There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.
—PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
IF I HAD KNOWN that someone was going to kill the man sitting in 4B three days hence, I probably wouldn’t have fantasized about doing the deed myself.
However, as it stood, I didn’t have this knowledge. The only knowledge I did have was that he was a pompous ass and had not stopped talking once in the last two hours.
“Of course, only the truly clever reader can discern that it is beneath Austen’s superficial stories that the real narrative lies. Hidden beneath an attractive veil of Indian muslin, Austen presents a much darker world. It is a sordid world of sex, both heterosexual and homosexual, abortions, and incest. It is in highlighting these darker stories to the less perceptive reader that I have devoted my career,” the man was now saying to his seatmate.
I guessed him to be in his late fifties. He was tall and fair, with those WASPy good looks that lend themselves well to exclusive men’s clubs, the kinds that still exclude women and other dangerous minorities. His theories were so patently absurd that at first I’d found his commentary oddly entertaining. However, as Austen herself observed, of some delights, a little goes a long way.
This was rapidly becoming one of those delights.
From the manner in which the young woman to his right gazed at him with undisguised awe, it was clear that she did not share my desire to duct-tape his mouth shut. Her brown eyes were not rolling back into her head with exasperation; rather, they were practically sparkling with idolization from behind her wire-framed glasses. While both our faces were flushed from his words, the cause for the heightened color on her elfin features stemmed from reverence; the cause of mine was near-boiling irritation.
I closed my eyes and tried to drown out their conversation by thinking happier thoughts. After all, I was on a plane—and not just any plane, mind you, but a British Airways flight headed to London. London! From there I was headed to Bath to attend the Jane Austen Festival. A week-long celebration of all things Jane, and attended by Janeites from all over the world. For an Anglophile like me, this was about as close to nirvana as one could get. I tried to think of scones heaped with clotted cream, red telephone boxes, gorgeous accents, and the off chance that I might spy Colin Firth—anything to distract myself from the man in 4B.
And yet, I could not.
“Now I grant you that mine is a special talent,” he droned on. “It is not everyone who can unravel the secret messages—the ciphers, if you will—that are embedded in each of her works. In fact, it could be said that I am the Rosetta stone of Austen.”
I wondered how much trouble I would get in if I threw my shoe at his head.
Next to me, my aunt Winnie shifted in her seat and cast an idle glance in the man’s direction before turning to me. “Is it morning already?” she asked, stretching her arms out in front of her.
“No,” I said, checking my watch. “It’s still the middle of the night.”
Her eyes sought out the man again as if perplexed. “But the cock’s crowing.”
“Oh, well, in that case,” I said agreeably, “it’s been morning for a long, long time now.”
“Well, I just think it’s amazing,” the young woman said now. “I studied Austen as an undergrad and no one ever even hinted at these other stories. Although some of my professors discussed the moral teachings found in her works, they mainly focused on her social satire. I never saw any of the intended stories until your class. I mean, I never realized that in Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot’s relationship with his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was incestuous, or that in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood’s illness was really the result of a botched abortion until you pointed it out.” She beamed obsequiously at him.
I tried to remember if I’d ever treated any of my professors with such a groveling display of worship. Hmmm. Let me think.
Granted, I’d liked and respected a great number of them, but I hadn’t had any crushes on any of them. Then again, I’d attended an all-girls Catholic school, largely taught by the Sisters of Notre-Dame, so that last part probably isn’t too surprising. I might be somewhat jaded at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, but witnessing this dual display of academic love—for this fool of a man—did not arouse even a minuscule atom of regret at this apparent gap in my academic career.
The man nodded sagely at his seatmate. “I’m not surprised. Unfortunately, most of today’s English professors—and I use that term very loosely—are completely ignorant of Austen’s true objective.”
I gave up trying to ignore them, shifted in my seat, and craned my neck to look for the flight attendant. If I was going to be forced to listen to this drivel, I needed a drink. A Chardonnay drink. Aunt Winnie saw my movement and easily divined my intention. “Order me one, too, sweetheart,” she said.
“Already on it,” I replied.
The man continued. “They have interpreted her works in a manner appropriate to what they believe a spinster writing during the Regency period intended. While they view her works as containing some biting satire, they don’t grasp the whole picture! But, as I have diligently maintained, that is the true beauty of Austen’s work. She was subverting society’s precious rules all the while pretending to live by them. She described life as it really was—rough, extremely sexual, and, at times, evil and dark. She dressed it up and let the dull see what they wanted and hoped that the astute reader—a reader like myself—would see it for what it was: a forceful condemnation of the sanctimonious hypocrisy of both society and the church.”
Honestly, it was beginning to amount to auditory torture. It almost made me yearn for a teething baby or gassy seatmate. And besides, wasn’t this technically a form of assault? Because that’s what this boiled down to—assault with an unwanted opinion. And just where the hell was the flight attendant?
“It’s all very exciting,” the women murmured. “Your discoveries will not only revolutionize how Jane Austen’s work is viewed, but how that whole period of literature is viewed.”
“Yes, they will,” he agreed without modesty. “And I anticipate that after I deliver my latest paper, I will also revolutionize people’s views on how her life was lived.”
“Do you have a copy with you?” she asked, her voice hopeful. “I’d love to read it, if I may.”
He dipped his sleek head condescendingly. “I’m sure you would, but unfortunately I don’t have it with me. My assistant, Byron, is putting the finishing touches on it. He’s already in London tweaking it. We’re to finalize the details tomorrow. Perhaps I could show it to you then.”
The young woman was silent for a moment. “I see. Of course. Is, um, your wife coming as well?”
He gave a slight nod. “She is. She flew out yesterday.”
The woman’s eyes fell to her lap in obvious disappointment, but she said nothing. If the man noticed, he didn’t let on. “Tell me, Lindsay,” he said, “what did you think of my last lecture, where I detailed how Austen’s works, when taken in total, are really a kind of early manifesto for the ideals of communism?”
I glanced down at my shoes. No thick boots here, only ballet flats. Even if I threw them really hard, they wouldn’t be able to inflict any real damage. I sighed.
“I loved it, of course,” the woman answered immediately. “But do you really believe that Austen herself was an atheist?” There was the barest suggestion of doubt now lurking in those adoring brown eyes.
“Believe it? I defy you to prove otherwise! How else do you explain a character like Mr. Collins? He was a pompous, silly egomaniac,” was his assured reply.
“There appears to be a lot of that going around,” Aunt Winnie said in hearty agreement. She made no attempt to modulate her voice. But to be fair, Aunt Winnie has never been a huge proponent of modulation, whether in voice, appearance, or opinion. One needs only to see her curly red hair and bright green eyes—both of which have intensified in color over the years thanks to Clairol and colored contacts—to deduce that. She is the personification of Tallulah Bankhead’s observation, “I’m the foe of moderation, the champion of excess.”
Not surprisingly, both the man and the woman turned our way. Aunt Winnie smiled brightly at them. I knew that smile well. It combined all the warmth of Machiavelli with the subtlety of the Cheshire Cat. It also signaled to those who knew her well that it was—as she herself put it—“on like Donkey Kong.” I gestured again—a little more impatiently now—for the flight attendant to bring the drinks cart.
The man’s full lips drew back into a condescending smile; his teeth were very large and very white. “I take it that you don’t concur with my views on Austen,” he purred silkily. Next to him, the young woman blinked with owl-like alertness.
“I most certainly do not,” Aunt Winnie replied with the cool politeness of a society matron. She then ruined the effect by adding, “In fact, I think they are utter bullshit.”
“No, no, I completely understand,” he continued with a patronizing air. “Many women—especially women of a ‘certain generation’—find my discoveries to be somewhat off-putting.”
“Stewardess!” I called out, it having now become paramount that I get her attention if I was going to prevent Aunt Winnie from physically demonstrating just what she did and didn’t find off-putting.
Aunt Winnie leaned forward. “Women of a certain generation? Are you suggesting that women of ‘my generation,’ as you so clumsily put it, are unable to discern reality from perversion?”
Thankfully, the flight attendant arrived, providing a momentary diversion, and no doubt preventing Aunt Winnie from throwing her shoes at the man. And as they were three-inch platforms, they might have actually done some damage. “May I help you?” the flight attendant politely inquired.
“I certainly hope so,” I muttered to myself.
Her round face pulled in confusion. “Sorry?”
“I’d like to order a drink, please—” I began, but the man in 4B cut me off.
“I fear I may have offended you,” he said. “Please let me offer the proverbial olive branch and order us all a glass of champagne.” Before any of us could answer, he addressed the flight attendant. “Four champagnes, please. Your very best, of course.”
“We only have the one kind,” she replied.
“Well, nevertheless, put it on my tab,” he replied with a lofty wave of his manicured hand. I noticed he was wearing a gold pinkie ring. It suited him.
“It’s complimentary, sir,” she said and briskly strode to the kitchen area to ready the drinks.
Turning his attention back to us, the man asked, “I gather you are a fan of the dear lady, Miss Jane Austen?”
“We are,” Aunt Winnie replied, brushing back her trademark red curls.
“Well then, we are well met!” he replied with a practiced smile. “For I don’t think you will meet anyone who reveres Miss Austen or her work more than I.” He twisted his long body in his seat, the movement producing nary a crease in his perfectly pressed tan slacks. “May I introduce myself? I am Professor Richard Baines and this is … one of my graduate students, Miss Lindsay Weaver.”
Lindsay nodded somberly at us. She was a tiny little thing, her pixie features not being limited to her face alone; her thick blue cardigan and wool skirt practically swallowed up her small frame. She wore no makeup, but her complexion was nevertheless clear and smooth, and her jet-black hair was cut short with thick bangs that skimmed the top of her glasses.
“I am Winifred Reynolds,” replied Aunt Winnie, “and this is my great-niece, Elizabeth Parker.” I produced a weak smile.
“And are you on your way to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath?” Professor Baines asked.
“We are,” I answered.
“Excellent! We are, as well. I attend every year, of course. In addition to being a professor of English literature, I’m a frequent lecturer at many of the Jane Austen regional societies.”
“I see,” Aunt Winnie replied. “And how do they generally react when you tell them that Austen was not only an atheist but a Communist to boot?”
He shrugged, unconcerned. “Some don’t like it, of course. They see it as a heresy of sorts. Others, of course, are able to catch a glimmer of the truth. It is to those advanced minds to whom I chiefly address my papers.”
“Uh-huh, and do you mind sharing the basis for this rather astonishing revelation that Jane Austen, daughter of a clergyman and by all accounts a God-fearing Christian woman, was actually an atheist, Rich?” Aunt Winnie inquired. I glanced at her in bewilderment. Why was she engaging this man in conversation, especially since it was clear he was a complete dolt? Then I saw the answer. She had finished her Elizabeth Peters paperback and was looking for a new form of entertainment. Inwardly, I groaned. A bored Aunt Winnie was always a daunting prospect.
“It’s Richard, actually, and I’d be happy to enlighten you,” replied Professor Baines. “Through Miss Austen’s character Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, we can perceive her true feelings for the church and the clergy. Mr. Collins is, of course, a buffoon and a hypocrite. He is no man of God, which was Miss Austen’s way of saying that none of the clergy are men of God. They are all quacks and charlatans.”
Well, if Aunt Winnie was going to play, then I saw no reason not to join, particularly when Jane Austen was the subject. I mentally buzzed in to the game: Alex, I’ll take “The Clergy in Austen” for $800.
“I agree with you that Mr. Collins is a fool,” I said, “but he’s just one of the many examples of clergymen that Austen presents us with. We also have Mr. Tilney in Northanger Abbey, who is sensible, kind, and wise.”
Not posed in the form of a question, perhaps, but still correct.
Professor Baines and Lindsay, however, exchanged glances of sympathetic derision. “I thought exactly as you did, Elizabeth,” Lindsay said kindly but knowingly, “until I realized, thanks to Professor Baines, that Mr. Tilney is an even bigger hypocrite than Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins is a fool, but Mr. Tilney is an educated man, and so his crime is more the worse.”
“His crime?” Aunt Winnie asked, her artfully enhanced brows drawn together in confusion. “What crime did poor Mr. Tilney commit?”
“Poor Mr. Tilney, indeed! Why, madam, he helped his father cover up the crime of murdering his mother! He was an accessory after the fact!” Lindsay exclaimed.
I stared at her in horrified amusement. “But his mother wasn’t murdered!” I interjected. “That is the whole point of Northanger Abbey—to illustrate the dangers of an overactive imagination.”
“No, that’s what you are meant to think,” said Professor Baines. “That’s the cover story that Austen wrote to hide her true tale—one of murderous deeds and the sins of hiding them. Did you never notice that it’s called NorthANGER Abbey? Austen is very angry about her topic. It is no coincidence that Mr. Tilney is one of the most heinous of all Austen’s villains.”
“Mr. Tilney?” I repeated in disbelief. “But that’s absurd! He’s … he’s … well, he’s Mr. Tilney!” Inarticulate perhaps, but true. Aunt Winnie patted my hand in silent commiseration.
“It most definitely is not absurd,” Professor Baines replied testily. “There is much more than meets the eye in Austen, especially with regard to her antiestablishment views about the church. Take for instance Mary Crawford’s comment about the clergy in Mansfield Park. Do you recall what she said? ‘A clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.’” He smiled smugly at us. “How do you explain that passage, if not as a condemnation of the church?”
“I think that you are forgetting that Mary’s not the heroine—Fanny is. Mary’s words were meant not as a jab at the church but as evidence of her own selfish character,” I said. “Remember, in the end Mary is revealed to be a woman of indifferent morals.”
Professor Baines shook his head. “You are incorrect. That’s how she’s portrayed in the film adaptations, perhaps, but not in the book. You just have to know where and how to look for it. You are like so many of my younger students. You rely only on Hollywood’s interpretation of Austen’s works to form your opinion.”
“I don’t, actually,” I said, not knowing whether to laugh or scream. “I’ve read each of her novels many times over—Mansfield Park included. And I’m sorry, but I don’t see any evidence to support what you are saying.”
“Well, it takes a special kind of reader to see the clues,” he said.
“‘There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome,’” Aunt Winnie quoted rather pointedly.
Professor Baines arched his eyebrow. “Are you suggesting that mine is a propensity to hate everybody?”
“No, of course not,” Aunt Winnie answered with a saccharine smile. “Only to willfully misunderstand.”
The flight attendant finally arrived with the champagne. After dispensing the glasses, she returned to the kitchen area. Professor Baines regarded the pale bubbles in his flute suspiciously before lifting it in a kind of salute. “Although we may disagree on Austen’s intended message,” he said, “we can at least agree that we enjoy her work.”
Aunt Winnie lifted her glass in turn and tipped her head in acknowledgment. “Agreed.”
Professor Baines’s aristocratic nose wrinkled as he brought the glass to his mouth, but then with a what-the-hell smile, he gamely took a large sip. Lindsay was less daring. Her face pulled into an expression of indecision; she reluctantly took a teensy sip before quickly setting the glass back down on her tray table. Professor Baines patted her hand with understanding. “I grant you that it is not a tête de cuvée, but we must make do,” he said sympathetically.
Catching Aunt Winnie’s eye, I indicated my glass. “It is tolerable, but not bubbly enough to tempt me,” I whispered.
She grinned. “Good God, man! I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom!” Then, to prove her point, she downed half the glass.
I took another sip without complaint. But then it was rare that I was in such poor humor as to not give consequence to free champagne slighted by pompous pseudointellectuals. Putting my glass down on the tray, I picked up the latest issue of SkyMall with feigned interest. I hoped that my apparent fascination with lawn-aerating shoes would deter Professor Baines from continuing the conversation, but he persisted in trying to prove his point. “You have to understand that the general opinion of Austen is incorrect,” he said.
Oh, sweet baby Jesus. Really?
“‘Where an opinion is general, it is usually correct,’” countered Aunt Winnie.
Professor Baines ignored her and kept talking. “I think that much of the conventional wisdom regarding Austen’s work comes from our perception of her chaste, quiet life. Had she been a different kind of woman, her works might be viewed differently. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Not necessarily,” I answered, reluctantly putting down the magazine. “Take Hemingway, for instance. He was a bullying, alcoholic misogynist, but knowing that doesn’t change his Nick Adams stories and their theme of redemption through dignity in deeds.”
Professor Baines shot me an indulgent smile as if I were a petulant child. “That’s different, of course, because Hemmingway was a man. Hopefully, you’ll figure that out when you’re a little older.”
Okay, now he had gone too far. Because he was a man? He was officially in the boat with Fredo. Aunt Winnie put a restraining hand on my wrist. I paused and put my shoe back on.
Professor Baines continued on, unaware. “That’s why I’m so excited to deliver my latest paper. Finally, I will provide the proof that Jane Austen wasn’t merely writing clever little romances. After much research and by breaking the codes apparent both in her letters and works, I believe that I have finally discerned something truly shocking, something that the literary establishment doesn’t want you to know.” His voice dropped ominously. “In fact, what I’ve discovered is nothing short of a bombshell.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt it is,” Aunt Winnie replied, lowering her voice in turn. “But don’t tell me. Let me guess.” She leaned forward, her face serious. “You’ve discovered that Edward Ferris rather ‘enjoyed’ the company of horses, haven’t you?”
While I attempted to mop up the champagne I’d spit all over my chin and sweater, Professor Baines’s mouth twisted in annoyance. Despite his obvious irritation, however, he was determined to go on and impress us with his discovery. “I have uncovered proof—although coded proof—that Jane Austen did not die from Addison’s disease or tuberculosis.” Pausing dramatically, he said, “Jane Austen died as the result of syphilis.”
After making this preposterous proclamation, he leaned back in his seat, clearly pleased with himself and his so-called discovery. I’m not sure what effect he expected this “bombshell” to have on us, but I doubted it was the one he got. After a brief moment of stunned silence, I began to giggle. Then Aunt Winnie joined in. Then we couldn’t seem to stop. It was like when you’re in church and you know you shouldn’t laugh but that somehow makes it all the funnier. Soon tears were streaming down my face, and Aunt Winnie was snorting inelegantly and muttering, “Capital! Capital!”
“This is no laughing matter!” Professor Baines exclaimed angrily. Next to him, Lindsay glared indignantly at us on his behalf.
“I’m sorry, but what you are proposing is ludicrous!” Aunt Winnie finally said when she got her breath. “Honestly, I don’t know how you think that’s even remotely possible. But, Rich”—Professor Baines winced—“I can tell you this, if you plan on presenting that paper during the festival, you are going to find yourself on the wrong side of an angry crowd.”
“The uninformed masses do not frighten me,” he replied coolly. His earlier spirit of magnanimous condescension had vanished. His eyes had sharpened while we were giggling until his pupils were tiny black dots anchored in icy blue pools. It would seem that Professor Baines did not like having his “shocking discovery” so openly mocked, especially in front of one of his adoring students. And he really didn’t like being called “Rich.”
“I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” he said stiffly. “I can see now that your mind is closed to that which you do not wish to see. I will trouble you no more.” With that he turned his back to us and resumed his lecture to Lindsay.
Aunt Winnie shook her head and wiped the moisture from her eyes. “I’ll tell you this much,” she said to me in a low voice, “if he gives that paper at the festival, he’ll be drawn and quartered.”
“Which is, I believe, what happened to Mrs. Tilney,” I whispered back.
For the next hour Aunt Winnie and I tried to outdo each other with outrageous perversions of Austen’s novels. I thought I had her with my “discovery” that Louisa Musgrove didn’t jump down the stairs but was pushed by Anne Elliot, until she topped me with her revelation that Jane’s cold at Netherfield was actually the clap.
After a while we both fell asleep, neither of us giving any more thought to Professor Baines and his fate once he presented his thesis. Of course, we knew that whatever it was, he wouldn’t be drawn and quartered—even though, as Jane herself might opine, his name was Richard. No one was going to do that in this day and age.
Copyright © 2012 by Tracy Kiely