My Jane Austen Vacation
By Cindy Jones
Don had just handed me a small glass of wine, insisting it would help me relax, when Caroline Hutton interrupted us, altering the course of our Jane Austen Vacation. We’d been trying to get pregnant for a year and this trip was a last resort before my doctor referred us to an infertility specialist. I’ve always loved Jane Austen and, if anything could make me relax into a happy ending, this hotel, described online as stepping into the pages of a Jane Austen novel, would do it. I’d told Don to think: Pride and Prejudice and Pregnancy.
“Caroline Hutton,” she said, “from Houston,” she extended a white hand to Don. A messy pixie set off her high cheekbones and pale complexion in a way that made me think of a runway model. Her eyes went straight to Don’s left hand and then mine, looking for signs of matrimony. Don did not wear his wedding ring, never had, and it hadn’t been an issue until this moment.
“I’m Helen,” I said. I gripped my wineglass with my left hand and displayed my gold band prominently. Relaxing was a constant struggle.
“Was that you out running this morning?” she asked Don.
Don confessed he had been running.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Caroline said touching her heart. “Our friends haven’t arrived yet and my brother and I can’t think of another word to say to each other.” She glanced at her brother, William, who stowed his phone and hopped up to shake hands with us. Caroline engaged Don in tourist talk, learning about our careers as school teachers from northern Virginia, while I shrunk beneath her brother’s lingering regard. I focused my gaze on the stuffed owl under glass on the corner table and took controlled breaths, slowing my pulse, and thinking: Sense and Sensibility and Insemination.
Next day, I took my basal temperature as soon as I woke (no spike) while Don suited up for his morning run. While he was running I sat in the hotel’s Drawing Room thinking: Mansfield Park and Mommies, admiring the 18 foot walls, stacked salon-style with portraits of elegant people who might have lived in this house before it was re-born as a hotel. Relaxing on the overstuffed sofa, I pressed my pot of French coffee and allowed one particular painting to capture my attention: a young woman dressed in white, like a character from a Forster novel, a tennis racquet in her hand, an expansive green lawn behind her. I imagined a story for her, including a fiancé and a horse, but I kept returning to the fact that, in real life, she’d been dead for a very long time. I imagined the paintings coming to life in the middle of the night, allowing tennis girl to rendezvous with the British soldier in the next painting, resulting in little oil painting children, when I looked up to find William Hutton staring at me.
He fell onto my overstuffed sofa. “I need coffee,” he groaned, obviously accustomed to the indulgence of unfamiliar women. “You share?” his bad boy grin said he’d known me all my life, as if we’d played doctor together as small children. I reluctantly warmed to him as William helped himself to my coffee. “Which is your favorite?” he asked, nodding at the paintings. “No, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” He made a show of deliberating. Obviously, I’d been gazing at the tennis girl when he saw me. “She’s just like you,” he said.
“How?” I scoffed, pulling my big sweater closer.
“She’s very quiet.” William leaned back. “I’d love to get her out of that frame.”
I heard Don in the entry.
“I’m not sure what the plan is,” Don was saying in his friendly voice, and I wondered who he could be talking to. I rose languidly and walked to the entry, surprised to see Caroline Hutton at his side, every bit as sweaty as Don. Running explained her waif look.
“I have coffee in the drawing room,” I said.
“What do you think about visiting the Roman Baths today?” Don asked me.
Caroline added, “We can all go together.”
They waited for my consent, as if I were their mother.
“If that’s what you want to do,” I said to Don, hoping he’d read my mind and see I didn’t want to go with the Huttons.
“Great, I’ll just take a quick shower,” Don said, nodding at Caroline.
“Oh, I’m so glad,” Caroline said. “And we can all go to the Pump Room for tea afterwards,” she called as she climbed the stairs, “Leave some hot water, Don.”
I could feel my pulse in my ears.
I sipped tea with my parking brake on, worried about the effects of too much caffeine, as Don and Caroline exchanged fun facts about running, and William struck up a conversation with a woman at the next table. Distracted by these people, Don and I were not ourselves. If we’d been alone, we’d be holding hands, musing about our future as parents.
Caroline turned to me and said, “I can see I’ll have to make a project of breaking through your reserve.” Then she asked how I’d become such a fan of Jane Austen. Before I knew it, my elbows were on the table and I was sharing my middle school teaching credentials as well as my opinion of the genius of Jane Austen. “Anything you want to know about human nature can be found in the pages of her six novels,” I said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recognized myself in one of her characters and changed my behavior.”
“I love Jane Austen,” Caroline said. “And I’m curious,” she broke off a tiny piece of scone, “which character taught you about yourself?”
“Maybe Emma,” I said. “I used to have issues with control.”
I can talk on this subject for some time, especially with a rapt audience. Don, who is only politely interested in Jane Austen for my sake, looked at his watch and signaled me under the table.
That evening, exhausted from our rambles in the Roman Baths and worried I needed to come down from all the tea I’d drunk, I suggested a quiet evening with room service.
Don scowled. “This is no time to cocoon. We’re in England. We can sit at home all next week. Let’s go. You’ll feel better after a glass of wine.”
With any luck, I would soon not be allowed to drink wine. Just as we reached the bottom of the stairs, Caroline Hutton passed us going up. Her chic attire and strappy sandals reminded me of how I’d dressed before I became so single-minded about motherhood, seemed like a long time ago.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” she said. “Go out to the terrace. Our friends from Houston have arrived and we’re all having a wonderful time.”
A lively group sat around a low table in the glow of flickering candlelight. The waitress delivered a new round and I shook hands with Paul King from Houston. His features were too irregular to be conventionally handsome but he had a dominant personality and he was very tall. I said hello to his two sisters, petite Marilyn, wary Judy, and their matronly aunt, Mrs. Webster. William flirted with both sisters. The aunt, Mrs. Webster, kept calling the waitress for one thing or another. I ordered a glass of water. Don was enjoying himself, too social to sit, and it wasn’t long before Paul King was nudging Don with his elbow and finishing his sentences. I’d been so wrapped up in cocooning with Don I’d forgotten how naturally social he was.
Judy elbowed the waitress, causing her to spill the water she was delivering to me.
“Oh, great,” Marilyn said. “Tell William what else you spilled today.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Judy said, raising her eyebrows.
“What happened?” Caroline asked as the waitress gave me a new glass.
Paul paused and turned to Caroline, “Do Don and Helen know why we’re here?” he asked.
“I haven’t told them,” she said, sipping her wine.
“Why are you here?” Don asked.
Paul glanced sideways and pressed his lips together, “We’re in England,” he paused, closing his eyes, “to lay our dear mother to rest.”
“I’m so sorry,” Don said, glancing at Caroline.
Paul patted his jacket pocket, “Our mother passed away after a long illness and her dearest wish was to be laid to rest in Jane Austen Country. And we’re so happy our old friends the Huttons agreed to join us here. Mother was always very fond of them.” Paul produced a small plastic bag of gray matter from his pocket, holding it up to the candlelight. “Mother,” he said.
“Actually, this is just a small portion of mother,” Paul explained. “Our instructions require spreading her ashes everywhere Jane Austen walked, so we’re pacing ourselves. There’s more where these came from.” Paul signaled the waitress for another round of drinks and I couldn’t help feeling somewhat shocked at the irreverent attitude toward the ashes of their mother.
“Where have you scattered so far?” Don asked, and from his tone I sensed he didn’t share my astonishment.
“Well,” Paul paused, “we tried to scatter some at her home site,” Paul pressed his lips together again, this time to restrain hilarity. “But that was after lunch.”
Judy interrupted, “We’d drunk too much wine and couldn’t find our way, so I just heaved some in the restaurant parking lot.”
Don smiled, bemused.
“She got some in the car window.” Marilyn said.
“Rent car,” Paul added.
Judy raised her palms. “How was I supposed to manage the window and your shoes and the ashes?” She asked.
“Enough,” Paul said. “The important thing is that we carry out Mother’s wishes. Isn’t that right, Caroline? Come and sit next to me,” he pulled a chair out for her and I watched Caroline touch his arm as she sat next to him in her little black dress, her sultry smile, a breathy comment I couldn’t hear. They must be very good friends to come all the way to England to spread ashes together.
The matronly aunt, Mrs.Webster, spoke, “That’s alright, Paul. These things are not accomplished by being nice about the particulars. A few locations too many must not frighten us. If a place is insignificant, the more credit we deserve for making a shrine of it.”
“So where to next?” Don asked, pulling up a chair across from Caroline and Paul. I set my water glass in the empty seat next to me.
“Chawton House.” Paul said. “Jane Austen’s House Museum.”
“Janeite Valhalla!” William raised his glass in a toast.
“We’d be honored to have you join us,” Paul said.
Don turned to look for me. I blinked at him. “What do you think, Helen?” Don said. I stared at him in disbelief. We had plans to walk around Bath tomorrow, by ourselves. I hadn’t seen the Jane Austen Center or the Royal Crescent House Museum and we were running out of days. I wanted to go to Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, but not with these people and their ashes.
The aunt clapped her hands. “This is so much fun!”
“Don’t you think these people are original?” Don asked me in our room after we’d had dinner served to us on the terrace, all selections made by Paul, who then picked up the enormous tab.
“No more original than Tom Bertram and his sisters,” I said. “Not to mention Aunt Norris.” Caroline and William reminded me increasingly of the scheming Crawfords of Mansfield Park, and in spite of all hope of getting to motherhood through an Austen novel, it was beginning to look as though we’d taken a wrong turn into a mash-up, complete with the human ashes of a mother: Mansfield Park and Mummies.
“Well, aside from your literary allusions, did you enjoy that?” Don asked.
“I’m very tired,” I said, afraid that I did not recognize my husband and that he had forgotten why we were here.
“Yes, it has been a long day. I’m tired, too.”
I shut off my light, too bewildered to read my book because I suddenly recognized my husband. He was Edmund Bertram. And that made me Fanny Price, the worst heroine in literature. Why are you doing this to me, Jane Austen?
Next morning I woke before dawn and checked my basal temperature. It spiked. Everything was going according to plan. I lay there for a very long time listening to Don’s breathing. If we were going to get pregnant on this trip, our window of opportunity was open for the day. How many times we’d lived through the anticipation of another try, the hope, the waiting, and the terrible disappointment of failure. Don turned over and my heart swooped. He stopped snoring, an indication that he was awake. I waited. He sat up. “Where are you going?” I whispered.
He looked at his watch. “Running,” he said. He rose from the bed, turned on the bathroom light, and shut the door.
I clenched my jaw and felt shivers rack my body. When he emerged from the bathroom he’d apparently been musing to himself. “Funny,” he said, “Caroline thinks I should quit teaching, and practice law.”
“Is that so?” My teeth chattered. This was one of the things we’d discussed at great length when we agreed that he should do the thing he loved which was teaching high school history in spite of his law degree. Caroline had no idea how carefully we’d debated that decision.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“My temperature spiked.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I know what that means. I’ll be back.”
I went to the Drawing Room to relax with the paintings but I was so buzzed, although I wasn’t a smoker, I wished for a cigarette. Or whiskey. Anything to calm me. The book shelf in the Drawing Room was stocked with every English novel a visitor could hope to find, including all six Austen novels. I could open any Austen novel to any page and read happily and calmly. I pulled Emma out of the stack and let the book fall open to the middle. I read, waiting for the words to pull me out of myself. Emma and Frank Churchill were discussing Jane Fairfax.
“And then, her reserve—I never could attach myself to anyone so completely reserved.”
“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “often-times very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.”
Shock of recognition; they were talking about me. I read the passage again, my pulse racing.
“Having fun?” William asked, plopping himself on my sofa.
“Yes,” I said too quickly. Tennis girl stared at me from her frame.
“Tense, are we?”
“Actually, I’m trying to relax,” I said, running my fingers through my hair.
“Then you’ve been to the spa?”
“No.” I scowled.
“He pointed in a general direction. “Makes all the difference.”
“They’re too rough.”
“Tell them you want a light touch.” He looked at me suspiciously. “Are you too shy to tell them what you want?”
“No,” I said.
“Come. We can book a double massage.”
“No,” I said. “I’m waiting for Don to come back from his run.”
“Life is short,” he said, pulling a dangling thread on my sweater.
I went outside to wait for Don, positioning myself across the street where I would be able to see him running back toward the hotel. Cars sped by on the wrong side, honking at me, swerving. My heart sped, releasing adrenaline into my blood. I leaned against a stone wall and waited, a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I couldn’t get rid of this feeling I would ruin everything all by myself.
When I finally saw them, they weren’t running. Caroline was walking on a raised wall and Don was at ground level. They were too far away for me to hear the sound of their conversation but it was obvious that they were having a good time. I could not look away, yet the sight made me feel horrible. When she reached the end of the higher ground they stopped and Don spoke to her. He had hold of her hand and was evidently directing her to jump off the ledge. When they were both at ground level, they resumed running and I put on a happy face as I walked out to meet them, anxious not to look anxious.
“I’m so sorry,” Caroline called when she saw me and they both stopped running. “We’ve kept you waiting,” she said through heavy breathing. “I have nothing to say for myself other than please forgive me for that long run. I’m selfish and there’s no hope of a cure.” She winked at me.
“Caroline knows Bud Dolan,” Don said. We both knew Bud, a partner with a large firm in DC who’d once offered Don a clerk position. She’d spent the run pitching law at him.
“Small world.” I said, with no visible trace of jealousy.
Caroline stopped her watch. “Oh, look at the time,” she said. “We’re riding to Alton with the Kings and we’re supposed to leave in less than an hour. You’re coming?” she asked Don.
Don looked at me. I said nothing.
Don showered while I waited on the love seat in our room, composing the words I needed to explain my concerns to him.
He emerged in a towel.
“What are you doing?” I asked, a trick question since there was only one right answer.
“I thought we were going to Chawton.” Don said.
“Are you forgetting something?” I asked, restraining myself.
“What’s wrong?” Don reached to pat my shoulder. “You’re not yourself lately.” He sat next to me, naked on his towel, his wet hair going every which way. I leaned away, reaching for a tissue. “We came here to relax,” Don paused, “But you seem more tightly wound than you were at home.”
“I’m okay,” I said, “I just want to get pregnant. That’s all.”
Don shook his head. “That’s all. Sometimes I feel like I’m just a sperm bank to you.”
“What?” I said. “Today is our one chance. Are you saying you don’t even want to try?”
Don shrugged. “What I’m saying is that you’re so worked up. That won’t help you get pregnant. I’ve been thinking, maybe we need to give it a rest. If we step back and give it some time, things might have a way of turning out.”
“Are you saying we came all the way here to get pregnant and we’re not even going to have sex?”
Don leaned back and looked at the ceiling. “I’m saying we need to give it a rest. Take it easy and let nature do its work.”
“Nature doesn’t work by osmosis in this instance, Don.” I sighed loudly. “You seem so distant since we got here, not happy unless the Huttons are along. And now the Kings.” I threw my hands up. “I don’t even feel like we’re married anymore.”
Don shook his head, his face expressed confusion. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do sense that you’ve shut down parts of yourself that I loved. I don’t know if it’s just because you’re so fixated on being a mother or if this naturally happens the longer we’re married. What happened to fun?”
Stung, I escaped into the bathroom.
Don called through the door. “We may not be ready to be parents.”
We drove to Alton in silence but I continued the argument in my head. I listed all the reasons Don was wrong, but none of that mattered because I kept hearing him tell me that I had shut down parts of myself that he loved. It was like reading that no one could love a reserved person; the rug was being pulled out from under my feet. I’d become as reserved as Fanny Price, no longer willing to do the work of being married, just waiting for Jane Austen to steer my plot to the next level, ready or not. I had a sinking feeling Don would suggest we put off consulting an infertility specialist.
At the new hotel, I told Don to go down without me. The plan was to meet for happy hour at 4 and drive over to Jane Austen’s House Museum in the rented van just before Chawton House closed for the day. “I’ll meet you later,” I said, unable to deal with Mrs. King’s ashes while considering the horrifying possibility that my marriage might not survive my Jane Austen vacation.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t blow us off,” he said on his way out.
I pulled my toothbrush out of my bag and loaded it with toothpaste while a tiny voice told me not to worry. Just let it go, everything will eventually work out. I looked in the mirror, toothpaste foaming in my mouth, and shook my head. I can’t let it go. I have to do the work of the marriage. I can’t sit in a frame and hope my relationship will nourish itself.
The little voice said: It worked for Fanny Price.
Of course it did, I said. Fanny Price had one thing I don’t have: Jane Austen plotting in her favor: fiction.
And that was when the light in the mirror brightened. Air stopped pushing against me and I felt the absence of a terrific resistance I’d been fighting for days. What had happened to fun?
“Goodbye Fanny Price,” I said, and opened the bathroom door.
I threw my big sweater under the bed, pulled off my comfortable jeans and slipped into the sexy lingerie I’d worn on my honeymoon. I settled the flowered skirt Don liked around my waist, marveling that I’d had so much trouble finding my way here. Like hitting the reset button and restoring default settings, this was not unfamiliar territory. Don was right, something had come over me. Not just this week but the entire past year, and maybe earlier. I could feel myself unwinding, casting off tension accumulated from a year of anxiety. I tossed my sensible shoes in the trash and pulled my strappy sandals I’d been too reserved to remember from my suitcase. What had happened to my confidence? Bending over, I tossed my hair, raking fingers through it to achieve volume. I fixed my make-up, using the lip liner and lipstick I’d been too lazy to employ up till now. I looked in the mirror. I don’t have to be Fanny Price.
They were all in the bar, waiting to leave for Chawton House when I got there. Paul was saying, “Everybody needs a job.” Caroline was in animated conversation with Don, and William had made a friend at the next table. For just a moment, I reconsidered my options. A pregnant wife would trump a Mary Crawford, right? What had Frank Churchill said about the safety in reserve? I thought about crawling back to my sweater and just waiting out another cycle, but then I heard Caroline laugh at something Don said and I remembered what was at stake.
William met me. “You’ve bolted from your frame, I see.”
“Hi, William,” I smiled brightly.
Don paused his side of the conversation when he saw me. He stood and pulled an extra chair to his side and I sat, feeling rather vulnerable in my skirt and lip gloss. When I’d been hidden in my sweater, no one could accuse me of trying. Now, I felt rather obvious, showing up to compete for my husband’s attention.
“Wine?” Don asked.
Caroline watched me, as if she might catch me stumbling and send me back to the quiet periphery.
“Yes, please,” I said. Then, I mustered my confidence, leaned in, and asked Caroline all about her plans for the Houston Marathon.
Don reached over and took my hand.
I leaned in the other direction and talked to Judy about her horse, Marilyn about her decorator, and Mrs. Webster about Marilyn’s upcoming wedding plans. Although she was happy to be of service in making arrangements, she was sorry Mrs. King hadn’t lived to see her daughter married. I agreed that it was a shame. Don laced his fingers in mine.
Don drove the van to Jane Austen’s house and, after parking, came around to my side. Once they were all out of earshot, he stood very close and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“Me, too.” I said, reaching for him as I’d done hundreds of times, yet now his embrace struck me full of wonder, intensely familiar, yet completely fresh and new, it left me calm and agitated in equal measure.
“You don’t need to have anything to do with the ashes,” he said. “I’m not.”
“I won’t,” I smiled. “I’ll just look around.”
I was accustomed to thinking of Jane Austen as the great supernova, her brilliance illuminating the world two hundred years beyond her death, but being inside the humble cottage made her seem more real. Inside Jane Austen’s House, everything was smaller than life, and we had to hurry because it was almost closing time, a point to the advantage of the late Mrs. King.
I walked across the creaking planks, gazed at the amber crosses belonging to Jane and her sister, Cassandra. I scowled at the nearly life-sized portrait of Edward Knight thinking he might like tennis girl back at the hotel. And then I saw the small, charming table near the window where Jane Austen wrote her novels. I could imagine her sitting there, conjuring the world of Mansfield Park. I wished I knew what she meant when she created the reserved Fanny Price. Was Jane Austen projecting herself and her particular issues into the novel? Did Fanny end up with Edmund only because Jane Austen was driving the plot? Is it, after all, impossible to love a reserved person? And wait a minute. Frank Churchill loved the reserved Jane Fairfax.
Suddenly Paul rushed in the back door, through the hall, and out the front door. Marilyn and Judy followed in loud pursuit with Mrs. Webster hanging on for dear life. Judy saw me and hissed, “Let’s go,” she said.
William ran by, whispering, “The gift shop manager,” he said over his shoulder. “Hurry!” he said to me.
From the back door I saw Caroline thrusting her hand at Don and Don reaching in his pocket. Once she had the car keys, she bolted, rushing past me and out the front door with the others. I walked out to join Don, who had joined a gray-haired woman dressed in a big sweater and sensible shoes. Don knelt down over a garden plot.
“It is distressing for visitors to see these mounds of human ash and particularly so for our gardener!” The gray-haired woman was saying while Don scooped handfuls of ash mixed with garden dirt into a plastic bag she gave him. “It is of no benefit to the garden, either,” she added. “I understand that admirers would love to have their ashes laid here, but it is something we do not allow.”
I could hear the Kings and the Huttons getting into the van. William was helping Marilyn and Mrs. Webster into the shotgun seat.
Don stood, closing the bag, his hands covered with grey ash. “I’m terribly sorry,” Don apologized. This was the Don I married.
“We’ve had three incidents lately,” the woman said, and then confided to me, “Most people come secretly in the dark and climb over the fence.”
I glanced toward the van and saw William had shut the passenger door and was waving at us, urging us to come.
“Please let people know that we dispose of human ashes by throwing them in our dust bin,” she said, walking back to her gift shop.
The car shifted into gear, Caroline at the wheel.
“They’re leaving,” I said to Don.”
“Good riddance,” Don said. He held up the bag so they could see that their mother was not safely interred in Jane Austen’s flower garden and then motioned for them to go on without us. The brakes squealed and the van accelerated, driving so fast I feared they’d crash before leaving our sight.
I didn’t ask him what he thought of Caroline Hutton now.
“What did you do to your hair?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
That evening Don and I drove to Portsmouth and parked near the sea wall where we stood above the choppy waters of the English Channel. The sun was going down and I felt incredibly calm. “Do you have them?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and when we were seated on the wall, our feet dangling over the edge, he pulled the bag of ashes from his pocket. I was thinking about the intense heat necessary to reduce Mrs. King to dust when Don asked if I had anything to say.
“No,” I said, leaning into Don. “Wait.” I said. “What about the wind?”
“Good thinking,” Don said. “Be careful. We don’t want to wear Mrs. King for the rest of the vacation. After you,” he said, handing the bag to me.
I dumped half of the ashes into the English Channel and Don dumped the rest.
“What do we do with that?” I asked.
Don stuffed the bag into his pocket. “We toss it in the dust bin,” he said.
We sat close to each other on the sea wall, watching sailboats, birds, and people. And then I noticed Don looking at me, his face slightly red.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” he laughed through his apparent confusion. “Just that William Hutton seemed awfully familiar with you,” he said. “I didn’t much care for that.”
“I know the feeling,” I said. I held onto Don and opened myself to the power of the wind and the rough wall, the immense sea, and the fishy smell. As the English Channel swept the mortal remains of Mrs. King into its deep mystery, I had a perfect sense of the two cells that met shortly after closing the door to our hotel room. They were safe within me now, dividing and multiplying at an astonishing rate.