A TENDER MR. DARCY…A VULNERABLE ELIZABETH BENNET
Elizabeth Bennet is in dire straits. Desperate for guidance, she hides her identity as a female before appealing to a knowledgeable and highly recommended gentleman from Derbyshire for advice.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is pleased to aid the young man from Hertfordshire. E.R. Bennet asked reasonable questions in a well-crafted letter. Traveling to the area to stay with a friend, Darcy is eager to make the acquaintance of the despondent landowner.
Neither Miss Elizabeth Bennet nor Mr. Darcy is what the other expected. Both are offended and angry. Can they find their way through rough challenges to achieve their happily ever after? Of course they can. This is Mr. Darcy and his Elizabeth.
Field of Dreams is a Regency variation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice that is appropriate for all readers.
22 January 1811
Please allow me to introduce myself. I am E.R. Bennet from Longbourn in Hertfordshire. I was provided your name by my aunt, Mrs. Madeline Gardiner, who grew up as Miss Carrington in the small community of Lambton. Her praise of the Darcy family’s ability to efficiently manage an estate plus your reputation, and that of your father, of being responsible stewards of the land, is my motive for writing to you.
Two months ago, my beloved father fell ill, leaving the responsibility of managing our property to me. In truth, until that time, I was more concerned with finding enjoyment in life rather than worrying about my livelihood. Therefore, I was caught unawares and found to be, for the most part, unskilled and unprepared. Yet, I am eager to learn and apply good counsel. I am also well aware that arduous work and long hours are required
These past months the good people of Meryton have taken it upon themselves to advise me on almost every decision a property owner needs to make. Since much of the information is conflicting, I find that I require a source who is not influenced by longstanding ties to my family and Longbourn.
Our circumstances are not yet dire. With that said, I will do all within my power to see that they never become so. Bennets have lived at Longbourn for two centuries. We are a large family of seven. I am the second eldest. My sisters Jane, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia believe my father’s illness is temporary. Only my mother and I have been apprised of his true situation. Despite hearing the words directly from the mouth of a physician, my mother denies their truth, imagining that all will soon be well. According to the doctor, my father’s decline will likely be long and slow if nothing untoward happens. But decline he will. Should he suffer another spell, his end will be far sooner. For this, I am unprepared. I share these personal details so you will have a thorough understanding of our circumstances.
Longbourn has four tenants who intend, again, to sow the whole of their acreage with wheat. It was also the intention of the home farm to do the same. The acreage of our total property is 182, by the Falmouth measurements (that of 4,840 yards of 36”). Our soil is rich and well-irrigated. Our buildings are sound. The tenants appear healthy and content with their annual yields (approximately 48 pounds per square foot), and quarter rents are paid on time.
My concern is this: in my young lifetime (I will reach my majority in November), I recall the fear and financial upheaval from the crop failures of 1799 and 1800. While we had enough grain and game to feed our family and those dependent upon us, there were no crops to sell nor rents to collect. I am not asking you to predict the weather or speculate if we will have too much rain. Rather, I need and want to know how to diversify to protect the soil during harsh weather and provide an income source should there be another failure.
My father has an extensive library of agricultural treatises by well-known science enthusiasts. During these past two months, I have read them all. Of the information available, the rotation of various annual crops to protect the nutrients in the soil appealed to me. Providing adequate drainage would prevent heavy rains from accumulating until we have lakes rather than planted fields. Planting cover crops, reducing tillage, and integrating livestock with the crops have also been suggested. Are these procedures you have implemented at Pemberley? Have you met with success? If I might be so bold, what else would you recommend for a property our size to have a stable foreseeable future?
My goal is a more profitable yield in the face of rising costs, volatile grain markets, and unpredictable weather. The rainfall rates in our portion of Hertfordshire since 31 October 1810 have been within the normal range (as stated by most landowners who have resided here for more than four decades.)
Sir, I understand that you are a busy man. You are under no obligation to respond. However, my aunt respects and trusts your family implicitly. Since I feel the same about her, I will trust you as well.
Elizabeth sanded, folded, and sealed the missive before she could change her mind about sending it by express. The quicker her letter arrived in Derbyshire, the home of the Darcys, the sooner she might gain the information if, indeed, Mr. Darcy were to reply.
“Lizzy, it would not do for anyone to discover that you, an unattached lady, had corresponded with a man wholly unrelated to us.” Her eldest sister, Jane, was always a model of propriety and kindness.
“You are correct. However, who else should I ask?” Elizabeth splayed her fingers, tapping on them one at a time as she continued. “Uncle Gardiner is one of the wisest men I know, but he knows little of farming. Sir William Lucas hardly knows enough to keep his fields productive. Yet, he suggested we let the land rest until Father recovers or, better yet, allow our closest neighbors, which happens to be the Lucases, to farm Longbourn’s fields, keeping any profit from their efforts. Mr. Haniger, the blacksmith, who holds no land other than that under his forge and stables, suggested we lease the fields to others so they could increase their annual revenue. The rents he suggested would not have provided two months’ income for Longbourn. Of course, his ‘friends’ who aim to skim the cream from rich farmlands provide a motive for his offer.” She dropped her palm to the desk. “Must I continue?”
Jane’s eyes dropped to her hands clasped in her lap. “I had not thought our neighbors could be…thoughtless.”
Poor Jane. Their father’s illness affected each family member differently. For the eldest Bennet, careless comments of others had marred her view that individuals acted empathetically.
Since the inception of their father’s illness, when Elizabeth had taken on the responsibility for the estate, criticisms heaped upon her had weighed on her slim shoulders. She was not anticipating bearing another attack from anyone in the community. With that said, her courage rose with every effort to intimidate her. She would not fail.
“If our circumstances and the conduct of the neighborhood means approaching a stranger for guidance rather than heeding the varied recommendations of those we have known for our lifetimes, I will do it with no regrets.”
Elizabeth had been shocked at how old family friends were willing to take advantage of her father’s illness. No, the best thing for the Bennets and Longbourn was an impartial voice, one who had no interest in filling his own coffers from someone else’s holdings.
When someone tapped at her father’s bookroom door, she pushed the missive under a stack of farm journals. “Come.”
Hill, their long-suffering housekeeper, ushered her uncle, Ralph Phillips, within.
Instantly, Elizabeth could feel the blood pounding at the base of her neck. Bile surged from her stomach to the back of her throat.
Jane retreated to another room, leaving her alone to face the hungry lion.
“Now Lizzy, it is hardly fitting for a female to sit at a desk to review an estate’s accounts. Either permit me to take the reins, managing Longbourn from my office or convince your father to allow me to correspond with the gentleman who will inherit Longbourn once Thomas leaves this mortal coil. If my information is correct, the heir is a single man who is likely in want of a capable wife. If I promoted you to him, your future and Longbourn would be secured.”
Ire threatened to overwhelm Elizabeth. Until her father’s illness, Elizabeth considered her uncle a fair man. Despite his being married to her mother’s eldest sister, who was a fountain of gossip and silliness, he had presented a long-suffering, respectable persona to others. However, since Thomas Bennet’s apoplexy, her uncle’s true nature was exposed as both covetous and belligerent, as if the only person qualified to rule over her family’s estate was himself.
“Elizabeth, your presumptuousness astounds me.” Rolling his eyes, her uncle confessed, “In fact, I have been in contact with Longbourn’s heir since the report of Thomas’ health became known in Meryton. Mr. Collins requested that I look after his interests in his stead.”
“Uncle, your presumptuousness astounds me!” Speaking through gritted teeth, her hands clenching the edge of her father’s desk, she assessed the damage the paperweight might do if she flung it at his forehead. Controlling her urge, she stated instead, “As I have told you daily since father’s illness, Papa is satisfied with the way matters are being cared for at Longbourn. His continued guidance is invaluable. His wisdom is sound.” Elizabeth knew her words were only partially true. Her father had more bad days than good. But her uncle did not need to know that information.
“He will not always be here. Longbourn is entailed to the male heirs. Unless you marry Mr. William Collins, you and your sisters will be tossed to the hedgerows. You need a man, a whole man, to make decisions for the future of Longbourn and your family, not your ailing father.”
Her fingers curled into her palm, the nails biting into her skin. “We are managing well enough on our own.” A sudden urge to kick him in the shin while wearing her sturdy walking boots almost drove her to act.
“Lizzy, if you believe that Agnes and I will take the five of you girls and your mother in, you are very much mistaken. We simply could not afford to make the gesture. However”—he drew the word out, his tone and expression changing to a greedy sneer— “with a healthy harvest, the money would supplement anyone who provided you a home. Perhaps then, Agnes and I might offer you lodging until we could find husbands for all of you, including your mother.”
“Uncle!” Elizabeth nearly snarled. “Any profits will be needed for seed for the next year, repairs to the tenant cottages, and the upkeep of this house. What is left would be for our needs alone.”
“Pshaw! You know nothing,” her uncle mocked. “I have taken it upon myself to suggest to the merchants of Meryton that they stop issuing credit to your mother and sisters for needless expenses like ribbons and lace. The butcher was told to deliver smaller cuts of meat since your father cannot partake as he had done prior. As well, there should be no more deliveries from the bookseller since there is no need to add to a library that is already full.” He gestured around the room.
“You have no right!” Elizabeth hissed between clenched teeth. Standing erect, she steadied herself. Only then did she speak. “As long as my father lives, I will take advice solely from him. He will not be pleased that you have attempted to usurp his authority. You will need to answer to him.”
“I would like to. Allow me to see him,” he said.
Never! “He is not yet dressed for visitors, Uncle.”
“You said the same yesterday and the day before. Tell me, Elizabeth Rose, when will I be able to see Thomas?” His eyelids squinted as his lips pressed together. “What are you hiding from me, Niece?”
Forcing herself to appear relaxed, she said, “Nothing at all. The doctor recommends that Papa rest. It is the responsibility of my mother and sisters to see that he follows doctor’s orders.”
“I shall hunt down this doctor you called in from London to have him tell you to allow me to see my brother-in-law.”
Over my dead body! Elizabeth thought. “Do what you must.” Stepping around the desk, she opened the door, signaling it was time for him to leave.
“You are acting the queen of the manor. I will not have a little miss thwart my plans. I will be back.”
Without saying adieu, he stomped from the house.
Slumping against the doorway, Elizabeth closed her eyes. The same battle had been fought daily for the past two months. She was weary. Nevertheless, she was not yet willing to yield. Straightening her shoulders, she admitted that she was as determined on day sixty as she had been on day one.
“Fitzwilliam, I am fatigued by all this nothingness.”
Georgiana Darcy placed the back of her wrist on her forehead in as theatrical a move as she had ever done in his presence. Dropping into the chair in front of his desk, she continued. “It is this rain. I cannot stroll the garden paths nor take my horse for a gallop across the fields. I have read every book on my shelf at least three times. All my friends remain in London, and you have no time for me with all the letters of business you receive.” She pouted, pointing to the stack on his desk. “Mightn’t you have something to ease my misery? Anything?”
He wanted to laugh. Rarely was his sister dramatic. The simple truth was that he felt exactly the same until he had broken the seal and read the letter on top of the pile. The business of Pemberley was routine. Requests for him to share his assets were ridiculously the same. However, the letter he was reading intrigued him. It was quite different from the usual petitions for his aid.
“Georgie, I believe you arrived at the perfect time.” Standing, he waved the parchment at her as he stepped around the desk and seated himself next to her. “This is an unusual plea from a young gentleman in Hertfordshire. I have rarely read a petition for help as sincere as this one from Mr. E.R. Bennet.” Handing the letter to his sister, he waited while she read it through.
She asked, “Do you know any Bennets in Hertfordshire?”
“I do not.”
“Hmm.” Turning the paper to skim the reverse side, she mumbled, “Poor man.” When she finished the final sentence, she placed the letter on her lap. “There is no one in England more qualified to help him, Brother. You, too, were left the management of an estate just months after reaching your majority. You received advice from others.”
He remembered many heated discussions with his uncle Hugh about how business needed to be conducted at Pemberley. Hugh Fitzwilliam’s age, title as earl of Matlock, and strong personality tried to coerce Darcy to bend to his will. His efforts failed.
Georgiana leaned closer. “Do you remember those dark days after we lost father? I do! You wore misery like a cloak despite your determination to succeed. I longed to step in and help while not having one idea what I could have done. You need to aid to this young man while his father is failing, Fitzwilliam.”
“I agree.” Darcy easily recalled when their father succumbed to a sudden illness five years earlier. The physician told Darcy later that George Darcy’s weakened heart had plagued his health for years, something the master of Pemberley kept hidden from his children.
Plucking the parchment from his sister, Darcy admitted that he was impressed with the careful disclosure of the letter’s author. Where he had revealed more details about his family than Darcy would have done to a stranger, the circumstances were such that it was necessary. Bennet had not whined. Nor had he begged for Darcy to ride in on a white horse to save the day. No, the young man intended to take control of his own property, something Darcy could respect.
“Do you remember any of this Carrington family from Lambton? I do not recall the name.” Georgiana asked.
Darcy rubbed his chin. “Mr. Carrington had the bookstore for many years. Our father was a frequent customer. By the time you came along, and I was at Eton, the shop was sold. I do not recall seeing a daughter when I visited Carrington’s.”
Georgiana tipped her head back and closed her eyes, an expression of lovely serenity on her face. “I wonder if he is handsome.” Her eyes opened wide, catching her brother staring at her. “He does sound handsome, does he not?”
“Georgiana!” Darcy was stunned. Was not it a mere year prior that he had handed her over to the headmistress?
“You should not be thinking about young men,” Darcy said to his sister’s arched look. “There are many months before you reach your sixteenth year, and you have at least two years before your bow to the Queen. I will not have you thinking about boys in the meantime, dear girl. You are simply too young!”
“Tell me you did not think about the fair sex when you were my age, Fitzwilliam George Darcy, and I will call you a storyteller.”
Darcy replied. “Why is it that you allow only me to see this impertinent side? Aunt Helen and Uncle Hugh believe you to be as timid as a mouse. Lady Catherine fears there is something wrong with your ability to speak since you never utter a word in her presence. Even Bingley has commented to me that he wishes his sisters were as reticent as you. Little do they know who the real Georgiana Darcy is.”
“Hah!” Georgiana said, “I learn much from observation, dear brother. One of these days, I will watch you trip over your tongue when you meet a lady worthy of you.”
“Do not be so confident, Georgie, for I will watch you like a hawk whenever a young pup comes sniffing around you and your dowry. As for myself, when it is time for me to marry, I will select an appropriate candidate approved by my peers. My self-control is legendary. You will see nothing untoward in my courtship. Now, I shall pen a reply to Mr. E.R. Bennet. We need to help him to keep his head above water.”
Elizabeth broke open the seal. While she hoped to hear from Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, she had not imagined him taking the time from his own business to actually put ink to paper. The thickness of the missive indicated it was not a denial of help.
25 January 1811
I am in receipt of your letter dated 22 January.
First, please allow me to extend my sympathies due to the severe illness of your father. I lost my own beloved father five years ago, inheriting Pemberley far earlier than I hoped.
Next, I applaud you for reading the advice of experts in the scientific field. Your conclusion that drainage and crop rotation are viable for the size of your property is correct, in my studied belief.
Here are some points to consider should you keep your land in wheat (and other details):
1. Once you have satisfied the needs of your home and those dependent upon you, be cautious where you take the remainder of your harvested crop to market. When someone offers you a price per bushel, know that the bushel weight the merchants demand varies between locations. For example, at Worcester and Gloucester, a bushel is 62 pounds. At Shrewsbury, it is 75 pounds. Wakefield, Doncaster, and Manchester are 60 pounds. At Saltash, it is eight gallons. At Dundalk, it is 20 stone. At Hertford, it is sold by the load at five bushels. I have enclosed a chart my steward keeps current so that you know wheat prices from the markets of autumn 1810.
2. From your letter, I concluded that you do not have a steward or man of business in your employ who has contacts in the agricultural markets. Does your father have a trusted man who can negotiate for you? From experience, I can tell you that they will see your youth and hound you until you desire nothing more than to be done with the business at hand. You need every shilling to go into your coffers, not those of a greedy merchant. Is there a family friend nearby who can accompany you to the sales?
3. Take the time to gain as much vital information from your father as possible before he can no longer communicate—hopefully, he is not at that place already. You will have no regrets. Instead, you will have his wisdom and guidance to sustain you and ease your doubts during the next few years. Be bold! Ask where any money is stashed away and about any personal and business investments. Get as many details written down as possible under your present circumstances. It would be devastating to get rid of your father’s ugly padded chair only to discover later that pound notes or title deeds were hidden in the cushions.
4. Learn and practice economy now. You indicated that you have family members who do not know the full extent of your father’s illness. I cannot stress enough how unfair this is to them. My sister, who was a newborn when our mother died and the age of ten when we lost our father, agrees heartily. She is peering over my shoulder as I write this letter and tells me that had she known of Father’s struggles, she would have spent more time with him. It is one of her greatest regrets. Now, it is also one of mine.
Keeping this from your family is also unfair to you since it places unreasonable demands upon your estate. Tell them now. Help them to understand that the family’s circumstances have forever changed. They will eventually be grateful that you trusted them, and you will have one less burden on your shoulders. A burden shared makes it lighter.
5. Since Hertfordshire soil can grow almost any crop during the regular planting season, your idea of diversifying is sound. Did you plant late autumn vegetable crops? Winter gardening is a risky business, yet it can be worth the effort and cost. Plants like beets, carrots, and parsnips—any plant with a vibrant red or purple color—are more resistant to rot caused by winter rains. Hearty greens usually survive. Keeping the standing rainwater off them is critical. Drainage, although it requires a lot of work and expense, is a must. Despite this, think of what these crops will add to your larder. Although root crops often lose their tops and their growth will be slowed by the frost, they can supplement your dependents and livestock, if needed. Any extra can be sold when harvested in the spring, mitigating the seed cost. (I have provided a list of crop prices for the wide variety of grains harvested in the autumn of 1810 by shire.)
6. You failed to mention your livestock. Do you raise sheep? Cattle? Poultry? Goats? Do you have servants who can tend to diseased or wounded animals?
I will stop here before you are overwhelmed and wishing you had not contacted me. Please know that I am available and willing to give whatever assistance I can via letter.
Wishing you the best in your endeavors,
Elizabeth unfolded the two charts he provided. Running her finger from the top of each column to the bottom, she almost wept tears of joy. Although it was so much to take in at one time, she was up to the task.
This was what she needed.
Holding the letter close to her chest, she left her father’s study and approached his upstairs chambers. If he was awake, she would make sure he heard every word of the advice shared by Mr. Darcy. Hopefully, it was one of her father’s good days.
Tapping lightly on his chamber door, she waited for Mr. Hill. Like his wife, Longbourn’s butler was a long-time faithful servant.
As the door opened, Mr. Hill nodded his head. It was one of the rare days when her father was alert.
“Papa, Mr. Darcy replied to my letter.” Would her father appreciate what sounded to her like the voice of reason? Would it be difficult for him to hear the personal advice on their family affairs? She had never mourned the absence of a steward at Longbourn until her father’s illness. Was he regretting his earlier choice to keep the position vacant to save money? Whatever the case, it was too late now. Taking in a quick breath, she began to read.
“Smart…man,” her papa said as soon as she finished.
A portion of Elizabeth was relieved that her father also appreciated the advice. The other portion resented that she could not accomplish everything on her own. It was her least favorite aspect of her character, that bold insistence that she knew everything she needed to know.
“Where should I begin?” she asked her father?
“Tell…fam…il…ly.” Once said, her father closed his eyes, his raspy breathing the only sound in his chambers.
“Very well. I will speak to Mama and the others immediately.” Elizabeth vowed to address Mr. Darcy’s points one at a time. Dreading what must be conveyed, she returned downstairs.