The Widow’s Fire explores the shadow side of Jane Austen's final novel Persuasion, disrupting its happy ending and throwing moral certainties off balance. We join the action close to the moment when Austen draws away for the last time and discretely gives an overview of the oncoming marriage between heroine Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. This, it transpires in The Widow’s Fire, is merely the beginning of a journey. Soon dark undercurrents disturb the order and symmetry of Austen's world. The gothic flavor of the period, usually satirized by Austen, begins to assert itself. Characters far below the notice of Anne, a baronet’s daughter, have agendas of their own. Before long, we enter into the realm of scandal and blackmail. Anne Elliot must come to recognize the subversive power of those who have been hitherto invisible to her — servants, maids and attendants — before she can defend her fiancé from an accusation too dreadful to be named. Captain Wentworth himself must learn the skills of living on land; the code of honour and secrecy which has protected him on deck no longer applies on the streets of Bath.
Paul Butler is the author of nine novels, the most recent of which is The Good Doctor (2014). His work has appeared on the judges' lists of Canada Reads, the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards shortlists, and he was on the Relit Longlist for three consecutive years. Between 2003 and 2008, he won the annual Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards four times and was subsequently invited to be first literary representative and then chair on the Arts and Letters committee. He currently lives and works in Lethbridge, Alberta.
The carriage crunches to a halt by the white pillars and
the headmaster bolts into the chilled air with rare alacrity
to greet the occupants. Emerging first is a stately woman
of bearing and grace. But this is not the one for whom you
are waiting. A little more time. A few obsequious bows and
gestures from the headmaster to the lady ― inquiries about
the journey perhaps, requests to join him for tea ― and
then out she comes, a delicate, dark-eyed girl of fourteen.
Her mother having passed just a few months ago, she is
in the black of mourning. Her cloak and the unnatural
paleness of her hands and face give you the fleeting sense
of a young magpie fallen from its nest.
One for sorrow.
This, dear reader, is Anne Elliot, daughter of the baronet
Sir Walter. She who is watching from the upstairs landing
is myself, Harriet Hamilton, still a pupil at seventeen
but soon to be put in charge of the younger girls. The
financial ruin of my parents and a rich but distant uncle
has dictated my course. I have no income and will receive
no dowry so must either learn how to make myself useful
to some unambitious husband or else starve.
As soon as I heard she was coming, I picked out Anne
Elliot as a future companion. I knew the hunger of grief,
how it longed to be filled, and how the deepest of cravings
rarely questioned the methods of their alleviation. I
would offer kindness and friendship to the new girl and
she would take it without hesitation. The self-interest of
my attentions would not occur to her. Even at this young
age, I knew that the higher one is in rank, the blinder
one remains to the motivations of one’s companions. One
sees the world clearly only from the gutter. To this shy,
delicate, wounded bird, her future standing in society,
and how it affected the behaviour of those around her,
would be quite invisible.