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Hello, dear readers! I’m thrilled to welcome Don Jacobson back to Diary of an Eccentric, this time to celebrate the release of The Longbourn Quarantine, a very timely novella that is part of Meryton Press’ Skirmish & Scandal series. Don is here today to share a little about the book, along with an excerpt and giveaway. Please give him a warm welcome!

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The Epistolary End of George Wickham

In this moving tale, our favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice face the prospect of death that forces them to confront troubling scenes from their past. The author crafts a beautifully told story of self-examination and reflection while embracing compassion and understanding under trying circumstances.

Jennifer Redlarczyk, author of Darcy’s Melody

Jennifer has discovered the essential core of The Longbourn Quarantine, my entry in Meryton Press’s Skirmish and Scandal Series. I place the characters against the background of a pandemic. Through this plot structure, I lead them and readers to a different state of being. I am happy to visit with Diary of an Eccentric today to consider an aspect of the novella.

The villain in The Longbourn Quarantine, unlike any of those in Canon, has no eyes or hands. The dark force is not found in subtle machinations to compromise the virtue of a young lady. Rather its malevolence is perceived in its randomness, in its unwillingness to submit to the desires of individuals or society. This sense of never-knowing-when-or-whom-it-will-strike confers upon it numbing evilness that chills people in a way that most psychotic killers cannot. Perhaps some of this terror comes in the awful way (redolent of the Black Death) the disease carries off its victims.

Today one word carries that same heft: Ebola. Two hundred years ago, after the last resurgence of the plague in 1666, smallpox was the horrifying leveler. And that faceless virus ignored class, gender, age, wealth, and any other category humans used to parcel up power and authority.

Smallpox was something that put the fear of God into a reasonable man like Fitzwilliam Darcy or an impertinent woman like Elizabeth Bennet. Smallpox made the perfect villain without being complicated. The disease was exactly what it was. The only variable was whether a victim would survive or not.

As Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) used empty ocean stretching to the horizon to keep the players from leaving the stage, The Longbourn Quarantine uses the epidemic as the overarching raison d’être to keep characters in Longbourn’s precincts. As the disease was a constant and impervious to human wants, the diverse personalities needed to control that which they could: their actions and how they perceive the behaviors of the others trapped on-stage with them.         

Casting smallpox as the villain liberated George Wickham to find another role than that of the source of Elizabeth’s misunderstanding and Darcy’s anger. No, TLQ does not free him of responsibility for Georgiana’s distress. Nor does it deny that he successfully has turned Elizabeth’s head. However, having Wickham discover that his avarice has led to his downfall allows for a second epiphany for the scoundrel.

His appearance in the pages of TLQ is brief, but without him, the novella would have been forced to revisit, I feared, old territory. Faced with his mortality, Wickham seeks to make amends before he can no longer.

In that spirit, I thought that turning him into a living and breathing Hunsford Letter would allow for a different, non-soliloquy, presentation of Darcy’s original epistle. In Pride and Prejudice, we see Darcy handing a letter to Miss Elizabeth on her walk the morning after his disastrous proposal. However, we are left to guess at Darcy’s overnight agony. Austen’s description of Elizabeth’s turmoil is limited to a few sentences before she allows the young woman to sleep.

The Longbourn Quarantine confers both Darcy and Elizabeth’s disquiet upon the body of George Wickham using the tried and true technique (Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as a hunchback being the pre-eminent example) of making visible a character’s sins. In this case, the pustules that make hideous Wickham’s countenance provide the frame for his confessions which are the letter. One license I have taken is the removal of Darcy’s original rancor caused by Elizabeth’s accusations. I allowed TLQ’s Darcy to be a bit cranky as Wickham’s tale unwinds. I have also given Elizabeth insight about darcy’s role in separating Jane and Bingley earlier in the story.

Rather than have Darcy pen words seeking to explain his actions to Elizabeth, I made Wickham voice his misdeeds—all of them—in an affirmative confession. However, Wickham’s words both in front of his childhood friend and, later after he sends Darcy off to fetch brandy, draw the sting from the master of Pemberley’s ire and cause Elizabeth to reflect upon her notions.

In recognition of the underlying theme of life in the time of smallpox—words left unsaid may never be spoken—I gave Wickham the agency to mold one last aspect of Darcy’s life. He gives Elizabeth some advice about the man’s behavior and how he might ask for her hand. Then, having accomplished his mission, George Wickham is free to bow his way off-stage.

There is much more about how Wickham’s words revelatory to Elizabeth much as Darcy’s original letter opened her eyes. Please enjoy this edited extract from Chapter 13 of The Longbourn Quarantine.

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At the Longbourn gamekeeper’s cabin, April 11, 1812

Wandering over to the mound, she saw a well-shaped excavation, a pit that cried “grave.” The crypt was empty, its maw waiting to be filled with the shrouded freight it was to bear past the River Charon.

The grim air of the fell place gripped her by the throat. Elizabeth croaked out a greeting to the occupants of the cabin. There was no reaction at first. Then the door was pulled back, and Darcy stepped onto the porch.

Holding a hand on his brow to shield his eyes from the afternoon brightness, he focused on the young lady’s form. She started toward him out of habit until he called out. “Stay back, Miss Elizabeth! Wickham is deadly even now. You may be immune, but if any of the corruption chances to attach itself to your clothing, you could carry it back to Longbourn. Sit on the stump in the middle of the yard.

Elizabeth froze in place, turned to see the silvered remains, and stepped to it. She placed her wrinkled handkerchief on the cut surface and dropped down. In the meantime, Darcy had returned inside the structure to exit, bearing a man-sized, blanket-wrapped, load.

She knew it to be Wickham. What was remarkable was that he had been a man of a size with Mr. Darcy. Yet, Darcy bore his burden without any strain. Shuffling over to a small pallet, Darcy lowered the ghost of a man onto the chaise, gently raised his head, and positioned a burlap bundle as a pillow beneath it.

Then the blanket fell back to reveal reptilian features from which a pair of watery blue eyes—the only feature Elizabeth could warrant as belonging to George Wickham—burned, their whites flushed pink with fever.

The snakelike lips parted, and Wickham painfully lisped through cracks between running sores. “You are a remarkable woman, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I lay before you, a horror of a man, and you barely flinch. No dramatic fainting for you—no soft, ladylike swoons.”

Elizabeth rose to the occasion. “How long have we been acquainted, Mr. Wickham? Over the past half-year, have you ever known me to cavil before the harsh realities of life? I am so sorry to see you brought low like this.

“But, what of your quest for Miss King? The last any of us knew, you had followed her to Liverpool to press your suit. Yet, here you lie, ensconced in a cabin on my father’s estate.”

Wickham involuntarily shook his head as if he was trying to chase away uncomfortable memories. With a wince, he whispered, “I tried with Miss King. Her uncle, the merchant, prevented much contact between us. However, I was fortunate to encounter them at an assembly. I should have had my wits about me, but I was all about my pursuit of her dowry. I saw nothing but her ten thousand. What I did not see, and have had three weeks to comprehend, was that her guardian, although it was early in the evening, was unaccountably red-faced and blotchy. I probably imputed it to his merchant’s sensibilities, making certain that the rum in the ship’s hold was unspoiled. I should have run for my life. Instead, I greeted them both and stood Miss King for two sets.

“What I know is that, before Mary King’s glove touched mine, it had been loaded by a loving caress of Mr. King’s whiskers with a charge that has laid waste to mankind since the pharaohs.”

He laughed sardonically. “Your father’s generosity, Darcy, in seeing to my education stuck in some useful ways. I appreciate that my death is three thousand years in the making. The moment I wiped my face or rubbed my lips with the perfumed poison left on my gauntlet…ah, the sweetness of the adder’s breath…I sealed my fate.

“You ask of Miss King: she fell before the disease—her uncle too—after she had murdered me.”

Wickham fell silent. Darcy had stepped off to one side, looking at his old playmate with a combination of dread and pity. Elizabeth’s stomach had fallen as she learned of Mary King’s passing. Yet, she understood that Mr. Wickham would not have subjected his waning strength to this exercise unless he had something important to say.

The man rallied and launched into his declamation. “I shall not revisit all that I said of this man”—he motioned at Darcy—“when I arrived in Meryton. My tale of woe was extensive. But, Miss Elizabeth, my lies were many. There were, of course, elements of truth that served as the skeleton upon which I looped the sinews and skin of my stories.

“Darcy made my work so much easier. His demeanor is not made for company. Those who did not know him assumed that he was disdainful of all when he is reserved and private. They feasted on my story like a syllabub.”

Wickham paused. His eyes lost focus, and he struggled to gather himself, to push back against the delirium threatening his flanks. He waved at Darcy who bent over him. Wickham whispered to him. Darcy looked dyspeptic and seemed ready to demand something. The exchange ended when Wickham muttered one last sentence. With a shake of his head, Darcy stepped back and waved his hand in acquiescence.

Wickham continued. “That is enough of a prologue, Miss Elizabeth. I am turning to you because, of all the people I know, having destroyed my opportunity with Darcy, you are one whose good opinion I treasure. I would fear losing it even after I am lying cold in my grave—over there. I also am aware that you are, like Darcy, a profoundly honest person and not one prone to gossip.

“I need to unburden my soul before I face my final reckoning. Darcy is not overjoyed at the prospect as what I speak about hits close to his heart.

“Over the past few days with little to do, Darcy and I have talked. Perhaps it is more that Darcy talked, knowing that dead men tell no tales and I shall be gone from the mortal plane soon enough. I have apologized to him for many iniquities committed against him and his family. Darcy and his cousin Fitzwilliam know my sins. You may apply to the colonel if you have any questions or doubts about what I say. Yet, admitting that I was a bounder to Darcy is not anything new to him. What I have not done is make my confession to someone unaffected by my acts, to make known my true character to a third party.

“You are that confessor to whom I would tell my tale so that at least one soul unrelated to the principals will know my true nature. Will you be willing to bear that weight? I ask this because I have a belief that our tall friend over there regrets some of his behavior in the autumn that grew from my actions in the summer. What I relate may explain much.”

He stopped and looked hopefully at Elizabeth.

At her nod, Wickham continued. “Miss Darcy is a sweeter, kinder, and more trusting girl than you will ever meet…well, perhaps your sister Miss Bennet would fall into that same category. Like all young ladies of a certain age…fifteen seems to be the cusp…Miss Darcy wanted to begin her journey into the adult world. And, like all older brothers and many fathers, Darcy could not find it in his heart to gainsay any wish of his beloved sister.

“In the spring of the year eleven, he withdrew her from school and sought a companion to guide her.

“Now, I was still smarting from having been denied the Kympton living. What I never told any in Meryton was that Darcy had paid me three thousand to relinquish any claim I might have to the living. His father left me one thousand pounds. So, my fortune within a few months of the old master’s death was four thousand pounds.”

When Elizabeth’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle her gasp, Wickham winced. “I know you are doing the math, Miss Elizabeth. A single gentleman could live comfortably for years on that sum…certainly long enough to apply himself to a career that would further build his purse well before the money ran out.

“Not George Wickham: I ate, drank, gambled, and whored my way through every farthing in the space of two years. And, when I applied to Darcy for the living I had given up, he justifiably sent me packing and refused me Pemberley’s hospitality.

“I vowed to gain a fortune and hurt Darcy in the process. My weapon was to be his sister, Miss Georgiana.”

His voice dropped into a quieter register as he drifted down his memories’ lanes, conflating realities with feelings. Elizabeth leaned forward.

He added, “My target was Georgie’s £30,000 dowry. To get it, I would have to woo and wed her. What I had working in my favor was that, while Darcy knew the type of man I had become, I was aware he would never relate such debauchery to a young innocent like his sister. When I came to her, all she would see would be her old playmate.

“I had maintained my contacts at Pemberley despite Darcy’s embargo. I heard that he was on the prowl for a companion. And, one of my more intimate friends, the widow of a gentleman, was perfect for the position.

“In short order, thanks to a series of powerful, if creatively written, characters from ladies either deceased or conveniently out of the country, Mrs. Younge carried the day. After a few months, she suggested that Mr. Darcy rent his sister a seaside cottage where she could holiday during the summer.

“And thus, the trap was set in a beautiful little town, Ramsgate, where Miss Darcy could be her own mistress. However, thanks to Mrs. Younge’s connivance, she was soon to become mine.”

Wickham fell silent. He appeared to be gathering every ounce of strength, tapping into hidden reserves, to lay bare his deepest regrets. Then, in a gesture as tender as it was telling, he reached out to where Darcy stood and stroked the man’s pantalooned leg, rigid against the story’s unwinding.

“As I lay here, Miss Elizabeth, I am disgusted at my actions. I was greedy, but up to that point, my avarice had been confined to defrauding tradesmen and those who had more pounds than sense. I shall not speak of the young women I despoiled. That is a different deadly sin.”

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About The Longbourn Quarantine

“Papa handed Mama a brace of pistols. Her tears, Mr. Darcy, her tears: yet, all she did was nod when Papa looked at us and said, ‘You know what to do if they enter the icehouse.’”

Refugees flood the roads. A feared specter has escaped London’s grimy docklands and now threatens the wealthy districts. Amongst that ragged steam is a single carriage jostling its way toward Meryton. Inside are the Darcy siblings along with Charles and Caroline Bingley. They desperately seek the safety of Netherfield Park.

For all their riches, they could not evade the epidemic’s dark hand. Bingley’s leasehold had been reduced to rubble as roving bands raped, pillaged, and burned. The only sanctuary was Longbourn where, once installed, the Darcys and Bingleys were barred from leaving by a fortnight’s quarantine.

Events converge with disease in The Longbourn Quarantine. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy abandon old prejudices to face grief and mourning. Pride is set aside as Death hovers nearby. The couple forges ahead knowing that love unexplored is love lost: that words must be said lest they remain unspoken in the time of smallpox.

Buy on Amazon

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About the Author

Don Jacobson

Don Jacobson has written professionally for forty years.  His output has ranged from news and features to advertising, television, and radio.  His work has been nominated for Emmys and other awards.  He has previously published five books, all non-fiction.  In 2016, he began publishing The Bennet Wardrobe Series

The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey (2016)

Henry Fitzwilliam’s War (2016)

The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque (2017)

Lizzy Bennet Meets the Countess (2017)

The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn (2018)

The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament (2018)

The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion (2019)

Jacobson is also part of the collective effort behind the publication of the upcoming North and South anthology, Falling for Mr. Thornton: Tales of North and South, released in 2019.

Other Austenesque Variations include the paired books “Of Fortune’s Reversal” (2016) and “The Maid and The Footman” (2016). Lessers and Betters (2018) offers readers the paired novellas in one volume to allow a better appreciation of the “Upstairs-Downstairs” mentality that drives the stories.

 Jacobson holds an advanced degree in History with a specialty in American Foreign Relations.  As a college instructor, Don teaches United States History, World History, the History of Western Civilization, and Research Writing. He is a member of the Austen Authors Collective and JASNA. He lives in Las Vegas, NV with his wife, Pam.

Connect with Don: Don Jacobson’s Amazon Author’s Page | Goodreads Author’s Page (with blog) | Author Website | Twitter  (@AustenesqueAuth)

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Giveaway

Meryton Press is generously offering an ebook copy of The Longbourn Quarantine to one lucky reader. To enter, please leave a comment with your email address. This giveaway will be open through Sunday, September 6, 2020. The winner will be chosen randomly and announced in the comments section of this post. Good luck!

Thank you, Don, for being my guest today, and congratulations on your new release!

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