Authors: Veronica Bennett
To my father
BLOOD AND WATER
ane was crying. She snorted and sniffed, unable to wipe away the tears because both her hands were entangled in my corset-strings. The thin, unbreakable strings had sliced through the tender skin of her finger joints. Her blood was staining them reddish-brown.
“What will Papa say?” she wailed.
“Pull harder, you donkey!”
The corset was crushing my ribcage. I kicked my step–sister’s ankle. She pulled harder. Breathless, I nodded encouragement. A curl paper fell out of my hair and fluttered to the carpet.
Controlling her tears, Jane stood back. “There.” She paused to sniff. “But Papa will be so angry! I cannot imagine what he will say.”
can.” It was hard to breathe under such restriction, but I thickened my voice and wrinkled my eyebrows in imitation of my father. “‘My dear child, anyone who inflicts such violence on their person is truly fashion’s slave. You are a prisoner of vanity. I am much aggrieved.’”
I turned this way and that, admiring the effect of the corset on my body. My stomach was so flat it was almost concave. The whalebone had pushed my breasts, which were not very significant under ordinary circumstances, onto a sort of plateau, where they lay like jelly arranged on a plate.
“Do not forget,” I reminded Jane, “I am quite safe from public disgrace, since Papa cannot say anything in front of his guests.”
She had almost stopped crying, and was wiping her nose. “Why not?”
“Because, you innocent thing, he is a
.” Hoping to amuse her, I struck a pose like a Greek goddess carrying an invisible urn on her head. “A new thinker, a philosopher unrivalled by the ancients. How can he
be considered old-fashioned?”
“Oh, stuff.” Jane sucked her bloodied fingers wearily. “Your clever talk fails to impress me. You know you will have to endure Mama’s scolding, and I will have to defend you, as usual.”
“Jane…” Impatiently I turned round. As we faced each other in the candlelight Jane’s troubled face looked like a yellow, shadowed moon. “Jane, dear, think of it as a
. Play-acting, a treasure hunt, what you will. Now, do you want to join in or not?”
My stepsister’s fanciful nature was never oppressed for long. She dropped a maid’s curtsy, her finger in the corner of her mouth. “Yes, Miss Mary. If you please, miss, what are my orders?”
I spoke in my lightest, most elegant voice – the voice I would use during the drawing-room farce which awaited us downstairs. “Watch me and do as I do. Flirt. Laugh at all their jokes. Allow your profile to be seen in silhouette, with the firelight behind you, but protect your face from its heat with your fan. Make sure your stockings are showing when you sit down.” I turned back to the mirror. “If Papa insists on the attendance of his daughters at this infernal gathering of lechers and pontificators –”
of his daughters,” interrupted Jane. “Fanny is not expected.”
“Fanny does not count. But if you and I must be shown off like circus freaks, the least we can do is have some sport with the gentlemen, if that is what they are.”
Jane and I were both sixteen. As I watched her widen her innocent, already wide eyes, I reflected that no one, whatever they might say about my own appearance, would ever include innocence in the description. My face was thin, with a rather more obvious nose than I would have liked. When people noticed my eyes it was not only to admire them, though I well knew how beautiful they were, but also to comment on the maturity of their expression.
, I had once overheard a lady guest say when I was a ten-year-old being paraded as after-supper entertainment.
She will make her mark, that child
“Poor Fanny,” observed Jane, with mischief, not sympathy, in her voice. “She is to have no sport!”
Her curls bobbed around her smooth, well-made face. She and her brother Charles had the kind of luxurious good looks that people remarked on with admiration, much to Jane’s satisfaction. But a consolation to my own vanity was Fanny, my half-sister. When my father had married my mother, he had taken in her little daughter Fanny and treated the child as his own. But after our mother had died giving birth to me, and Papa had married the mother of Jane and Charles, Fanny began to seem like an outsider, with little connection to anyone else in the house. Quieter than Jane and me, with a melancholy disposition, her inelegantly arranged features provided me with a daily reminder of my own good fortune. My loyalty to my half-sister was secure, but a shared mother could not make me admire Fanny’s looks the way I admired Jane’s.
“Jane, you really should try to find some affection in your heart for Fanny,” I told her. “Now fetch my gown. Without getting blood on it, if you please.”
Jane and I had been stepsisters so long that neither of us could remember a time without the other. But the bond between us was based more on familiarity than on spontaneous feeling. Indeed, I sometimes wondered if I was capable of true love for either of my sisters. Perhaps it is not possible for sisters who are competitors for the affection of a beloved father to find any affection left over for each other. And however close Jane and I were, I could never forgive her mother for her invasion of the place in Papa’s heart which my own clever, sad mama had occupied.
The gown Jane held out was made of white muslin. It had an underskirt, also of muslin, decorated at the bottom, where it showed under the gown, with a simple scrolling of looped ribbon hastily sewn on by Fanny, the only needlewoman among us, the previous afternoon. Its sleeves were short, barely covering my shoulders. My bosom nestled in the deeply cut, high-waisted bodice as if it had been fashioned by a master sculptor.
I looked at my reflection. Charming. Desirable. Even with my hair, bright as silk, still in papers.
“And now, Jane – the bucket.”
“Oh…” she began uncertainly.
, or the water will be cold!”
She lifted the bucket of water which stood in the corner. It was heavy. “My fingers hurt,” she complained, hauling the bucket across the room to where I stood barefoot in the largest basin we had been able to smuggle out of the kitchen.
“I don’t care a straw about your fingers or any other part of your ignorant carcass,” I told her. “Go on, do it. I am ready.”
I put my hands over my hair and closed my eyes tightly, bracing myself. Huffing and puffing, Jane stood on a chair. As she tipped the bucket, the water ran over my shoulders and down my back and chest and legs, splashing into the basin. Gasping, stifling screams behind my clenched teeth, I bore the soaking. I did not want my stepmother, who had not yet discovered that we had sent the maid away and locked the door, bustling towards the source of the noise.
The looking-glass reflected exactly what I wanted to see. The soaked gown clung to my body like skin. Better still, it had made both the dress and the chemise I wore under the corset almost transparent. Grinning with satisfaction, I picked up my fan and spread it. “Quick, my hair. I must get downstairs before the gown dries. Quick, quick!”
Her fingers trembling, Jane began to take the papers out of my hair. “Lord, how you shiver! And the drawing-room is so draughty. What can you be thinking of?”
“I am thinking of my father’s favour,” I told her truthfully. “Making him attend to
, not to … anyone else.” I could not admit that I meant her unlovable mother. “And if a wet dress is good enough for the ladies of the French court, it is good enough for me.”
“There!” Jane let the last curl spring back from her finger. She looked at me over her fan. She was at her most appealing, in her evening dress with the light falling on her jewellery and her jewel-like dark eyes. “Oh, Mary, have you considered that tonight might be … you know … the night?” she asked in a rapturous whisper. “The night when we find the love of a true gentleman, who desires us above all others, and is prepared to declare his passion?”
“If so, he had better be of a strong constitution,” I declared, picking up my train. “Our passion may well be greater than his!”
“Perhaps he will be a poet,” she suggested, taking my arm. “And you know how passionate
“To be sure,” I agreed, “a poet is the only acceptable sort of lover these days.”
Jane and I had often discussed the possibility of falling in love with a poet. If poetry was any measure of a man, we had observed, everything we longed for in a lover – romance, desire, spirit, soul – was clearly contained in it.
Excited but wary, we stepped onto the landing. Jane gripped my arm with more force. “Oh, Mary!” she breathed. “If only a poet could fall in love with me, or even
Frivolous words, but prophetic ones. And prophetic words revisit us, in and out of our dreams.
RICHES AND RUIN
y father was not rich or noble, but he was an influential writer, and so had my mother been. Although I was only sixteen, I was determined to follow the ideals of freedom set out in my parents’ work. Freedom for women! Freedom for slaves! Freedom from marriage! These things seemed to me right and joyous and true, and from the moment I had been old enough to understand them I had resolved to adopt them as principles for my own life.
It was scarcely credible, then, that my dear father could have taken for his second wife a woman so different in her outlook.
“It’s disgusting,” said my stepmother peevishly. “Respectable young women do not display themselves in public half naked.”
She and Jane and I were in the drawing-room, after the guests had gone. My father, who considered the chastisement of daughters women’s work, had retired to bed. I was tired and miserable: tonight had
been “the night”. My prediction of a roomful of lechers and pontificators had proved uncomfortably accurate, and the wet dress had proved uncomfortably cold. I was silent.
dress!” she persisted. “Do you think you are the Emperor’s mistress? Or an actress? Or – may God forgive me – something lower even than an actress, that you shame your family so? That
Low though my spirits were, I rushed to defend myself. “Mama, it is precisely
I am young, and respectable, that I can wear the height of fashion. I want people to notice me. Are you not forever reminding Jane and me that we must attract rich husbands since Papa can give us no fortune? But I want some gaiety in my life before I am married.”
“Gaiety! Then it was merely to amuse yourself that you embarrassed your father, shamed me, set the servants tittle-tattling and—”
“Enchanted the entire room?”
She was silenced. The three of us sat there, not quite glaring at each other, while she collected herself. It did not take long.
“It is true that you must marry men with money,” she said. The flesh on her neck quivered as she spoke. She had been as attractive as Jane when she was young, but had turned into a too-ample middle-aged woman, with rouged cheeks and girlish clothes. “But you will not attract wealth if you behave like a harlot. Respectable men want respectable wives!”
Jane could no longer contain herself. Secure of her position as the indulged daughter of a vain woman, she was even more careless of her mother’s authority than I.
“Why should we care about wealth?” she asked. “Is not a gentleman a gentleman because of his qualities, even if he has no fortune? Might we not earn our own living, as men do?”
Her mother shook her head in vexation. “Jane, I will not have you repeating these dangerous ideas. Earn your own living? Piffle!”
Under the table, Jane pressed my foot with hers. The message meant, “Go on, Mary, deliver the final blow”.
“But, Mama,” I said sweetly, “surely these are principles which Papa himself believes in?”
Mama was annoyed, but powerless. She opened the fan she had been twisting in her hands and shut it again with a whipcrack. “You do not understand what you are saying, child,” she said to Jane. Then she turned her small eyes, as dark as Jane’s but devoid of innocence, on me. “And as for you, my pretty miss, you had better remember that no good ever came of impertinence.”