I have often thought of Pride and Prejudice as the ultimate fairy tale. While it does not have the traditional folkloric fantasy figures such as dwarves, fairies or giants, Jane Austen did create iconic romantic characters that have become prototypes for modern writers and a plot that includes the perfect happily-ever-after ending. It is easy to see why we want to return to that fantasy and live in the era with her characters again and again through new stories.
Austenesque author Jane Odiwe has written two Austen-inspired novels with strong fantasy elements: Project Darcy and Searching for Captain Wentworth. She has a particular talent for time-slip novels where a modern heroine, like her fairy tale compatriots—Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella or Belle in Beauty and the Beast—are touched by a magic that changes their lives, setting them on a course of discovery and romance. Her latest is a novella, Mr. Darcy’s Christmas Calendar, is set during the holiday season in modern day and Regency England. Jane has generously supplied an exclusive excerpt of her new work. I hope you enjoy it.
A novella for the Christmas holidays – Lizzy Benson visits Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, and buys a special advent calendar in the gift shop, but strange things start to happen when she opens up the first door and finds herself back in time with all the beloved characters from her favourite book, Pride and Prejudice. As she finds herself increasingly drawn into an alternate reality, Lizzy discovers not only is Mr Darcy missing from the plot, but Jane Austen has never heard of him. All Lizzy can hope is that she can help to get the story and her own complicated love life back on track before Christmas is over!
When Lizzy awoke next morning, she couldn’t think where she was at first. And then she remembered that she was lying in Jane Austen’s bed, and that the whole reason she was there was because she’d bought an Advent calendar in the shop at Jane Austen’s house. The memories of the day and evening before slowly returned. None of it seemed to make any sense, and the idea that she’d somehow passed into some unknown and strange reality was a growing concern. Ever since she was a little girl Lizzy had always felt there was a fine line between what she imagined and what was real. Spending a good amount of time in her imagination, whether daydreaming or in reading books meant that reality and fantasy were often blurred in her mind. But nothing had ever felt so real as the strange episode she was now experiencing. Never before had her mind co-operated quite so much with bringing to life the worlds she’d often visualised. Every detail had been thought of, but she could not think her brain quite capable of summoning up the mended patches on the curtains, or able to supply a darkening stain on the ceiling by the window where it seemed ice water was seeping in through a hole in the roof. It would probably be better if she didn’t think about it too much, Lizzy decided, and she really would have to make an effort to get home today, she thought, her mother would be worried to death. But, one glimpse at the window told her there’d been no cessation in the weather. Snow was falling thick and fast, and pulling at the bedclothes to trap in the warmth, she hoped she wouldn’t be stuck there for another whole day.
As she lay there familiarising herself with every last feature of the room, she heard the sound of a pianoforte being played. It must be Elizabeth or Jane practising, she thought, and Lizzy remembered reading that Jane Austen loved to play before breakfast. Whoever was playing sounded very accomplished to her ears, and the tunes were very pretty, some longer concertos, and others quite short songs. When it stopped, she decided it must be time to get up, but wasn’t quite sure whether she should attempt to do that herself or wait for the maid to come in. Swinging her legs out of bed, she sat on the side and listened to the sounds of the little clock on the mantle, a soothing sound that made her feel as if she might easily be hypnotised.
Lizzy’s eyes were drawn to the Advent calendar propped up against the looking glass on the dressing table. Number four was shining with a bright white light bursting from its centre like a Christmas star, and it looked far too inviting to ignore. Lizzy fetched it and opened the door, gasping when she saw the picture inside. It looked rather like her, the painting of the girl who stood observing her reflection, and the longer she stared, and the more she thought about Miss Lizzy Benson depicted in a beautiful ball gown, the more she found herself drawn into the painting. And just moments later, it was as if, like Alice in Wonderland, she’d shrunk, closed up like a telescope until small enough to pass through the tiny door, but it was done so seamlessly and swiftly, in such a blink of an eye that it was impossible to know how it had happened at all.
Lizzy admired herself in the glass. She looked just as if she’d stepped out from a period production on television, rather like Elizabeth Bennet herself, she thought gleefully. The gown was quintessentially Georgian, made of fine cambric embroidered with a panel of whitework leaves and flowers tumbling down the front and along the hem. There were puffed sleeves, cut to show off her slender arms, and a white satin sash tied at empire height made her appear tall and elegant. Her hair was twisted up behind, and dressed in curls, garlanded with a band of white sarcenet and pale pink roses. A pair of elbow-length gloves, a fan of silk and mother-of-pearl, and a reticule on silken strings were the final accessories chosen to show off her dress, complementing the beautiful pendant round her neck.
It was getting dark outside, and though she felt quite excited about the turn in events, she also felt more than a little worried. Mrs Bennet had said she could telephone her mother, and at the very least, that was what she must do next. Lizzy could not find a single light switch, and resorted to picking up the only candlestick, whose candle was rather badly illuminating the room, as the light was fading. It really did make the place feel very authentic, but never before had she appreciated electricity so much. It was easy to see how the writers of the past were so inspired to write gothic tales of ghostly happenings and ghoulish goings-on. She thought how much more her senses seemed alerted in the dark with only the flickering flame lighting her way. Tiptoeing down the creaking wooden staircase, she frightened herself rather badly once or twice as her own shadow loomed and shrank against the walls like a cowering thief in the night, waiting to pounce.
She found the telephone in the hallway, an object she hadn’t noticed being there before and quite incongruous in this setting, which in every other respect made her feel as if she’d travelled back in time. An antique item that looked like a model from the 1930s, Lizzy didn’t feel very hopeful on picking up the receiver as all she could hear at the other end were crackling and clicking noises, certainly not like any telephone tone she’d ever heard at home. Inserting her index finger, she set about dialling the number, each turn of the black and white numbered dial swiftly whirring back into place. Then she waited to hear the ringing tone but heard nothing, not a sound, so she tried again thinking she must have dialled incorrectly. It was no use; the line was completely and utterly dead. Still, perhaps Mrs Bennet might know what to do and would help her.
‘Are you ready?’
Lizzy recognised the brusque voice that barked out of the darkness and she turned guiltily, as if caught out doing something she shouldn’t. He loomed out of the shadows, and for the second time Lizzy actually thought that if Mr Williams didn’t look so disapproving he might be considered almost handsome. He was dressed ready to face the cold night air, the cloak he wore made him appear taller than ever and his broad shoulders were just the kind she would admire on anybody else. She really didn’t want to ask him to help her, but if she didn’t telephone her mother soon, there wouldn’t be another opportunity.
‘I can’t seem to get the telephone to work … just wondering if it’s me.’
Mr Williams picked up the receiver and Lizzy saw him shake his head. ‘Nope, it’s not working … completely dead, in fact.’
‘Is there another? Or have you a mobile I could use? I really need to phone my mum, and mine’s run out of battery.’
‘No, that’s the only one, and I don’t use modern technology, I’m afraid.’
‘What about the others? Will anyone else have one?’
‘Absolutely not. Look, there’s nothing to be done, and if we’re not careful we’ll be late. It’s time to go.’
Lizzy really didn’t want to be left on her own with Mr Williams any longer, or have to travel with him by herself. ‘Oughtn’t we to wait for Mrs Bennet?’ she said, thinking that couldn’t possibly be the real name of the lady who’d arranged everything.
‘No need for that’, he said, ‘she’s left already with her daughters. I’m to escort you, so hurry up before the coachman leaves. He must be thinking we’ve forgotten him. Here, you’ll need this.’
To her great astonishment he took a pink velvet cloak from the coat hooks and held it out so she had no choice but to allow him to place it round her shoulders. She turned and felt the warm silk of the lining envelop her and when she moved back to thank him and before she had a chance to register the fact, he was tying the ribbons at her neck. His fingers brushed her throat momentarily, and she started in surprise. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, but it disturbed her. When he wasn’t looking she rubbed at her neck as if to get rid of the feelings, but the sensations lingered, whatever she did to make them go away.
Many thanks to author Jane Odiwe for sharing an excerpt from her new novella, Mr. Darcy’s Christmas Calendar, with us. Be sure to check out Jane’s other recent publication, Mrs. Darcy’s Diamonds too.
Jane Odiwe is the author of seven Austen-inspired books, Mr Darcy’s Christmas Calendar, Mrs Darcy’s Diamonds, Project Darcy, Searching for Captain Wentworth, Mr Darcy’s Secret, Willoughby’s Return, and Lydia Bennet’s Story.
Recent television appearances include a Masterchef Special, celebrating 200 years of Sense and Sensibility, and an interview for the 200 year anniversary of Pride and Prejudice on BBC Breakfast.
Jane is a member of the Jane Austen Society; she holds an arts degree, and initially started her working life teaching art and history. With her husband, children, and two cats, Jane divides her time between North London, and Bath, England. When she’s not writing, she enjoys painting and trying to capture the spirit of Jane Austen’s world. Her illustrations have been published in a picture book, Effusions of Fancy, and are featured in a biographical film of Jane Austen’s life in Sony’s DVD edition of The Jane Austen Book Club.
Mr. Darcy’s Christmas Calendar, by Jane Odiwe
Whitesoup Press (2014)
Trade paperback & eBook (190) pages
Cover image courtesy of Whitesoup Press © 2014; excerpt Jane Odiwe ©2014, Austenprose.com