What we call “amnesia” serves as a major plot device in my latest Jane Austen variation, “In Want of a Wife.” When I began writing the book, I wanted a situation where Darcy and Elizabeth had to learn to trust each other again, without all the hoopla surrounding Lydia’s elopement, Bingley’s abandonment of Jane Bennet, Lady Catherine’s disapproval, etc. I wanted a “clean slate,” so I wiped away Elizabeth’s memory of her family and her relationship with Darcy, including the first five days of their marriage. Oops!!!
In a day and age where concussion protocol is practiced on sports fields and courts throughout America, the idea of amnesia as a plot point may appear a bit lame, but we all likely know someone who had been knocked out or fainted for a brief second or two, or perhaps minutes, who then wakes and takes a bit of time to recall where they are and what is going on. That is what happens to Elizabeth, but instead of minutes, she waits weeks to get her bearings again. In the meantime, she and Darcy are thrown together as husband and wife. One must remember that in the Regency era, marriage was FOREVER. Death do us part, and all that jazz. Divorces were very public and very expensive and, literally, took an act of Parliament. By making Elizabeth also not remember her family, she can no longer depend on others to right her mistakes. Only on Darcy and on herself.
In fiction, we refer to the use of amnesia to advance the story as a motif. Some refer to it as “global amnesia.” Jonathan Lethem in the introduction to his anthology, The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss, says, “Amnesia is a common motif in fiction, despite being extraordinarily rare in reality.
“Real, diagnosable amnesia – people getting knocked on the head and forgetting their names – is mostly just a rumor in the world. It’s a rare condition, and usually a brief one. In books and movies, though, versions of amnesia lurk everywhere, from episodes of Mission Impossible to metafictional and absurdist masterpieces, with dozens of stops in between. Amnesiacs might not much exist, but amnesiac characters stumble everywhere through comic books, movies, and our dreams. We’ve all met them and been them.
“Lethem traces the roots of literary amnesia to Frank Kafka and Samuel Beckett, among others, fueled in large part by the seeping into popular culture of the work of Sigmund Freud, which also strongly influenced genre films such as film noir. Amnesia is so often used as a plot device in films, that a widely recognized stereotypical dialogue has even developed around it, with the victim melodramatically asking ‘Where am I? Who am I? What am I?’, or sometimes inquiring of his own name, ‘Bill? Who’s Bill?’” [Lethem, Jonathan (ed.) The Vintage Book of Amnesia New York: Vintage, 2000.]
In movies and television, particularly sitcoms and soap operas, one often sees a second blow to the head, similar to the first one which caused the amnesia, will then cure it. In reality, however, repeat concussions may cause cumulative deficits including cognitive problems, and in extremely rare cases may even cause deadly swelling of the brain associated with second-impact syndrome.
In Want of a Wife: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen
Elizabeth Bennet Darcy wakes in an unfamiliar room, attended by a stranger, who claims she is his wife and saying she has suffered an injury to her head. He accuses her of pretending her memory loss, but to Elizabeth, the fear is real.
“Surely you know me,” he argued. His words sounded as if he held his emotions tightly in check. “I am William. Your husband.”
She thought to protest, but the darkness had caught her hand and was leading her away from him. With one final attempt to correct his declaration, her mind formed the words, but her lips would not cooperate. Her dissent died before she could tell him: I do not have a husband!
Fitzwilliam Darcy despises his new wife, for he fears she has faked her love for him, better to see her family well-settled, and if love is not powerful enough to change a life, what is?
“This is unacceptable. I realize I was never your first choice as a husband, but it is too late to change your mind. The vows have been spoken. The registry signed. You cannot deny your pledge with this ploy. I will not have it. No matter how often you call out George Wickham’s name, he will never be your husband. I will never release you.”
“I plan to enjoy a walk,” Elizabeth told Mr. Nathan. She had been most disappointed when Miss Darcy did not arrive yesterday as planned, and her restlessness had gotten the better of her. Surely Georgiana would make an appearance soon. Elizabeth did not like being alone at Pemberley. Doing so brought on a return of her fears of never recovering her memory.
The butler frowned. “It is not my place to prevent your doing so, but Mr. Darcy charged me and the rest of the staff with your safety, ma’am. Might I add a caution?” Reluctantly, she nodded her acceptance of his warning. “Pemberley is well-tended by the gardeners and groundskeepers, but there is much open land that holds dangerous trails and drop-offs unless one is familiar with the contour of the area.”
Elizabeth wished to remind Mr. Nathan she was the estate’s mistress and she could do as she pleased, but she knew the man was only following Mr. Darcy’s instructions. “I do not mean to go far. Miss Darcy will hopefully arrive soon, and I wish to be here to greet her, but I require a stretch of my legs, or I might go mad.” She added a smile to assure the man she spoke figuratively.
Mr. Nathan nodded his understanding. “Then perhaps you might choose to walk the entrance road. It is wide—properly graveled—nearly a mile to the gatehouse—possesses wonderful views of the parkland and the stream—”
“And I cannot become lost,” Elizabeth finished.
“There is that also,” Mr. Nathan said in practiced tones.
Elizabeth again smiled at the man. “Then fetch my pelisse and my muff, Mr. Nathan.”
Within five minutes, she was crossing the circular drive toward the bend in the road that hid the full grandeur of Pemberley from those who dared to arrive on the property without knowledge of Pemberley House, as well as to those who called upon the estate on a regular basis.
As she walked briskly along, Elizabeth concentrated on each remarkable spot, often turning in place and pausing to admire the great variety of ground. Each step revealed more of the splendor into which she had married. “And of this place, I am to serve as mistress,” she whispered in awe.
Finally, she reached a point where the woods began in earnest. It was a considerable eminence, and Elizabeth turned back to rest her eyes on Pemberley House, which was situated on the opposite side of the valley. Its greatness and its beauty had her swallowing a bit of trepidation rushing to her chest. The manor was a large, handsome stone building, imposing in the simplicity of its architectural lines, standing well on high ground, and backed by a ridge of woody hills, which she now recognized as part of the nature trail at the edge of the lawns. She thought there could be no other place for which nature had done more good.
With a sigh of satisfaction, she set her sights on the wooded area ahead. The walk was easy because she was walking downhill. She recalled when she arrived at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s coach entered the park at a low point and slowly climbed to the manor house. “The return will require me to assume a slower pace,” she said with a smile. The crisp air on her cheeks felt good, as did the freedom of the exercise. In spite of her infirmity, the Lord had blessed her. She paused to count God’s favors. She closed her eyes and lifted her chin to speak to Heaven. “Thank you, God, for sparing my life and for bringing William into my world. I possess a loving and faithful husband who promises to protect both me and our family.”
Elizabeth’s eyes sprang open. She turned frantically in circles, searching the thick woods for any signs of another person.
“Who is there? Show yourself,” she demanded, but there was no movement—no other sound—not even the chirp of birds or the chatter of a squirrel—nothing but the soft snap of a twig and a quick hitch of her breathing.
Suddenly frightened by the unknown, she hiked her skirt and made her feet move in the direction she had come. Constantly looking over her shoulder, she stumbled along the road she had enjoyed until this moment. “Be sensible,” she silently chastised herself, but she did not slow down. The incline she had anticipated earlier caused her to labor, her chest heaving from the exertion.
Finally, she cleared the heavy woods, but she still did not feel safe. She silently cursed her response, but such did not slow her steps. She was in a strange place, a place she had visited previously, but of which she held no memory. Reaching the spot where she had previously viewed Pemberley in the distance, Elizabeth paused; bent over at the waist and hands braced on her knees, she struggled to capture her breath.
Then she heard it: a loud rumbling coming from the direction she had just fled.
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Loved this book. In terms of real life, I have never known anyone with amnesia but I did read the Vow based on a true life experience. The woman, who had lost her memory in an accident never did regain what she had lost. But after much anguish, she did learn to love him again. Sad but beautiful tale. The story was made into a movie and was very disappointing by comparison. Anyway, your book worked for me and I enjoyed it very much.
When I think of people with dementia, etc., who can only remember bits of their past, amnesia seems very real to me. Do you not recall those scenes in “The Notebook” where James Garner’s “Noah” is trying to help Gena Rowlands’s “Allie” recapture bits of their life together? Not a true story like, but like The Vow (ironically, Rachel McAdams played in both), it speaks to the possibility.
Absolutely! Thanks for the reminder. Another great movie!