the last time i was home
to see my mother we kissed
and unpleasantries pulled a warm
comforting silence around
us and read separate books
-Nikki Giovanni, Mothers
Elizabeth is a bright child, and so she learns this quickly: her mother's nerves cannot be trusted.
When she is young, she is as likely to be punished for a bit of mud on her hem as she is for a word that should have been spoken a bit more softly. When she is older, she collects reprimands like embroidery patterns. She violates unknown—or even invented—proprieties; she thinks herself too clever; she is too like her father; she wears a yellow frock instead of a blue one.
She charts her mother's emotions in the way Mrs. Bennet's eyebrows creep toward her hairline, in the way her lips purse before she speaks. Elizabeth can predict when the outbursts will happen by the tilt of her mother's head when she speaks, the severity of each incident indicated by the pitch and decibel of her voice.
She attempts to head off these conflicts, conditions her response. At twelve, she still protests, tries to formulate a retort. At fourteen, she knows better. She cannot counter her mother's irrational statements with logic. She feels the indignation welling up, and bites her tongue until the pain is too great and her jaw hurts from clenching so long. Her skirts are gathered into her fists, and it is minutes before she feels able to relax her fingers, smoothing the creased muslin to hide what she's done, to prevent another outburst. She responds in little gasps of "oh, but—" and "wait" and "Mama—" before realizing that she will never be heard. She looks away and refuses to cry.
Mrs. Bennet is a ready source of insinuations, accusations, and nonsensical proclamations, all without provocation. Tears and hand wringing are her tools of persuasion; she often declares her health or her nerves unable to meet the demands of the day, and says she is in need of recovery. Elizabeth may not see her mother until the next morning, and while this was an advantage when she was younger, now it is an annoyance.
By the time the emotional debris has settled, when she has sorted the truths from the imagined wrongs, when she and Jane have ensured that the household will run as usual, Elizabeth feels only exhaustion and bitterness.
She is sixteen when she makes a joke at her mother's expense; her father's chuckle prompts a surge of pride. When she is eighteen, she listens to her father's sardonic laugh and knows, not for the first time, but more clearly than ever, that his is not a marriage of equals, and she spends a long time that night, staring into the darkness, thinking.
When the minister mentions the Fifth Commandment the next morning, Elizabeth frowns and studies the wood grain of the family pew. Elizabeth cannot love without acknowledgment, like Jane, cannot—will not— blindly accept that their faults are her fault, no matter how often she is blamed.
She knows that desiring affection and esteem is not romantic, no matter what Charlotte calls it. It is, she thinks, the most practical thing about her, that she wants some measure of respect in a husband, wants to feel something more than gratitude for a man. Charlotte, whose parents have lived in indifferent harmony for three decades, does not understand this.
Elizabeth does not often reminisce about the year before her engagement. She does not like to admit that her irrational prejudices, her stubbornness, and her response to Darcy's first proposal remind her too much of her mother. Instead, she thinks of dancing with Fitzwilliam, of a shaded walk near a fishing stream, and quiet words near the piano at Rosings when she noticed his smile.
She finds it easier to love her mother—and Mary and Lydia—from a distance. She can be forgiving, can let the miles blunt the sharp edges of their written comments, pretending that they are meant kindly. From the comfort of Pemberley, she can believe they have changed.
When she discovers she is pregnant, Elizabeth laughs and Darcy smiles at fanciful thoughts of what the child will be named, of the antics he will perform, of the pony she will ride. Elizabeth whispers the word "Mother" to herself with secret pleasure.
When Elizabeth discovers she is not pregnant, not anymore, she spends a week in bed. The week after, they do not speak, fleeting touches communicating their sorrow. Fitzwilliam is quiet for another week, but Elizabeth doubts anyone other than she and Georgiana notice. They do not speak of children for another month. It is winter, and every day brings fresh snow.
Elizabeth waits for the thaw. They have never done things easily, so why should this be any different? Darcy gives her a wry smile when she says this, clasps her hands in his, and they make a project of redesigning one of the gardens for the spring.
After Easter, they travel to Netherfield. Lydia's financial situation keeps her from visiting, and her mother bemoans that she cannot be there, saying, "oh, if only my Lydia and her dear Wickham had just a bit more each month, she might be able to see her poor mother more often." Elizabeth knows this is meant for her, and for Darcy, and feigns ignorance, paying more attention to the soft sound of Fitzwilliam turning the pages of his book.
Jane is radiant with new motherhood; they coo over the baby's cradle, but Elizabeth does not offer to rock the child to sleep at night. Her mother provides unsolicited advice about how to keep a husband's interest, every conversation revolving around babies and pregnancy, invoking the word 'duty' as if the word meant something Mrs. Bennet could understand.
"Mr. Darcy must be impatient for an heir, with his sister out next year he must think of these things," Mrs. Bennet says amidst other vulgar and nonsensical words, nodding to herself. The next day she adds, "I cannot imagine another man who would look past your situation and offer so much, Elizabeth. You were such a difficult girl, I feared we would never find a man who would tolerate you. You must be careful to show him every kind of respect he is due, lest he grow dissatisfied with you."
Elizabeth tries to laugh, and fails.
She thinks, I am glad—glad!—not to be a mother, if it means I must be like this, must act like you. She can never say it, and later will be ashamed for thinking it, but she is so angry, both at the careless spite of the comments and the futility of redressing them.
She turns to Caroline and talks of fashion.
She does not regret that they will not see her mother for another six months.
Later, she combs her hair, cataloguing her features: a nose like her mother; eyes shaped like her grandmother; the Bennet chin; the high forehead of the Gardiners. Her face is her inheritance, the bequest of generations gone before. Since her wedding, she feels more connected to Darcy's family than to her own ancestors, but here is the truth: she can never divorce herself from her lineage, cannot deny that she belongs to these new relations only by her name, not in blood, not yet.
"Fitzwilliam," she whispers into the darkness of their bed, half-hoping that he will not hear. He is silent, but he usually is, waiting for her to finish her thought. She draws in a breath and asks, "Do you think I am like my mother?"
"No," he says, deep voice a little muffled by the pillow and her hair, but no less authoritative in the chill of midnight than the warmth of midday. She waits, but he does not continue.
"How can you be certain?" she asks, a little hesitant, a little amused at the sigh that brushes her neck, beginning to wonder if this will be some grand joke they share after ten or fifteen years.
"You look like her, a little," he murmurs, "but you are not like her, neither am I exactly like my father. We are each our own selves."
"And we are happy," she whispers again, a question and a benediction.
"Very happy," he replies firmly, "and very sleepy."
He kisses her shoulder, and she closes her eyes.