Steve O’Connor: A New Story

Austen Mania

Stephen O’Connor

Originally a Lowell Sunrise essay for the one-time UMass Lowell morning news and public affairs program at WUML-FM. The author would add that in rereading it he remembered the kindness of the late Christine Dunlap, a lovely woman, who encouraged him to write for Lowell Sunrise.

My wife is fond of costume dramas of the British variety. There’s nothing she enjoys more, on a rainy Saturday, than to get cozy and watch for the thousandth time, Mr. Darcy’s attempts to win the affections of Miss Bennett. She holds her breath as the lady sternly rejects Darcy’s proposal. She reaches for the tissue box when, Miss Bennet, having learned that she had misunderstood certain reports, finally tells the lovelorn aristocrat, “My feelings are so different from what they were.”

I won’t catalogue them, but my wife enjoys any drama in which British men wear coats and tails and British women wear evening gowns and enormous hats. One thing that became a source of irritation for me is that every time we watch one of these dramas, my wife at some point says, “Oh, I love the way they talk. How come you can’t talk that way?”

After careful meditation on the subject, I thought, why deny my wife the one thing that would apparently make her happy. What sort of husband would do such a thing?  If celebrities can reinvent themselves, why can’t the rest of us?  Consequently, you may refer to me as the gentleman formerly known as Stephen O’Connor. I’ve decided to reinvent myself as Sir Lionel Sanders of Ashwood Place. Why not?   First, I had to put aside the inherited familial prejudice produced by 800 years of feuding with the British, but dash it, that’s all in the pahst. Secondly, to be a true English gentleman, at some point I will need a great deal of money, without actually condescending to work, or to disgrace myself with any fumbling in the greasy till. “I shall meditate on that while I drain a glass of Pomeray,” I told myself, and so I did.

However, I was eager for my reinvention. When I woke up Saturday last, I turned to my wife and said, “Good morning, Darling.”  I wanted to ring for my manservant and order tea and toast with marmalade, and the morning paper, but the domestics all seemed to be on holiday. You know what they say about good help. I took matters into my own hands, telling my betrothed, “I shall descend presently, and it would give me great pleasure to return with a tray. Pray, stay where you are. I should be happy to accommodate you.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, “Mr…what shall I call you?”

“Why my name, Madam, which is Lionel Sanders of Ashwood Place.”

Things were going rather smoothly. In fact, when I returned with toast and marmalade and a pot of Earl Gray, Lady Sanders, was wearing an absolutely devilish smile. Knowing the sensitivity of the listener, Sir Lionel will draw a curtain over the ensuing scene. Later, however, I decided it was time to read my correspondences. I didn’t have any correspondences, as it turned out, so I thought I should tour my grounds. Sadly, that activity was curtailed by the sudden appearance of a paved road fifteen feet from my front door. What else could I legitimately do as a gentleman? I could contact my solicitor to inquire after the progress of certain business interests in town. Damnably inconvenient for a fellow, but I have no solicitor and no business interests in town.

I called for a carriage, but, however, when none appeared, I walked to The Windsor Shoppe to purchase the morning papers. I couldn’t find The Times or The Observer or even The Tattler. I was forced to purchase a local periodical called The Lowell Sun, and I can tell you I was deucedly disappointed because there was no news whatsoever about the queen, or goings on at court, nor any humorous depictions of the Irish. The clerk inquired after my health in the quaint manner of you Lowellians. Of course, I’m incapable of duplicating the precise articulation, but it was something like, “Haza goin?”

“Exceedingly well,” I said. “I thank you for your kind solicitude, my good man.”

“Hey, are you a limey?” he asked.

“I am a peer of the realm,” I responded curtly, and gave him such a look that he understood that another damned impertinence would result in a sharp crack from my riding crop, with which I struck my leather booted calf by means of a shot across his bow.

I’m not given to violence, but as a gentleman I am studying the art of fencing under the Italian master Umberto Cavagiolo, and I am always ready to meet any opponent on the field so long as the matter in question is an affair of honor. Indeed, when I leave the house—the house—now there is a sordid sort of nomenclature for one’s abode. I will no longer refer to my dwelling as the house. It is Essex Stairs. When I leave Essex Stairs in the morning now, I invariably kiss Lady Sanders and remind her, as if she did not already know, that “I could not love thee so much my dear, loved I not honor more.”  She bids me hasten my return, for how like a winter is my absence and that sort of thing.

We are planning a hunting party for Michaelmas. We will be wearing our red jackets, oh, do join us if you can. Since my grounds are devoid of any worthwhile game, and since horses have been banished from Lowell, we will skip the actual fox hunt, which is of little consequence. But we will adjourn to the drawing room at Essex Stairs for cucumber sandwiches and punch and Lady Sanders will play the piano forte and sing, “O Let Me Not Die of Love.”

All the best people will be in attendance, and the conversation will be instructive. You needn’t fret about any unpleasant encounters with vulgar persons. Colonel Cavendish, a most amiable if somewhat bibulous officer of the King’s Own Fusiliers, will regale us with tales from some outpost of the Empire, and Sir Robert Ellis, Esquire, of The Royal Academy, will present a travelogue and slide show entitled “A Tour of the Mysterious Kingdom of Cathay.”

I hear you even now, bemoaning your exclusion because you don’t enjoy an independent income, or possess a vermillion jacket, or you haven’t had the leisure to spend hours with a dancing master perfecting the Cotillion, or your parents owned a shop. Let me assure you that the only prerequisite for an invitation to dine at Essex Stairs with Lady Sanders and myself is that you have watched enough Masterpiece Theater, or read enough Jane Austin, or spent sufficient time in the company of those characters who always speak in perfect sentences, that your brain has become addled. You now secretly long for Britishness, and you feel more comfortable in the secure, orderly and predictable world of Regency Literature than you do in the messy, uncultivated, and pathetically democratic world we inhabit.

Confound it, here I am rambling on and it’s gone past high tea! Please accept my best wishes and allow me to bid you a good day, and we’ll see you round the Stairs, shall we?


One Response to Steve O’Connor: A New Story

  1. David Daniel says:

    A blast from the pahst…! Great to read this rewind of a Steve O’Connor radio essay. I hope this will be the first of many from Steve and others who were part of that all-too-brief magic when Sunrise Radio rode the airwaves.

    Several years back I ran into Marty Meehan at funeral home visiting hours for the late great Christine Dunlap (RIP), one of the founding minds of Sunrise (along with such other worthies as Henri Marchand, Bob Ellis, and support from Dennis Shaughnessey, Perry Persoff, et al; who’m I leaving out?). I told Marty how much I’d enjoyed Sunrise, and he gushed over it too, said it was an example of intelligent programing, etc. etc. I wanted to ask: “Then why did you ax it?”

    Anyway, thank you, Steve, for the mem’ry.