In the summer of 1791, fifteen-year-old Miss Jane Austen is determined to accomplish three things: to do something useful, write something worthy, and fall madly in love. While visiting at Goodnestone Park in Kent for a month of festivities in honor of her brother’s engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bridges, Jane meets the boy-next-door—the wealthy, worldly, and devilishly handsome Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons Park, and hopefully her heart! Like many of Jane’s future heroes and heroines, she soon realizes that there are obstacles—social, financial, and otherwise—blocking her path to love and marriage, one of them personified by her beautiful and sweet tempered rival, Charlotte Payler.
Unsure of her own budding romance, but confident in her powers of observation, Jane distracts herself by attempting to maneuver the affections of three other young couples. But when her well-intentioned matchmaking efforts turn into blundering misalliance, Jane must choose between following her own happily-ever-after, or repairing those relationships which, based on erroneous first impressions, she has misaligned.
It is the summer of 1791. Jane Austen, aged fifteen, is in Kent to celebrate the engagement of her brother Edward Austen to Miss Elizabeth Bridges. Although Jane is not yet “out,” her mother has allowed her to attend a ball at Goodnestone Park, home of the Bridges family, and let her follow the fashion by powdering her hair for the first time. Jane is very attracted to a cousin of the Bridgeses, Edward Taylor, and has been hoping all evening that he would ask her to dance.
The ball-room was grown very hot now, and as we moved down the line I was all in a glow; the air was close as well, from the exertion of so many dancers. Even so, by the next set, I was so enjoying myself, that I believe I could have partnered with anybody and been content; and it was that moment that Edward Taylor materialised at my elbow with a smile, and said:
“May I have the honour of the next dance, Miss Jane?”
With his gleaming natural hair, he stood apart from everyone else in the room, an effect which was startling but not at all displeasing; indeed, I could not deny that he looked very handsome.
“You may, Mr. Taylor,” replied I, adding in my mind: I thought you would never ask.
I happily took Edward Taylor’s arm, we moved into line, the music started up, and the set began. From the very first moment—the graceful manner in which he danced and held his arms, and the commanding way his eyes held contact with mine through every step and rotation—it became clear that he was a far more skilful and experienced partner than anyone else with whom I had engaged that evening.
As the formations permitted, we engaged in the following conversation:
“I have been hoping to dance with you all evening, mademoiselle,” commented he.
“Every time I looked, you were already engaged.”
“I did not avoid you by design.”
“I am glad to hear it. Do I understand correctly that this is your first ball?”
“You surprise me. I would have thought you a veteran.”
“I have had a lesson or two, sir. As have you, I would wager?”
“One or two.”
“No doubt your father engaged dancing-masters for you since you were very small?”
“And I suppose you have spent many years dancing in the ball-rooms of Europe?”
“Guilty as charged.—But none were more pleasant than this one—and no partner was ever more skilled or becoming.”
“You are a great flatterer, sir.”
“I speak only the truth.”
“Indeed? You said something earlier which puzzled me.”
“Pray, what was that?”
“You remarked that I look very noble.”
“And indeed you do.”
“I cannot tell if that is a compliment or a criticism.”
“No. Ordinarily, noble implies—”
I was unable to complete my statement, for the dance ended with the usual courtesies, and a second dance immediately followed, its movements involving a group of six people, and so complex as to prevent further conversation. When we had finished the set (which afforded me more pleasure than I could have imagined), the musicians took an interval, and Edward Taylor inquired as to whether I would like a glass of punch. Having acquired same from a table in the central hall, we were lingering in a corner to sip the beverage, when I returned to the question which I had put to him earlier.
“With regard to our previous discussion—I cannot decide if I like being called noble.”
“Why not? I should think it flattering to be compared to an aristocrat or patrician.”
“Had someone else uttered the remark, or had you made it in a different way, perhaps it might have been flattering; but not the way you said it.”
“Oh?” He looked at me directly, but did not reply; he seemed to be attempting to take a measure of my thoughts, before formulating his own response. I continued:
“Pray forgive me, for I do not mean to seem impertinent; I know you are acquainted with, perhaps good friends with, many people from the noble class, as well as from the royal families of Europe—”
He nodded silently, waiting to hear what I had to say.
I rushed on. “Although I have had less exposure to such persons myself, I have been taught all my life to have the greatest respect for them. And yet, certain things I have read and heard have led to me to imagine that class to be filled with many self-important people, who believe themselves to be far above the rest of us, although in truth the only thing which sets them apart is the accident of their birth.”
My comment seemed to take Edward Taylor by surprise; he laughed. “You are a bold young lady, Miss Jane.”
“Am I? Why? Have I shocked you?”
“On the contrary; you have put into words my own thoughts exactly; feelings which certain of my brothers and I have shared for a great many years, but have never been allowed to express openly with anyone else, other than each other.”
“Then you do have an antipathy towards the noble class?”
“Not an antipathy, no; not at all.” Noting that my glass was empty, he inquired as to whether I wished more, and upon receiving a negative reply, he graciously relieved me of it, and returned both empty vessels to the table. “I have found many people of rank and title to be very amiable,” continued he, “but I have met enough of them, and known them well enough, to understand their weaknesses and see through their pretences. I cannot look up to them as a sort of divine presence, as some do. At heart I feel their equal, just as you do.”
It was pleasing to learn that we shared this point of view, yet it still did not answer my primary question. “Did you truly mean to flatter me, then, when you called me noble? Or, as I suspect, was there some other, less than charitable intent behind the word?”
He regarded me with a deep and thoughtful expression, and at length said:
“Perhaps, although I was unconscious of it at the time, there is something in what you say; for although I would never deliberately wish to give offence to you or anyone else, there are certain practices of the noble set which I find less than appealing—and one practice in particular, which is very much in evidence to-night.”
I thought I could guess the practice to which he referred; and the particular direction of his next, brief glance confirmed it. “I take it you mean—hair powdering?”
“Then—you did not powder your hair to-night as some kind of—protest?”
“You could call it that. I prefer to think of it as the expression of a personal conviction.”
“A conviction? Please explain yourself. What is wrong with hair powdering?”
“What is right with it?”
“It is beautiful.”
“Beauty is a matter of taste.”
“But—everyone does it.”
“Not everyone; only those who can afford it. Hair-powder is expensive. It is an affectation of the upper classes.”
“You call it an affectation; others call it fashion.”
“And what is fashion, but mannerisms, styles, and clothing which are generally determined by royalty or the wealthy, and imitated by everyone who has the means? Look at all the heads around us, Miss Jane. Everyone looks exactly the same! God gave us hair in such a range of exquisite, natural shades and textures; why cover up that beauty with a wig, or defile it with powder? Particularly white or gray powder, which makes everyone look so incredibly ancient.”
“I never thought about that before.”
“The whole thing has always seemed rather silly to me.”
“Perhaps it is silly.” I shrugged. “But—silly things do not appear quite so silly, when they are done by a sizeable number of rational-seeming people all at the very same time.”
To celebrate the release of Jane Austen’s First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!
To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Blog Tour.
Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie’s unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter.