ED. NOTE—In keeping with the current (and, some might say, callous) publishing craze for updating Jane Austen’s work—Alexander McCall Smith was requested to “reimagine” Emma, for example, and had the nerve to comply—we offer you the following short account of a feminine fracas, plucked from a trunk full of Austen juvenilia recently unearthed from an inauspicious outhouse at her old home in Chawton, Hampshire. It is The Baffler’s great honor to be the first, and no doubt the last, to publish it.
The family of Phaeton had long been settled in London’s Canary Wharf. The topiary of their hedge funds was in splendid order, and, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner, as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. Though an indulgent and obliging father, Sir Thomas Phaeton was well aware that his daughters, Elinor and Marianne, were two of the silliest girls in England. While their contemporaries were scuttling up trees to protest attacks on the environment, or making their insouciant way into comfy corners of corrupt corporations, Sir Thomas’s offspring were posing for selfies, trying to get an audition for Big Brother or The Apprentice, tweeting, twerking, tweezing, tattooing, drinking vodka-laced frappuccinos, and watching Danish TV series about murdered women. They could neither boil an egg nor butter up a boss. Their education was minimal, their aspirations absurd, their spats legendary.
It had occurred to Sir Thomas on occasion that their expensive schooling, at Bedales and Benenden, had been insufficient to instruct them in the intricacies of adult life. To redress these deficits, he sometimes made an aggravating effort to persuade his daughters to read a book. He himself favored the novels of the long eighteenth century. But they refused even self-help books: they needed no “help.” They preferred more immediate sources of merriment and deviltry, and spent their days (and nights) with models and rock stars. The Phaeton girls could have been models themselves, had they displayed more passivity, more poise, and more pouts; and they would have excelled at the guitar, had they ever learnt.
Following a tempestuous decade of marriage, it was noted that Lady Phaeton now lived elsewhere. But it was a surprise to many when she was discovered subsisting amongst the glitterati to be found, in decreasing numbers and increasing decrepitude, in Biarritz (which, to her daughters, seemed horrifically uncool). She left in her place a widowed sister, though Aunt Norris had little more interest than their mother in tending to either Sir Thomas or the girls, who, in their turn, ignored their aunt whenever possible. This left Sir Thomas in the position of sole protector of the two flibbertigibbets, who nonetheless could charm him, when they applied themselves to the task. Why would anyone wish to harm these beatific beings, Sir Thomas wondered jovially, as they spooned lobster pâté onto more and more crackers for him, in the hopes of a handout.
The girls enlarged their set of acquaintances to include stand-up comedians with god complexes, VIPs at the loucher end of the spectrum, humble sycophants, newspaper magnates, Conservative politicians, and aristocratic wannabes. But the sisters had their enemies too. Paparazzi stirred into action whenever they left their three-story penthouse (adjoining the equally well-proportioned London residence which their father shared, resignedly, with Aunt Norris). The object of the paparazzi’s assiduity was to get a photo of those two zany Phaeton chicks looking zany.
Sir Thomas was forced to await, on tenterhooks, the inevitable slaughter, by media, of his darlings; but when it finally came, it was an embarrassment, not just to him, or to Marianne and Elinor, but to the country at large.
The Phaeton girls had successfully evaded censure for two, three, perhaps four years of high living. Despite trashing every nightclub in the British Isles and beyond, slurring their speech on talk shows, and shoplifting heritage carrots from Harrods’ Food Hall, the worst of the crimes of which Marianne and Elinor had yet been accused were cellulite sins, muffin-top miseries, Chihuahua cruelties, and occasionally going about color-uncoordinated. The ups and downs of their love lives had been finely milled for scandal, but none could be found: their boyfriends were all rotters, to a man—but so were everyone else’s. (In a society in which just about everything is ill judged, it can be hard to find the right way to go wrong.) Ominously, though, as Sir Thomas would later recall to his chagrin, there had once been a curious accusation of “cleavage overload” hurled at his daughters, which might have served as a warning of the imminent debacle. Both girls had laughed it off, however, ridiculing the notion that anyone could ever get tired of breasts.
The object of the paparazzi’s assiduity was to get a photo of those two zany Phaeton chicks looking zany.
But finally, there transpired the biggest sartorial transgression currently known to humankind. England, a nation already famed for sexual confusion, was suddenly saturated with disturbing photographic evidence of sleaze. The center of the controversy was Marianne, as Sir Thomas might have guessed it would be—Marianne, who had always had the least fashion sense of the two (though neither daughter could ever have been said to dress sensibly). Her crime? The exposure of a “side boob.”
Not only had her side boob, in a moment of unthinking laxity, escaped its bounds, but thanks to the paparazzi, this incident had instantly invaded the homes of millions, to be rewound, and reviled, by rich and poor alike, across the squeamish land. Marianne’s side boob popped up everywhere: on TV, on the Internet, and in every major newspaper, in full-color close-ups. It was discussed from bus stops to beauty salons, from Penzance to Pontefract to Pitlochry, and thence to Parliament. Her side boob received not one but ten Twitter hashtags. And during a typically incendiary breakfast television broadcast, a keen-eyed puppy of a pundit fanned the flames of Marianne’s notoriety by drawing the public’s attention to some evidence of “tit tape.” With ungentlemanlike mendacity, the fellow even claimed to have spied both of Marianne’s side boobs in the same photograph; at any rate, he spoke of them in the plural. This could not be. The thing about side boobs is, you can only see one at a time, unless you’re a flounder (or a bounder).
Elinor was implicated in the unfortunate event, for she had been present in the taxi on the fateful occasion, wearing a dress of some considerable décolletage, incidentally, but she had managed to collect herself to the degree that the eyes of the world had been spared any glimpse of her side boobs. That merely one daughter had fallen quite so low, Sir Thomas soon realized, was the sole blessing of the business.
Although Elinor’s eloquence, never acute, was sorely tried on the subject of side boobs, self-satisfaction will claw at any straw. So it is not to be expected that Elinor could refrain from admonishing Marianne, nor from reminding her sister, at frequent intervals, that her idol, Kate Winslet, would never have allowed a side boob to emerge. Yet to everyone’s acute surprise, Marianne maintained that side boobs were, in the main, noble and picturesque! Indeed, she insisted on regarding side boobs as an example of the Sublime. Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve. To aim at the restraint of side boobs, which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of her own nature to Emma Thompsonesque values. Marianne had finally found her purpose, and that purpose was the championing of the side boob.
The thing about side boobs is, you can only see one at a time.
But in this, it seemed, she was somewhat ahead of her time. Whatever the aesthetic merits of side boobs (one would expect them to be a staple of socialist realism, certainly), it was still commonly held that the existence of this part of the human body, in its single or plural emanation, must never be formally acknowledged. The crease or shadow made by the breast in the center of the chest—above the stomach area, close to the sternum—may (and indeed, probably must)be made visible on certain festive occasions. But a glimpse—however fleeting—of a similar crease occurring below the breast toward the side of the thoracic wall, revealing the way in which the breast’s bulbous structure merges, under the arm, with the outer plane of the ribcage, threatens the very foundations of semi-polite society.
Whether the worldwide anxiety about the side boob contained some ancient, half-forgotten, mythological resonance; was generated by a natural fear of hidden weaponry; or was driven by mass-hallucinatory ignorance about human anatomy—Sir Thomas was never able to determine. The case as he saw it was thus: his daughters were allowed to have boobs, and to draw attention to their boobs, almost any part or indeed all of said boobs (for they frequently went topless when in Greece, no doubt in honor of the classical statuary one encounters there). Between the two of them, it seemed, his daughters could present all four of their breasts, even including nipples, ad infinitum to prying cameras or the naked eye. But never that small, insensible no man’s land on the side of each breast. Such an act denatured not only the side boob bearer, but all who took a look, however reluctantly, at the pictures. As a result, it seemed the young Phaeton females and their boobs would never bedeck a billionaire’s yacht again.
It was hard to imagine how their reputations were to be salvaged unless each derelict daughter succumbed to a life-threatening fever, which would permanently alter her personality, making her bookish, not boobish. Their Aunt Norris was rather in favor of quadruple mastectomy, a demoralizing suggestion raised in response to the less radical plan of a side-boobectomy, which Marianne had volunteered in a fit of pique. All discussion of the topic between them now ceased. Sir Thomas was left to wonder alone how Marianne could so disastrously have mistaken the level of public enmity toward the side boob. How was it that he, Sir Thomas Phaeton, a knight of the realm, courteous ex-husband, and doting father, had failed to instill in the creature the absolute necessity of shielding her fellow beings from sightings of a side boob? He would never forgive himself for his own errors, and Marianne’s, in the matter.
This enormity tainted the family in its entirety (the effects were even felt in Biarritz). Though her only fault had been in failing to reason Marianne out of feckless recklessness, Elinor found that the incident had ruined her chances of even marrying a cousin. She lived from then on seeking only to make amends to her dear, distraught father through every effort she could muster. She was aided in this newfound tranquility by the acquisition of pedigree chickens and a cucumber patch. The penthouse roof afforded ample opportunity for both to flourish, and for Elinor to achieve the full-body tan she had always coveted, beyond the reach of paparazzi. Only drones could spy on her up there, but after she had disabled a number of them with well-aimed bantam eggs, fewer were seen in the vicinity.
There was nothing left for Marianne to do but leave the country. She reluctantly joined her mother for bullfighting and baccarat in Biarritz. In her plentiful spare time, plagued by the visits of Aunt Norris, who periodically came to hector her and soak up some sun, Marianne fashioned sturdy bras for herself and the other women in her family out of hessian and twine.