What if Emma Woodhouse played Matchmaker for Darcy and Lizzy?
A Regency Light-Hearted Comedy
Emma Woodhouse is about to discover that sometimes the journey you set out on is not the one you return from.
The carriage bounced along, the sudden jolts making the journey seem longer than she had anticipated. This was the first time in all of her almost one and twenty years that the pretty heiress had ventured out of the village of Highbury. She pondered the events that had led to her being coerced into visiting her Bingley cousins at their new estate, a place called Netherfield, located somewhere near Meryton.
It had been Mr. George Knightley who had directed the course of events, acting in his self-appointed role of big brother and best friend to Emma. He vigorously encouraged her to step away from being her father’s constant companion since this opportunity for a holiday presented itself.
Mr. Knightley had used his best persuasive powers to convince Mr. Woodhouse that it would be enriching and safe for Emma to experience a short journey and extended stay in response to the invitation she had received from her cousins. Knightley personally guaranteed her wellbeing. He would accompany Miss Woodhouse in his large carriage, acting as her protector throughout the trip. He secretly hoped to challenge her mind with new adventures thereby taking her from her preoccupation with arranging marriages.
Although having no personal experience in affairs of the heart, Emma fancied herself an intuitive matchmaker. She credited herself with having orchestrated the engagement of her sister Isabella to Mr. Knightley’s younger brother. Their union was Emma’s first attempt at matchmaking, but not her last. She thought a little too well of her talents and now suffered joy tinged with remorse. Emma Woodhouse’s beloved former governess and constant companion, Miss Taylor, was soon to be wed to the likeable Mr. Weston, and Emma took credit for their match.
Miss Taylor had been a part of the Woodhouse family for more than sixteen years. She was an intelligent, friendly companion, well versed in the ways of the household. Her departure, although less than one mile away, would leave a void at Hartfield.
Emma had always promoted the match as she wished Miss Taylor to someday have a family of her own; she had not thought of the consequences, which the good lady’s departure would bring upon the family estate of Hartfield. The estate was located in the populous village of Highbury, where all the residents looked up to the Woodhouses. But that esteem would not compensate Emma and her father for all the disadvantages, both natural and domestic, which would certainly occur when Miss Taylor married and relocated to Mr. Weston’s estate.
After Miss Taylor moved from Hartfield, there would be little chance for Emma to experience any travel; her world would be contained within the boundaries of Highbury and even more closely in the family home. Mr. Woodhouse was of a melancholy nature; his spirits required unceasing support. Since the death of his wife, Mr. Woodhouse’s nerves caused him to fret needlessly, often to the point of inducing him to become ill. The elderly gentleman required constant reassurance and companionship for he feared being left alone in the huge rambling mansion.
Mr. Knightley was keen for Emma to see a bit more of England, even if it were merely a trip from one shire to another. He felt it important that the young lady become aware of what lay outside Highbury in order to broaden her understanding of people—and control her impulse to guide the lives of others.
The wealthy Mr. Knightley was more than the Woodhouses’ nearest neighbor and almost daily visitor. He had known the family since before Emma was born, and although he still regarded her as a younger sister, he recently noticed himself caring for her in a faintly romantic way. These feelings he would disregard, as there was seventeen years between their ages. George Knightley fancied himself a confirmed bachelor.
The carriage rumbled on toward Netherfield. Emma glanced at her lady’s maid who shared the forward-facing seat, while Mr. Knightley sat opposite them. The maid pressed her nose to the carriage window, mesmerized by the rolling hills and verdant valleys. Young Alice was enthralled with the scenery for,
like her mistress, she had never been outside Highbury and this was a great adventure for her as well as Miss Woodhouse.
As pleasing as the vistas were, no sooner had they left Highbury, then Emma began to think of the joyous reunion with her father when she returned home. If Mr. Knightley had not been teasingly insistent, she would not have made the journey.
But in his own playful way, he made it look as if she were fearful of making new acquaintances. Nothing could be further from the truth, and so she faced his challenge.
Emma Woodhouse took her position as mistress of Hartfield seriously and managed it well. Her unchanging life gave her great satisfaction; so, it was with un-admitted trepidation that she ventured into new territory.
She was looking forward to seeing her cousin Charles, as he was the most pleasant of her Bingley relatives. It was the memory of his sister Caroline that set Emma to clenching her jaws, for Miss Bingley was an insufferable, scheming snob, who attempted to enlist Emma in her conspiracies. They had visited Hartfield three times over the years. Each Bingley visit had left Emma with regret at parting with cousin Charles combined with relief at waving farewell to Caroline.
Emma believed quite firmly in the separation of the classes. But unlike her cousin Caroline, she made every attempt to behave kindly when circumstances caused dealings with those of lower birth, for she was nothing, if not a loving soul.
Tucking a stray blond curl into her bonnet, she gripped the seat with one hand and the window ledge with the other to steady the jostling. Closing her eyes, Emma wished with all her might that this tortuous journey would soon be over. She imagined returning to a possible matchmaking challenge that had stirred her interest only last week. Emma believed she possessed a natural gift for matchmaking; and gravitated toward it like a butterfly to honeysuckle. With her eyes closed, and the happy thought of joining two Highbury residents dancing in her mind, the young mistress of Hartfield failed to see Mr. Knightley’s loving smile as he looked upon her.
Charles Bingley took his place at the head of the Netherfield dining table with Caroline at his right side and his cousin Emma Woodhouse at his left. Mr. Darcy, a close friend of Bingley’s sat next to Emma. His height, even though he was sitting, made Emma feel small despite the fact that she was a tall young lady.
Emma took note of Mr. Darcy’s dark curly hair as one lock fell onto this forehead. He carried himself with the same air of confidence as did Mr. Knightley. But, whereas her neighbor exuded warmth, Mr. Darcy held himself in reserve. Perhaps he was merely shy? She determined to investigate him further since he was staying at Netherfield and there would be time enough.
Mrs. Louisa Bingley Hurst, sister to Charles and Caroline sat at Mr. Darcy’s other side whilst her husband, Mr. Hurst, was seated opposite her. Caroline Bingley had arranged the placement of the guests so that Mr. Knightley was at her side and Mr. Darcy across from her.
It didn’t take deep thought to understand that Caroline Bingley’s intention was to use Mr. Knightley as a means to provoke Mr. Darcy to jealousy. Miss Bingley indulged in a flow of artificial titters whenever Mr. Knightley made the slightest remark. The woman made a fool of herself while causing her guest discomfort. Darcy exchanged glances with Bingley who managed a sheepish expression but could not rescue his friend from his predatory sister.
It was the first night of Emma’s visit to Netherfield. Her cousins reiterated how pleased they were that Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley had agreed to join them at the Meryton Ball, the following evening. It would be the Bingleys’ first venture into local society.
Miss Bingley expected to be bored beyond belief at the country assembly; it was only the thought of the grand entrance they would make that enticed her to attend. She imagined arriving in the company of Miss Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Darcy; it fed her ego with fantasies of the envy she would inspire.
Being an avid student of human nature, Emma observed how distracted her cousin Caroline was by the quiet, handsome, Fitzwilliam Darcy. The gentleman politely waved off every attempt Caroline made to flatter or cajole him. Frustrated, the scarlet-haired woman turned her attentions to Mr. Knightley, for he was both rich and possessed of a handsome countenance worthy of a flirt.
It was clear to Emma that her cousin Caroline was on the hunt for a husband, but if she were really interested in Mr. Knightley, then her aim was quite off for she had chosen a confirmed bachelor. She was better advised to pursue Mr. Darcy although that gentleman’s discomfort with her attentions became more evident as the meal progressed.
Louisa Hurst was a dumpling of a woman, the exact opposite of her tall, slender sister. She ate with great enthusiasm, evading conversation that might impede her intake. Deep into the meat course, she sliced away at a slab of mutton that lay upon her plate. Emma observed the commonality that bound the Hursts together. The couple shared a love of overindulgence. Cousin Louisa barely conversed for fear of missing her full portion of each course. Mr. Hurst repeatedly flicked his glass signaling the footman to refill his wine. He spoke hardly a word throughout the dinner; and what he did mumble made little sense.
The weight of the dinner conversation fell to the Bingleys. And also to Mr. Knightley and Emma, who were lively conversationalists, both greatly appreciated in the social circles of Highbury for their conviviality. Each had honed listening skills, which were every bit as important as the ability to turn a clever phrase into extended banter. Emma went to particular effort to make the acquaintance of single persons in attendance at any event; for with a thread here or there that she might knit a match.
Mr. Darcy conversed with Mr. Bingley and Mr. Knightley, discussing things that interest men of property. Occasionally Mr. Darcy did politely address Emma, but his queries were of a distancing and general nature, as if he feared to encourage her. His fear of her intentions became more obvious as the evening progressed. Never had his concerns been more misplaced for Miss Woodhouse had no interest in his assets. He could not know that if she was studying him, it was with the intent of finding a suitable mate for a gentleman she considered a challenge. His aloofness would be a hard nut to crack, and many ladies would decline him as a match. Emma girded her matchmaking talents and prepared to face the task seeing the challenge as great fun.
Somewhere between the fish and the venison, Emma thought it wise to make clear her intentions, for she had not come to Netherfield to meet Mr. Darcy, no matter how eligible he fancied himself. She brought up the topic of marriage, and watched Mr. Darcy stiffen in distress.
“I have nothing against marriage, but it is not for me,” Emma said. “I have no intention of ever marrying. Hartfield and Highbury provide all my needs. My inheritance shall console me through my dotage. I am nurtured and supported in my home and in the village,” she said, facing Miss Bingley. “I would have to be so deeply in love that all rational thought fled my mind in order to consider marriage. I would not wed for less than perfection.”
She turned to directly address Mr. Darcy. “I doubt that I am susceptible to such overwhelming love as I am much too independent. It gives me pleasure to see others find happiness in marriage, but no one would be more surprised than me to wake up in bed one morning and find myself married.” She reddened at the double meaning of her words and caught the laugh that Mr. Knightley attempted to smother.
There it was, out on the table, the word on everyone’s mind—marriage. Three unmarried men of means were now completely flustered by Emma’s forthright declaration. Mr. Darcy averted his eyes, suddenly finding that the string beans on his plate needed his attention. Bingley snorted in an effort to muffle a laugh. But it was Caroline Bingley who studied her pretty cousin, concerned that there might be a hidden flirtation in her cousin’s provocative remarks. Was she daring Mr. Darcy to approach her?
Emma’s opinion of Caroline had not altered since their last encounter. The woman was a honking goose of a nuisance. By the way she threw clumsy compliments and light insults at Mr. Darcy, it was obvious she had set her cap for the arrogant man. Perhaps they deserved one another? No. Emma judged Fitzwilliam Darcy to be one of the wealthiest men in England based on the morsels of conversation between Mr. Knightley and himself. Although she avoided reading and loathed the study of sums, Emma quickly ascertained that Mr. Darcy was one fine catch. She determined to find him a more fitting match than her cousin—she could think of no man who deserved Caroline Bingley.
Once Emma declared herself not on the marriage market, Mr. Darcy appeared to relax. He retained his pride, but seemed to accept his friend’s cousin for what she was, a visitor and not a lady presented for his consideration. Always comfortable with his dear friend Bingley, he found Mr. Knightley to be a gentleman of a similar disposition and happily allowed the guests access to the sunnier side of Fitzwilliam Darcy. He settled back attempting to enjoy the evening as much as possible despite Caroline Bingley hovering like a hawk ready to pounce. He was thankful for Miss Woodhouse’s efforts to deflect Miss Bingley, and it soon became clear to him that the young lady possessed a talent for reading people.
Inheriting the family estate at a young age, Darcy had cultivated a manner that was deliberately off-putting to women for it was his wealth they sought and not his heart. He remained constantly on guard and aloof, fearing his words might be misinterpreted. The slightest show of empathy might find him accidently engaged to marry a woman, when he meant to show only courtesy.
Emma Woodhouse’s first assumption that Mr. Darcy suffered from a bloated ego was soon put to rest when she realized it was Miss Bingley’s taunting that drove him to parry with curt replies. In general, she pitied men; a man of means was constantly under threat of being misinterpreted, whereas a woman of means might remain free for all her days, if she avoided answering any questions that might bind her.
Darcy began to enjoy Miss Woodhouse’s company. He felt assured she was not a vixen in search of a mate, but rather a witty woman-child who would someday make a fine wife—but not for him. She possessed a gift for sarcasm that he had yet to encounter in any of the ladies of London. They might be sharp-tongued but their rapier mouths were always at the expense of others and never wielded in a playful manner.
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