Work in Progress: Not a Moment’s Peace, Pride and Prejudice in the Style of P.G. Wodehouse
by Linda Beutler
Once upon a time, during a pleasant evening in the chat room at the Meryton Literary Society, the regular gentleman member (a.k.a. the Chat Chap) and I discovered a common admiration of P. G. Wodehouse, the witty satirist of British upper-class behavior in the 1920s and after (most well known for the Bertie and Jeeves stories). We likened him to something of a 20th century Jane Austen, and the infamous Chat Chap threw down the gauntlet: to produce a mash-up of Jane Austen and P. G. Wodehouse. I accepted the challenge on the condition that he act as beta as the story prepares to debut at A Happy Assembly.
Thus came to be born Not A Moment’s Peace, using a title I had set aside from the text of Pride and Prejudice. It describes Darcy’s life once Miss Stephanie Basset-Bennet enters it. (Yes, I keep a list of possible titles.) We agreed that the Pride and Prejudice plot would be wrapped around our favorite P. G. Wodehouse short story, The Great Sermon Handicap, in which reverends, curates, vicars, and ministers unwittingly vie to deliver the longest possible sermon on a given Sunday. The outline runs to ten chapters plus prologue, and may only be a novella in length.
Dramatis Personae in this excerpt (those mentioned or speaking roles):
- The Basset-Bennets: the Bennet family we know and love, in order of age
- Madeline Basset-Bennet, Wodehouse’s soppy Madeline Basset + Jane Bennet combined
- Stephanie Basset-Bennet (Steffy), Our Dear Girl with a dash of Wodehouse’s Stephanie Byng. Educated at Newnham College, adept at mathematics.
- Mary Basset-Bennet, the usual priggish Bennet sister.
- Claudine Basset-Bennet and Eustancia Basset Bennet, Kitty and Lydia are the girl version of the harum-scarum twins, Claude and Eustace Wooster.
- Charles “Bingo” Bingley: The character most like Bertie Wooster
- Reverend William Fink-Collins: The typical embarrassing Bennet cousin; odds-on favorite to win the Easter Sermon Handicap
- Fitzwilliam Darcy: pretty much a 1920’s version of Our Dear Boy
- Lady Agatha de Bourgh: You know who! Dictatorial aunt to Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam, combined with Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha Gregson.
- Colonel Alias Fitzwilliam: A small, wiry, jumpy character modeled after Wodehouse’s Bingo Little. Our colonel’s given name was lost with the family bible.
- Hardiman: The Netherfield estate butler
- Lady Sophia Kerseymere (Aunt Softy), Countess Emdash: Darcy’s paternal aunt and Godmother, our dear departed Omniscient Narrator.
- Dame Dahlia Bingley-Monttravers: Bingley’s aunt, hostess for his estate, Netherfield—along the order of a dottier Aunt Gardiner.
- Pelham: The noble and resourceful Jeeves, valet to Bingo Bingley. (Pelham is what the “P” stands for in P. G. Wodehouse.)
From Chapter 2
Off to the Races
19 March 1925
Dahlia Bingley-Monttravers really isn’t such a bad egg, Darcy mused as he executed a nifty massé shot with practiced precision. She’s no Aunt Softy of course, but who is? Still, it was kind of Bingo’s aunt to leave the Netherfield billiards room as it had been for so long in the Bingley history, a male sanctuary.
Bingo moaned with disgust. “Don’t know how you do it, Darcy—damned if I do.” He stepped back out of the way to allow the taller man to prowl the table for his next shot. At the rate of current events, Darcy would likely run the table. “Any further thoughts on the runners in the Easter Handicap?” Bingley asked to pass the time.
“That Reverend Fink-Collins, I say,” Bingo murmured in a stage whisper, “did you notice a certain air about him? Unusually damp, even for a cleric…”
“The terrible pong of the man,” Darcy hissed, rolling his eyes.
“Yes, but if he can give us a solid forty five next month, I believe we shall carry the day.” Darcy shuddered. He was fastidious as to hygiene. Although not opposed to engaging in sweat inducing pursuits, he hated to wear it much after the earning of it.
Bingley laughed. “I’ll be taking a back pew as I watch the winner finish, that’s certain. Sad the ladies of Longbourn have to stick it up front.”
“And he’s a houseguest—a relation?” Darcy quaked again. “All that smell. And the noise!” The idea of housing such an unsavoury specimen caused an uncontrollable flinch that sent the cue ball far wide of its mark. Darcy straightened. “Was that distraction planned or just the luck of the Bingleys?” He raised a suspicious eyebrow.
Bingo hopped down from the sideboard where he had perched, wheezing on a gasper. “Just luck.” He ground it out and leaned instead on a corner of the billiards table. “Madeline says he went to Harrow.”
“Harrow? Yes, I’d guessed he’d known some corruption in his youth.”
The two men joined eyes in a superior sort of smirk peculiar to Old Etonians, taught from day number one.
“Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!” The cheerful refrain was sung by the wiry young man in altogether too loud plaid plus fours entering the room hard on the heels of Pelham, who announced him.
“Colonel Alias Fitzwilliam, Mr. Bingley,” Pelham said in his always well-modulated voice.
“Colonel? Cousin, have they come unhinged and made you a colonel?” Darcy asked. His incredulity was marked.
Alias held out his arms presenting himself, one of which held a golf club, a putter in fact. It came very near to breaking a stained glass lampshade but for Pelham’s excellent reflexes in moving the object out of harm’s way. “They have! Desperation is the mother of something, isn’t it?”
“’Necessity is the mother of invention’, dear old fat head,” Darcy smiled benevolently. “Alias, if brains were gunpowder yours couldn’t blow the fuzz off a peach.”
“That is no way to speak to a superior officer!” Alias cried in mock affront. He turned to his host. “You must be Charles Bingley! Darcy is terrible with introductions. Utterly inept with the social niceties.”
Bingo asserted his preferred sobriquet, remarked that Darcy indeed wanted practice in polite society, and sent Pelham off for a round of drinks. “What brings you to Netherfield?” Bingley asked. “And how long can you stay? We’re having a fancy dress ball next week; you must stop for that. And then we shall glide into Easter…”—Bingley glanced at Darcy, who rolled his eyes and nodded—“…and the unusual form of sport they indulge in hereabouts.”
Alias pulled a cue stick from the rack on the wall and replaced it with his putter. “I’m chasing Darcy here. If he thinks he’s leaving me to be snootered by our Aunt Agatha, he can just think again. I’m dashed if I’ll be stuck at Rosings alone. Tell me about this sport.”
Just as Darcy and Bingo finished the description of the Easter fixture, Pelham reappeared with a round of restorative beverages.
“What are you giving us, old scream?” Bingley asked.
“This is a French 75, sir. I know how much you enjoy champagne after lunch.”
Alias started to drink but Darcy stilled his hands, and they watched as Bingo took the first sip like an assayer fingering gold. After a slight meditative frown, like a Golden Retriever trying to determine if his bone had been roasted with vegetables or stewed for ragout, Bingo brightened. “Giving us the Bombay, eh what? Always a favorite with me, you know Pelham!”
“In this you cannot be fooled, sir.”
“What’s in this?” Alias snorted after swallowing too much too fast.
“Largely champagne and gin, sir,” Pelham supplied. “And a whisper of lemon.”
Darcy slapped Bingo on the back as he extolled his friend’s one real skill. “Bingo can tell you what gin is used in any cocktail you give him. He cannot drive without incident, or golf under triple digits, or keep score at lawn tennis, but what he doesn’t know about gin isn’t worth knowing.”
“I can beat you at poker,” Bingo said, standing up straight. He noticed as he did he was half a head taller than Colonel Fitzwilliam.
Suddenly an approaching high-pitched hurricane seemed to bear down upon them. Without so much as a by your leave, Bingo’s butler Hardiman was pushed into the room and announced, “Miss Basset-Bennet, Miss Stephanie Basset-Bennet, Miss Mary Basset-Bennet, Miss Claudia Basset-Bennet, and Miss Eustancia Basset-Bennet.”
Behind him was about fifty chattering young women, all but the eldest focused upon the cue rack on the wall first, followed by an utter disregard for the game in progress as they racked the balls and debated which parlour billiards game to play. Their next debate was whether to play one-on-one or in teams.
The eldest of the Basset-Bennet gang approached the window and as a bee follows a flower, Bingo moved to her side. He spoke to her jovially in a low voice, answered by her simpering lisp until her voice rose to an alarming pitch best heard by dogs.
“Betting! Betting? You don’t mean they’re gambling on this sacred, this holy—“ She stamped her little Mary Jane. “Haven’t people any sense of decency? Is nothing safe from their beastly sordid graspingness?” Madeline imagined herself falling gracefully into Bingo’s manly arms, sobbing prettily against his jacket, but she paused as he spoke.
“Don’t worry, I have no money on the books, er…none of my own, you might say…”
“Charles, no! Not you!” She did cry in earnest, and stepped over the low sill into the garden, squeaking, “Oh! I hate the smell of a billiards room…”
The three men looked after her, aghast.
“Could have told you…” Steffy muttered. She chalked her cue in a considering manner.
The removal of Madeline Basset-Bennet had not diminished the cacophony by one decibel.
“Entertain them, won’t you lads?” Bingley ordered, waving an airy hand at the remaining fleet of Basset-Bennet females as he disappeared in hopes of mending Madeline’s bruised sensibilities.
Having sited her shot, Steffy’s success was punctuated by the crisp clacking of balls as not one but two solids dropped into the pockets. She stood, nodded curtly to the cue ball and murmured to it, “Good show, you!” She then moved to the opposite side of the table and leaned over for her next turn.
Darcy considered both the pleasing precision of her movements and the appealing way her pale green silk dress with the modern dropped waist hugged her hips. He shook his head with a slight frown. This was the brains behind old man Basset-Bennet’s operation?
“Really, Stephanie!” Mary Basset-Bennet leaned over her sister’s shoulder. The pale, bespectacled creature gripped a copy of Brigg’s Rules for Billiards and Pool in her claw. “I did not hear you call the 5-ball. We oughtn’t allow it.”
“She did too,” fussed one of the twins. “She said ‘three-five’. I heard her.”
“No, Mary’s right,” snapped the other twin.
Ignoring the chaos of the dispute around her, Steffy shot smartly with a chop, jutting the cue stick downward into the cue ball. It gave a little hop as if it had been pinched, lofting over the striped 14 and kissing the solid 2 into a side pocket. She stood, making no expression except the raising of an eyebrow at her sister Mary, and walked to the end of the table.
“Beautiful shot, Miss, er, uh…” the colonel sputtered as she passed.
Steffy ran the table with efficient precision.
“Oh, I say…” the colonel murmured in awe.
Darcy said nothing, but thought the same and then some.
“If you spent more time with a cue and less with the rulebook, Mary, I’d pay you more mind.” Steffy smile brightly into her sister’s face. “Practice makes perfect, as you ought to know.”
The twins set about gathering and racking the balls. “Spots and Stripes again, Eusty?” asked one of them.
“Not if Steff’s playing, Claudy,” insisted the other with excessive deference.
A keen observer would note a sure way to tell the twins apart was that Miss Claudia always sided with Steffy in any familial dispute, and Miss Eustancia against her, mainly out of jealousy of her twin.
Steffy shrugged. “I’m done. I’ve proved my point.”
“That you play as brilliantly as any fellow I’ve ever met?” asked the colonel. “Cool as a cucumber!
She held out a hand to him. “Stephanie Basset-Bennet.”
The colonel bowed over it. “Colonel Alias Fitzwilliam.”
Steffy laughed. Darcy liked the sound of it. He didn’t remember Stephanie Basset-Bennet being so very interesting on past visits.
“What sort of name is that?” Steffy asked.
Her question was drowned out by her twin sisters, who set upon the colonel immediately on hearing his rank. The small detail of his odd given name escaped them. He smiled ruefully around them at Steffy and was carried to the pool table with no sign of struggle whatsoever. He beamed at the bright young things. “Would that I were 20 minutes younger…”
Darcy cleared his throat.
Steffy gazed at him unmoved. “That your idea of clever social banter, Darcy? Making the sound of a stalled motorcar?”
“Might I please have a word in the hallway?”
“You may have one here, since you’re so frightfully polite.”
“I would speak of Easter sermons.”
“Ah. Lead on, McDuff.” She marched out into the passage as he indicated the open door with an extended hand.
When they were thoroughly assured of not being overheard, Darcy began, “Is it to you we are indebted for the Easter morning sport?”
Steffy shrugged. “It is Papa’s favourite holiday, so we make an event of it, he and I. Do I sense interest?”
“Indeed you do.”
Steffy looked Darcy up and down, a noticable endeavor that left Darcy wondering if a well cured side of beef in the window of the village butcher felt the same.
“You could do me a favour,” she drawled speculatively.
Darcy tilted his head, indicating his interest.
“Word in the vestries is that Lady Piddlefoot has a new vicar for Bluddy Close. I have not had time to watch his morning work out, as it were.”
“And you’d like me…”
“If you would, this Sunday? It’s only ten miles south. I’ve seen your car. It won’t even know it’s awake at that distance.”
“I had hoped to watch Reverend Papplewiche in the warm up fixture.”
“You have plenty of time for that—weeks yet. I need the information now. Wouldn’t do for the book to be incomplete.”
Steffy gave the impression she didn’t think a lot of him and wasn’t betting much that he would improve a great deal on further acquaintance. Darcy studied her in return. Her general no nonsense intelligence shown through her amber eyes and the petite arched brows. He felt challenged; his sporting blood began to flow.
“Reverend Fink-Collins is, as I understand it, a cousin of yours?”
“On my father’s side, but you couldn’t tell it.” She shivered with distaste. “He always looks like something that’s been dug up by the roots. I admit a purist might consider him more or less off his onion. But when it comes to sermonizing, he’s a boon to insomniacs everywhere.”
And so the battle for Fitzwilliam Darcy’s dignity is joined. Stay tuned!—LB
Linda Beutler's Books from Meryton Press
Linda Beutler is an Oregon native who began writing professionally in 1996 (meaning that is when they started paying her...), in the field of garden writing. First published in magazines, Linda graduated to book authorship in 2004 with the publication of Gardening With Clematis (2004, Timber Press). In 2007 Timber Press presented her second title, Garden to Vase, a partnership with garden photographer Allan Mandell. Now in 2013 Linda is working with a new publisher, and writing in a completely different direction. Funny how life works out, but more on that in a minute.
Linda lives the gardening life: she is a part-time instructor in the horticulture department at Clackamas Community College, writes and lectures about gardening topics throughout the USA, and is traveling the world through her active participation in the International Clematis Society, of which she is the current president. Then there's that dream job--which she is sure everyone else must covet but which she alone has--Linda Beutler is the curator of the Rogerson Clematis Collection, which is located at Luscher Farm, a farm/park maintained by the city of Lake Oswego. They say to keep resumes brief, but Linda considers Garden With Clematis her 72,000 word resume. She signed on as curator to North America's most comprehensive and publicly accessible collection of the genus clematis in July 2007, and they will no doubt not get shut of her until she can be carried out in a pine box.
And now for something completely different: in September 2011, Linda checked out a book of Jane Austen fan fiction from her local library, and was, to put it in the modern British vernacular, gobsmacked. After devouring every title she could get her hands on, she quite arrogantly decided that, in some cases, she could do better, and began writing her own expansions and variations of Pride and Prejudice. The will to publish became too tempting, and after viewing the welcoming Meryton Press website, she printed out the first three chapters of her book, and out it went, a child before the firing squad. Luckily, the discerning editors at Meryton Press saved the child from slaughter, and Linda's first work of Jane Austenesque fiction, The Red Chrysanthemum, published in September 2013. Her second work of fiction, From Longbourn to London was published in August of 2014, followed by A Will of Iron in 2015, and My Mr Darcy and Your Mr Bingley in 2017. Linda also wrote The Incomplete Education of Fitzwilliam Darcy Included in the Sun-Kissed anthology.
Linda shares a small garden in Southeast Portland with her husband, and pets that function as surrogate children. Her personal collection of clematis numbers something around 230 taxa. These are also surrogate children, and just as badly behaved.