In Jane Austen’s day there was a habit that was carried out routinely by upper class people, but that did not make its way into her stories. Can you guess what it was?
In 19th century England smoking and the use of snuff were common practices. Not only did society tolerate the habit, but some people believed that tobacco had medicinal qualities such as pain relief and eliminating parasites from the body. This is not the case today, of course. Today we understand the health problems caused by smoking and, at least in the United States, the practice is frowned on. We set a minimum age for tobacco use and we have laws that prohibit smoking in most public spaces. But in Austen’s time there was no such stigma.
To be sure, people in the 18th century understood that tobacco had undesirable effects on their bodies. They knew that it caused problems with the lungs and other organs, and they were well aware that smoking or sniffing it could be addictive. But since tobacco was expensive it was also a status symbol. Vice overcame virtue, just as it does today. In Austen’s day most gentlemen carried a snuff box with them and were not averse to sniffing a little now and then when they were in polite company. Fortunately for their wives, they usually kept their smoking outdoors!
As with so many other items, snuff boxes and smoking pipes revealed the status of their owners. Smoking pipes could be either wooden or clay, simple and unadorned or decorated with fancy symbols or popular images. Snuff boxes came in a variety of sizes and materials, from plain papier-mache to silver and decorated with jewels.
Yes, although we might not want to think about it today, the truth is that Darcy, Bingley, and all other our favorite Austen men were probably well acquainted with tobacco in its most common forms. I would like to think that Darcy, at least, refused to become addicted to any substance and carried a small snuff box just for show.
All of this came to mind because of the following short story I have just started writing. I hope you’ll read it and tell me what you think of this work in progress!
Fitzwilliam Darcy, master of the estate of Pemberley, in Derbyshire, could not sleep. He tossed restlessly in bed in his townhouse in London, wishing that he would drift off into that delightful land where the woman he favored above all others was not out of his reach.
In his dreams Elizabeth Bennet with her fine eyes graced the halls of Pemberley as its mistress, bringing new life to the stately home with her wit and beauty. She was a kind and caring sister to Georgiana, and the sweet sound of her singing and playing filled the halls. In a particularly delightful dream he might even touch her hand with his, or sweep her into his arms and dance with her in the grand ballroom. .
But in the waking hours, before the dreams came, he was alone. His only companion was the gleam of cool January moonlight that entered between the curtains of his bedchamber and fell across the pillow next to him. The house was silent, and he had time for his conscience to sting. With a sigh he rearranged his pillow under his head, then turned over to lie on his other side. The moonlight was not enough to take away the loneliness- or the guilt. He punched the pillow, then sighed and lay back again, feeling his eyes finally drift shut.
It might have been hours later when he awoke, or it may have been just minutes. He was not certain. But he was quite, quite sure that someone nearby had spoken his name. He sat up straight in his bed and called into the darkness, “Who is there?”
There was no sound, but Darcy sensed the presence of something- or someone- in the room with him, watching him. Around him all was dark. Not even the faintest gleam of light came into the room. “I said, who is there? Where are you? Show yourself this instant!”
“I doubt if you’ll be happy to see me.” A small flicker of light burst up from somewhere in the dark room, then died out just as quickly, replaced by a hint of a glowing ember.
Darcy smelled something rich and earthy.. “I demand to know your name!”
“You don’t remember me? It’s only been five years.”
The voice was louder this time, as if coming closer, and there was something familiar in its tones. The reference to time and especially the smell of tobacco gave the final clue to the speaker’s identity. Darcy gasped as recognition dawned. “Father?”
“Who else?” The light from the pipe grew brighter until it illuminated the end of the four poster bed, where Darcy’s father sat calmly, looking just as he had the last time Darcy had seen him, in a wine colored smoking jacket, holding his favorite pipe.
Darcy stared. “What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you that. This used to be my room, if you remember.” Father gave a quiet chuckle. He casually lifted the pipe to his mouth and exhaled.
“But you-” Darcy shook his head, trying to clear it. “This can’t be real. You’re dead.”
“Relax, Darcy. You always were a worrier.” Father answered. Small circles of smoke came out of the pipe in his hand and drifted into the canopy overhead. “I am as real as you are.”
Darcy eyed him warily. “But if you are real and yet dead, and I am with you, then logically I must also be-”
“Dead? Of course not. Use your head, the way I taught you.”
Darcy was speechless. The entire scene was so surreal that, for the moment, he could only stare. Father continued. “I have just informed you that you are not dead. Logically that means you must either be dreaming or mad. Which do you think it is?”
What is Darcy’s father doing in his bedroom in town? And what is the purpose of his odd conversation with his son? Is Darcy still sleeping or has he completely lost his mind? This story will be fleshed out more in the months to come. I look forward to sharing it with you!