Epistolary Gossip – December 2021 Competition Results, Adjudication by Dr Cheryl Butler

Dr Cheryl Butler, playwright, author and historian, and speaker at our Christmas 2021 meeting, kindly agreed to be the adjudicator for our December Competition.

This month’s competition was one for those creative letter writers among us. The brief this month was:

Write a letter to a close relative with gossip about your mutual acquaintance. (300 words)

And the winners are:

First Place – John Quinn with Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Second Place – Martin J. White with Carfax House

Third Place – Graham Steed with Marooned

Highly Commended – Rob Stuart for Where’s George?

Highly Commended – Sam Christie for The Bengal Tiger

Cheryl’s opening adjudication comments:

The inspiration for the competition came from the theme for this evenings event, the writer Jane Austen is of course a novelist with an international reputation but she was also a an inveterate letter writer. Her letters are full of gossip about friends, neighbours and persons of interest, but also contain little creative vignettes often about her nearest and dearest. She also had a waspish wit, and if you are going to be insulted then being insulted by Jane Austen – in a recent Who Do You Think You Are programme, I was the local expert brought in to see if Joe Sugg was related to Jane Austen – for the programme sadly not – but we spent a happy hour laughing at the insults Miss Austen levelled at Joe’s 4 times great aunt. 

These were the topics and flourishes I was looking for in this competition. 

First Place: Barking Up the Wrong Tree by John Quinn

I loved the idea of the scandal (illegitimate children something of a feature in Austen novels, along with unsuitable partners) did not guess the twist until the PS so that is what just tipped the final decision in this writer’s favour – but it was very close between the top three  …

Anna,

I’ve fantastic news – take it as read that my family are as boringly healthy and predictable as ever, then we can skip the mundane and get straight to ‘the sandwich filling, not the boring bread,’ as Daddy used to say.

Lily is pregnant! You’re the first, other than the medic’s and Hubby Harry, to know. I’m not even sure Lily has realised the significance yet…

And this time we know who the father is! Well, there’s a bit of a tale to tell, for goodness sake. It was AI, artificial – no, not intelligence – insemination. The donor was chosen out of a catalogue – whatever next – beautiful, brainy and a boxer; what more could you ask for in a stud?

Given that AI gets rid of all that mucky, rather sordid side of procreating, there must be a downside, right? Well, there is – the scan has shown there isn’t going to be one little one, but three!!! Hubby Harry is worried (of course he bloody well is, when isn’t he?) that we won’t have enough room. I had to tell him straight, ‘She’s family, for God’s sake! What are we going to do, kick her out onto the street?’ He can be so lame at times.

Anyway, Lily is practically glowing: shiny hair, eating like a horse and sleeping for Britain. We’re going on long walks every day, either across the heather and around the golf course or, for a change, we jump into the Discovery, park up in the woods and have a proper ramble. As she gets bigger, we may have to be a little less ambitious, a walk around the green may have to suffice.

We’re now making plans – I wanted a birthing pool, but Lily prefers showers to baths, so that’s out of the question, but it’s definitely going to be a home birth.

Elle X ,

P.S. You’ve got first pick of the litter, if you’re still after a puppy?


Second Place: Carfax House by Martin J. White

A dark entry, pushing the upper boundaries of Middle Grade and turning the spirit of Christmas on its given the theme for my presentation, I had to applaud this nod to the Gothic, plus a hint of Netherfield Hall – so not quite Pride & Prejudice and Zombies  – but as Jane Austen was a huge fan of gothic novels which feature in her books and letters, a worthy entry 

Marigold Smythe 
River View House
Purfleet
East London

       Monday, November 7th, 1897 

       My dearest Anne, 

      I hope this letter finds you well and the children in good health? 

     Following up on my previous correspondence, I must enlighten you on the strangest of occurrences. As you may recall, I was delighted by the news that a distinguished Romanian businessman had purchased the neighbouring property Carfax House.  

As you know, this property is in disrepair and a blight on the neighbourhood. I trusted a new owner would invest in the property and resurrect it to its former glory. I anticipated conversing with the new owner, a well-travelled gentleman, intelligent and sophisticated.  

It has been a month since his arrival, and I am yet to cast my eyes upon him. My husband informs me, he has seen the gentleman leaving the house after nightfall, and what hour he returns remains a mystery. The house continues to be in a state of ill repair, and to make the matter worse, it appears he owns a pack of dogs that howl in the early hours and wake me from my slumber— 

Tuesday, November 8th, 1897 

I have endeavoured to learn this gentleman’s name and have discovered he is, in fact, a Count! This afternoon I posted a note through his door inviting him for supper this evening. I must say there was something off about the house. The dogs I mentioned before are nowhere to be seen, and there is foul odour radiating from the place that reminded me of that bloody iron smell in a butcher’s shop. It is nightfall here, and I must ready myself in case our guest arrives. The cook has made the most scrumptious garlic roasted poussin. I hope this will be satisfactory; I have no idea what Romain gentlemen eat? 

Our guest has arrived. I will write more about the encounter shortly; I am incredibly excited to finally meet this Transylvanian Count— 

Third Place: Marooned by Graham Steed

 I liked the family dynamic is this letter, again in Austen’s novels and in her real life there was constant speculation on who was going to inherit what, and the worthiness of participants of that inheritance. Often the Austen family were disappointed in their hopes, and then there is the showing up of the writer –reminded me of Emma getting caught out on Box Hill.

Hi Sis,  

There’s something strange going on with Sally. I don’t mean she’s seen the Light or run off with the milkman. Poor thing. Is it really five years since her Harry passed? Actually, I don’t think the word ‘poor’ really applies because I hear she has come into some money. I saw it on her Facebook page – well, she hinted anyway, and what’s more, hinted at inheritance! 

Yes, yes, you’ll call me an internet nosey parker. But, I’m curious. Sally is our step-sister and I thought that after Harry passed, she had no other family but us, and Father has made it clear that you, me, and her all benefit equally from his Will.  

Anyway, she’d replied to a Facebook friend: ‘Haven’t decided what to with the money yetSo unexpected! Perhaps a cruise?’ 

See! My Bill’s always saying, ‘Stop trunking, Liz,’ but that’s when I’m peering through the nets. And if sisters can’t gossip together, who can? But this is different. Bill and I promised we’d go on a cruise when Father passed, but he’s still too blinking healthy! 

Then, to add insult to injury, another post: I’m going to plant a tree for Edward. I’m so grateful. An uncle I never knew I had!’ 

Who the blazes is Uncle Edward? And Sally is going to benefit from Father’s Will as well? Cheek, I say. Sally’s had her pay out, but we’re still waiting! 

It’s keeping me awake at night and I’m back on the Andrews Liver salts and whenever I see an advert on the tele for cruises, I feel so achingly sad that I weep for warm Atlantic air, sea as blue as a mackerel skin, the comforting churn of engines – weep, because I’m still marooned in Bognor Regis!!! 

*    *    * 

Heavens… Sally’s sent me a post: Going to book a cruise, Sis. I want to repay the many kindnesses you’ve shown me, so I’m offering to pay for you to join me…  

Highly Commended: Where’s George? by Rob Stuart

Again, another gothic theme in this letter, this time with more of a Sweeney Todd motif. It had that Austen flight of fancy – though hers was related to imagining love affairs between improbable partners rather than novel ways of disposal.  

Dear Harriet,

Funny you should ask about George and Mary. I bumped into her the other day at the Food Bank where I volunteer two days a week. She was dropping off a great bundle of fresh sausages. You remember, her son gave her that sausage maker for Christmas. Alan, that is. Not Peter. He’s moved to Kazakhstan. Something about a problem with the tax people.

I haven’t seen him for ages. George, that is, not Peter. Mind you, he doesn’t come out much. Just stays at home and lets her run around after him. Between you and me and the bedpost, I think he’s usually three sheets to the wind by lunchtime. Never does a tap. Makes her run around after him, wait on him hand and foot.

She seems to be doing up the garden, digging up part of the lawn. I suppose she laying down a patio. He won’t help her, lazy bugger. My friend Joyce saw her in B&Q the other day, in the tool section. She was buying an axe. Funny thing is, there are no trees or bushes in her garden. Maybe she’ll plant some to go with the new patio.

She gave me a couple of pounds (in old money!) of her sausages which I cooked for our tea. I must say, she made a really good job of them. Henry ate four of them straight off and you know what he’s like with his food. She said she was off to drop some off at the care home, too. What is she like? An angel, that’s what. Bless.

Will I be seeing you over Christmas? I might have some of her bangers left!

Love

Jenny

Highly Commended: The Bengal Tiger by Sam Christie

This one made me think of Christmas, and of receiving gifts not quite the one on your Christmas list – Giles was brave, if potentially foolhardy in addressing his concerns, in Austen novels ungrateful sons, or those perceived as ungrateful, often find themselves cut out of the will of offended parents.

Dear Father, 

I write on a delicate matter. It is connected to the Bengal tiger skin (and partial head) that you entrusted to my care. I do recognise that it is something of a family heirloom, however this is 2021 and not 1946 and change is in the air. 

I would also point out that I did not shoot it and that I do not really approve of its demise. Now I do understand that Great Uncle Reggie saved you and your sister’s lives by his actions, which I still cannot fully believe since his hands didn’t stop shaking until after ‘tiffin’, but due to his choice of firearm, the skin itself has never been particularly pleasing. I find it hangs lazily and due to the quantity of holes looks a little like a furry colander with stripes. 

Generally, and as far as I understand such matters, it is customary to use a rifle in big game circles; but Reggie used a Bren Gun. As usual our family managed a first, but I feel this may be a first we might be tempted to forget.  

Of course the thing looks ridiculous in my bedsit and only the other day I managed to scare off a wonderful girl I had been courting as she also happened to be a vegetarian and a rather keen environmentalist. The thing looms. 

Mr Xi assures me that there will be little to no paperwork and has arranged to meet me under the A56 flyover near Little Sodbury tomorrow. Father, it is you that lives in the Cotswolds; I am a writer on Universal Credit. Mr Xi has offered me £10,000 and that is therefore that. 

I am relentlessly your son, 

Giles 

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