Jane Austen was born in 1775 and grew up experiencing two revolutions: the American revolution and the French revolution. The American revolution ended when she was only seven so she likely knew little of it. But the French revolution marked ten of the most formative years of her life, from ages fourteen to twenty four, and her cousin Eliza was married to a French count who lost his life to “Madame La Guillotine.” (I wrote more about Eliza here.) Eliza later married Jane’s brother Henry, becoming Jane’s sister in law. So Jane was certainly aware of the French revolution and likely deplored it, as did most English. But politics, wars, revolutions and other tricky subjects never made it into any of her work. She stayed famously silent on those issues.
What if Jane had written about the revolution? What if she had decided to put the characters of Pride and Prejudice into the volatile setting of Paris during the Great Terror? How would the story and characters change? Inspired by both Jane Austen and Baroness Orczy, my current work in progress is a cross between Jane Austen’s classic and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The very tentative title of this story is Elizabeth and the Fleur de Lys, and the ideas was suggested by my husband roughly five years ago. I’ve had a lot of fun with it already! A preview follows below. I hope you enjoy it!
It’s 1792 and Jane and Elizabeth live in Paris with their aunt and uncle Gardiner. All four are attending a small assembly, where Wickham asks Elizabeth to dance. Elizabeth has not yet met Darcy and she is flattered by Wickham’s interest in her. As they dance she asks why Wickham missed attending a dinner the week before.
“I had to be away on business.”
Wickham offered nothing more, and Elizabeth found that she was curious. “What kind of business? I have never asked about your occupation before, and you have never told me.” Now that she thought about it, it seemed odd that this had never come up in conversation.
Wickham did not pause in his dance steps. “There is very little to tell. I am a dealer.”
“A dealer in what? Fine wine? Glassware? Perhaps in silk, like my uncle?”
“I deal in rare and unusual items.”
“Such as what?”
“Nothing to bore ladies with,” Wickham shrugged, just as their steps separated them once more. A stuffy bewigged Frenchman took her round the circle once before she was able to join Wickham again.
“Do you have a settled home anywhere?” Where is your family from?”
“I was raised in Derbyshire, the son of an estate steward, but I have no settled home at this time.”
So he was not truly a gentleman at all, she realized with surprise. “What about the rest of your family? Have you any brothers or sisters?”
“None. I am an only child, and my parents have been gone these many years. So you see it is up to me to make my own way in the world.”
“By dealing in rare and unusual items?” she challenged, throwing his words back at him.
He smiled mysteriously. “You would be surprised how men support themselves in these uncertain times. You must make allowances for those of us who are not born into such happy circumstances as you.” The dancing continued around them as they separated and went back to their lines.
When they came together again the set was almost over. “The talk of the town right now is the man known as the Fleur-de-Lys, ” Elizabeth commented casually. “I suppose you have heard of him?”
“Indeed.” Wickham turned suddenly serious. “Even in London they are speaking of him. A troublemaker by all accounts.”
“Yes, a troublemaker. A rabble rouser, a man who purports to be a hero of the people but wants to undo all the work of the revolution! He must be stopped at all costs.”
Elizabeth was so surprised by this that she nearly stopped in her tracks. She remembered her surroundings just in time to avoid colliding with another gentleman, stepping out of his way at the last moment. “I have not heard anyone say that he is an enemy of the revolution! It is my opinion that he is rescuing innocent victims who happen to have been caught up in circumstances not of their making.”
Wickham shook his head. “I have a hard time believing that anyone who has had a trial and been convicted by the committee could be anything other than guilty.”
“But how many people are ever declared innocent by the committee? From what I have heard, being accused and being convicted are nearly the same. Certainly there is nothing like a proper trial.”
She spoke more loudly than she intended, and she flushed as several heads turned her way. But she lifted her chin defiantly, demanding a response from her partner.
Wickham waited until the people around them looked away before speaking again. This time he spoke more his carefully, and he kept his voice down. “There may be some truth to what you say. The trials are carried out quickly and the verdict is usually a foregone conclusion. But justice is served all the same. I, for one, am glad to see that the rich who have oppressed the poor are finally receiving their just rewards!”
She could hardly believe her ears. “Even if innocent people are swept up along with the guilty?”
“Revolutions are never bloodless affairs.” His eyes met hers coolly as they performed their final steps and the dance came to an end. “If we waited for them to be perfectly executed they would never take place at all.”
For the first time Elizabeth felt a flash of displeasure with Wickham. “But the first duty of a gentleman is always to defend and protect the innocent!”
The music was coming to an end. Wickham read her face as they made their final bow and curtsey, and his own expression softened. “I can see that I have displeased you. I apologize, Miss Elizabeth. When you have come to know me better you will understand why I have such strong feelings on the topic.”
I hope you are intrigued by this small preview! Please drop a line and let me know what you think. You can find the story in progress on Darcy and Lizzy.