeded to vilify him, despite the fact that his address stated repeatedly that combatting racial injustice was the necessary task of Christians. 

Since he clearly agrees with his attackers on this point, it seems rather as if the reason that he's being attacked is for failing to fall neatly in line with a particular secular political movement which is intent to divide the world into allies and enemies.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 9


A night’s good slumber, when it can be had, is the best cure for most ills. Against all her expectations Mrs. Dashwood slept well, and when she woke the world was hopeful again. It was impossible now to dream of romance, but there was still good to be had from honest work and a life of moderation. Today Margaret was outside exploring, and she was sitting companionably with the big girls after breakfast, but tomorrow they would would rise at six and embark on an ambitious program of economy. Perhaps she would work new covers for the chairs in the sitting room, or concoct a batch of polish for the furniture from the receipt in her book of household management, if there was still beeswax to be found. Today they should have a hearty ragout to fortify them for the work ahead…

“Mama, it is three miles to the nearest butcher, and you did not order meat for a ragout,” said Elinor, in that tone which meant she was practicing cheerful fortitude. “Do you not recall that you accepted an invitation to dine again at Barton Park this evening? I wondered at it, for you were out of sorts yesterday, but Sir John pressed so that it was difficult to refuse.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Dashwood, chagrined at herself. “I… I did not recall. My head pounded so by the time the carriage came around, that I must have been willing to say almost anything to get one step closer to home.” She closed the receipt book with more force than she meant, and a torn corner fluttered to the floor. “It is not becoming to be so dependent on Barton, for dinner or for a carriage. We must be a byword in the neighborhood, the poor relatives spunging on Sir John and Lady Middleton.”

“I do not believe it troubles anyone but us,” said Elinor. “At least, it seems to be a great relief to Colonel Brandon to have us in the house. Lady Middleton’s habits of conversation are less to his taste than yours are.”

Mrs. Dashwood darted a glance at her daughter, but Elinor was bent with studied attention over the chair cover she was embroidering.

“Colonel Brandon is an amiable gentleman,” Marianne moaned, “but must we always talk of him? Naturally his talents are superior to dear Sir John’s, but why can he not use them for some grand purpose? Yesterday the wind was stirring up the trees in the valley — such a sad and solemn sound! And when I murmured Cowper’s lines on mortality— 

“Like crowded forest-trees we stand, 
And some are marked to fall” 

—he only urged me to put on a shawl against taking a chill, like an old grandfather.”

“He was quite right, Marianne,” said Elinor slyly. “You will catch your death of cold if you persist in your irrational disdain of flannel waistcoats.”

Mrs. Dashwood sighed as the girls dissolved into giggles. Colonel Brandon’s flannel waistcoat was a running joke with them, a sign of everything prudent and unyouthful. Even Elinor, who defended the Colonel with scrupulous fairness, was inclined to treat him as a venerable elder rather than a man of wisdom and experience. Marianne was actually cruel, though unconsciously so, in her reflections on his age and infirmity, as she called it. To be considered infirm because one’s joints ached! To be considered unable to love because one was old enough to be her father! 

“Your father wore flannel waistcoats when I met him,” she said, speaking lightly, as if it was a subject of no import. “Surely you would not hold Colonel Brandon to a different standard than your own dear father? And although I was eighteen and he thirty-five, as Colonel Brandon is now, somehow the waistcoat seemed less important than the dear man himself.”

“But there can be no comparison with Papa,” insisted Marianne. “You were the one great love of his life, and that is a circumstance of such romance as to make a flannel waistcoat completely irrelevant. It might be different if he had truly been in love with John’s mother, but of course he married her for her money.”

“How can you say such a thing?” cried Mrs. Dashwood. “One does not become unloveable because one has ten thousand pounds. I could not know the first Mrs. Dashwood, of course, but Mr. Dashwood always spoke of her with real affection. The match may also have been advantageous, but it would be a terrible reflection on your father’s character to accuse him of marrying without love. Perhaps John derives some weakness of character from his mother, but he also inherits her loyalty and devotion to those he loves.”

“But a first love is sacred,” argued Marianne, jumping up and pacing, carried away as always by the excess of her enthusiasm. “All the poets attest to it. There is no comparison between the purity and intensity of the youth’s first love, and the utilitarian compact of convenience with an older man who needs a nursemaid as well as a companion. Every sensibility revolts at the idea.”

“Marianne,” said Elinor quietly, but with enough firmness to make Marianne fold up sulkily in a chair and subside. 

“You have a prejudice against second attachments, Marianne,” said Mrs. Dashwood in a trembling voice, “but I assure you that the first all-consuming ardor of one’s youth is not the deepest or truest form of love. Believe it or not, one can even fall in love again with the same man, again and again, and each time richer than the last.”

“Of course, Mama,” murmured Marianne, entirely unconvinced. 


Saturday, November 13, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 8



She felt worn when they arrived at Barton, and there was no peace to be had over tea. Mrs. Jennings was in fine form, and Lady Middleton was constantly calling her mother to order. There was no relief in this, however, for Lady Middleton was governed, not by any sensitivity to the feelings of others, but by a pedantic set of social rules which admitted no variation. Mrs. Dashwood found her rigidity and repetition more exhausting than the jolly coarseness of the inoffendable Mrs. Jennings. That good lady was hospitable to a fault. Her way of making visitors feel at home was to tease them and supply them liberally with snippets of gossip. When one was in spirits, her sallies were often amusing, but it was a hard thing to bear them after a long walk and a dispiriting self-examination. 

Mrs. Dashwood felt herself smile and heard herself making all the conversation that civility required, but she was at an infinite distance from the room and everyone in it, watching the petty and pointless interactions with pity and disgust. What fools they all were, condemned to this life of tea and tedium which was taking place with the most mundane of variations in every manor and townhouse and cottage in England! The ring on her left hand gleamed dully, a niggling reminder that once she had felt something. If she could be alone, entirely alone, perhaps she would be able to cry out in pain, but she was always surrounded by eyes, and ears. Even her private bedroom in the cottage, with its paper-thin walls, offered no respite. She thought with longing of the forbidding masonry of a convent cell. What bliss to be locked away forever!

Then somehow, finally, dinner was at an end, and Marianne, as always, stalked directly to the pianoforte. Even here there was no isolation, for Sir John exclaimed through every song, and Lady Middleton repeated at every pause that she had given up music upon her marriage, you know. Only Colonel Brandon, seated next to her in the corner, was silent, and mercifully did not turn his face toward her when, at last, the music gave her cover to sneak her handkerchief to her eyes.

“See how the Colonel dotes on Miss Marianne’s playing!” Mrs. Jennings bellowed across the room. “We’ll make a lover of you yet, sir!” 


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 7


This was frustrating to write -- not in terms of composition, but literally. Every time I started typing "El...", my fingers automatically completed it as "...eanor", the name of my oldest daughter. And every time I started typing "Mrs. Da...", my fingers automatically completed it as "...rwin." I think I've caught and changed every instance, but I beg your pardon if the error ever makes it into an installment.



Mrs. Dashwood was of a amiable temperament, not inclined to solitude. Though her first sacrificial impulse on removing from Norland had been to bury herself in mourning in the country, she found that a cottage had little do to with the secluded life when one’s neighbors were the Middletons. Sir John’s carriage was always in readiness, and his day was devoid of pleasure if he could not prevail upon Mrs. Dashwood or the young ladies to indulge in some sociable scheme. A delegation from Barton appeared daily at the cottage to impart news to the fair inhabitants, or drink tea, or pass a civil message from Lady Middleton, or to gather them to go calling on the other families in the neighborhood. In this way, Mrs. Dashwood met the Careys, a merry family consisting of a pair of giggly sisters near in age to Marianne and Margaret followed by any number of brothers filling up the nursery, and the Whitakers, an elderly couple whose only surviving child was a invalid son who watched the vivacious Dashwood girls with hopeless eyes.

She found she had plenty of opportunity to impart wisdom to Colonel Brandon over the following fortnight, as he often traveled in Sir John’s company, whether to hunt or to dine or to pay a call on the Dashwoods. The golden days of late September were ideal for long rambles in the country surrounding Barton. Sir John, though an avid horseman, was no great walker, and often ended up riding home early to urge Cook to more lavish preparations for tea when the wanderers should return. Hence it was that Mrs. Dashwood found herself walking with Colonel Brandon and her daughters down a quiet lane along a valley in the hills surrounding Barton. The hills were wreathed in an warm autumnal glow, reflected in the rosy faces of the girls as they called each other forward to see some rustic marvel or botanical oddity. Mrs. Dashwood and the Colonel followed companionably at a more sedate pace.

“Have you completed your plan for improvements on the cottage?” Colonel Brandon asked. 

“One does not talk of alterations in terms of completion,” said Mrs. Dashwood, laughing. “There is always more to do on a house, as you must know yourself.”

“We have completed no plan,” said Elinor, joining the adults. “Indeed, we have hardly begun. But have no fear, Colonel — you shall see an altered cottage before the end of the decade.”

“Yesterday Margaret was describing to me her designs,” said Colonel Brandon. “I must say that I was most impressed. Where will you put these secret staircases and treasure chambers and priest holes?”

“Who is to say there is not a secret staircase already?” Marianne called back. “Why should we be condemned to a life of commonplace practicality by the misfortune of living in a house constructed not ten years ago?”

“Maybe we have a ghost,” said Margaret wistfully. “Did anyone die while building the house, do you know, Colonel?”

“I do not,” he said, with regret. “I was seldom much in this neighborhood before five years ago, and by then the cottage was already mouldering in hopes that one day a family of young ladies would find it romantic.”

“A family of young ladies finds it very modern, and very convenient, and very snug indeed,” Mrs. Dashwood said. “We had grown accustomed at Norland to think of a comfortable house as one with many rooms, and even at Stanhill before that — but only Elinor will remember well — we had many good-sized apartments. But Barton Cottage is teaching us moderation.”

“In everything but plans for alteration,” Elinor remarked to no one in particular. 

“Must we always speak of cottages, and schedules, and budgets?” Marianne demanded. “Come, Elinor, you at least are not too old to spoil an outdoor ramble with indoor business.”

“Marianne is much like you, is she not?” Colonel Brandon asked as Marianne, chased by Margaret, seized Elinor and whirled her through a cloud of leaves. 

“So I have often heard,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “She is the most like me in face, certainly — or as I was these years ago. Experience changes us all. Only children believe they will be young and strong forever.”

“I can attest to the effects of experience on my own face,” Colonel Brandon admitted, “but I am not brave enough to speculate about the age of the Dashwood sisters when their mother is indistinguishable from them.”

“You are most gallant, sir!” Mrs. Dashwood said, blushing with what she hoped was matronly dignity. “But honesty will not allow me to cede any of my four decades. I am content to be as I am, and to pass the burden of youth on to my children.”

“Burden, indeed!” The Colonel seemed weighed down with his own thoughts. “Youth is a time better remembered than lived. Even if one was permitted to relieve the past, it would be of no avail without the wisdom of age. How many missteps might have been prevented?”

“How can one be sure that other missteps might not take their place? Or what wisdom, gained through adversity, would be lost?”

They walked in meditative silence, stirring the leaves underfoot with each step. 

“Would you wish no past deed undone?” he asked abruptly, without looking at her.

“I… I do not know,” she said, startled. “I can think of many times I have been in the wrong, especially when I think of Mr. Dashwood. How heartily I have wished some unkind remark unsaid! But when I recall how generous he was in overlooking my many faults, I would not lose one instance of his goodness through a sterile perfection.”

“This is the rarest kind of family happiness, where even faults serve to increase love.”

Mrs. Dashwood had the curious impression that were she to ask him about his past regrets and mistakes, he would be pleased to answer, but her own curiosity made her hesitate. What right did she have to be so bold? Was she forgetting all propriety in the delight of having real conversation with a gentleman? What would her daughters think of her, and she not even widowed a year? What would Henry think of her, he who had always been so cheerful and trusting? Was she abusing that trust now? Why did she find such solace in kindly words from a man, as if she could not be content with the support of her daughters?

What would Colonel Brandon think of her? 

“Oh, Mama, come and see!” Margaret rushed up and grabbed her mother’s hand, pulling her briskly away from the temptation to talk like an adult. “We’ve found an manor house ahead, a big old-fashioned place, with enough room for a whole portrait gallery of ghosts.” 

“That must be Allenham,” said Colonel Brandon, catching up. “Old Mrs. Smith lives there, but she rarely goes out or receives visitors. I have met her once, and Sir John is neighborly with her. If you would like to see the grounds, I may be able to speak to the housekeeper.”

The girls perked up, but Mrs. Dashwood turned toward home. “We cannot trespass upon your kindness so far. And it is time for tea.”


Monday, November 08, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 6


Voices in the hall announced the return of the party to the nursery, and a moment later Sir John and Lady Middleton entered. Marianne followed a moment later, in a fine flush which her mother instantly recognized as the clear sign of temper being held imperfectly in check. Lady Middleton was telling some interminable story about the antics of her child, the sort of thing which only a mother can appreciate. The child’s mother, that is; anyone else’s mother would have rather decided opinions on whether a child’s tantrum were a sign of its adorable independent mind, and anyone not so fortunate as to be a mother would be bored to tears. Marianne was clearly bored to something — her eyes flashed with the fire of all the remarks she was biting back. She threw herself on the sofa next to her mother.

“My head aches so,” she said, just in a tone calculated to fall just barely out of earshot of Lady Middleton and Sir John, who could not be detained for a moment from recounting all the nursery news to Mrs. Jennings. “Who was it who said that children should be seen and not heard?”

“You have never heard it from me, my love,” said Mrs. Dashwood mildly. “As a result, I am sure that some of our own guests may have felt overwhelmed by the effusions of little girls, as you recall that you yourself once were. Allow me to present you to Colonel Brandon. My second daughter, Marianne. I should present my eldest first, but she seems to be detained.”

“How do you do, Miss Marianne,” said Colonel Brandon, standing as he had been ever since she and Lady Middleton entered the room, but as he bowed to Marianne he clutched the back of the chair as if he wished to sit down.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Marianne, with a perfunctory nod. “Elinor and Margaret are still upstairs with the small heathens. Mama, can you not tell Lady Middleton that I am taken ill and must go home? I am sure that Sir John would lend me his carriage.” 

“I am sure that you will rally admirably, Marianne, and spend the evening behaving exactly as you ought,” said Mrs. Dashwood with asperity. 

Marianne, chagrining her mother by the barest scraping of courtesy to the Colonel, drifted to the window and gazed over the lawn with romantic disdain. 

“I must beg your pardon, Colonel Brandon,” Mrs. Dashwood said, suddenly unwilling for this serious man to think poorly of her children and their upbringing. “Marianne is so tall that I sometimes forget how young she is, and still practicing the courtesies that come naturally to adults.”

“Not so naturally to all adults,” said Colonel Brandon. “Miss Marianne reminds me very much…,” and he hesitated, “…very much of a young lady I once knew, who also suffered from the sick headache when she was vexed. Forgive me! I do not doubt that her headache is genuine.”

“Marianne’s headaches are sometimes most conveniently timed for allowing her to avoid precisely what she does not wish to do,” said Mrs. Dashwood almost snapped, but quickly recovered herself. “The loss of her father was a grievous blow to her health and her manners both. But you must forgive me, I fear. I do not mean to offer excuses for rudeness, nor to pour out my small history of family sorrows. No family is immune to mortality. I am sure that the sad story is so familiar that there is no need for me to play upon your kind sympathies.”

“You could never do so, ma’am,” he said. “Indeed, I have every confidence that the example of loving parents will guide your daughters even through the temporary trial of youth. The young lady I spoke of had not the advantage of Miss Marianne; she had nothing but wealth, a poor substitute for a mother’s counsel.”

“The poor dear! Even a mother’s counsel is imperfect sometimes. But to be without it entirely!” Mrs. Dashwod sighed. “It is a difficult thing to raise a child, sir, and it seems impossible to do everything well.”

He sighed too. “It does indeed.”

The summons to dinner came, and the Colonel offered Mrs. Dashwood his arm. “Come, you shall tell me all you know about raising daughters, and I will promise to nod attentively and exclaim in all the right places.”

Mrs. Dashwood laughed. “Oh sir, I would not presume so far upon your patience, nor am I convinced that I know enough about the topic to advise anyone.”

“Be assured that you know more than I do,” Colonel Brandon said, with no sign of raillery.


The Passing of a Legend

 Long time readers may have heard from time to time of our cat Anathan.  Named after the theater at Franciscan University, he starred as the kitten in "You Can't Take It With You" back in the spring of 2000, where he distinguished himself one night by escaping into the audience, where he peed on the theater carpet.

He came to live with me off campus as a young cat during the 2000-2001 academic year, during which I was a senior. And he's been with us ever since. He flew to California to live with us in our young-married apartment. Then he flew to Texas where we bought our first house. He watched over (though not, perhaps, with great approval) the arrival of numerous children.

This baby is now 13

Last year, we celebrated his 21st birthday. We knew he was born some time in February 2000, so we assigned him a Valentine's Day birthday, since it seemed so contrary to his personality.

The old man has not been well all year.  I took him to the vet back in the spring, where they said they'd never treated a 21 year old cat before. They asked if he still showed an appetite, concerned by his increasingly skeletal physique. Given that he had recently tried to pull the deli meat out of a sandwich while I was eating it, I had to say that his appetite was just fine.

But over the last year his health has not been great. He had become so stiff in his joints that he had trouble keeping himself clean, usually a bad sign in a cat. And during the last week, he went into a steep decline. He couldn't even engage in his favorite activity: jumping onto the dining room table to try to steal people's food right off their plates if they looked away for a moment.

This weekend he suddenly stopped eating and clearly could no longer move well.  Still his independent streak was there. He insisted on going outside this afternoon, and settled himself in the sun in the front yard.  I was cleaning his litter box in the back yard and left him there, thinking that a cat who couldn't walk twenty feet without resting wouldn't go far.  Five minutes later I looked across the street to find him across the street getting a dish of water from the neighbor. I hurried over, and the neighbor told me that he'd been attempted to sun himself on the asphalt in the middle of the road, and so the neighbor had moved him to the sidewalk. (What the neighbor must have thought on picking up this skeletal animal, I can't imagine, but I explained he was only a few months short of 22 years old. The neighbor said he had just had to put down a 15 year old cat and was duly impressed.)

By the evening, he was whimpering as he tried to settle his stiff joints into sitting, something he had never done before. I had hoped that he would be given the chance to die naturally at home, but it was becoming clear that to drag things out longer when he was not eating and was in pain would not be kind to an animal with no understanding of the meaning of pain. I called the vet, who agreed it was time, and told me that cats can linger for weeks without eating.

So I took the old man to the pet urgent care and held him in my arms as he was put down.

Rest in peace, old man. You were a legend and always lived by your own rules.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 5

Gentle readers, I am sorry for the slow progress. When I was hesitant to start NaNo, this was the very week I feared: tech week for our show. Still, here are a few words.



A moment later he was in the room, and Mrs. Jennings was making the introduction. How curious it was, to exchange courtesies with a man with a love child! Mrs. Dashwood wondered how often she had made polite conversation with someone with a guilty secret. Perhaps everyone had something to hide, and it had been naive of her all her life to assume that everyone’s life had been as uneventful as hers. And yet, not so: had she not worn the heart of a man who had been in love once before? Was she not even now a widow, cast out of her happy home and forced to rely on the kindness of relatives? But this was no secret, because it was all known to Sir John, and even now Colonel Brandon was saying, “Sir John tells me that you are well-settled in Barton Cottage, and that he has never met such a charming family of ladies in all his life.”

“Sir John’s enthusiasm carries him astray,” Mrs. Dashwood replied, smiling, “for he forgets his own dear wife and mother-in-law.”

“Never in life!” Mrs. Jennings exclaimed. “Lady M. was always too stiff to be charming, and with me the less said the better — though I’m not one to say less. Charlotte is the best of us, would you not say, Colonel?”

“No one can meet Mrs. Palmer without being pleased by her cheerful manner,” said Colonel Brandon, bowing, and try as she might, Mrs. Dashwood could detect no furrowed brow, no flash of eye or flush of cheek, no hint of thwarted love. 

“Mrs. Jennings tells me that you have been in the East Indies, Colonel Brandon,” said Mrs. Dashwood, sitting at a small table near the window. “I would dearly love to hear about parts unknown, for I have never traveled, and my life has been most unthrilling.”

Colonel Brandon sat at the table too. “I am in Mrs. Jennings’s debt,” he said, “for otherwise I would would have been compelled to tell you myself that I had been in the East Indies as one of my few pieces of conversation, and I could not have made it sound half as exciting as she must have done.” His glance toward Mrs. Jennings was amiable, but Mrs. Dashwood wondered if there wasn’t a hint of concern, as if he was wondering what else Mrs. Jennings might have said. 

“There now!” Mrs. Jennings exclaimed. “Own I’ve done you a service, Colonel.” 

“You have already heard me admit it, ma’am,” said the Colonel. 

“I cannot believe,” said Mrs. Dashwood with smile and a shake of her head, “that there is so little romance in the far side of the world that you could make it sound uninteresting. For those always confined to the small circle of home, there is no friend as fascinating as one who can tell of distant lands.”

“And yet for the exile,” said Colonel Brandon, with the hint of a smile of his own, “there is no friend as fascinating as one who can tell of home.”


Friday, November 05, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 4

Each time I sit down to write I have to spend a quantity of time flipping through my copious notes and post-its from several years ago, when I first conceived this project. I'm grateful to have all that analysis (and you can see above all my color-coded tabs, only now I can't remember what the colors mean) at my fingertips. Unfortunately, I didn't make a big master timeline, and now I'm having to put everything together in order. Sense and Sensibility is its own fan fiction, for those who only know the movies -- there are so many little details and hints not followed up on, not worth jamming into the economy of a screen play, even for a several-episode miniseries. 

Plotting a novel, and in particular working in the gaps of an established story like this, is the only place in life I am so methodical and detail-focused in my planning.

I beg your pardon for repeating yesterday's installment at the beginning of today's post, but since it was part of this scene I felt it made sense. 



Though long established in London, the family of Jennings was unknown to society, being notable only for happy marriages and a gift for trading. By means of both, they contrived to build up a minor empire, being of such a merry and forthright disposition as to win the good-will of their neighbors, without provoking the envy that wealth often breeds. When Ned Jennings, a man of no little ambition and foresight, took as his bride a robust lass from the house of one of his City competitors, he married for love as well as policy. And it was love, mostly, which compelled Ned, a man of business in death as in life, to advise his wife as he lay expiring, “Wait until war is declared, Nell, and then buy for all you’re worth.”

And so Nell Jennings, widow, poured out ready money on ‘Change at the trough of the stock market drop in 1803, and reaped the dividends when old Boney flouted the Treaty of Amiens in May. The family’s fortune was so firmly established that she could aspire to the pinnacle of parenthood: educating her children to be as decorative and unfunctional as any scion of nobility. Two handsome daughters survived childhood to be delivered to a finishing school, where the daughters of wealthy merchants and impoverished nobility studied French, manners, and each other’s elder brothers. Pretty Charlotte was married just this past winter (and already increasing!) to a political gentleman named Palmer, and they were an oddly-matched couple: she laughing all the day long, like her mother, and he saying nothing except to contradict, which was how you could tell he was in a good humor. Charlotte would have been better paired with jolly Sir John Middleton, but she was too young when he came courting, and and he was not too fine to refuse Mary, who was an uncommonly handsome girl in her way and always the pink of fashion. Her great school had taught her good-breeding and little else, and if she hadn’t much conversation, her manners were bought and paid for.

So Mrs. Dashwood learned from Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law freshly arrived from her London house, before dinner was even served at Barton Park. 

“I depend on seeing Charlotte here before long. Lord, how she will doat on your girls! I went to her as soon as I heard that Barton Cottage was to be settled by Sir John’s cousins, and not an ugly one in the lot, he said, because Mrs. D had been an uncommonly fine girl in her day, and of course her daughters must favor their mother. And so they do, especially the young lady in the worked muslin.”

“That is Marianne, my second daughter,” said Mrs. Dashwood, trying to find her footing in the kindly sea of Mrs. Jennings’s conversation. Mrs. Jennings had neither a malicious nor a discreet bone in her body. She immediately pressed all new acquaintance to her ample bosom, and at the slightest provocation told them her entire history so that they too could participate in the family memory.

“Three daughters to marry, and no father to broker the deal,” Mrs. Jennings sighed, and to Mrs. Dashwood’s alarm, for she could never see the tears of others without being overcome herself, the good lady dabbed at her eyes with a comically small square of linen. “I know how it is, my dear, for I had to provide for my own girls myself, and Ned not there to carry his share. Many’s the night I sat myself down in a chair and told him he ought to be glad he was not there, for I’d give him such a piece of my mind for leaving me right when the work was hardest and his girls needed him most. But then, I told him not to mind me, and that I’d forgive everything if only he’d come back, no hard feelings. There, there, my dear, I have a fresh hankie, and you’re welcome to it, for often’s the time I’ve worn my own out.” 

“Thank you,” Mrs. Dashwood murmured, accepting the handkerchief with watery gratitude. She and Mrs. Jennings were alone; Lady Middleton had taken Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret to the nursery to meet her children, and Sir John had practically dragged his visitors upstairs, declaring that he knew the children already loved the Misses Dashwoods because he had already told them what fine ladies they were. The two widows sat in the privacy of a huge windowed nook overlooking Barton Park’s lawn, where a gentleman was walking toward the house.

“There now, that’s Col. Brandon,” Mrs. Jennings exclaimed. “Such a well-mannered, grave man, and you would never take him to be such a particular friend of Sir John, as unlike him as he is. But then, who would have guessed that I would put out a daughter like Lady M., forever being correct? There is no accounting for love or friendship, and opposites attract, they do say. I knew the Colonel would be here, for he suffers from a great disappointment, and comes back to the place where he lost his heart.”

“That is most tragic,” said Mrs. Dashwood, attempting to sound politely aloof and only managing to convey a great curiosity to hear more. “But would it not be more prudent to keep far away to avoid renewing the acquaintance? Surely Lady Middleton, who is such a model of good-breeding, would not encourage his visits?”

“Lord love you, it was never Mary!” Mrs. Jennings rocked with merry horror at the thought of anyone pining for the waxen Lady Middleton. “He was quite taken with my Charlotte when he came back from the East Indies, though he never said anything, for she was still at school and he never saw her above twice, though he did invite us to his estate at Delaford when Sir John and Lady Middleton were coming. He was on the point of making an offer, so I heard from Sir John, who dearly wished the connection, as did Lady M., for they hold the Colonel in such great respect that I daresay they are a bit afraid of him. But I wouldn’t have it, you know.” Mrs. Jennings leaned in toward Mrs. Dashwood and lowered her voice as far as she was capable of doing, and Mrs. Dashwood, to her own shock, found herself leaning in to catch every word of this appalling gossip. “You would never guess it to see him now, for he’s the perfect gentleman, and quite forlorn these days, but he has a natural daughter tucked away somewhere in Dorsetshire, whom he adores. I never met her myself, but she comes every now and then to Delaford, and my maid heard from his cook that Miss Williams is a pretty, flighty little thing — much like her mother, I guess, for no one would describe the Colonel as handsome or bright-eyed. Well, a man is a man, and many’s the mistake repented at leisure, but I could not desire the connection for my Charlotte. She was too young then — though not to put too fine a point on it, the Colonel must have been none too old himself when he knew Miss Williams’s mother, for she’s 16 if she’s a day. But truth to tell, the Colonel and Charlotte don’t suit at all. A man needs a sensible wife if he’s to manage a love-child, and no one has ever accused Charlotte of having the least bit of sense. But it’s all a great secret, so I am resolved never to speak of it to anyone.” 

Mrs. Dashwood gazed at the figure on the lawn with fascination. Certainly he did not look a figure of romance. His mild, sun-burnt face was composed more in scholarly preoccupation than along stormy heroic lines. She must remember never to judge by appearances, for if she did she would have relied instantly on his steadiness and character. Her acquaintance with rakes and seducers of women was all but non-existent, but though such villains must win women’s trust with guiles, she felt instantly that this man would merit trust, not compel it. 


Thursday, November 04, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 3

Sorry to be short, chums, but that's the way it has to be, especially this week and next when there is No Time.



Though long established in London, the family of Jennings was unknown to society, being notable only for happy marriages and a gift for trading. By means of both, they contrived to build up a minor empire, being of such a merry and forthright disposition as to win the good-will of their neighbors, without provoking the envy that wealth often breeds. When Ned Jennings, a man of no little ambition and foresight, took as his bride a robust lass from the house of one of his City competitors, he married for love as well as policy. And it was love, mostly, which compelled Ned, a man of business in death as in life, to advise his wife as he lay expiring, “Wait until war is declared, Nell, and then buy for all you’re worth.”

And so Nell Jennings, widow, poured out ready money on ‘Change at the trough of the stock market drop in 1803, and reaped the dividends when old Boney flouted the Treaty of Amiens in May. The family’s fortune was so firmly established that she could aspire to the pinnacle of parenthood: educating her children to be as decorative and unfunctional as any scion of nobility. Two handsome daughters survived childhood to be delivered to a finishing school, where the daughters of wealthy merchants and impoverished nobility studied French, manners, and each other’s elder brothers. Pretty Charlotte was married just this past winter (and already increasing!) to a political gentleman named Palmer, and they were an oddly-matched couple: she laughing all the day long, like her mother, and he saying nothing except to contradict, which was how you could tell he was in a good humor. Charlotte would have been better paired with jolly Sir John Middleton, but she was too young when he came courting, and and he was not too fine to refuse Mary, who was an uncommonly handsome girl in her way and always the pink of fashion. Her great school had taught her good-breeding and little else, and if she hadn’t much conversation, her manners were bought and paid for.

So Mrs. Dashwood learned from Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law freshly arrived from her London house, before dinner was even served at Barton Park.  


Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 2

This image of my notebook has nothing to do with the tone of this story, but it will keep FB from censoring my posts.


“I am hopeful, my loves,” said Mrs. Dashwood, cradling tea steaming in her own familiar china, the set that Fanny had coveted but not won. “There is scope in a cottage. We are now settled, every dear picture and cabinet in its own place, whereas a larger house would have tried our few possessions with room after room of rearranging.”

“It is so small,” said Marianne. “The ritual of tea should be one of elegance and grace, and yet we are all elbows here in the parlor.”

“Parlors at a economical rent are often economically sized,” said Elinor. “And as I am to do the dusting, I could not wish the room an iota larger. Except when Margaret jostles my elbow.”

“You put it in my face,” Margaret rejoined. “Would you prefer that I bit you instead of this sandwich?”

“It is a very conveniently sized apartment,” said Mrs. Dashwood stoutly. “Indeed, I am glad that we are to have the pleasure of planning our own improvements, rather than finding everything arranged to someone else’s taste. My cousin Sir John is to be commended on his good sense in constructing a house on a small, sensible plan and furnishing it so practically. He has overlooked nothing for our comfort — but that is only to be expected; he always was one whose delight was the delight of others.”

“He is certainly consideration itself,” said Elinor cautiously. “I believe he would pack up and send us his entire house if he thought it would give us joy.”

“But he is forever pressing one to visit,” Marianne moaned. “I have no joy in society, and such frolics as Sir John would devise would be odious to any person of taste. Imagine sullying a magnificent country vista with freckled youths playing at pall-mall! Gorging on cold chicken! The soul must revolt.”

“Perhaps, but in the meanwhile the body will enjoy cold chicken,” said Elinor.

“I do believe we could eat entirely at Sir John’s expense,” Mrs. Dashwood said. “Such hampers as he sent us yesterday! Were we to dine with him every night, as he urged, and content ourselves with his garden stuffs for our other meals, we could soon economize enough to improve the house in the new year. Nothing large to start with — a study, perhaps, with a new bedroom above, and we could widen the hall to a tolerable size and put in a staircase of a really elegant design. I wonder what the staircase at Barton Park is like?”

“You may soon know, Mamma,” Margaret declared from the window. “Here’s Sir John back again, helping a   a handsome lady from his carriage. Is she Lady Middleton, do you think? Is that her little boy with her? She must mean to invite us to dinner. Do you think her son has a dog? Sir John is a most doggy gentleman.”

“Oh!” Mrs. Dashwood gazed helplessly around the suddenly inadequate apartment, until that moment so snug. “Elinor, whisk away the tea things! Marianne, your apron! Margaret, put your cap back on!

“She looks like a fashion plate,” said Marianne, stealing a glimpse out of the window. “Even the breeze does not disturb her ribbons.” 

Elinor indulged in a peek. “What does she mean by wearing such clusters of fruit on her hat? French plums! Almonds!”

“Tamarinds!” Margaret breathed. “Can she have studied the plates of exotic fruit in the Encyclop√¶dia?”

“Is it natural to counterfeit fruit growing from one’s head?” Marianne appealed to the room at large, with compassion for any head so afflicted. “I call it a vulgar affection.”

 “You are wrong, Marianne,” her mother said, trying not to stare too obviously over the girls’ shoulders. “It is the most correct and modern taste — I had it in a letter from Miss Edwards but last month — but it is very strange.” 

“Can she be entirely sensible?” Elinor wondered. 

Mrs. Dashwood risked one more glance as Sir John opened the gate for his lady and heir. She could not comment on her benefactress before her daughters, but she had reservations about the good sense of any woman who could dress a small boy, especially one with such a sulky eye, in a profusion of frills. Perhaps the child was to sit for a portrait — it would explain both his dress and his expression. 

Aloud, she said, “We lacked only companionship to make us comfortable here, and here we find our neighbor a lady of refinement. I daresay her conversation will also be a model of taste and education. How fortunate we are, my girls!”


“My love,” said Mrs. Dashwood patiently, “I enter into your feelings. But you must go to dinner at Barton Park, and you will go.”

“I will not!” Marianne sobbed, draped across in the bed in the attitude of a martyr. “Lady Middleton is insipidity itself. She wears tamarinds on her head because it is the fashion. She has no conversation. No passion, no taste afflicts her, no true feeling animates her soul. She is an underbred automaton.”

“What an odd thing to say of a woman who spoke of nothing but her four children,” Mrs. Dashwood murmured, but not softly enough, for Marianne shrieked, “MaMA!” and Elinor breathed a sigh of responsibility and Margaret demanded, “What did you say, Mama? Elinor, tell me what Mamma said!”

“Nothing, Margaret,” said Elinor, pulling Margaret out of the room. Mrs. Dashwood could hear Margaret protesting all the way down the stairs, “But she did say something, because Marianne has taken offense. You tell me I must ask questions, and then when I do you never tell me anything!”

Mrs. Dashwood sat on the bed and rubbed her daughter’s heaving shoulders. “Elinor would counsel you to moderation,” she said gently.

“Elinor knows nothing but moderation,” Marianne wept. “Her behavior is everything upright and unfeeling.”

The precious memory of the private nights of grief when Elinor, at last shut away from the curious eyes of the world, and of her sisters, clung desperately to her mother, caused her mother to breathe carefully for a moment before she replied.

“Marianne, surely you do not claim that Elinor has no feelings? Not everyone displays their heart with as much generosity as you.”

“And as you, Mama. We are so alike. We are not hypocrites — we must show the world what we feel.”

“Marianne,” said her mother in alarm, “our feelings are not always our best guide. Often I was cross with Fanny for her indelicacy, but I could not indulge myself by giving her a hint. I had other considerations to guide me: consideration for John, respect for her position at Norland. “

“But how can my feelings not be true?” wailed Marianne. “I have had the best and truest teachers in the world: you and Papa. How can the hospitality of Sir John and Lady Middleton give me any joy when I recall what genuine felicity there is to be found in a profound union of hearts and minds? He is nothing but affability; she is nothing but good-breeding. They have nothing in common, but they do not fill each other’s lack. Oh, papa! How can I already be forgetting you? To hear you laugh once again! Mama, do you not wish it?”

She had resolved that she would not cry before the girls any more. It was a fault to be so weak before the children, and Henry had often reproached her for it, gently, and with tender words, for he loved her open heart and would not have it hardened. As he lay on his death, he had touched her cheek — oh, the effort it cost him to lift his hand! — and said, “Such tears will grow the grass on my grave, my dear, but if you go on so you will have to buy a sheep to nibble such a well-watered plot.”

“Crying again, Mama?” Elinor said from the door, the patience stretched thin in her voice. “My sister learns her sensibility from you; can she not also learn forbearance from your good example?”


Monday, November 01, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 1

I will live to regret this, but here: Nano 2021, Day 1.


The silence of the carriage was bliss after the strain of the past weeks. Her dear girls, so busy until the last moment with the final details of closing out their life at Norland, were each sunk in her own familiar reverie. Elinor, worn with grief and responsibility, watched the September sky through ever-guarded eyes. Marianne, her eyes ever unguarded, had already dismissed the passing landscape as an outrage to the picturesque, and abandoned herself to the private consolations of bitter memory. Margaret, exhausted with excitement, drowsed the unaccustomed weight of womanhood full on her mother’s shoulder. Mrs. Dashwood refused to resettle her daughter’s heavy head. Each maternal ache and pang was positive comfort after the cold luxury of Fanny’s reign at their beloved Norland.

Tears, never far off these past six months, sprang anew to her eyes at the enormity of her loss. Her faithful, generous, cheerful Henry, who had married once for prudence and once for love. Prudence had produced John, whose main accomplishment in life had been to enrich his mother’s fortune with his wife’s. Love was all the dowry of Elinor Middleton, love her greatest wealth. Fortune had ever smiled on her. She was charming, fresh, and penniless, a younger daughter of a younger son, when Henry Dashwood, a confirmed widower with a little boy, finally overcame the caution taught by his first advantageous marriage enough to dance with her at the assembly. He was a mixed catch, the old gossips warned — heir to Norland when the old man passed, which could be never; only a lifetime interest in his late wife’s fortune, all secured to her son. But Elinor did not weigh estates and incomes. Her first love was born of her first conversation with Mr. Dashwood. They were alike in in the generosity of their impulses, in the delicacy of their tastes, in the hopeful nature they shared. Her youth gave him new vigor; his experience steadied her. Never, never were two souls so nobly entwined! Their marriage had been bliss upon bliss, only augmented by the arrival in due time of each precious girl: Elinor, named of course for her mother; and Marianne, born during a thrilling mania for all things revolutionary; and Margaret, named in honor of old Mr. Dashwood’s maiden sister,  his companion and housekeeper — and a year later the aged lady passed on, leading Mr. Dashwood to invite his nephew’s family to move from cramped Stanhill into Norland, their eventual possession. 

For ten years all the Dashwoods had lived at Norland in perfect familial harmony, with pleasant visits from young John during the holidays. Perhaps if John had been more with them he would have resisted being captured by the glossy likes of Fanny Ferrars. Fanny appeared all that was amiable at first, and Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood were eager to love her for John’s sake. Sweet Marianne, with the fervor of her eleven years, had greeted Fanny with an impulsive embrace, quoting, “A sister! You are she!” Elinor, already the gracious hostess at fourteen, curtseyed gravely and presented Fanny with a fresh bouquet of Norland’s old roses. Fanny smiled becomingly and said, “Yes, of course, you cunning little loves!” and had instantly turned her charm on old Mr. Dashwood, dropping the bouquet in the unprepared arms of Chambers as old Mr. Dashwood gallantly escorted her to the sitting room. Marianne was in high color and Elinor grave with mortification, but both were desirous of John’s happiness and looked anxiously for qualities to love in their new sister. Alas, Fanny gave them little enough to work upon; she laughed and flattered when she spoke to the girls, and immediately dismissed them from her mind the moment she turned away. Mrs. Dashwood was always relieved when she could, in all sincerity, kiss Fanny goodbye and offer her best wishes for a safe and comfortable journey home, with compliments to her dear mother. 

The arrival of little Henry offered new sources of distraction, both pleasant and otherwise. Fanny was a most attentive mother, and could not bear to hear her precious child in distress. All comforts that could be secured to the young man were demanded with maternal urgency. Fanny could hear no reason, and as John’s one matrimonial object was the good humor of his wife, one could drop no hint in his ear. In his early infatuation he had given Fanny free reign, and he had now neither the practice of authority or the true basis of friendship to urge her to moderation.

“Good fortune does not equal good sense,” old Mr. Dashwood used to say, and in his case it had proved only too true. John and Fanny were proof enough of Old Mr. Dashwood's maxim, but in the end he himself had been captivated in his dotage by the small fat grandson of Henry’s first marriage, securing his estate to the little boy in such a way that the children of Henry’s second marriage, the loving family that given every attention to the old bachelor that good cheer and true affection could suggest, were left destitute, poor fatherless girls! 

Of course Norland was Mr. Dashwood’s to live in for the rest of his life, but he had no power to provide for his wife and daughters beyond his own seven thousand pounds, and the thousand pounds apiece old Mr. Dashwood had left his devoted nieces. They were to have improved Norland out of the proceeds of the estate, and set aside enough to provide for wife and daughters after the eventual death of their father. They were to have lived a long and fruitful life in their beloved home, secure in the knowledge that their daughters were as happily married as their parents. In time young Henry would grow to manhood, against all expectation wiser and and with more developed taste than either of his parents, and would come into an estate that had profited from years of attentive management. Mrs. Dashwood, a venerable widow, would remove to the comfortable home of one of her daughters and live out her remaining days amid a passel of grandchildren. 

A year to the day after his uncle’s death made him nominal master of Norland, Mr. Henry Dashwood expired, bathed in the tears of his wife. Dear Fanny had swept in the day after Mr. Dashwood’s funeral, with son and lapdog and other accoutrements of her position as the rightful mistress of Norland. She would never dream of turning them all out, although they had no claim on her, being only Mr. John Dashwood’s step-mother and half sisters. Mrs. Dashwood was to receive every civility in her, except the civility of advance warning of her arrival. Mr. John Dashwood looked on sheepishly as his angel swept through the front rooms, fingering the brocades and eyeing the articles of furniture as Marianne glared eloquently and Elinor stood prudently impassive. Fanny was in a rapture of calculation, speaking now of her delight in being able to give the proper attention to the heirlooms of the Dashwood family, now of sending to London for someone to effect a few minor improvements, encompassing nothing more than a complete alteration and refurnishing of the major apartments in an style elegant enough to require the superfluity of her husband’s increased income. That gentleman was fond enough of his gentle mother and pretty sisters, but he was a man easily mastered. Fanny’s ambition had long supplanted any former moral guide. Dear, dear Fanny, such a suitable wife for poor weak John! Dear, dear John, so like his father in appearance!

If only Elinor had secured Edward Ferrars! Fanny’s visiting brother (invited as soon as she had power of invitation) was nothing like herself: kind, self-effacing, gentle where Fanny was brusque, with the amiability and gentle manners that mark a true gentleman. This alone would have been enough to secure him a place in Mrs. Dashwood’s heart, but the similarity of his disposition to quiet Elinor’s, and the attraction that quickly sprang up between them, filled Mrs. Dashwood with the hope that she thought had died with Henry. She opened her maternal arms to Edward, and he, poor lamb, responded as one who had all his life been deprived of a mother’s kind attentions. And Elinor’s cold reserve was becoming warm spring. Many evenings Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne had withdrawn with significant smiles to the far corner of the room as Elinor and Edward conversed with rational blushes. Marianne, her mother’s child in all but name, now entered fully into her mother’s hopes. Where they had urged each other to greater grief, now they spurred themselves on to matrimonial raptures. Dear Elinor deserved every happiness, and it was inconceivable that two hearts so formed for companionship could be delayed by any bar. 

Bar there was, however. Elinor had made no better use of her time than blushing rationally. Edward had made no declaration. And Fanny, who could notice what pertained to what was hers, believed her brother destined for greater heights than a fortune hunter such as Miss Dashwood. She didn’t use those words. She didn’t need to. Mrs. Dashwood was alive to every nuance of Fanny’s glib remarks. She had only stayed at Norland these six months, dining morning and evening on Fanny’s hostile courtesies, for Elinor’s sake. She would not have her insulted. And see! Here in the post this very day was a letter from dear John Middleton, a cousin whose joviality was undimmed in the fifteen years since he’d last visited her, offering her the rent of his cottage at his estate called (Mrs. Dashwood turned the letter to read the direction) Barton, in Devonshire. Devonshire, Southampton, Worcester — no matter, so long as it was where Fanny was not. Edward would find it in his power to visit, and once the Dashwoods were settled in a charming cottage (with flowers by the door, and perhaps a ruined folly nearby where lovers could find the ardor of their nature enhanced by the gentle melancholy of nature), matters would quickly be resolved away with no interference from his sister’s unkind eye. 

As for the situation of young Mrs. Dashwoood — but she checked herself. Fanny was young Mrs. Dashwood now; her mother-in-law (and not even that, for John, as circumstances had proved, was only her stepson, though she did believe he had some true affection for her despite all Fanny’s machinations) was now simply Mrs. Dashwood, married at eighteen, and now widowed by forty, with three daughters to provide, and only ten thousand pounds between them. There was romance to be found there, if she could grasp at it, but in the constant jolting and tedium of the carriage, she was sensible only of the twinge in her back and the weight on her shoulders.