The War and Highbury

Anent those ‘fascinating, compensating, curing nurses’ of Trollope’s, a Club member writes from Oklahoma to suggest that not more useful and more fascinating, but certainly as useful and as fascinating, nurses might have stepped from the pages of the inimitable Miss Austen. He fancies Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, and Elinor Dashwood in a hospital managed by ‘poor Miss Taylor,’ with Emma in charge of the storeroom — who so expert in gruel and arrowroot? — and Miss Bates frequently coming in to share a ‘beautiful little leg of pork’ or some baked apples with the convalescents. Of course, that hospital was at Highbury, ‘that airy, cheerful, happylooking Highbury,’ only sixteen miles from London; and in what house but the ‘modern, well-built’ Hartfield,empty since Emma’s removal to Donwell Abbey? Equally of course it was a navy hospital. Miss Austen’s preference for that branch of the service is too marked for that to be questioned.

For her part, said Mrs. Elton, she did not think it necessary for young women moving in the first circles to go into the hospitals; her second housemaid had gone, and she had made no objections: the girl was inclined to be impertinent — it was very proper for creatures of that sort to make themselves useful as nurses, but her sister Selina would be shocked at Mrs. Weston’s taking in young ladies. Such doings were never tolerated at Maple Grove. Of course, it was all due to Emma Woodhouse, whose passion for the admiration of the other sex had always been so shockingly evident. Poor Knightley — she pitied him, but she had always known how it would be. She herself considered the preparing of hospital comforts, which could be done in one’s own home, much more suitable work for women of delicate sensibilities; and she gladly gave the use of her drawing-room twice a week for the Sewing Guild. No one could believe the work it entailed. Only that morning she had been closeted at least an hour with her maid, making out the new directions for cutting out pyjamas.

I regret to say that under her chairmanship the Sewing Guild found difficulty in holding its members together, and the Hartfield pyjama supply was deficient until Elinor Dashwood appealed to her elderly friend, Mrs. Jennings. That warm-hearted woman opened her purse and her house, rallied her old city friends to her support, and kept the sewing-machines clicking fast and long in Berkeley Street. A similar appeal from Anne Elliot to Lady Russell set dozens of Bath dowagers to making surgical dressings. A steady stream of hampers for Miss Anne’s sailors poured in from Uppercross, their packing with chickens, eggs, cream, butter, and jam being the event of the week to the whole Musgrove family. Mrs. Bennet’s poor nerves would not permit her to knit, but whenever the horses could be spared from the farm, she drove to her sister Philips’s and to Lucas Lodge, to collect socks and descant on the bravery of her three sonsin-law in France. Wickham was, of course, her favorite. Being in the regulars, he was early in Flanders.

As for that arch-bully, Lady Catherine de Burgh, when the guns in Flanders began to reverberate through Kent, she fled in terror to Pemberley. The Darcys gave her shelter, and by working on her pride of rank and sense of duty as a landed proprietor, finally induced her to make Rosings a refuge for Belgians, under the management of Mrs. Collins. Mr. Collins’s spare time was occupied in writing daily reports to Lady Catherine, assuring her that the satin furniture was covered with holland, and that the refugees were allowed to use only the piano in the housekeeper’s room. When the government accepted the early offer of Pemberly for a convalescent home, Lady Catherine took herself and her daughter off to Bath. She proposed to take her niece also, but the diffident Georgiana asserted herself. Her brother was in the artillery, and her job was to see that his supply of shells did not fail. Before her aunt’s wrath could fairly explode, Georgiana was out of the house and on her way to the nearest munition plant.

Her bench-mate there was Maria Bertram, finding at last peace and satisfaction in work that taxed all the energy of her vigorous, restless nature.

Mary Crawford followed her brother to France, and drove a motor ambulance with the same spirit and skill with which she used to ride Fanny Price’s horse.

As for Fanny herself, her part was not in such deeds of derring-do; she stayed in her quiet rectory, ‘working early and late, with neatness and despatch,’ on comforts for her brother William and his Jackies on the North Sea, and her chaplain husband and his men in France. Many of their men, home on leave or convalescing, found Thornton Lacey a haven of rest.

Jane Bingley, too, stayed quietly at home, caring not only for her own littie family, out for the children of her more active sisters. The little Darcys were there and so were the little Wickhams. The irrepressible Lydia was serving coffee to troop trains on the Somme, and many a Tommy went to the front heartened by her loud and jovial voice.

Jane Fairfax did not come to Hartfield, being occupied at Enscombe with recreation work for a neighboring training-camp . Frank Churchill won his commission early, served two years, had a touch of gas and was invalided home. Jane’s nursing pulled him through, and he was back at the front before the end. Willoughby served, as luck would have it, in Colonel Brandon’s own regiment, and each won the other’s respect.

Colonel Fitzwilliam was in the first Expeditionary Force and became a brigadier-general. He also won a wife in France — no other than Mary Crawford. It was exactly the match to satisfy her ambition for position and his need for money, but I doubt if either of them knew it when they settled matters on a muddy roadside in Picardy, while his orderly tinkered with the engine of her ambulance.

Another and younger hero won his heiress at Hartfield. Commodore William Price, on leave from the North Sea, went there to visit his brother Sam, wounded in the Zeebrugge affair, and met Georgiana Darcy who was spending her leave with Elizabeth. Just how much Emma had to do with making the match, I hesitate to say. She disclaimed doing anything, but is certain that they dined more than once at the Abbey during their week of courtship. Another engagement that was made under her interested if not fostering eye was that of Lieutenant Sam Price and the little V.A.D. who wheeled his chair through the Hartfield shrubberies. Her name was Margaret Dashwood.

Commodore Price was not the only naval officer of our acquaintance who spent his leave in Highbury. Anne had the felicity of seeing her husband, ViceAdmiral Wentworth — of seeing him worn by the long strain of North Sea duty, but still with the old eager, impetuous ways. He was loud in his praise of the Americans coöperating with him. He had felt some compunctions, he said, remembering how he had taken their privateers in that lovely cruise off the Western Islands, but they did not seem to hold it against him.