Helping out an elderly great-aunt in Derbyshire
The Last House in Lambton, by Grace Gibson, is a variation on Pride and Prejudice. After the Netherfield party leaves for London, Mrs. Bennet is still miffed with Elizabeth over refusing Mr. Collins. Elizabeth sees her near future home life looking unpleasant, so she asks her father to let her accompany Jane to London to stay with their aunt and uncle Gardiner.
While they’re visiting, Mrs. Gardiner receives a letter from her elderly aunt in Lambton, and becomes concerned for her. The older woman’s housekeeper is to be away for weeks, and she’s not sure she can get on without her. Mrs. Gardiner doesn’t want to leave her children for such a length of time. So Elizabeth volunteers to go help out. At first her uncle objects, but he finally gives in, and Elizabeth plans to set off to Derbyshire. When she inquires of her aunt what her duties are likely to be, she’s told she shouldn’t likely have much more to do than pay out wages, decide what will be served for dinner, and support Mrs. Jennings as a companion.
At this point, in this variation, Lizzy has no idea that Pemberley is only five miles from Lambton. In fact she has no desire or expectation to ever see Mr. Darcy again.
But this is not companionship, it’s drudgery
She soon learns that she will have to be much more than a companion for a lonely old lady. Mrs. Jennings, her great-aunt by marriage, is terribly disabled by memory loss. She can’t recall who someone is without constant reminders, and she’s quite feeble. She’s become so dependent on the housekeeper, Mrs. Burke, that Lizzy wonders if the housekeeper has been writing her letters for her. There is marketing and some cooking that Elizabeth is expected to do, in spite of a surly full-time cook on the premises. She has never had to do either task in her life, but she assures Mrs. Burke she will manage.
The shopkeepers in town see her inexperience at once and take mean advantage of it, and she’s soon burdened with more stinking tallow candles than she can use, a burnt pot she attempted to use to make pork jelly and ruined, and a nosy neighbor woman whom she has yet to learn used to run a brothel. The cook seems always on the verge of quitting her job. The two house maids have more work than they can manage, so Elizabeth has to pitch in with their work as well, if she wants the house truly clean, and her elderly aunt requires a lot of care.
Who is Mrs. Reynolds?
Lizzy is soon exhausted and unable to cope with her situation. One day, in a shop, she spies a capable-looking woman wearing a coat of quality, talking to the shopkeeper in an authoritative manner. She’s so impressed with her that after the woman leaves, Lizzy asks who that was.
‘”Mrs. Reynolds. She is housekeeper at the great house.”
‘”The squire’s housekeeper?”
‘”No, miss. She keeps Pemberley.”‘
Shocked, Elizabeth inquires as to Pemberley’s location. A day later she decides to beg some advice from Mrs. Reynolds, certain that she will not encounter any of the family if she’s just there to see the housekeeper.
One of the best I’ve read this year
This is one of those stories that had me so anxious to know what would happen next that I sped through it. It’s written from two different first-person points of view, alternating between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The times of their sections of the story sometimes overlap, so sometimes we read the same scene, first from one’s point of view and then from the other’s, and I found that interesting because their perceptions were different. But it’s not presented in a way that seems at all repetitive, and only a few scenes are repeated that way. This is one of the best P&P variations I’ve read this year, possibly ever.