Lizzie Siddal pushed her needle through the stiff satin of a black bonnet, attached the last piece of rose trimming, and tied off the thread with an expert knot. Putting the bonnet aside, she slipped the thimble from her finger and shifted on the hard bench. She longed to stretch, but she sat shoulder to shoulder with a dozen other girls. The custom in London's millinery shops was that the girls must stay in place until their shift was finished, and Lizzie had no wish to risk the anger of the head milliner.
The workroom of the Cranbourne Alley shop was small and cramped, with a long table and a single window at the far end. The shelves that lined the walls held the materials of their trade: rolls of muslin, silk, and satin; lengths of wire and pasteboard; and baskets of feathers, spangles, and silk flowers. Behind a door was the front of the shop, where the bonnets were displayed on glass counters.
At this late hour the shop was closed, and the milliners worked by candlelight, rushing to finish the orders for the next day. Evening had come and gone, and the chatter that animated the girls at midday was now only a murmur. They stared at their work with tired eyes, trying their best to look industrious even as they grimaced at each movement of their swollen fingers.
Lizzie paused for a moment before taking up her next bonnet, thinking that there was no point in rushing if she was going to be there all night. She startled guiltily at the touch of a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see the commanding form of the head milliner, Mrs. Tozer, behind her.
But Mrs. Tozer didn't look angry. “Miss Siddal,” she said, “you may go. And mind you go straight home. I expect the shop to be busy tomorrow, and I need you looking fresh. You'll be working in the front, behind the counter.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Lizzie said, relieved that she was being let out early and not reprimanded for idleness. She gathered up her toolsâbrightly colored spools of thread, a jumble of needles and pinsâand placed them on her tray. As she tidied her space, a few girls gave her a nod and a smile, but there was no good-natured joking or gaily called goodnights, as there would have been for another girl.
Though she tried her best to be friendly, Lizzie wasn't close with the other milliners. Most were country girls who came up to London to find work. Lizzie, born and raised in the city, couldn't help but think them simple and occasionally crude. They, in turn, laughed at her careful manners, which they found pretentious, and whispered about her, asking why a girl with such a fine accent should have to work as they did. They didn't know that her elegant deportment was nothing more than a relic of her family's better days, and that she was now as dependent upon her wages as any of them.
Lizzie's looks also garnered undue and unwelcome notice from the other girls. She was tall for a woman, and at nineteen she stood as tall as many men. But though this might have made her awkward, she carried herself with a graceful gait, and she was often called striking, though rarely pretty. Her skin was pale, and she had large gray eyes with heavy lids. But her most remarkable feature was her thick red hair, which glinted gold in the light and tumbled down her back in loose curls when it wasn't tied up for work. The shopgirls, like many of their class, considered red hair bad luckâa sign of witchcraft and a bad omen for the shop.
Lizzie picked up her bonnet and cloak and slipped from the room. Behind her, she heard someone do a decent imitation of Mrs. Tozer's high, fluttering voice: “Miss Siddal needs 'er beauty sleep! Make sure Miss Siddal 'as a cushion for her feet!” The other girls dissolved into giggles, but Lizzie pretended not to hear them.
She opened the shop door, and the empty street rang with the sound of their girlish laughter. Stepping under the street lamp, her hair glowed like copper for one moment before she placed her bonnet firmly on her head and extinguished its flame. She had no wish to attract attention. She wrapped her cloak around her shoulders and stepped out into the night, merging into its shadows.
The January air was cold and clearâa welcome change from the stuffiness of the workshop. The great bustle of commerce that daily descended upon Cranbourne Alley, pushing and hollering its way through the narrow passage, had long ago dispersed for more comfortable quarters, and a heavy rain had swept the street clean of its rubbish, leaving only puddles of yellow light beneath the gaslights. A single carriage raced down the street, and the clatter of horses' hooves echoed from the fronts of the closed-up shops. In the distance, the bells of St. Martin's began to ring. The sound of the chimes skipped across the rooftops, marking the hour as nine o'clock.
She was halfway down the street when she heard the door open again and a girl cry out, “Wait up, Lizzie!”
She turned to see Jeannie Evans hurrying to her side, her cloak half on and her blond curls bouncing. Like Lizzie, Jeannie was often picked for one of the coveted positions in the front of the shop.
Jeannie fell into step with Lizzie, and together they set off into the twisted web of alleys that made up the commercial quarter of Leicester Square. As they walked, the streets gradually widened and then spilled into the bustling stretch of the Strand. In Cranbourne Alley, the only signs of life at this hour were concealed behind the closed doors of the workshops. But the Strand was lively under the lights of cafÃ©s and theaters. Restaurants threw their windows open, beckoning the passersby with the savory scent of meat pies and the sweet aroma of fresh apple fritters. The shows were just letting out, and the sidewalks filled with people, the men in top hats and spats, and the women in crisp satins and furs. The well-to-do crowd attracted a swarm of beggars, flower-sellers, and buskers, and Lizzie and Jeannie were forced to step off the sidewalk and into the muck of the curb to get around them.
They hurried past the theater crowds and struck east toward Fleet Street. An icy wind blew in off the Thames, and Jeannie winced as she pulled her gloves onto her tender hands. “That shop
be the death of me,” she said. “I never stopped sewing for ten minutes altogether, and I'm still behind on my orders. Eight bonnets done, frame to ribbons, and still Mrs. Tozer was fit to be tied. I thought the old devil might have me there all night! And it's bound to get worseâthe Season ain't even started yet!”
“She was very cross today,” Lizzie said. “But what choice does she have? We're behind on the orders and there's two girls fallen ill.”
Jeannie giggled and looked at Lizzie with surprise. “Ill? You
an odd duck, aren't you? Didn't you hear the talk in the shop today?”
“Has anyone said anything worth hearing? Or worth repeating?”
Jeannie rolled her eyes. “Well, even you will want to hear this, I expect. Bess Bailey ain't ill at all. In fact she was in fine health when I saw her in the alley just last night. Someone had clapped a brand new silk gown on her back, and it was cut as low as you please.” Jeannie made a clownish curtsy and flashed Lizzie a knowing smile, but Lizzie stared back at her blankly. Jeannie shook her head and said, as if she were explaining something to a child, “She was on the arm of a young swell, and he looked
satisfied with her indeed.”
Lizzie drew in her breath. “Really, Jeannie, you shouldn't spread such rumors!”
“Well, I'm sorry if I've shocked you,” Jeannie sniffed. “But really, you can't be surprised! You must've heard her father's been out of work, and with her brother passed away last spring, the family can't be too particular about where the money comes from. There's a quick profit to be made in the street, and God knows we work hard enough at Mrs. Tozer's for the pittance we bring home.”
Lizzie slipped her hand into her pocket and felt the small weight of her week's wages. She would have to turn them over to her mother as soon as she got home. “Then I'm very sorry for her, that her family has sunk so low. She deserves our pity, Jeannie. What will become of her?”
“Aye, it's no easy thing,” Jeannie agreed, her tone softer now. “I wouldn't trade places with Bess Bailey for ten new silk dresses, even with the long hours at Mrs. Tozer's. But really, d'you think we're any better off? There's no fortune to be made in Cranbourne Alley, not for the likes of us. Not in the shops or on the street.”
Lizzie nodded, knowing that her own family was not immune from such misfortune, despite their tenuous pretensions to the middle class. One piece of ill luck, and the worn thread that kept them moored to the shores of decent society could snap, leaving her adrift in the dark London night with no hope for rescue. “But I would never let that happen to me,” Lizzie cried, as if to banish the possibility. “She'll have no chance at marriage now. What man would have her?”
“Half the girls in the shop are married and it ain't saved them from hard work.”
“Then they've made foolish matches,” Lizzie said, knowing even as she said it that many of the girls had no real hope for anything better. “But I won't be working at Mrs. Tozer's forever.”
“No? And what will you do, then?” Jeannie asked.
Lizzie glanced at Jeannie, wondering if she should speak freely with her. She usually kept her thoughts to herself, not wanting to give the shopgirls any more reason to laugh at her. But the news of Bess Bailey's hard luck made her bold. “Perhaps I'll marry well. And when I do, the only time that you'll see me at Mrs. Tozer's Millinery will be when I come in to order my new bonnetsâonce in the spring and once in the fall.”
“And if you don't meet a fine gentleman?”
“Then I suppose I'll have to make my own way. I haven't got the proper education to be a governess, though I'm sure I've read more books than half the girls who pass for accomplished in the great houses. But I won't die an old maid hunched over Mrs. Tozer's worktable. It's too dreary to even think of.”
Jeannie laughed. “You've pinned your hopes very high! But I wish you luck. Anything to get out of that workroom. You can't feed a cat on the wages.”
“And it's so tedious,” Lizzie said. “To wait on all those fine ladies and never have anything nice for ourselves. But never mind, Jeannie, surely things can only get better.”
Jeannie nodded, and they walked on in silence, each entertaining well-worn daydreams. But something Jeannie said tugged at Lizzie's memory. “Surely Louisa hasn't taken to the streets as well?” Lizzie asked, thinking of the other assistant who had been out.
“No, no, not Louisa,” Jeannie said, serious now. “It's her eyes. The strain . . .” She trailed off. Every milliner and seamstress in the city knew that the detailed work, often done by candlelight, was hard on her sight. They had all heard the stories of girls who went blind from it.
“Might she recover?”
Jeannie shook her head. “I heard today that Mrs. Tozer sent a present of extra wages round to her family. That usually means that a girl ain't coming back.” She turned to give Lizzie another quizzical look. “You must have your head in the cloudsâthe talk in the shop was of little else! What
you think of all day?”
Lizzie fought a rising wave of panic. She quickened her step, as if she could feel, lapping at her heels, the same ill tide of poverty that had dragged the other girls under. She turned to Jeannie, a fierce expression on her face. “What do I think of all day?” she asked, no longer caring if Jeannie thought her ridiculous. “Why, I think of poems and stories: the Knights of the Round Table and the ladies of the court; the moors of the countryside and the finest drawing rooms of the city. I dream myself among them, away from all this . . .”
She waved her hand to indicate the street around them, the many girls just like themselves who were trudging home from factories and shops to boardinghouses and tenements. Then she looked at Jeannie and saw on her face the beginnings of a grin, as if Lizzie had made some sort of joke.
Lizzie sighed. It wasn't fair to expect a girl like Jeannie, whose education had consisted of little more than her letters and numbers, to understand. The other shopgirls hadn't read the books that Lizzie had; they couldn't imagine a world beyond the crowded alleys of Leicester Square.
“Poems?” Jeannie finally asked. “Well, don't tell any of the other girls. They already think you're strange. You're lucky that you're a favorite with Mrs. Tozer, you know, so they leave you alone.”
Lizzie bristled. “I don't think that I'm better than them, if that's what they think.” But to herself she thought: not better, perhaps, but certainly different.
“Don't be prickly. They're just jealous that Mrs. Tozer lets you work in the front of the shop, while they're stuck in the back, filling the orders.”
“I can't help it, you know that.” The fact was that Mrs. Tozer liked the more elegant girls up front, and Lizzie, though lacking Jeannie's flaxen curls and pink cheeks, had a face that wasn't easily forgotten.
“It wouldn't hurt to join in more,” Jeannie said. “They do think you're an awful snob. But of course if you're too busy thinking of
. . .”
Jeannie giggled at her joke, and Lizzie blushed. But before she could make a retort, they were nearly knocked into the curb by three little girls skipping by them in the street. The girls held bouquets of wheat and flowers, and they chanted a song in high voices as they headed toward the church of St. Clement:
“Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair, hither, hither, now repair; bonny Agnes, let me see, the lad who is to marry me.”
“There you go, Lizzie!” Jeannie cried. “It's St. Agnes' Eve. The night for virgins to dream of their husbands.” She smiled suggestively at Lizzie, and Lizzie blushed again. Together they watched the girls toss their flowers onto the white stone steps of the church, and then clasp their hands together in an earnest prayer.