Woot! I now have a firm date for the release of my new novel, Mansfield Parsonage!
The book, a retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park from anti-heroine Mary Crawford’s point of view, will be available for purchase on 28 January 2017 … which is also the first day of the Chinese New Year! It will be the Year of the Rooster, and thus today’s sample of the novel will feature our feathered barnyard friends
In this scene, Mary and her sister, Mrs Grant, discuss Fanny Price’s odious aunt, Mrs Norris. JK Rowling named the caretaker of Hogwarts’s cat – a sly, spying, judgmental creature – in ‘honor’ of Austen’s literary creation. I loathe the character of Mrs Norris, and so I had to take a crack at her … and to poke a little fun at myself for having the audacity to try to replicate Austen.
“Do you know what Mrs Norris reminds me of?” Mrs Grant asked, when she had resettled herself with her tambour frame.
“We are too close to a farmyard for my guess not to be indelicate.”
Mrs Grant laughed. “You are closer than you know, but it is a farm animal that she reminds me of. Mrs Norris reminds me of one of my hens; the first one who will try to peck another chicken to death the minute she spots a weakness in the bird.”
“Do chickens do that?” Mary’s experience with chickens involved her dinner plate.
“Oh yes,” her sister told her, “it is distressingly common in chickens. If one of the hens is ill or injured, and I do not find it out and separate the bird from the rest of the flock, the other fowl will peck the poor thing to death. It is very gruesome. Sometimes the hen will still be alive in the morning, but with her feathers mostly gone and her eyes pecked out. I have to have Jackie the farm-lad come and wring its neck to put it out of its misery.”
Mary was appalled. “My God! I thought chickens were timid and cowardly birds. I had no idea the bloodthirsty horrors that their coops hide.”
Her sister shrugged. “It is nature my dear; it is the way God made them and it is not worth worrying about. I only mention it because Mrs Norris reminds me of one particular hen who always looks for a weaker bird to peck, even if the other fowl is hale and whole. Jackie the farm-lad says that it that hen that always leads the first attack on an injured chicken. Mrs Norris pecks at Fanny because she sees Fanny is shy and timid; she believes these qualities to be a weakness, and so she attacks.”
“I beg you to show me this dastardly hen tomorrow,” Mary falsely pleaded with a grin. “I shall christen her Mrs Norris and know to watch for her from the corner of my eye.”
“You are so silly. Do you think the hen will stalk you, as if it were some Indian tiger?”
“I’ve read somewhere that the native Indians wear masks on the back of their heads, because the tiger will only pounce when no one is watching. The mask fools the beast into thinking it is seen, so it does not attack. Perhaps I should get a mask in case Mrs Norris the hen creeps up behind me in the shrubbery?”
Mrs Grant began to giggle. “Is that common in your Gothic novels? Do innocent maidens flee through the shrubbery, chased by a demonic chicken? Are the damsels kept imprisoned in a mouldering abbey, unable to leave lest the dread hen attack?”
“What a fine book that would make,” Mary laughed as well. “I can see it now. The Cursed Chicken of Castle Cully: A Tale of Murder Most Fowl by Mrs Ima Simkin-Sapscull.”
“You are a sauce box, Mary!”
“You only say that because you would be the villainess of the piece; the cruel half-sister determined to have me killed because you will either inherit my fortune or plan to console my true-love until he loves you in return. Change the parsonage into a decrepit castle atop an Italian cliff and me into an ethereally lovely ingénue and our situation is straight from between the covers of a horrid novel.”
“Mrs Grant is much too commonplace a name for such a villainess as I will be. I need a title and an ominous surname.”
Mary thought for a minute. “I think you should be Baroness Brunhilda De Praved.”
“Miss Dotty Von Noddy would do, I should think.”
“And the hero?”
“Mr Jacob Broadshoulder, future Lord of Feeble, from Mediocre-upon-Insipid, of course.”
“If there were such a book in the circulating library, I vow that I would be on its doorstep tomorrow morning as soon as it should open in the hopes of obtaining a copy,” Mrs Grant was very entertained by her lively sister’s flights of fancy.
“Woe it is then,” Mary moaned as she raised one hand dramatically to her brow, leading with the wrist, “that I should have no talent for writing,” She lowered her hand and spoke naturally again. “Although it must be said that many authors I have encountered have as little talent for writing as I do.”
“You are uncharitable, dear,” Mrs Grant reprimanded her gently. “Not everyone can be Mrs Radcliffe or Mrs Edgeworth.”
“Then not everyone should pick up their pen and make their scritch-scratch public,” Mary remained unrepentantly tart-tongued. As far as Mary was concerned, the world was full of folly that deserved unceasing raillery. “It invites comment.”
“If I were you Mary, I should be careful what I said aloud about authors.”
“They might be tempted to set a chicken loose upon you in the shrubberies of their imaginations.”
When the Henry and Dr Grant entered the room a few minutes later, they were baffled as to why Dr, Grant’s comment that the chicken had been a little tough at dinner inspired such unchecked hilarity in Mary and Mrs Grant.
An explanation followed, which led to the moniker of The Old Chook being ascribed to Mrs Norris for perpetuity.