A novella for the Christmas holidays - Lizzy Benson visits Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, and buys a special Advent calendar in the gift shop, but strange things start to happen when she opens up the first door and finds herself back in time with all the beloved characters from her favourite book, Pride and Prejudice. As she finds herself increasingly drawn into an alternate reality, Lizzy discovers not only is Mr Darcy missing from the plot, but Jane Austen has never heard of him. All Lizzy can hope is that she can help to get the story and her own complicated love life back on track before Christmas is over, and bring everything to a happy resolution in Jane Austen's imaginary world!
Excerpt from Chapter One
Door Number One
It really did look like a Christmas card. The red brick house glowed with yellow light through frosted windowpanes brightening the gloom of the wintry day. Lizzy wrinkled her nose as feathers of snow tickled her face and settled like iced stars on her scarlet beret. It had been a bit of a nightmare to find it: a train, a bus ride, and a twelve-minute walk along snow-covered lanes, but now she considered it had all been worth it. Jane Austen’s house buried in the countryside village of Chawton couldn’t have been more perfect to Lizzy’s eyes. Perhaps deciding to visit the house in the middle of winter hadn’t been her brightest idea, but there was no denying her excitement. Lizzy felt a sense of anticipation, the house looked enchanted as if under a fairy spell, and she half wondered if she might bump into Jane herself at the door.
Finding the entrance at a barn door by the side of the building Lizzy soon realised it was locked, and it occurred to her then that despite all appearances the house might not be open. Looking up, dizzying spirals of snowflakes whirled through the air making her blink, and for the first time she prayed that the snow that was settling in high drifts might stop. Setting off that morning in fine weather Lizzy hadn’t even considered the house might be closed or that there might be a problem getting home. The snow was totally unexpected, and though she loved to see it, Lizzy felt a little anxious now she saw it continue to fall. She wondered if perhaps she should head back along the lane to the bus stop when, to her great surprise, she heard the sound of a door opening.
From the main building opposite the head of a tall man peered round the glass-paned door. ‘Look, we’re really short-staffed. No one’s turned up, and to be honest, I thought no one in their right mind would come today. I assume you’re here to see the house?’
Lizzy nodded. She saw a cross-looking young man in his late twenties with a mane of dark, almost black hair waving back from a face of strong features. She heard a public school accent, confident but with more than a suggestion of arrogance, the kind her father would be terribly impressed by. His dark eyes, to match his unruly curls, were boring into hers as if he hated the very sight of her. Unable to meet them, she was overwhelmed by a sense of rising panic whilst simultaneously thinking she’d never met anyone so rude. He hadn’t even said hello.
‘I’ve come from London,’ said Lizzy. ‘It’s taken me a while to get here, but I suppose if you’re closed, there’s not much I can do.’
‘No, we’re shut. Cassandra’s might give you a cup of tea, I suppose.’
Lizzy had a strange thought he was talking about Jane Austen’s sister for a minute until she remembered that the café across the way shared the same name.
‘No, they’re closed, too,’ she said.
The sign for the café had been a welcome sight on the way as she’d trudged up the road, but she’d known with a sinking heart that it was closed before she’d even reached it. As Lizzy waited for him to speak again, she heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow behind her.
‘I’m here now, Mr Williams, you can get back in the warm. I’ll open up!’ cried a cheerful voice.
Lizzy turned to see a lady with a pleasant face advancing gingerly towards her, picking up her long skirts to avoid getting them wet. Dressed from head to foot in Regency costume she appeared to be totally at home in her clothes, and Lizzy supposed it must be a kind of uniform she wore when showing people round the house.
‘Come in out of the cold, dear. I am sorry I couldn’t have been here sooner, but what with the weather and I know not what to tell you about first, I am in quite a dither this morning. My nerves are apt to plague me, but you’ll forgive me for running on so. Mr Williams would have attended you in any case, I am sure.’
The door opposite resounded with a loud bang as it shut. Mr Williams disappeared.
Lizzy didn’t like to say that the rude man had told her to go home, and decided to say nothing. In a way, she hoped he might see her and she felt a certain satisfaction in knowing that she’d got what she wanted, after all. Following the lady into the barn, Lizzy blinked as the bright strip lights were flicked on in the shop.
‘Do make yourself at home, dear. I’ll just make sure everything is in order in the main house so have a look round at your leisure. My youngest daughter was here yesterday, and though a delightful companion, she is inclined to be untidy. I daresay the dining room table will be littered with bonnets and ribbon, but that’s my Lydia – never happier than when she’s pulling apart a hat and making it her own.’
She reminded Lizzy of Mrs Bennet especially when she laughed like a young girl, her curls trembling as she disappeared through a door at the end. Lizzy suppressed a desire to giggle, and wondered how the lady managed to keep up her way of talking, as if she’d just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.
Lizzy looked around at the wealth of books and gifts in the shop, most of which she longed to own. The shelves were lined with the books Jane Austen had written and revised in the very house she was about to see, and there were mugs and bags, bookmarks and fridge magnets to tempt the pennies out of her purse. On the counter was a pile of Advent calendars with a scene like the one she’d witnessed earlier. A painting of Jane’s house in the snow was sprinkled with twenty four windows to be opened during the festive season, some of which lay exactly over the place where the real windows were situated, over the doors, or were hidden in the snow-clad trees and sky. Lizzy was just making up her mind to treat herself to one when the lady came back.
‘Oh, my dear, you’ve made an excellent choice, and one you won’t regret, I’m sure,’ she said, and as Lizzy took out her purse to pay for it, the lady added, ‘Don’t trouble yourself about paying for it now. There’s time enough to do that later. Now, if you’ll just go into the changing room, you’ll find it all much more enjoyable if you put on your costume first.’
Before she could ask any questions the door was opened for her, and when Lizzy stepped inside the small cubicle she found a day dress and scarlet pelisse hanging up, along with a plain chemise, half-boots, and a fur trimmed bonnet with green satin ribbons. She’d always wanted to try on a Regency costume, and this one looked so authentic that she thought it would be fun to wear. Lizzy was soon dressed, the outfit was quite easy to wear and more comfortable than she’d thought it might be, fitting her to perfection, as if it had been made with her in mind. A glance across at the looking glass showed an image of a young woman she hardly recognised looking quite wide-eyed with astonishment. When Lizzy emerged rather cautiously, the lady clapped her hands. ‘Oh, my dear, you look better than I dreamed possible. Scarlet is very becoming on you, and the green ribbon brings out your hazel eyes. Now, don’t forget your calendar. Please take it with you, and, as it’s December the first today, you should make haste, and open number one!’
Encouraged by the lady’s enthusiasm Lizzy carefully tore round the perforated edge of the window and peeled it back. She’d never grown out of the childish excitement of having an Advent calendar, and this was extra special. Behind a beautiful gothic window the picture gave a glimpse of the room itself. There on a chaise longue lay a pink satin bonnet.
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