Even the most pleasurable pastime will eventually lose its luster. Though Jane Austen's Fight Club was from the first a rousing success, within a year it had started to grow dull and stagnant. The chief difficulty lay in the limited pool of combatants: each had come to know the others' fighting styles too well. Every palm strike was predicted, every left hook anticipated. Even the bruises lost their novelty. Fight club had become as tedious as the very needlework that the ladies had first sought to escape.
One chilly spring morning, the inaugural members of the club met over tea to address the general decline in enthusiasm.
"I want you to hit me as hard as you can," said Lizzy Bennet halfheartedly to Elinor Dashwood, who shrugged and yawned in response. Lizzy turned her attentions next to Fanny Price, who only sipped her tea with equanimity. "Who am I fooling?" said Lizzy glumly. "Hit me or don't; it makes very little difference."
"I am Marianne Dashwood's crippling sense of ennui."
"I had an idea last night," said Emma Woodhouse, "of how we might restore our beloved fight club to its former glory."
"No, Emma," said Elinor firmly, "not one more of your schemes. I still cannot forget how you convinced us that what we really needed was to match Harriet Smith against Jane Bennet. Not so much as a scratch on either lady, and yet they are still apologizing profusely to one another months later."
"Make one small error," said Emma, "and you shall never live it down! Besides, I do not see that it is my fault that the two of them are so good-natured. How was I to predict that they should both turn out so very pacifistic?"
"Emma, you know I am as fond of your person as I am wary of your right hook," said Lizzy, "but even you must admit that it was far from an isolated incident. You see now, don't you, that encouraging Isabella Thorpe to launch a sneak-attack on Anne Elliot was not, perhaps, the wisest course of action?"
"Oh," sighed Fanny, "the flash of Captain Wentworth's sword was something dreadful! And the worst of it is I fear that we will never have Miss Elliot back to fight again, and she had so much potential."
"Potential," sniffed Emma. "For my part, I never saw any. She was so old--twenty-seven if she was a day. And so thin and exhausted-looking that one felt bad punching her at all."
"Never mind these little episodes," said Marianne, "let them lie in the past. I believe I may have discovered just the tonic to cure us. Only this morning, I was browsing the advertisements in the ---shire Herald, and I happened upon a rather interesting notice. Allow me," she said, removing a folded scrap of newsprint from her reticule.
A group of young ladies accustomed to pugilism are desirous of meeting with another like-minded group of young ladies, to expand the usual circle of participants as well as to exchange fighting techniques. They are qualified to engage in the usual branches of a good English fistfight, together with karate, capoeira, and some of the rudimentary forms of jujitsu. Address, J.E., Post-office, Millcote, ---shire.
"Well spotted, Marianne," said Lizzy, with real enthusiasm. "This could be the solution to all our problems."
"Precisely what I thought when I chanced upon it!" said Marianne. "I shall write to this J.E. at once to inform her that she may expect us."
"But dearest," said Elinor, alarmed, "consider: the first rule of fight club is that you do not talk about fight club!"
"Oh, rules!" cried Marianne, waving her hands. "Can we not throw caution to the wind, just this once? I think they sound perfectly lovely--and accomplished, too. I should love to study capoeira!"
"And you all accuse me of forming hare-brained schemes," said Emma. "No, it is far too risky. For one thing, we don't know if they are the right kind of society. Besides, you never heard my new concept for revitalizing the club: I thought we could invite Miss Bates to join us in scrimmage. I feel that I still have not entirely made amends for my cruelty toward her at the picnic on Box Hill, and while I know she can be exasperatingly long-winded at times, who more than Miss Bates would benefit from a good--"
"All in favor of Marianne's plan?" said Lizzy at once.
The ayes had it: Emma found herself outnumbered four to one, acknowledging her defeat with a scowl.
"Then it is settled," said Marianne gleefully, picking up her pen.
Marianne took charge of all the necessary arrangements, corresponding with the representative from the other club and arranging for the transportation that would carry Jane Austen's Fight Club to the north.
When the ladies arrived in ---shire, they filed nervously out of the carriage. Lizzy knocked at the door. It was answered by a woman dressed all in black. She did not appear to be a servant, but neither did she resemble the mistress of such a great house: her dress was sober, her dark hair pulled back simply. Her face, too, was plain and even childlike--it was difficult to know whether her age was fifteen or twice that.
"You are very welcome here," she said softly. "My name is Jane Eyre, though in present company, I shall answer most often to The Bird."
"Fighting names!" exclaimed Marianne in admiration. "We never thought of that!"
"Should you like to know why they call me The Bird?"
"Because of all the bird imagery from your novel?" suggested Emma.
"Because you are little and quick?" asked Elinor.
"Nope. It's because when I fight my opponents, I flip 'em over at the end and send 'em flying. Signature move," she explained.
The members of Jane Austen's Fight Club nodded and introduced themselves to Jane in turn.
"I'm afraid we shall be a very small party," said Jane as she led them down a corridor. "Though I can assure you that what we lack in number, we make up for in ferocity. You see, I could not convince Deep Freeze--that is Lucy Snowe, of course--to travel back to England for the occasion. She is greatly skilled with her fists, but she is much depressed at present and could not gather the energy to make the crossing."
"Oh," came a voice from the room at the end of the hall, "when is Miss Snowe anything else? Tiresome creature, always moping over that horrible M. Paul, and inexplicably terrified of Catholics, to boot."
"Blanche," said Jane, a warning tone in her voice, "let us not squabble in front of company. Miss Bennet, Miss Woodhouse, Miss Price, the Misses Dashwood, I welcome you warmly on behalf of us all."
"How cozy," declared Fanny, glancing about the room. "We shall be five on five."
"Yes, that is very fortunate," said Jane. "I shall go round the table so you may learn our names." She gestured first toward a woman with long, tangled dark hair, red-rimmed eyes, and a murderous expression. "This is Bertha Mason, otherwise known as The Immolator."
Bertha glared silently at each of the newcomers in turn.
"She is unlikely to speak much," said Jane apologetically, "but generally she manages to convey her meaning through looks. Moving on: to your left, nearest the door, sits Miss Catherine Earnshaw."
"Please," said Catherine, "call me Dog Bite."
"And," continued Jane, "though I am sure she needs no introduction, this lady on my right is the Honourable Blanche Ingram, better known for our purposes as simply The Honourable."
"How do you do?" said Blanche. "Once I went by The Abattoir, but I have since come to find the appellation insufficiently dignified. Anyhow, I shall be glad to converse with some proper ladies at last. Until now, all the company I've had here has been a servant and a lunatic. Make that two lunatics," she said darkly, eyeing Catherine, who had begun to sharpen her fingernails to points with a paring knife.
"Oh, you're just bitter that you've lost your past several fights so badly," said Catherine, not bothering to look up.
"To be sure, Blanche," said the the fifth woman, a young lady with dark brown hair and dark grey eyes. "And what about me? Am I nothing to you, then?"
"Oh," said Blanche, "do forgive me. I'd forgotten you were even there."
The other woman began to grow quite red in the face.
"The final member of our group," said Jane, "is Shirley Keeldar, generally called The Socialist."
"Shirley who?" asked Emma.
Blanche laughed. "Yes, exactly."
"Shirley Keeldar, of course," replied the lady in question. "You know, from Shirley? Well, that's me--I'm Shirley. I'm sure you'll remember me soon enough."
"No," said Emma, "I'm afraid it does not sound familiar."
"I too am at a loss," admitted Elinor, "though I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
"But my name is the title of the book! I am the book!"
"Titles aren't everything," said Blanche smugly. "I had rather be a first-rate antagonist than a third-rate heroine."
"You take that back!" howled Shirley. "Or I'll show you who's first-rate!"
"Do remind me of your name again," said Blanche. "Agnes Grey, was it?"
Shirley growled, spat, and began to climb onto the table.
"Ladies, please," said Jane severely. "Save your energy for the battlefield." She cracked her knuckles and turned her attention back to her visitors. "And that is all of us at present. Together, we comprise the Charlotte Brontë Fight Club with Some Contributions from Emily Brontë."
"No!" shrieked Catherine, "No! That is not the name! You know I never consented to it. It is the Emily and Charlotte Brontë Fight Club, or I walk."
"You'd never leave for good," said Blanche. "You would miss the thrill of drawing blood."
"Don't try me!" said Catherine. "There are a million moors I could wander whilst brooding. If I crave a fight, I can always pick on Linton."
"It's not that your participation here is unimportant," said Shirley gently, "but by majority vote, we decided that Emily's novel, while alarming, does not hold up well compared to her older sister's more substantial oeuvre."
"A majority vote! How convenient! I don't suppose you four showed any bias in that decision. And who asked you, anyway, Miss Entirely Forgettable? I've forgotten again what you are called--is it Helen Huntingdon, or Frances Evans Henri?"
"Ooh," said Shirley, reddening again, "don't you dare compare me to that obscure, two-bit Swiss nobody!"
"Be careful whom you call obscure," said Blanche. "Madame Bovary you ain't."
"Perhaps we could converse on another topic," Lizzy suggested. "You could begin to assign us our nicknames, for example."
At once the Brontë fight club ceased to argue, pivoting to face their counterparts.
"You don't receive a nickname," said Blanche haughtily, "you must earn it in combat."
"The very thought," agreed Catherine. "Let's take this to the moors."
"'Tis impossible!" cried Elinor. "I've never been walloped so many times in close succession."
Jane Austen's Fight Club had been stymied by an unbroken string of losses and a diverse assortment of minor injuries.
"I don't believe it is a question of proficiency," said Jane kindly, "for I find your form quite impressive. If I may ask, though: why, exactly, do you fight?"
"Well," said Elinor, "we were quite bored of the acceptable range of occupations for well-born young ladies. So Lizzy devised an alternative."
"Bored?" said Blanche with disdain. "You formed a fight club because you were bored?"
"Of course," said Fanny. "What other reason could there be?"
"Have you never been angry?" asked Shirley.
Emma shrugged. "Perhaps a small fit of pique, from time to time. But nothing lasting."
"That explains your problem altogether," said Blanche triumphantly.
Marianne frowned. "Do you mean that all of you derive your power from anger? Dog Bite, The Immolator, The Socialist--you three do seem rather tetchy. But not you, The Honourable."
"Don't I?" said Blanche. "I have a right to be. My late father's estates were chiefly entailed--I have no fortune to speak of. My mother tried to marry me off to a boorish, hideous old man who spoke in riddles and was far too fond of his dog--with a troubling propensity to dress in women's clothing, too. Sorry specimen that he was, he threw me over for the governess! And I broke a fingernail yesterday against the Immolator's shoulder blade."
"My goodness," said Fanny. "And Jane? Are you angry, too, then?"
"Well," she began, "I was orphaned as an infant, abused by my cousins, locked in a room with the ghost of my dead uncle, slandered before a corrupt clergyman, cast off by the aunt who swore to raise me as her own, and sent to a charity school to starve, where my only friend died in my arms. I left that place to work in a great house as a friendless dependent, taught a very stupid French child, was nearly seduced into a bigamous marriage with the master, fled without a penny, and came quite close to dying of exposure out on the moors. If that wasn't quite enough, I was almost bullied into a fatal, loveless marriage with my other cousin, started hearing voices, and at last married my dear Edward: now blind, grievously maimed, and even broodier, if such a thing is possible. He is my second self and best earthly companion, it is true--but, if I may be objective, he is no prize. And all this by the age of nineteen! You see, it turned out well in the end, but beneath the surface I think I may still harbor some little resentments."
"I can see that the five of you have very short tempers," said Lizzy, "but what does it have to do with us?"
"Perhaps nothing," said Jane. "Perhaps, unlike me, you have never felt out of place in your surroundings. Perhaps no one has ever sneered at you because of your family or circumstances of birth."
A space began to clear around Jane and Lizzy. They put up their fists.
"Perhaps," continued Jane, "you have never been judged unfairly, insulted to your face, or even proposed to twice by the same aggravating, pig-headed gentleman."
"I see what you are trying to do," Lizzy panted, spots of color rising to her cheeks. "But it shan't work."
"Perhaps it shan't. And perhaps, unlike me, you've never been courted by a man whose affections were ultimately found to be engaged elsewhere."
"Insufferable," muttered Lizzy. She swung at Jane and missed.
"It's time!" cried Shirley. "Flip her the bird!"
"You see, Lizzy, we are not so different, you and I. Except in one particular: I am going to win this fight, and you are going to lose. You are tolerable, but not fightsome enough to tempt me."
"You've gone too far," growled Lizzy, and with the last of her strength, she dove at Jane and sent her flying backward into a bed of heather.
Fanny hurried to where Jane lay and bent anxiously over her. "Miss Eyre, Miss Eyre, are you hurt?"
Jane came to, spat out a mouthful of blood, and grinned. "I've never been better. Very nicely played, Miss Bennet," she said weakly, "Or should I say, Eliminator."
"Eliminator," repeated Lizzy, thrilled. "I think it suits me."
"How invigorating that looked!" cried Marianne. "And I must admit that I am a bit angry," she said. "You know, regarding the business with Willoughby and all."
"Do go on," said Shirley, beginning to circle her.
Marianne's first punch flew wide. "The coldness of his letter when he returned the lock of hair!"
"Yes," said Shirley, "wasn't he a scoundrel?"
"His behavior towards me at the party in London! Unpardonable!"
"More," said Shirley, "more!"
"And to top it all off, Colonel Brandon is constitutionally incapable of reading poetry with even a modicum of feeling!"
"Just picture him reading Gray's 'Elegy'!"
"The inhumanity!" howled Marianne, unleashing a savage volley of blows. Shirley went down so hard that afterward even she had difficulty remembering her name.
She climbed to her feet unsteadily and smiled at Marianne. "A virtuoso performance, Bottle Rocket."
"Oh, a nickname! I shall endeavor to be worthy of it!"
"I have news for you," said Shirley, her swollen lip skewing her smile. "You already are."
"What about you, Emma?" asked Blanche. "I hope you don't think you're better than the rest of us."
A moment later, Blanche was on the ground, felled by Emma's fabled right hook.
"I'll save you the trouble," said Emma. "You may call me Kid Gloves."
"Kid Gloves it is, then," said Blanche, brushing a gorse stain off her dress. "That was quite stimulating. You see," she said pointedly to the others, "good breeding really does tell."
"Miss Price," said Catherine with a wicked grin, "would you care to step up next?"
"Not Dog Bite!" cried Elinor, covering her face with her hands. "Oh, poor Fanny. She will never survive!"
"So, Fanny," said Catherine, swiping rapidly at her, "what fills you with a towering rage?"
"Oh, I'm not angry," said Fanny, shrinking away from her opponent.
"Not the littlest bit?"
"No," insisted Fanny, protecting her head. "In fact, I'm rather timid and shy."
"So...you are not at all dissatisfied with Edmund, then?"
"Of course not," said Fanny. "He is the dearest person to me. He loves me best of anyone."
"And I suppose it has always been so?"
Fanny leapt to the side. "Well, even if it has not, I am not one to hold a grudge."
"Quite reasonable. I am sure he never said of any other lady, for instance, 'she is the only woman in the world whom I could ever think of as a wife'?"
"Beast!" cried Fanny in a rage. "Beast!"
What a fury of blows rained down upon Miss Earnshaw then! Neither fight club had ever seen its equal.
When Catherine could breathe again, she shook hands with her rival. "Congratulations, Night Terror. I wasn't certain you had it in you."
"But I did," said Fanny, smiling shyly, "didn't I? It was locked inside me all along!"
At last only Elinor was left standing.
"I'm afraid you shan't have much luck with me," she said to Bertha, "for I'm not angry at all."
Bertha made no indication that she had heard or understood. She rushed forward and threw a quick series of jabs.
"I'm not angry," said Elinor, ducking easily. "Not a whit. I don't know why you stare at me so."
Bertha continued to attack.
"Mr. Ferrars is a dear man," said Elinor, dodging a hail of blows. "He is a good man. You cannot convince me otherwise--though I wish you would direct your eyes elsewhere."
"It was not his fault," insisted Elinor. She had begun to sound nervous. "It was an unavoidable situation. I'm not angry."
"Would you please stop looking at me like that? Very well, the situation was not entirely unavoidable. Perhaps he is a bit weak-willed, but who among us is without fault?"
Elinor blocked another flurry of punches.
"There were some trying times, it is true, but I have done with them."
Still Bertha kept silent, working her opponent over steadily without breaking eye contact.
"I've had it!" screamed Elinor at last. "What truly burns me up is that he could not muster the stones to admit what he had done! Why lead me on so? He was twenty-three years old, for fuck's sake, and I shall never understand why he couldn't just man up."
When the dust had cleared, Bertha struggled to her feet, nodded meaningfully at Elinor, and limped back to the sidelines. Jane stepped forward and embraced Miss Dashwood.
"Such power," said Jane, "such craft. Such strong oaths! Out of all Jane Austen's Fight Club, I believe I am most impressed with you, The Silencer."
"You are very kind, Jane," said Elinor, "and each of you has taught us so much. How can we ever repay your kindness?"
"There is one thing you could do," said Catherine, "but you must promise not to laugh." She paused, and blushed. "I've always wanted to embroider a screen," she said, eyes shining. "Won't you teach me how?"
Jane Austen's Fight Club and the Charlotte Brontë Fight Club with Some Contributions from Emily Brontë then embarked on a highly productive period of cultural interchange. But even this Elysium could not last forever.
"All at once something has changed," said Lizzy. "I feel it in the wind."
"Yes," said Jane with a sigh. "I feel it, too. It is a sign that our time together is drawing to an end. You must return to the south of England, with more bruises and greater wisdom."
"You are right," said Marianne sadly. "I should be getting home to Colonel Pain. He gets melancholy when he is left alone too long."
"Yes," said Elinor, "and I'm sure Stutter has missed me terribly."
"Next time you must come to us!" declared Lizzy. "The Dancer and I have plenty of room to put you all up at Pemberley."
"Or at Donwell Abbey," said Emma, "for I know that Cutlass would be delighted to meet you."
"Farewell, dear friends," said Fanny. "Thanks to you, Northampton shall not know what hit it."
"Farewell," said Jane, kissing them each in turn. "Promise me, Bottle Rocket, no hammer fists until your sprain has healed."
"I promise," said Marianne as she climbed into the carriage, sitting gingerly so as not to aggravate her injuries.
"Goodbye!" said Catherine. "And do bring your husbands next time! For if I know Gypsy Boy, The Rector, and The Bigamist--and I do--they should like nothing better than to step into the ring with a fresh set of challengers."
"And The Belgian?" said Shirley with indignation. "Does he count for nothing?"
"For the last time," said Blanche as the carriage drove away, "no one gives a toss about who your husband is, either."
"A Men's Auxiliary Unit," said Emma, turning to her companions. "Now there is an idea. Think of the pairings that could be arranged! First on my list would be Darcy and Wickham, I think. Handsome men with a shared past and no end of bad blood between them--wouldn't they look well together? Or perhaps Willoughby and Wickham, if you go in for that sort of thing: so much simpering and so many muscles. Such a willingness to please, if you catch my drift. The ancient Greeks used to wrestle in the altogether, you know."
Lizzy looked distressed. "Too far, Emma! You've taken it much too far!"
"No," said Fanny, a dreamy look coming into her eye. "For once it seems that Kid Gloves has had just the right idea."