Polluted Shades

“Heaven and earth! – of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pelmberley to be thus polluted?”

Did you know that pollution is not a problem exclusively of the modern era? Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as you see from her statement above (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 56), was concerned about its noxious effects even in the early 1800s, when she “lived.” Of course the pollution she railed against was the contamination of noble realms by unworthy personages such as Elizabeth Bennet’s low connections. In her eyes, the shortest visit of one of these at Pemberley would have left a stain on its woods that no amount of time could ever erase.

Lady Catherine is one of those delightful villains that we love so much to hate. She’s also a writer’s dream. Just like actors often report that wicked characters are more fun to play than the nice ones, villains are often more enjoyable to write for too. Even though I avoid confrontation in real life, I love to write that kind of scene. Think about the contest of wits between Lizzy and her ladyship that included the line quoted above. Lady Catherine creates conflict and confrontation wherever she goes, so I was thrilled to give her a prominent role in the Darcys of Pemberley, my sequel to Pride and Prejudice. I began with Jane Austen’s final chapter as my jumping-off point, studying it carefully for clues to what she saw in her characters’ futures and carefully respecting those ideas. This is what we learn there about Lady Catherine:

Lady Catherine was extremely indignant on the marriage of her nephew; and as she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character, in her reply to the letter which announced its arrangement, she sent him language so very abusive, especially of Elizabeth, that for some time all intercourse was at an end. But at length, by Elizabeth’s persuasion, he was prevailed on to overlook the offence, and seek a reconciliation; and, after a little farther resistance on the part of his aunt, her resentment gave way, either to her affection for him, or her curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself; and she condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received …

I used Jane Austen’s own words as the guide for all the characters, contradicting nothing she wrote in her epilogue. She left me plenty of good material to work with while not boxing me in too tight. So, I made the most of Lady Catherine’s nasty disposition and aristocratic snobbery before finally humbling her into accepting the new mistress of Pemberley:

News soon spread throughout the neighborhood that there would be nobility coming amongst them, and the watch began for a very fine closed carriage – a barouche with coat of arms it was rumored to be – which would convey Lady Catherine de Bourgh to Pemberley. When the great lady was assured that the place was free of riffraff, she did come, bringing her daughter and son-in-law with her for the event. Her previous visit having been long before the current Mrs. Darcy presided, she keenly anticipated finding a serious decline in the dignity and polish of the grand estate under the new management. However, though she scrutinized the house and grounds down to the minutest detail, all her efforts were frustrated; Pemberley was just as fine as it had ever been when her own sister was its mistress.

I can well imagine how much Jane Austen enjoyed giving Lady Catherine a good set down (by way of Elizabeth’s mouth), for I took equal pleasure making sure she got her comeuppance in my story.

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
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