From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Merry Christmas Eve to one and all. Are you ready for the big day?
Can you image how the Christmas holiday season was celebrated in England in the early 1700s? Featured today is an exclusive excerpt from Austens of Broadford, by Carole Penfield, sharing a New Year’s Day dinner party and gift-exchange typical with English families during this time.
The new novel fictionalizes the life of Jane Austen’s great grandmother Elizabeth Weller Austen who lived in Horsmonden, Kent. The Austens of Broadford is the third stand-alone novel in The Midwife Chronicles series and was released on December 16, in honor of Jane Austen’s birthday.
Enjoy the excerpt and do check out the book if you are curious about the lives of Jane Austen’s fascinating ancestors.
I am wishing all who celebrate the Christmas holidays a lovely day with family and friends.
A rich, sweeping historical novel, inspired by the true story of Jane Austen’s remarkable great-grandmother…
Marriage to John Austen IV, presumptive heir to the family fortune, was a dream come true for Eliza. Until his cantankerous father turned it into her worst nightmare.
1702 England. Despite having a loving relationship with her husband and seven children, Eliza is not the wife John Austen III would have chosen for his only son. She complains to Lucina (her midwife and best friend) about struggling daily with the overbearing tyrant’s interference. He plants a spy in her nursery, criticizes Eliza constantly, reneges on promises of financial assistance, and turns her eldest son against her. She begins to dread that if the curmudgeon outlives his son, she will be left penniless and debt-ridden.
Without a dowry, Eliza worries timid daughter Bettybird will never attract a husband. But through the young girl’s narrative voice, we see her coming of age into genteel society. Whilst attending a house party to celebrate Queen Anne’s coronation, Bettybird meets actor Bart, son of a doxy who is searching for his landowner father. Coming to Kent as a footman, handsome Bart portrays life among the gentry social class from a servant’s perspective.
When Eliza’s worst fear materializes, she makes the most difficult decision of her life, but not before writing a scathing memorandum detailing her mistreatment, which passes down through the Austen family into the hands of her great-granddaughter Jane.
It is widely believed Jane Austen was influenced by Eliza’s memorandum when she wrote about money, social class, and the evils of inheritance laws in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
The three little boys were lined up for Grandfather’s inspection, trying not to fidget or stare at his servants, carrying in all sorts of things—from steaming kettles of food to wrapped gifts to one large, deep covered basket that seemed to indicate something moving inside. Francis was inadvertently addressed as Thomas, and Thomas as Francis, to Eliza’s dismay. Why cannot he bother to keep them straight?
Betty practiced a new curtsy she had learned at school, to which Grandfather bowed his head and said, “Well done. I see you have learnt something useful at that expensive school.”
William received a pat on the head. “What are you called?” he asked the boy.
“Betty calls me Willikins,” he answered shyly.
“That is not a proper name. What were you christened?”
John interrupted. “This is William, father. We call him Will.”
“I don’t hold with nicknames. William will do,” Father Austen grumbled, waving him off to join the others.
Eliza wondered why Father Austen allowed John V to be called Jack, if he did not approve of pet names. She forced herself to smile and welcome him to Broadford. He bowed slightly and then turned to John.
“I haven’t seen you for a while. Too busy to visit your old man, are you?”
“Of course not, Father. I have been . . . umm . . . busy. I hope you are in good health.”
“Always the best, even for an old man. I no longer drink wine.”
Eliza shuddered. She had planned to serve wine with the meal.
“And son,” continued the old man. “You look terribly thin. Have you lost a great deal of weight?”
John shrugged. “I feel fine.”
“I disagree. You are too thin. Your wife apparently does not feed you properly. Which is why I brought over a kettle of Mrs. Briggs’ own mutton stew for dinner.”
Eliza bristled. Her lovely roast turkey cooking on the spit with onions and root vegetables was evidently to be replaced by his housekeeper’s tasteless, lumpy sludge. “Oh, Father Austen. How kind of you, but you see, I had planned—”
“Save it for the children tomorrow or feed it to the hogs.” Pinching his son’s upper arm, he said, “My John needs hearty fare to fatten him up. Or are you trying to starve him to death?” He bubbled with mirth, spittle dribbling from the corners of his mouth. Trying to make a joke of it.
John chuckled, but Eliza refused to respond. She choked back bile at this obvious insult.
In the parlour, Father Austen seated himself in the best chair by the fire. Will came over and tried without success to climb on Grandfather’s knee, until John came over and pulled him away and onto his own lap. Eliza excused herself and went to see about the meal. This is going to be an exceedingly long, arduous day.
~ ~ ~
“I thought we were to have roast turkey,” complained Francis, when a bowl of unappetizing stew was placed in front of him.
“I simply love Mrs. Briggs’ cooking,” gushed Jack, gaining a smile from Grandfather.
“Boys, no more talking whilst we eat,” cautioned Eliza. She could just imagine what Thomas would say if allowed to express his opinion of the slop before him.”
The wine did not go to waste, despite Grandfather’s refusal to toast the New Year. John drank a few more glasses than he ought.
~ ~ ~
After the plumb cake was devoured, they adjourned back to the parlour. Eliza noted that Father Austen brought his wineglass and set it on the carved mahogany end table. Susan carried Robin downstairs, as requested, and John asked his father’s opinion of the newest Austen son.
“Robert appears too puny to survive,” the old man observed.
“Father Austen,” explained Eliza patiently, “he was born prematurely.”
“And whose fault was that?” he asked accusingly. “What sensible woman in your condition goes rambling abroad on bumpy roads?”
Eliza tried unsuccessfully to bite her tongue. “My midwife has assured me that riding on a bumpy road did not bring on my early labour. She says roads would be crowded with racing carriages if unwanted pregnancies could be terminated that easily,”
“So, you admit this was an unwanted pregnancy,” he said gleefully.
“You misconstrue my words, sir. John and I welcomed this child with all our hearts, as we have our first five. I speak of unmarried females who come to Lucina’s clinic, distressed to find themselves with child.”
“Lucina? That upstart, insolent midwife knows nothing,” he said, slapping his hand on the table and causing his wine glass to wobble precariously. “Mrs. Briggs insists, and I fully agree, that your ride in a bumpy carriage is what caused the poor child’s unfortunate birth. And that is an end to the matter.”
John gave his wife one of those looks, as if to say, “Please do not argue with Father. We must not upset him.”
“Since your poor child is doomed to die unless he gets proper nutrition,” added the old man, “Mrs. Briggs feels he needs a wet nurse. He is obviously not thriving at your bosom.” He took a sip of his wine and frowned.
“I appreciate the well-meaning advice of your housekeeper, Father Austen, but I feel mother’s milk is best for my child.”
He waved his wine glass about in disagreement. “Mrs. Briggs already has a woman in mind. The daughter of a farmer who gave birth six months ago to a bouncing boy. Why, I understand he is already crawling and pulling himself up on a chair. Soon will be walking. Mrs. Briggs will send the wet nurse to you next week. No need to thank me. It is all arranged.”
Over my dead body! I am not turning Robin over to an unknown low-class wet nurse. Lucina has told me of wet nurses who transmit the pox to innocent babes. More pressing is my fear that if I am unable to continue suckling, I will find myself with child again very soon.
John diplomatically wished to avoid a direct confrontation. “The children are anxious to exchange gifts. Shall we adjourn to the smaller parlour?”
Susan took Baby Robin back to the nursery.
(Chapter 23, pages 166-169)
Carole Penfield is the author of The Midwife Chronicles, a series of three historical fiction novels that includes Midwife of Normandy, Lucina’s Destiny, and Austens of Broadford.
During a tour of Kent in 2010, Carole discovered that Tonbridge and Horsmonden boasted several homes once inhabited by Jane Austen’s relatives, including her great-grandmother Elizabeth Weller Austen (“Eliza”). This proved to be the perfect setting for her books. She also decided to incorporate some of Jane’s famous quotes within all three books in the series, which has been described as “an easter egg hunt for Janeites.”
A retired attorney, Carole lives in Northern Arizona with her husband Perry Krowne, and two overly friendly cats.
- Austens of Broadford: The Midwife Chronicles (Book 3), by Carole Penfield
- Sycamore Lane Press (November 6, 2021)
- Trade paperback & eBook (369) pages
- ISBN: 978-1737807902
- Genre: Historical Fiction, Austenesque
Cover image, book description, excerpt, and author bio courtesy of Sycamore Lane Press, © 2021; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2021, Austenprose.com