Today, I’m thrilled to bring you an excerpt of “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” (working title only) by Katie Bennett. To learn more about Katie and her work in progress, please read our interview!
7th May 1966
The sun was shining and birds were singing on the crisp spring morning in Bath. In Austen’s small city, the streets smelled of freshly baked bread and ground coffee being consumed by workers taking the Saturday morning shift. When Jane had woken that morning she had no idea that a series of events had already been set into motion which would change her life beyond comparison. She would always remember fondly how she sat eating toast and humming along to the radio- such innocence. It was a Saturday so she didn’t need to pack her satchel or wear her school uniform. She wore her night gown at the breakfast table trying to do the crossword. Her parents were in London visiting her aunt and uncle so she had taken the opportunity to break routine. Her father would be horrified to see that she had not dressed by 8.00 am. Reminded of the time by the radio, guilt set in.
Ten minutes later, as she was scrubbing her teeth and contemplating her reading for the day, the mailman pushed the mail through the Reynolds’ letterbox and they clattered onto the mat. As though bracing itself, the house was silent except for the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the hallway. The faint sound of lazy traffic could be heard through the muffling windows, but inside the tea cups and saucers stood to attention, straight and neat. The tap sat poised, not a single drop hit the tin sink.
A few minutes later sobs echoed through the empty house.
Sitting at her dressing table mirror, Jane stared at her reflection. A lifetime had passed in the last week. She pouted her lips, as if the perfect cupid’s bow of red lipstick would solve this mess. Her parents had not shouted when she showed them her rejection letter from Cambridge. Much, much worse, they sat in stunned silence- just like her in fact.
She had curled up on the sofa clutching the letter. Jane had feared this might happen, she thought she had prepared herself. Everyone kept telling her she would be fine, “nothing to worry about,” they had said. Maybe a small part of her had started to believe them and now this rejection hit her like a ton of bricks. That awful sentence which every applicant feared stared back at her- We regret to inform you… She read and re-read the letter until the black ink merged into the cream paper.
Jane wished her father had shouted, had ranted about how much they had spent on her education, about all the money they had spent on piano and ballet lessons so her extra-curricular activities would be up to scratch, and for private tuition in French and Latin. Mr and Mrs Reynolds had even moved to Bath to send her to the best private school in the country. The guilt was so much worse because they just sat there, stunned. As if their house had disappeared in front of their eyes.
“Jane, Edward’s parents will be here soon,” her mother called up the stairs. And now, worst of all, her father was about to try to sell her to her boyfriend’s parents. That was her sole hope now, being the perfect wife to Edward. Consoling herself, she remembered that although she would not be studying in Cambridge, she could at least live there with him. Edward loved her, she was sure of that, but he hadn’t ever mentioned them getting married, and she didn’t know how he’d feel having a wife who didn’t get into university. It felt so unfair to pounce all of this on him in front of their parents but what could she do? Her father had decided, and he knew best. Things would work themselves out, they had to. The alternative was getting an entry level job as a waitress, working in some greasy spoon until some man finally decided to marry her.
“Oh Deborah, this beef is delicious,” smiled Mrs Smith.
“Yes, wonderful,” Mr Smith said between mouthfuls. He was a large man who enjoyed his food far too much. Mrs Smith was a wonderful cook- Jane would have much to live up to- especially as Edward shared his father’s love for food. Of course, Edward, with a young man’s metabolism and with his love of playing sports was still lean despite having a huge appetite.
“Do help yourself to more, Edward,” Deborah Reynolds said, clearly relieved that her cooking was good enough. Each detail of the night was a vital part of wooing the Smiths.
“So, are you looking forward to Cambridge, Jane?” Mr Smith cleared his throat. Jane’s eyes widened with surprise.
“Well I know you haven’t had your letter yet like Eddie but I’m sure they will accept a smart girl like you- always got your nose in a book.”
Jane looked to her father. Taking a gulp of his wine, Mr Reynolds said,
“Actually George, that’s one of the reasons we’ve invited you and Pamela over for dinner tonight. There’s been some sort of a mistake at Cambridge I’m afraid…”
“Charles, let’s wait until after dinner shall we? Let the good people eat and enjoy their food,” Deborah interrupted.
“Will you leave this to me please?” he replied, trying to mask his snarl.
“Charles, what’s going on?”
“Well Jane has had her letter, and I’m afraid it’s not good.” Jane stared at her lap, her cheeks reddening and tears forming at the corners of her eyes. This is not happening, it cannot be happening.
“Jane?” Edward looked at Jane with wild eyes, clearly furious about not being privy to this information. Jane couldn’t look up. She would turn into a blubbering mess if she did.
“Now, while it’s not the news we had all hoped for, it’s not her only option. As you said yourself, George, she’s a wonderful young lady. I mean they’re not kids anymore are they? They’ve grown up, and if I do say so myself, I think they make a wonderful couple. Don’t you think?”
Mr Reynolds paused, looking hopefully at Mr and Mrs Smith. There was no compassion looking back at him though. Clearly, they no longer thought that Jane was as wonderful as they had moments before. Mrs Smith at least had the decency to smile awkwardly, Mr Smith was nowhere near as bothered about keeping up appearances. Jane finally raised her head to look at Eddie, finally able to face him. She didn’t recognise him. The Smiths left rather abruptly afterwards, claiming to need an early night. Having run out of time, Mr Reynolds made his proposal quickly to the Smiths at the door,
“Look George, let’s be frank. Like I said before, it’s not what any of us had hoped for but I think we all know that Jane would make a wonderful wife for Edward. Now that she won’t be attending university, she can at least provide him with a comfortable home life while he studies in Cambridge. We both knew those two would get married. There seems no reason to put off the engagement now.”
While the wives were exchanging polite cooking tips, the men bargaining at the door, Jane and Edward stood further back in the hallway.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m sorry Eddie, I was scared,” Jane pleaded.
“This changes everything.”
Those words echoed in Jane’s ears as she packed her things into a suitcase. It was only half-full when she closed the lid. Edward had punished Jane for failing to stick to the right road. She had gone off the rails and so she took every slight, every cutting stare like a guilty child being beaten- swallowing her tears. She remained silent when he ignored her. Not even a whimper when he flirted with other girls in front of her.
And now, it was over. She no longer had to see him every day at school. The hardest hit, however, came when she left Bath without a word from him. In vain hope, she had waited for a ‘goodbye, desperate that he would look at her again without cold eyes.
Jane asked to leave for London as soon as her exams were over. There was little point dragging out a long summer with no distraction. Her father agreed that commencing her typing course as soon as possible was preferable- the plans were made.
Copyright 2011 by Katie Bennett