In Bauman's overwrought debut, 1890s Bostonian Ada Pryce longs to escape the restrictions of a sexually frustrating, socially constricting marriage with tyrannical Edward, a gentleman hobbyist. Though he is an advocate of "Karezza" (spiritual purity through sexual deprivation), Edward can't suppress Ada's physical desire, first unleashed in a premarital affair with her college Shakespeare professor, nor can he rein in her intellectual tendencies, encouraged by friends but frowned upon by Ada's Boston society matron mother. When Edward brings home a trio of orchid huntersWilliam Parrish, Walter Kebble and Jao da Cunhaopportunity for an Amazonian adventure knocks at Ada's door. Bauman's spirited heroine, range of settings and intimate knowledge of turn-of-the-century society impress, but they get smothered in descriptions of sexual dissatisfaction and rhapsodies on the erotic beauty of exotic plants. The overripe language may be meant to dramatize Ada's unrequited passions, but the humidity makes for more squish than swoon. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Disorder of Longingby Natasha Bauman
By Boston standards of the 1890’s, Ada is not a good wife. Strong-willed and
When her husband arrives home carrying a crate of colorful orchids, Ada Caswell Pryce thinks he is bringing her a gift, a peace offering during an unhappy time in their marriage; little does she know how much these strange looking flowers are going to change her life.
By Boston standards of the 1890’s, Ada is not a good wife. Strong-willed and beautiful, she longs for the days at university when she was free to be herself. Her husband Edward is intent on curbing her wild behavior, but she thwarts him at every turn -- she drinks wine with the housekeepers, gives feminist books to her maid, and sneaks out for midnight horseback rides along the Charles River.
To treat Ada’s “hysteria,” Edward restricts her daily activities and her relationships, then carefully choreographs her sexuality. Unable to bear another day of her stultifying and demeaning existence, Ada secretly plots ways to leave. Ultimately, it is her husband’s all-consuming passion for collecting rare orchids that provides Ada with a daring opportunity for escape.
Once free, Ada’s lust for adventure takes her through the dangerous slums of New York, across the high seas of the Atlantic, and finally deep into the lush jungles of Brazil.
Ada Pryce is trapped. A university-educated woman with feminist ideals, she has come to find herself living the kind of life she never wanted. Married to an oppressive brute and trying to fit in among the elite of late 19th-century Boston society, Ada is caught in an increasingly impossible battle against her own true nature. Ultimately losing in her struggle, Ada runs off and joins the orchid hunters her husband relies upon to populate his rare flower collection. But Ada finds more than just the adventure and freedom she so craved in the jungles of Brazil-danger, illness, and deception follow close behind. Despite some moments that require suspension of disbelief, Bauman is off to a promising start with this debut. An engrossing blend of female self-discovery and grand adventure that is reminiscent of both Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, her novel is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Book clubs, especially, will find much to discuss here. Recommended for all fiction collections.
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Table of Contents
The STATE of the ATMOSPHERE
ETHICS of MARRIAGE
TERRESTRIALS and EPIPHYTALS
The THOUSAND EYES
I’LL TAKE YOU HOME AGAIN
USE and DISUSE of PARTS
The SECRET WORLD of MEN
A FROZEN QUEEN
AFTER the PLAY
The WORLD of MATTER
The ERRATIC WOMB
MORTIFICATION and DISHABILLE
The NEW MAN
WRITTEN in WATER
The BAY of ALL SAINTS
The QUALITY of the MOON
The REVEALED ORIXA
The RETURN to AWAY
A NOTE ON TYPE
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The disorder of longing : a novel / Natasha Bauman.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01496-7
1. Boston (Mass.)—History—19th century—Fiction. 2. Brazil—Fiction.
3. Self-realization—Fiction. 4. Sex—Religious aspects—Tantrism—Fiction. I.Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies,
events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the
time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes
that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any
responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For my mother, Doreen Bauman
And in memory of my father, James Bauman,
and my aunt, Lorrie Tussman
A hysterical woman is a pitiful and unfortunate object . . . capricious in character, whimsical in conduct, excitable, impatient, obstinate, and frivolous—a regular Gordian knot for friends and physicians to unravel. She possesses a most variable and imaginative disposition, which, in spite of all that can be done, keeps her in a continued whirl of excitement from morning until night.
The STATE of the ATMOSPHERE
It was officially spring, yet the sun had been stingy, staying hidden away for weeks. On this morning, though, a sudden change in the weather woke Ada Pryce from a sound sleep. She rose from her bed and leaned out the window, allowing the sun to tickle her face and neck. Her room felt dank and close in contrast to the outdoors. The urgent need to be outside in the thick of this ripping day overtook her, so she pulled a cornflower blue wool walking suit from her armoire and dressed hurriedly, taking little care as she pinned her thick copper hair under a feathered hat.
It was the sun’s fault, she told herself, the sun was the reason she was about to commit an unforgivable offense.
Mercifully, none of the house staff saw her as she made her way quietly down the front stairs, through the long hallway, across the octagonal foyer, and out the door. The three-story stone house cast a long shadow, preventing the sun from touching her. Her skirts snapped against her boots as she walked over the brick sidewalk along Marlborough, then stepped onto the cobblestone street, where at last she felt the full warmth of the morning sun. Once she stood in its glow, she found it impossible to turn back to the house. She crossed the street quickly, almost leaping over the horse droppings that had not yet been picked up by the men hired to keep her street clean, and headed toward Commonwealth Avenue. On reaching the Avenue Mall, she turned left toward the Public Gardens. It was a Thursday morning, and the streets of Boston were busy with carriages, horses, vendors, and men hurrying on foot to their workplaces. Ada was energized by the activity, so that her feet moved in a merry tempo, her heels clicking against the bricks in a tapping rhythm that pleased her. At the entrance to the Gardens, she felt the tension in her shoulders dissipate. She stifled the urge to laugh out loud. She had made her escape.
Governesses were already out with their tiny charges; they gathered forces with other governesses, their hordes of children forming large circles of ecstatic play around the pond, while the women watched and gossiped. A few younger men walked quickly through the park, headed somewhere, while older men strolled with one another, meeting to discuss their past accomplishments, no doubt. Then there were other men, of all ages, who seemed to be in the park because they had no purpose, nothing more important to do with their day. In spite of the perfect weather, many of these people looked forlorn.
Ada sat on an empty bench. At first she held her back straight, but soon her spine settled against the bench, relaxing into the support it offered her. The purposeless and shabby few who walked past were the ones who drew her eye. As she watched them, she tried to imagine what their lives might be. Were they alone in the world, living in a small room, at times going hungry? Had some horrible tragedy brought them so low, were they drug fiends or had they committed some other awful offense?
Suddenly, a blister of activity erupted behind her. Turning her body to face the back of the bench, she saw a group of cyclists coming along the dirt path. As they pulled closer, their bloomers and knickerbockers came into focus. It was a band of women, laughing excitedly as they gained speed on the downside of a slight hill, their tires crunching across the dirt. The governesses pulled the children in close, moving them away from the possible threat the wild riders posed. The governesses’ bonneted heads tilted as they whispered behind the fingers of their gloved hands, surely appalled by these probable suffragists. What other sort of woman would get dressed up in such unfeminine vestment and dare to part her legs in order to straddle the seat of a bicycle?
Ada jumped up from her bench and moved toward the path. The women slowed down, yelping and laughing in delight, eventually coming to a stop not far from Ada. She walked toward them, drawn by the frenzy of joy that hovered about them, and by the wonderful contraptions they rode. She felt her nerve ends opening, blossoming with the thrill of this event. It must be a cycling school. She had heard this was a new rage among the more daring women. They were in love with the freedom offered them when they cycled. Ada wanted to be near them, to ask them what it felt like to ride a bicycle.
She drew closer to the women, stepping into their open circle. “ Good morning,” she said, and was surprised to hear her voice tremble as she spoke. The women smiled at her, bidding her good morning in return. But before Ada could ask them how they came to ride these bikes here, what class they belonged to, how she might join, out of the corner of her eye she saw a woman running along the edge of the pond, her arms raised in a wild salute, tracing a flurry of motion against the backdrop of the still water. Her simple striped dress and white bonnet clearly announced her status as a member of the serving class. As she ran and waved, it became apparent that she was headed straight for Ada, that it was Ada’s attention she wanted.
The young woman came up closer, and Ada saw then that it was her own lady’s maid, Katie. “ Mrs. Pryce. Oh, thank the good Lord.”
She pulled Ada away from the cyclists, and they collapsed on the bench together. Katie was out of breath, her blond curls springing out from under her white cap, her smooth young face shiny with sweat. Her voice rose and fell with the melody of Irish as she spoke. “Edith saw you cross the street as she was coming back from the market, and ever since we have been running about ever so madly trying to find you.”
Ada reached out to pat her maid’s hand, and in that moment, the riders got back onto their bikes and rode away, one after another, the gravel flying out from their balloon tires as they sailed away, waving to Ada as they went. It seemed possible to Ada that they were headed directly for the surface of the sun with all the freedom their wheels gave them. She turned reluctantly away from the cyclists as their figures receded. “ I’m fine, Katie,” she said. “ What on earth is all the fuss about?”
“Well, ma’am.” She stared at Ada, as if the answer were obvious and needn’t be said aloud. But Ada tilted her head, waiting for Katie to continue. “ You left the house all on your own, without a word to a soul. Edith told me and Mary, and then of course Ettie heard, and she insisted I was to find you straightaway. So I ran in the direction Edith said you were gone. I was behind you on the Mall, but I lost you when you came into the Gardens.”
“But why couldn’t you have let me be?”
All the kinetic energy that had been driving Katie suddenly seemed to drain from her. “Let you be?” She didn’t seem to know what else to say.
“Sometimes I just want to go for a walk, all on my own,” Ada said.
“Oh, dear me,” Katie said.
As they walked back to the house together, Ada took Katie’s arm, pulling her back. “I don’t care if they’re worried. I am going to enjoy the clear skies while I’m out here with no other purpose but to enjoy them. Walk slowly with me, please?”
Katie stopped, and the two women faced each other where they stood at the edge of the park. “ You know I will come walking with you anytime you please, Ada.” Ada encouraged this familiarity between herself and her maid, though it caused some discomfort for Katie. But now Katie said her mistress’s first name with assuredness, as if she were speaking to her child.
It made Ada smile. “Of course you will, Katie. And thank you. But sometimes I just get the urge to walk down the Mall by myself. It’s very different, you know, the feeling one gets when one walks entirely alone.” Ada knew Katie walked by herself frequently, and that she probably rather wouldn’t. But Katie didn’t know what it was like never to be allowed to be on one’s own simply because of one’s station and sex. It was, in Ada’s opinion, simply ridiculous.
When they turned the corner onto Marlborough, and the Ruskin Gothic house in which she lived came into view, Ada’s breathing became more constricted. The sun shone now on the cream-colored Nova Scotia sandstone facade. She could feel the heat emanating from the stone as they climbed the steps, but it didn’t warm her. The instant they were inside the foyer, the entire house staff appeared there, save George. The short and wispy young Edith, the more substantial but equally young Mary, and the older, sterner Ettie all fluttered about them, asking Ada over and over if everything was all right, if there was anything they could do for her. Ada smiled and thanked them, but shooed them away. She took herself up the front stairs and to her bedroom on the second floor. The clock on her dresser read five minutes after ten. The most exciting event of her day had lasted less than fifty-five minutes.
DINNER THAT EVENING, taken alone at the long ebony dining table, her back to the matching carved ebony-encased fireplace, made Ada wish she were supping with the bicycle club members. In front of her, on the other side of the expansive room, was an alcove inlaid with stained glass. Whenever Edward, her husband of four years, was at home, Ettie lit a lamp on the other side of the alcove, and bands of colored light danced across the dining room. But Edward had taken to dining at the Club recently, and when he was out, the lamp did not burn. Dining away from home had become such a habit with him that he occasionally failed to inform Ada whether he would dine at home or not. She expected to be alone.
Katie appeared at the table to pick up Ada’s last dishes. “Thank you so much, Katie,” Ada said. “Please tell Ettie it was delicious.”
“Of course. She’ll be pleased to know you liked it.” Ada never failed to compliment Ettie, even though she knew the cook was only happy when Edward ate her food. It was a wasted meal if the man of the house wasn’t there to judge and offer approval.
“Katie, tell me something,” Ada said.
Katie stood next to the table, gripping the dirty dishes. “Certainly.”
“Does George know about my escape this morning?”
Katie blinked twice before she answered. “I am afraid Ettie told him, ma’am.”
“I see. Thank you, then. I’ll be in my office if Edward returns in the next hour.”
BY THE TIME Edward came home, the mild weather had taken a drastic turn, unnerving Ada. The sun had removed itself again, and a storm brewed. A spring electrical storm was nothing extraordinary. The sudden graying of the skies over Boston, the whinnying of horses and barking of dogs, the pressing down of the atmosphere, all were occurrences common enough to cause nothing more than simple, instinctive responses. But Ada imagined the turn in the weather to be a punishment for her morning perambulations. The electrical charges seemed to course up through the soles of her feet, spread throughout her body’s tributaries, then emerge out the top of her skull like the clean upthrust of a knife. She left her office and went downstairs, hoping the activity would soothe her. Just as she stepped into the front hallway, holding on to her head in an effort to keep it of a piece, Edward appeared in the foyer.
He shook off his wet umbrella and peeled himself out of his raincoat with the help of his man, George, who had reached him before Ada was able to move an inch. George always moved more quickly than any middle-aged and overweight man should, Ada thought. It wasn’t until Edward stepped into the hallway and walked toward her where she stood now in front of the parlor door that she noticed he was carrying something. He held a wooden box in front of him, out of the top of which poked spots of color. The spots bounced with Edward’s stride. His footsteps echoed across the parquet floor, then silenced when he stepped onto the Chinese wool runner. Ada waited, motionless. Her brain was unable to put the bits of color into a recognizable form until Edward reached her and extended the box. He leaned toward her over his load, a grin spreading out across his face.
The box contained half a dozen orchids, none the same. One had delicate petals of yellow with orange spots, another large pink petals, one was purple, one red, one brown with white, and another vivid orange with burgundy streaks. The petals and sepals were all of different shapes, and in assorted arrangements. The leaves varied from pale to deep green, from long and pointed to round and rubbery. What they all had in common was simply this: not one of them was lovely. Each one of them was rangy, spindly, lacking in the pleasing qualities that constitute true beauty. Their necks were long and skinny, their florescences somehow too hard. If Edward had brought these home for her, she wouldn’t want to disappoint him by not seeming overjoyed at the gift. Ada turned her gaze up from the flowers and looked at her husband’s face, steeling herself for her performance.
There was something of the sublime in the look he wore as he continued to gaze on the orchids. He seemed so happy to have brought these plants home. She knew then that the flowers were not for her. They were Edward’s own conquest. Ada was relieved that the orchids had caused a distraction, and that they had nothing to do with her. Everyone gathered around as Edward showed his flowers to them all.
“I must congratulate you, sir,” George said to Edward. “You have, I trust, managed to find the best, as you always do.”
Edward laughed and clapped his man on the back. “ You know me well, don’t you?” George reached out his arms, and Edward gave the box over to his man’s keeping. George certainly wouldn’t bother Edward with the story of Ada’s solitary walk just now. But it would be only a temporary reprieve. Ada knew that, as soon as the time was right, he would relay the story to his master. And surely Edward would demand to know why his pampered wife had had reason to walk by herself to the Public Gardens, putting herself at risk without anyone along to protect her or go for help should something horrid happen. For now, though, he was happy with his orchids, and there was no mention of Ada’s earlier misbehavior.
“I need to take care of these beauties,” Edward told her. “ Excuse me.”
Ada went to the kitchen to check on final preparations for the next day’s meals, but before she was able to speak with Ettie, a commotion echoed from the foyer. Back in the hallway, she saw Franz Locke, a partner from Edward’s firm, and three strange men. For an instant, they all stood in front of the open front door as lightning flashed across the sky behind them, turning them briefly to silhouettes. Then the door was closed, and the men became flesh again. Franz, to Ada, was just another one of the men from Edward’s law firm and club, one of the many men who had so much to say to her husband, and yet so little to say to her. But the three strangers were like no one she had ever seen before. Their clothing was coarse and seemed sun worn, as if they did some sort of physical labor in the clothes they wore. Their hair was not cut finely, nor were their faces clean shaven.
These men’s voices triggered a thrill of familiarity in her, warming her spine and drawing her toward them. They filled the wide hallway with a largeness and energy that so delighted her, it took her a moment to register that one of the men was white, another was an African, and the third a dark-skinned man whose race was indecipherable to Ada.
Finally, Edward noticed her standing there and stopped to introduce her to the men. William Parrish was the African, Walter Kebble the white man, and from his name, she imagined that Jao da Cunha, the third man, no doubt was Brazilian. They smiled at her, tipping their rumpled hats, all of them greeting her at once, their voices bouncing off the wood paneling. “ I’m so pleased to meet you,” she said to them, addressing them as formally as she would any of her society acquaintances. She reached out her hand and, one by one, they shook it. Her crisp crinoline skirts and the rigid bodice of her waistcoat, with its turnover collar, all seemed overdone next to the relaxed attire of these comfortable men. Her fingers tugged at her collar as she tried to think of something to say that would draw them into conversation.
“You have a lovely home,” Walter said. “We promise we’ll do our best not to spoil it with our coarseness.” His face seemed serious, but there was a twinkle in his eye.
Ada smiled at him and the others. “Please, make yourselves at home.”
Before anyone was tempted to take the conversation further, Edward piloted the men toward his office. As they passed by her, they ruffled the air, stirring up a scent redolent of the jungle, of the open air in the dead of night, of unnamed places and unidentified species, of undiscovered natural wonders.
“Good night, then, my dear,” Edward said. As he lingered in front of the open pocket doors, she could see the box of orchids behind him on the cabochon-cut malachite inlaid oak table. It would have been natural for her to be worried about the table with the ragged box placed there, but Ada wanted to ask him something about the plants. Edward saw her trying to formulate a question, and smiled at her, believing he knew what she was about to ask. “ Don’t worry. I’ll move them. The table will be fine.” He reached out and patted her hand. Though he exerted no undue pressure, the gesture suggested that he was pushing her away. “Sleep well.” As he pulled the pocket door out of its space in the wall, the orchid hunters bade her good night.
“Good night,” she called back to them. Did her voice sound too emotional, did it hint at her sense of abandonment? Just before the door touched the wall, Ada saw Edward watching her. His brow was furrowed, his mouth turned down at the corners. The scent of the men lingered there; Ada breathed it in in an effort to fill up on it. She stood outside the office, listening to their rich voices and their quick laughter, not realizing or caring then that this was the first time non-whites had ever crossed the threshold of her front door and entered a room not reserved for the use of servants. She would have been happy to stay there all evening, but fear of being discovered spying on them finally sent her away.
UPSTAIRS IN HER ROOM, Ada dressed herself in her peach silk nightdress and settled into the thickness of her bed linens with Pride and Prejudice. But she found herself turning the pages of the book without remembering anything she had read. The multiple ribbons of her gown scratched at her neck, distracting her from the words on the page. Occasionally, the men’s voices, or their sudden laughter, drifted up from the floor below. The rain tapping on the window, together with the distant sound of the men’s voices, made her feel a loneliness that reminded her of all the hours of her childhood she had spent alone in her nursery while her parents entertained guests downstairs. She untied the ribbons and opened the high neck of her nightdress. Now that she was no longer a child, why couldn’t she walk on her own in the park, and why shouldn’t she be down there, in Edward’s office, sharing in the exotic discussion the men were no doubt immersed in at this moment? She hadn’t chosen to grow into a woman; why should she be punished for it?
She couldn’t read, but neither could she sleep. Instead, she paced her room in her bare feet, feeling the difference between the silk carpet and the peg and groove wood on the soles of her feet, occupying herself with this trivial sensuality to keep from screaming out loud. Later, when his guests had gone, and Ada heard Edward on the landing near her door, she stopped where she stood, bracing herself, gripping the carpet with her toes as she waited for him to come in and reprimand her. Certainly George had told him the story of her escape by now. She tied the ribbons of her gown quickly, pulling them tightly across her neck lest Edward should see them undone and reprimand her for that, too. Sweat gathered on her upper lip as she waited for her door to creak open.
After a moment, Ada heard her husband open and then close his own bedroom door. When he stopped moving about his room, and the whole house became silent, she blew out her lamp and slipped down under her counterpane, certain she would sleep finally. Instead, she tossed across the length and width of her mattress, flipping from front to back, side to side. She thought of the cyclists in the park, in their bloomers. And she thought of the rough men there, in her own home. What did they talk about in that room, without her? Why were men always so secretive about the things they discussed in the rooms they occupied away from women?
Finally, the rain ceased. She slipped from her bed and walked to her window.
Throwing back the maroon brocade curtains, she leaned her head against the glass. It chilled her skin, causing bumps to rise up along her head and down her neck. Her window looked onto the small garden and out to the carriage house. In the darkness, the garden’s color was erased, it was nothing but shades of gray and black. But suddenly, a thin wedge of light brought smudges of color to the wet yard. Ada’s eyes followed the light to its source. The carriage house. What was the stable man doing in there so late?
Whatever might be amiss in the carriage house was no business of hers. It must have been the lingering restiveness that caused her to walk downstairs and out the back door without thinking about why she did it. Dressed only in her slippers and nightdress, she trod across the rain-slicked garden path. A breeze lifted off the river, chilling her. She stopped and looked up. Ada listened to the stars; they were so bright she almost believed she could hear them crackling as they glittered above her.
A surprising, submerged moan cut across the landscape of twinkling sound, like the hum of a Gregorian chant. As she moved closer, she recognized the cause of the uneven groan. Ada cocked her head, listening for a repetition. It came again, this time even more guttural. She followed the voice; it led her to the carriage house and the bit of light that shimmered across the garden.
As she closed in on the building, the moan was joined by a deeper, clearly masculine-sounding grunt. Without taking another step, she knew that this must be Katie and Liam, the stable man. Liam was young, Irish like Katie, with a firm body and strong hands that were so different from Edward’s, or any of the men Ada had known. Ada was seized by the longing to watch them in the act. Though she understood this desire was irregular, and the awareness caused her a certain anxiety, she made no effort to censor herself.
She followed the thin beam of light to the closest window, but it was too high for her to see through. She found a metal basin nearby and carried it over to the window. Quietly stepping up onto the upended basin, she peeked into the corner of the window, and was surprised by the clear view she now had. Katie and Liam were in a stack of hay behind the carriage, completely naked, their clothes underneath them, protecting them from the sharp ends of the hay. The horses gave them no notice; apparently they were accustomed to the disturbance. The lovers lay facing each other, on their sides, Katie’s leg thrown up over Liam’s hip. Ada dropped her head quickly below the window frame, embarrassed, even out here, alone in the dark. But the continuing sighs held her there, incapable of leaving. When she regained her nerve and peeked in again, Katie was in the final surge of her crisis, her head thrown back, her mouth slack, her eyes wild. The light from the lantern flickered over her as her moans became rapid and high-pitched. Liam climaxed with her. Both of their faces, in the uneven light, seemed to jump back and forth between expressions of bliss and a sort of pure rage, as if the crisis induced something akin to agony.
Their breathing soon evened; as they began to quiet, Ada felt a growing panic at the thought of being discovered. She replaced the basin and hurried away from the stable, to the safety of the back porch. As she entered the quiet of her house, her own quick and uneven breathing echoed through the back hallway, sounding as loud as if she had been breathing into a megaphone. Back in her bed, under the watchful eyes of the carved cupids on her headboard, she fought for the comfort of sleep, but instead was plagued by visions of Katie and Liam.
WHEN KATIE CAME into her room carrying a basin of warm water the next morning, Ada felt herself flush. She had to turn her face away, look out the window, to avoid eye contact.
“Thank you, Katie,” she said.
“Of course. How are you this lovely day?”
Ada imagined it must seem lovely to Katie, after the evening she had spent with Liam. Ada would feel ready to slay dragons this morning if she had spent a similar evening with Edward. An image of Katie’s face, thrown back in the moment of crisis, superimposed itself over Katie’s smile.
“I’m fine,” she told Katie. “But I am concerned about the progress we’re making on the new linen closets. Could you see to that, and let me know what might be causing the delays? It is becoming an irritation to me now.” She knew her behavior toward Katie was uncalled for. She even recognized that she was jealous of her maid’s satisfied lust. But somehow she was unable to stop herself.
Ada didn’t look to see Katie’s face. “ Of course, Mrs. Pryce. Right away,” Katie said, exiting the room quickly. Her absence did not serve to relieve Ada of the specific memories that insinuated themselves into her consciousness now. Witnessing the act of sexual congress between her maid and her husband’s groomsman inspired in Ada memories of her college years, and things best left unremembered.
She stirred herself, and rose to dress. The water Katie had brought was still slightly warm. Without allowing herself to engage in the sensuality of the procedure, she wiped down her breasts and underarms and crotch with the mildly scented water. She dried herself with a soft Turkish towel, wriggled her way into her corset and corset cover, drawers, petticoats, and stockings, then slid her arms into the muttonchop sleeves of her heavy pink silk housedress. After her beige kid boots were laced, she sat at her dressing table to check herself in the looking glass. The face that looked back at her rested on a long, elegant neck, above a body that was just lush enough to cause men’s thoughts to shift briefly to unseemly territory when they first laid eyes on her, and even after. But Ada didn’t see that in the image reflected back at her. She simply looked for the imperfections in her dress and hair, then moved to correct them.
Downstairs, Ada walked into the front parlor first. The strange orchids, preening themselves on the table behind the gold sofa, caused her to forget why she had come into the room. She moved closer to the plants, drawn by the ugliest of the group. Its petals and sepals were a bright purple, and at the center of the florescence was an obscene-looking protuberance of crimson. Its pot, and those of the other plants, rested on a clay trough, which in turn was on a strip of felt, the whole thing designed to minimize damage to her table. She wasn’t concerned about the inlaid cherry table. Her home was filled with fine furniture, but she wasn’t possessive of it. It struck her as odd, though, that Edward had gone to so much trouble to set up these strange flowers, giving them pride of place in the most important room in the house. Certainly they did not belong here of all places.
Ada turned away from the plants and tried for a moment to remember her mission here, but failing, left the room, putting thoughts of orchids out of her mind.
The sunroom was Ada’s favorite room in the house. She often read there, under the glass windows that stretched across the whole of the south wall and then curved up, forming a portion of the ceiling. The brightness of the place buoyed her spirits. Nothing was more relaxing than reading a book on the sofa and looking up at the ceiling occasionally to find a cloud drifting above her. She went in now, eager to spend time alone there, but was surprised to find Edward inside, eating his breakfast. Ettie hovered over him, her plump face glowing with the thrill of serving her master. A shaft of orange sun cut across the heavy mahogany table, encircled the silver serving tray, and refracted back across Ettie’s face as she arranged the food.
“Ada, darling,” Edward said. “ I’m glad to see you. Sit with me. I have news.”
Ettie left, and soon thereafter Edith appeared with coffee and warm scones for Ada. Edward waited to speak until Edith had gone, as if what he was about to say was too precious, or perhaps too subversive, for the ears of his servants. “ I do so hope you appreciate the orchids I brought home.”
“Of course, Edward. I was just looking at them. They’re stunning.” The sun warmed her cold hands. She wanted to take off her boots and put her feet into the circle of sun, to warm her chilly toes.
“They are the finest in Boston,” Edward was saying. “ I’ll be the envy of my club when the others see what I am up to.”
“What you’re up to, darling?” She took a bite of well-buttered scone, savoring the sensation of the butter melting on her tongue.
“I’m building a collection. Those six plants are only the beginning of a grand experiment.”
“Why, this is all so sudden, Edward, darling.”
Edward leaned across the table and tapped Ada’s hand absently as he spoke. “Not really. I have been discussing it with Franz for weeks. He started his collection earlier than I have done. I shall have to assert myself to catch up to him. Within the next few weeks I will increase the number of plants I have tenfold, and I’ll build a greenhouse for them. And then we shall have a dinner.”
“A dinner?” Outside, the clouds suddenly parted and the whole room seemed to expand with the infusion of light. Ada lifted her face and closed her eyes for a moment.
“Yes. And your mother will come.”
Her eyes opened wide. “My mother?” Before she had even finished speaking, Ada understood why her mother would attend. Beatrice Caswell was a member in good standing of the uppermost tier of Boston Brahmans. People paid attention when she walked into a room. They held their breath when she opened her mouth to speak. And when she spoke directly to any one of them, it was an occasion fit to recount in the family records, to keep for posterity. Edward meant to impress his mother-in-law with his as yet incomplete orchid collection.
“Of course your mother, my dear. Absolutely your mother. And the orchid hunters will come as well.”
“The orchid hunters?”
“Yes, yes. The men who came with Franz last night.”
It all made sense to Ada now. Their clothes, their ruggedness, even their scent. Those men slept out under the stars, in search of rare orchids for rich men. It was thrilling and strange to her at once. The thought of having William, Jao, and Walter to dinner, of having the opportunity to sit at table with them, was more exciting even than her walk in the park and the pack of cyclists who had crossed her path.
“I shall be happy to entertain them, Edward. And my mother.”
“It will be a grand evening.” He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, then settled back into his seat, throwing his arm across the back of the chair. He looked so comfortable that way, as if he hadn’t a worry in his world.
“These orchid men, Edward. Will they hunt orchids for you?” She purposely didn’t say their names. She didn’t want Edward to know that she remembered them.
Edward’s eyes seemed to focus more acutely. “ I don’t know that it will be them, but yes, I will hire men to go to the tropics for me. I intend to become a serious collector of orchids, so of course I must have hunters go out for me, the sooner the better.” He stood then, taking hold of her hand. “ Come see them with me.”
They went to the front parlor together. Edward picked up an orchid whose petals and sepals were pink, with the center protrusion rimmed in deep red. “This is the Ruby-lipped Cattleya labiata,” he said. “ Isn’t she wondrous?”
Wondrous, yes, Ada thought, wondrously absurd.
“You wouldn’t want to hunt them yourself ? ” she asked him.
His face fell all at once, then lifted itself up again, his cheeks rising, his eyebrows shooting up above his glasses. “ Why, Ada. I have responsibilities. To you and to the firm. I can’t go traipsing around the world. I am a gentleman, after all.” He turned back to admire his Cattleya.
“Of course. Of course you are, dear. I just thought the adventure might be a temptation to you.”
“I choose to maintain mastery over my baser desires. Please don’t bother yourself with the details of how the orchids come to be here. Just appreciate them for the beauty they bring to our household.” He set the Cattleya back in its place. “ Unfortunately, this flower is not the Cattleya labiata vera,” he said. “The true labiata flower was first brought to Europe in 1818. William Swainson discovered it in Brazil, in the Organ Mountains. He sent specimens to England, along with other tropical plants.”
Edward and Ada returned to the sunroom, where he told the rest of the story of the Cattleya labiata vera. Swainson’s Cattleyas were not in bloom when he brought them home, and perhaps he didn’t know they would transform themselves into beautiful flowers. But a William Cattley cultivated them, and in November of 1818, one bloomed. The plant became popular when other plants bloomed in other collections, including that of the Glasgow Botanic Garden.
“But Swainson,” Edward said, “seems to have disappeared, without bothering to tell anyone exactly where he found the plants.”
In 1836, another orchid hunter, a Dr. Gardner, claimed to have found the orchids on top of Gavea Mountain, about fifteen miles from Rio de Janeiro. But the orchids were growing on the face of the mountain, impossible to get at. As Gardner himself said, they were far from the reach of the greedy collector. But he found others, across from the Gavea, on the mountain called Pedra Bonita. “ On the edge of a precipice on the eastern side,” he wrote, “we found, covered with its large rose-colored flowers, the splendid Cattleya labiata. It was with much difficulty and no little danger that I could obtain about a dozen specimens.”
But in the end, it turned out that Gardner had never really found the Cattleya labiata vera after all. Someone took the trouble to check out the dried specimens at Kew Gardens. R. A. Rolfe, the editor of the Orchid Review, concluded that Gardner’s specimens were Laelia lobata, not the prized Cattleya labiata at all. No one was able to find the flower again, and its slippery existence became like an icon of the Gothic sensibilities of the time, shrouded in mystery, alone on a misty mountain.
“The question everyone asks now is ‘How did Swainson manage to find the flowers, and why did he disappear without explaining it to anyone? ’ ” Edward told Ada. He was silent for a moment, pondering his own questions.
“Some members of my Orchid Society plan to send hunters out just to search for the missing plants,” he told her. Ada thought this a lavish and careless gesture. It was an act that suggested that its patron was willing to go the distance, that his obsession with orchids was complete, that he would do anything in his futile attempt to satiate this strange desire, including risk other men’s lives. “ I want to be the one to find that plant.” His lips remained nearly immobile as he spoke the words.
Edith came in, quickly setting out fresh coffee and more scones and biscuits. Ada felt as though her insides were swimming in the black liquid, but not knowing what else to do with herself, she took another cup of the stuff and settled into her chair. Edward walked about the sunny space, examining it as if noticing it for the first time. She watched him silently; the occasional cloud cast shadows across him as he paced in and out of the light. “I should think this is a better place for the orchids. I will have George move them here today,” he said.
Ada looked out the window to the garden, but the usual calming sensation didn’t overcome her. Her sunroom would now be overtaken by the plants that had so recently bewitched her husband. Edward sat again in his chair, and she poured more coffee for him, willing her hands to remain steady.
“Ada, darling.” His voice was rich with what sounded to her like kindness. “I hear you went on a foray yesterday morning.” So all the talk of orchids had simply been preamble to this, the real purpose of their meeting.
She stood reflexively, grabbing her cup and saucer, stepping out from her chair, ready to carry the dishes to Ettie. Edith or Mary would be by to gather them; there was no reason for Ada to do so herself. She sat down again, still holding her filigreed cream china cup and plate. Edward watched her without speaking. She felt cornered. Finally, she had to speak to fill the silence. “ I simply went for a walk because the weather was so lovely.”At first she had wanted to tell him about the cyclists, to suggest to him that she might take lessons, but now she realized mention of the event would be a serious blunder.
He stroked his chin and leaned toward her. “You should always take someone with you. You and Katie get along so well. Take her. We will have no more of you wandering off by yourself.” He pressed his hands into his knees, rose, kissed her cheek, and was gone.
ETHICS of MARRIAGE
That evening, immediately upon his return from the Club, Edward had come to Ada’s bedroom, and now they lingered together, face-to-face, on Ada’s thick mattress, as if their two bodies had become one. They were so still, it seemed as if they were sleeping sitting up, entwined. Her legs were wrapped around Edward’s waist; he sat with his legs forward underneath her, in a V. He held her torso against his own. They were not sweating, nor were they breathing hard. The room was cool and silent.
But then, like a butterfly gently disturbing the glassy stillness of a pond, Edward slowly lifted his hips, and his pelvis rose up against Ada’s. Her body quivered in response, but piece by piece, the subtle movement rising from her thighs and continuing up through her pubis, her torso, disturbing her breasts slightly, finally relaxing into her neck. The ripple completed itself when Ada released a small whimper and tilted her head back. Wanting to please her husband, she fought the desire to push to orgasm, willed her muscles to stop contracting, her hips to remain in position.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “ I’m sorry.” She tried to control the release of her breath so it wouldn’t be audible to her husband. The effort made her dizzy. Her head felt like an impossible weight on her thin neck as she pulled it forward, straightening herself. She returned her cheek to its place against her husband’s neck. Her thick auburn hair settled onto his shoulder and chest.
Edward stroked her hair and tried to quiet her with pure sound. “ Shh, shh.” He said it over and over until their joined bodies returned to stasis and Ada’s breathing became invisible again. The clock on the dresser was loud, animated, in contrast to the bodies on the bed. Its ticking eased Ada’s active mind, moving her away from thoughts of sexual arousal, allowing her to sink into a sort of trance as she sat motionless in her husband’s wiry arms. A last bit of the setting sun flashed through a slit in the brocade curtains and cut across her hair, lighting it as if it had been set afire. Edward and Ada remained there, tangled together yet immobile, until the sun moved past her, settling its light onto an empty space on the mattress. Finally, when Edward felt satiated, they separated from each other and tidied up, replacing their nightclothes and smoothing the sheets, then climbing back into the carved walnut bed, their heads resting side by side beneath the pair of wooden cupids. There was no need to wash up.
EDWARD STAYED WITH ADA till morning instead of returning to his own room afterward. During the past three years, Ada had spent many nights alone in her bed longing for the warmth of her husband next to her. But now that he was there, on this night, she wished to be alone, to stretch herself out across the bed, dangling her arm over one side, her foot over the other. Edward slept flat on his back, his eyes closed, his face emitting a sort of ecstatic contentment. She moved herself away from the crevasse created by her husband’s weight on the mattress and banished herself to a narrow strip along the side of the bed. In no time at all, Edward was snoring softly.
Ada closed her eyes, hoping for a spiritual bliss to overtake her, followed by sleep. Instead, a vivid scenario played out in her mind a hundred different ways, keeping her awake most of the night. In every variant of the scene she imagined, the end result was orgasm. But this was achieved only in her imagination, and her body could not rest for wanting it in reality.
Just before Edward left her room the next morning, he leaned over to touch her cheek. He held his hand there as he looked into her eyes. He was close enough for her to catch his scent, but when she breathed in deeply, the absence of odor surprised her. When he removed his hand from her face, he let out a contented sigh.
He drummed his fingers across a book that sat on the bedside table. “ Don’t forget to review it.”
She watched his tall, sinewy form as he crossed her threshold, then disappeared beyond her door. He was a handsome man, but he seemed to want to contain and control his very attractiveness. Ada wanted to run her fingers across it, caress it with her tongue, she wanted to watch the sweat bead up and drip down the slopes and valleys of it. But Edward would have none of that.
Ada lifted herself from the dry, neat bed. The wooden floor was cool beneath her bare feet as she moved slowly to her window. She pushed back the curtains in one angry thrust. But what she had hoped for wasn’t there; the sun was hidden behind dark clouds and the shadows of clouds. Her shoulders slumped as she turned back to her bed.
In an effort to ward off a bout of ennui, she picked up the book Edward wanted her to read. She fingered the gold lettering on the blue leather cover. Karezza: Ethics of Marriage, by Alice Bunker Stockham. Stockham was a medical doctor who believed that if a man and woman engaged in intercourse without orgasm, they would come to a deeper understanding of each other, their marriage, and spiritual life. She had come to her philosophy through an examination of Tantric yoga. Edward believed this connection to Eastern spiritualism made the book and the philosophy both exotic and sacred.
Knowing she could not sit and read the book from front to back, having already tried and failed on several occasions, Ada opened it instead to a random spot and began reading from the middle of the page.
During a lengthy period of perfect control, the whole being of each is merged into the other, and an exquisite exaltation experienced. This may be accompanied by a quiet motion, entirely under subordination of the will, so that the thrill of passion for either may not go beyond a pleasurable exchange. Unless procreation is desired, let the final propagative orgasm be entirely avoided. With abundant time and mutual reciprocity the interchange becomes satisfactory and complete without emission or crisis. In the course of an hour the physical tension subsides, the spiritual exaltation increases, and not uncommonly visions of a transcendent life are seen and consciousness of new powers experienced.
She tried to remember when she had last experienced crisis. There was snow outside the window when he appeared in her bedroom that morning more than a year ago, holding the book out to her. If she had known that day was looming, she would have made an effort to remember the last time. But because she had had no warning, their old lives as young husband and wife had seemed destined to last and even expand, so each individual experience folded itself into the next, becoming a blur of successive moments absent of articulation.
Ada imagined tearing the pages out of Karezza: Ethics of Marriage, one by one, and dropping them into her fireplace. The paper was of good quality, and creamy white. It would probably burn bright blue. Edward might come in to find her on her knees, in front of the fireplace, her face lit by the book’s glow. At first he would be struck by her bright profile. But then he would see that she was burning his beloved book. She didn’t try to imagine what he would do when the truth became apparent to him.
Suddenly, as she leaned over the pages of the book, staring at them without trying to read the words written there, Ada had a vision of her old friend Alice Blackwell. What would Alice think of this book? she wondered. Would she deride Ada for reading it, or would she see a certain value in it?
As a girl, Ada had attended the Chauncy Hall School in Boston, a private school that prepared girls for Boston University. There she met Alice Blackwell, an outspoken suffragette and editor of Woman’s Journal, and her aunts, the Blackwell sisters, both physicians, when they came to speak to the girls at the school. Ada was taken with Alice and the sisters, who saw in her a good pupil. She was soon regularly invited, along with some of the other students, to tea at their sister-in-law, Lucy Stone Blackwell’s, and to hear Alice speak on the Woman Question. Ada became involved with the politics of women in Boston to the extent that, by the time she was eighteen, she had marginalized herself from the pool of available men. What man of her class was interested in a woman who wanted to be his equal? She didn’t really notice the absence of men in her life until she went to university.
After she had finished school, Ada enrolled at Boston University, even though her mother thought it a waste of time. There, she was one of only a small number of women, and she was, of course, surrounded by men. She continued to see the Blackwells, and Lucy’s daughter Alice, during college. But as she pursued her studies, she also came to recognize her desire to be desired by a man. Boston University had given her this as well as an education. Her sexual awakening made the work of the Blackwells and their like seem less urgent to her; she couldn’t put the energy into the fight the way these women did. She wanted to laugh, and be around men who were disturbed by the sound of her laughter, to watch their faces when she threw her head back, and her breasts lifted themselves in response, her whole body shot through with the thrill of the laugh. It was at university that she learned to fulfill that desire, rather than the impossible desire for equal rights.
When she was twenty-two, finished with college and already declared a hopeless spinster by her mother, Ada met Edward at a Blackwell salon. As usual, there were mostly women there, and the men who did attend were all men whom she had always known, it seemed. They were strident and serious, and none of them was interesting to her. But then, in walked Edward, in the company of a couple who came frequently to the salons.
Edward was tall and lean; he entered the room with an air of authority. Whether he was in his element or not, Ada was sure he always worked to give the impression that he was at ease and in command. He was still far across the room from her, but as he was introduced, she could hear the boom of his voice. It seemed to drop onto the floor in front of him and roll through the floorboards and under her feet, vibrating up through her spine. As she watched him move, she felt as if the lower half of her torso had separated itself from the usual workings of her mind and taken on, against her will, a purely sensuous aspect.
When he finally made it across the room to her, and looked at her with eyes that were the gray of shale, she hooked her arm through his elbow and didn’t let him leave her side until much later in the evening, when she was tired and ready to go. They talked about their families and their educations. Edward spoke of his aspirations in business and the law. They never did discuss the Woman Question or politics of any kind. Ada wasn’t thinking about those things when she stood with him that afternoon. As she watched him speak, she imagined running her fingers through his fine brown hair, she imagined the feel of his body against hers, and these thoughts did not make her ashamed.
Alice approached them where they sat together in the back parlor late in the afternoon.
“Why, Ada, I thought you had left without saying goodbye.”Alice tilted her finely chiseled face toward Ada, waiting for her to defend her disappearance.
“Where have you been hiding Edward, Alice? Why have I never met him until today?”
Alice looked at Edward as if seeing him for the first time.
“Ah, don’t blame Alice, my dear Ada,” Edward said. “ She only just met me last week.”
“Well, my dear sister, you should bring more like him into your world,” Ada said.
Edward left soon afterward, and Ada sat with Alice for a bit. “Alice,” she said to her old friend. “If Edward should call to ask for my address, please do give it to him.”
“Of course. Perhaps you will ask him to come to a meeting with us.”
Ada nodded her assent, but she never did ask Edward to do any such thing. That wasn’t what she wanted from him. He sent his card around to her the next day, and she responded to it with considered haste.
Meet the Author
Natasha Bauman is a novelist and English professor based in Southern California. She earned both a BA and an MA in English, followed by an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. The Disorder of Longing is her first novel.
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Bauman's heroine 'and ours' has guts and passion despite the repressive and repeated efforts of her Victorian husband to keep her in line. As a reader, my admiration for Ada grew swiftly as she fluidly adapts to life on her own, free of the societal, and sometimes literal. cage in which she was expected to exist. Would that we all had the courage, spunk and curiosity to shatter norms that, then and now, keep women in 'their place!' Scenes of Boston's diverse neighborhoods and contrasting attitudes are impressively researched and vividly depicted. Without wanting to reveal too much of this engrossing story, let it be said that Bauman has given us a fine historical novel, a taste for South American adventure, and a passion for orchids. Since finishing the book, I started my own collection with four flowering beauties. Hollywood: Take notice. Ada Pryce's story is one for the giant screen.
A memorable heroine, Ada Pryce, is kept like a hot house flower in Victorian era Boston, her only option as a woman of a certain class and breeding. Her husband, Edward, gives more attention and time to his orchid collection than his beautiful wife, spends most evenings at his gentleman's club, and demands Karezza, a perverse form of tantra that adds up to nothing more than a climax- suppressing sex life. But firebrand Ada consorts with her servants, longs for her days at college, and, on a tip from a man who dines but once at her and Edward's house, ultimately follows her curiosity and secretly plans an adventure that releases her from her strictures. Bauman's novel is impeccably researched, lushly descriptive, compelling and affecting. I could not put it down.