Wherein our heroine expresses an affinity for an earlier era, and a series of events irrevocably alter her destiny.
“Will you join me for the first set?” C.J.’s friend Matthew asked as she perched on the wooden folding chair at the perimeter of the gym, changing her shoes.
“I’d be delighted,” she smiled. C.J. stood up, in her soft-soled dancing slippers. “You tower above me,” she laughed, looking up at her new friend. “Are you sure you don’t want to dance with a lankier lady?”
“I’ve been coming to the English country dance sessions every Tuesday night for four years, and you are my favorite dance partner ever.”
C.J. looked about the room at the other dancers, most of whom were in their forties and fifties, and smiled to herself. If they had all been living during the “real” periods of the dances—the Georgian and Regency eras—most of them would be considered rather ancient, if they reached that age at all, thanks to poor diets and limited medical knowledge. No penicillin. No prophylactic fix-ups.
Wow! she thought, if they had been Georgians, Matthew would be in the prime of life, and she—goodness!—pushing thirty, would be an absolute on-the-shelf spinster. Her prime would have been over by the time she reached her early twenties. Forget kids; she would have had very little chance for a husband at her age.
C.J. had never considered herself wholly at ease in the twenty-first century. The constant barrage of images and noise, the relentless pace, the seemingly unlimited rudeness of some people. Hip-hop. Cell phones. All of that set her teeth on edge. Oh for a truly kinder, gentler world where quiet and a sense of delicacy and respect—of fellow feeling—were the norm.
Barbara Gordon, one of the workshop callers, took her place in front of the microphone at the far end of the gym. “Okay, if everybody could form sets longways—I think we have enough people for three lines—’old’ people, invite some of the ‘new’ people to dance. Get ready for ‘Apley House.’ ” Barbara nodded to the trio of musicians—piano, violin, and flute.
The musty church basement was not exactly atmospheric for anything but a sockhop, but once the musicians struck up their centuries-old country melodies, everyone seemed to forget all but the dances. In the dancers’ imaginations, their Keds became kidskin slippers, and eclectic cotton T-shirts magically metamorphosed into Empire-waisted sheer muslin gowns and tight chamois trousers.
Matthew bowed to C.J. “Miss Welles, would you do me the honor of joining me?”
C.J. placed her small hand in Matthew’s, wishing she were wearing elbow-length gloves. She rose and made a slight curtsy, allowing Matthew to lead her to the top of the set. “Are you crazy?” she whispered, “I’m not sure I know enough to lead!”
“Didn’t you study English country dancing at Vassar?” The music had begun; the dancers were honoring their partners and opposites, and listening intently to Barbara’s instructions as she began to call the dance.
C.J. looked down the set at some of the dumpier dancers, in their T-shirts and sweats, who were very game, but hopelessly twenty-first century. “No, I didn’t. I studied period movement styles. The theatre program was very thorough, but English country dancing wasn’t even an elective.” She flashed Matthew a warm smile.
“Another reason I like to dance with you, apart from your grace,” Matthew said, while they set to the right and then to the left, light on their feet. “You love to play as much as I do.” He took her hands and they spun, giving themselves wholly to the momentum of the music.
“That’s true enough,” C.J. agreed, and nodded at Matthew’s barrel chest encased in a perfect replica of a double-breasted vest, circa 1800, constructed of French-blue brocade. “Nice waistcoat. We’re such period geeks, aren’t we?!”
“I prefer the term aficionado.”
C.J. did a figure with her neighbor, a dour-faced matron who put her in mind of a vicar’s wife in a small Regency hamlet.
“Do you ever look at these people,” C.J. whispered softly to Matthew as they executed a back-to-back figure, “and think of them in period costumes, as townspeople in a Jane Austen novel?”
“All the time,” he grinned.
“Imagine the same faces—the same bodies, even—in cape collars and starched cravats!”
The dance ended. “Promise me the supper waltz,” Matthew pressed C.J.’s hand before he went in search of his next partner.
“Forgive me,” C.J. said as she made eye contact with Paul, another one of the callers, “but I love that they call it the supper break when we go into the kitchen for lemonade and Oreos.”
“Don’t you think they had Oreos in the early nineteenth century?”
“Of course they did. Even earlier, in fact. Poor Richard referred to them as one of the basic food groups in his Almanack.” C.J. winked, and curtsied to Matthew to thank him for the dance.
“May I have the honor?” Paul Hamilton asked.
“The honor would be mine, sir,” C.J. smiled demurely. Paul was a historian and a stickler for proper carriage and execution.
“You should never be looking at your next partner,” Paul had cautioned the assembly as part of his weekly litany. “It is the height of rudeness. Treat each partner as though he or she were the most important person on earth and give him or her your fullest attention. This is about flirting. For the three hours a week that you spend in this basement, you are not only allowed, but you are encouraged to flirt.” When Paul was on the floor, he was in great demand as a partner. His grace and manner seemed timeless. “May I give you a tiny correction?” he murmured in C.J.’s ear as he led her into the set. “You have such natural exuberance that you are a joy to watch as well as to dance with.”
“Thank you.” C.J. felt her cheeks go pink.
“But, if I may—you must execute your traveling steps more smoothly. Think of gliding. You have a tendency to bounce a bit, which is not as out of place in some of the more energetic dances, but it sticks out when you are cutting the more stately figures.”
“Does it make my bosom heave too much?” C.J. joked.
Paul’s gaze strayed to the ripe fullness of her chest. “As a man, I of course have no problem at all with the—er—buoyant movement of your body. But I thought that given your affinity for the correctness of period detail, you might want to practice the proper form. Always remember to keep your back straight and your chin lifted.”
After the supper waltz ended, C.J. and Matthew bowed to each other and braved the crowd in the kitchen, chatting away over the junk food and fruit punch. This was the time when the dancers exchanged information on other events: concerts, weekend English country dance conferences in New England, and other bits of information and gossip. Flushed from the waltz, C.J. squeezed past a knot of dancers to get to the lemonade, downing three Dixie cups’ worth in rapid succession. She sidled past a cluster of women gathered in front of the week’s notices and flyers and immediately lit upon a rose-colored leaflet announcing auditions for a Broadway production of a new play called By a Lady. C.J. had already clipped the casting notice out of the current edition of Back Stage, the professional actors’ most popular trade paper. By a Lady, a two-character drama set in 1801, depicted the ill-starred romance between the young Jane Austen and a distant relation of hers, Thomas Lefroy. They had hoped to marry, but Tom lacked the funds to support a wife, in addition to which, Jane was considered a poor relation. Tom’s protective aunt, Anne Lefroy, was adamantly opposed to the match, so Tom returned alone to his family’s village of Athy in Ireland, where he read law and eventually became the country’s Chief Justice. Jane never wed, of course.
“You should go to that tomorrow,” a voice crunched in her ear.
“No kidding! I can’t miss it! Between the Back Stage ad, this flyer, and your encouragement, the rule of three is now fully in effect. I can’t not go, now. And … Matthew …? You’re dropping Oreo crumbs down my neck!”
Matthew brushed off the offending bits of chocolate cookie. “Nice necklace, by the way.”
“Matthew Bramwell, I thought you of all people would recognize it,” C.J. teased, “since you’re as big an Austen buff as I am. One of her naval officer brothers—Charles, I think-brought back topaz crosses and gold chains as souvenirs for both Jane and Cassandra from his tour of duty in the east during the Napoleonic Wars. Jane fictionalized the event in Mansfield Park, when William brings back an amber cross from Sicily for Fanny Price, and she has nothing but a ribbon to thread through it.”
“So it’s a keepsake for a reasonable Price.” Matthew winked.
The musicians struck up a lively tune, heralding the recommencement of the evening’s exertions. “Well, my friend,” Matthew said, “if you promise not to do so out on the dance floor … break a leg!”
The following afternoon, C.J. found herself standing in a colorful, densely populated audition line that snaked its way through the winding streets of Greenwich Village.
By the time there were only twenty-three people ahead of her, C.J. felt in her heart that the role of Jane Austen had to be hers. It was more than the visceral connection she felt to the time period. Getting a leading role on Broadway was the holy grail of any stage actress. She fiddled with her amber cross. Somehow, the simple act of touching the antique talisman, of memorizing its rutted topography, centered her in a way no form of meditation ever could.
“Hey there, folks, we’re moving right along now. Okay, if I could have the next three men and the next three women step inside the hallway, please. And please have your pictures and résumés ready.” The announcement came from a bearish-looking man with a kindly face set off by wire-rimmed glasses. He ushered in the next group of performers with the air of a jovial train conductor. “Have a seat in one of these chairs in the order in which you were standing in line. I’ll take your headshots now.”
“Who are you?” asked one of the actresses.
“Me? I’m Ralph Merino, the assistant set designer.” He patted his belly. “We have a stage manager, but I need the exercise. On behalf of the By a Lady staff, thanks to all of you for coming.” He handed each actor a photocopied set of “sides,” the pages from the script with which they were expected to audition.
“Okay, listen up, folks. If you don’t know anything about this show, here’s the scoop,” Ralph said. “This is a two-character play-a hypothetical love story set in 1801 that focuses on Jane Austen the woman, rather than Jane Austen the novelist. The playwright, Humphrey Porter, is exploring what made The Woman become The Writer. Beth Peters, the director, is an Englishwoman. She’s a bit of a wunderkind over there, but she’s never directed in New York and, therefore, yes, she is seriously interested in seeing everyone. I won’t lie to you: famous names might be important to the producers, but Beth genuinely wants to see new talent. A U.S. national tour and a West End run are not out of the question after the Broadway run closes. Yes, Miramax is a coproducer of the Broadway production, which means that they own film rights to the show, should that become a viable option. Nothing is set in stone at this point, including the casting, so you are not wasting your time by showing up this afternoon.” His presentation completed, Ralph made a little theatrical bow and his rapt audience applauded. “Back in a few to pair you up.”
“C.J. Welles?” C.J. looked up when she saw Ralph come out of the auditorium a minute or two later. “C.J., you’ll be paired with Bernie Allen. Bernie?” An Archie Bunker type, who was not exactly C.J.’s idea of an English hunk, looked up from his script. “So, Bernie? C.J.? We’re ready for you.”
C.J. rose from her folding chair and took a deep breath. Bernie squeezed her hand and whispered in her ear, “Let’s do it, kiddo.” He smelled faintly of cigarettes and beer.
The interior of the Bedford Street Playhouse looked like a Wedgwood box, with white sculptures standing out in relief against a background of china blue. A long folding table set up stage left was littered with stacks of actors’ headshots, scripts, and the ubiquitous paper coffee cups.
Ralph introduced C.J. and Bernie to Humphrey and Beth, then seated himself behind the table and pushed an open box of cookies toward C.J. “Before you jump into the scene, have a ratafia cake,” the designer said, with his mouth full. “Beth baked them. Sort of to get us all in that 1801 mood.”
“What are ratafia cakes?” C.J. asked the director.
“Sort of like little meringues made with ground almonds, egg whites, and orange-flower water. They were a very traditional dessert back then.”
“But,” Humphrey chimed in, “in 1801, they used to make them with bitter almonds instead of grinding sweet ones. Bitter almonds contain prussic acid.”
C.J. frowned. “Sorry, guys, I flunked chemistry. Enlighten me.”
“Poison,” Beth and Humphrey responded in tandem. They looked at each other and laughed.
Beth smiled. “Prussic acid is hydrogen cyanide. Poison.”
“I think I’ll pass,” C.J. said.
The audition was almost as painful as prussic acid poisoning. Poor Bernie was a hopeless actor, and C.J. left the stage feeling defeated and robbed of the opportunity to have done her best work. So much for karma. She was in the corridor putting on her coat when Ralph emerged from the theatre. “C.J., they’d like to see you do the scene again with a different actor.”
Back onstage, C.J.’s second chance was going terrifically. Beth was highly complimentary of her work, and made particular mention of C.J.’s flawless English accent, praise indeed coming from a true Brit.
As she was preparing to leave the playhouse, C.J. felt a tap on her shoulder. Ralph again. “They’d like to bring you in for a callback, C.J. So you’ll be hearing from us within the week about the specifics. Congratulations.”
As it turned out, there were nine grueling rounds of callbacks before C.J. made it to the final cut. Personally as well as professionally, her nerves were raw.
Two weeks after her first By a Lady audition, she stood on a chair in the backstage area, being fussed over by a professional costumer brought in by the producers. The people from Miramax wanted to see the final casting choices in full costume, by appointment, one at a time, as if they were being screen tested. C.J. caught her reflection in the dressing room mirrors. “Wow! Except for the zipper in the gown, I really feel like I’m back in 1801.”
“You look exactly like one of those pre-Regency portraits. It’s amazing,” commented Elsie Lazarus, the assistant stage manager.
Milena, the costumer, handed C.J. a straw bonnet decorated with simple yellow ribbons. “I can’t wait to see how you look in this.” C.J. tied a bow under her chin, edged it just off to the side as she’d seen in illustrations of the period, and regarded herself in the mirror.
“Don’t forget to accessorize,” Elsie said. She gestured to a coquelicot shawl and the cream silk reticule and ecru lace mitts that hung in a net bag on the costume rack. “All set?” C.J. nodded. “Then let’s go! Break a leg!”
Fighting the manifestations of stage fright, C.J. stepped out onto the stage. In accordance with the lead designer’s mandate from the producers to deliver a rehearsal version of the eventual Broadway set, Ralph had constructed a pair of freestanding frames with brass-handled doors, which now added definition to the space, creating the boundaries of Jane Austen’s parlor in Steventon.
Beth’s voice echoed from the audience. “Right, then, would everyone please humor me and put your Starbucks cups down for the next five minutes. Let’s settle. Thank you. All right, C.J., I’d like to hear the monologue toward the end of Act One as if we’ve got Lefroy onstage with you, and take it all the way through to Jane’s exit, please,” Beth added crisply.
Infused with something out of the ordinary, C.J. began the speech she had been asked to memorize for her final audition. Perhaps it was the addition of the costume and accessories, but she had no trouble believing that on that stage in Greenwich Village, she was stepping back in time more than two hundred years.
“I will think on it, Tom,” C.J. said resolutely, nearing the end of the scene. “And accord the utmost consideration to your proposal.” She crossed thoughtfully to the doorway, stopped, and turned as the lights began to fade. “Bath,” she said, her voice tinged with ambivalence. “I’m going to Bath.”
As she closed Ralph’s door behind her and exited the stage, C.J. found herself enveloped in complete and impenetrable blackness.