No Angelby Penny Vencenzi
With more than 3.5 million copies sold, Penny Vincenzi is one of the world’s preeminent writers of popular fictionand American readers no longer have to miss out on the fun.
With the publication of No Angel, a novel introducing the engaging cast of characters in the Lytton family, Overlook opens a thrilling new dimension to this author’s already… See more details below
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With more than 3.5 million copies sold, Penny Vincenzi is one of the world’s preeminent writers of popular fictionand American readers no longer have to miss out on the fun.
With the publication of No Angel, a novel introducing the engaging cast of characters in the Lytton family, Overlook opens a thrilling new dimension to this author’s already illustrious career. No Angel is an irresistibly sweeping saga of power, family politics, and passion-a riveting drama and a fervent love story. Celia Lytton is the beautiful and strong-willed daughter of wealthy aristocrats and she is used to getting her way. She moves through life making difficult and often dangerous decisions that affect herself and others-her husband, Oliver, and their children; the destitute Sylvia Miller, whose life is transformed by Celia’s intrusion; as well as Oliver’s daunting elder sister, who is not all she appears to be; and Sebastian Brooke, for whom Celia makes the most dangerous decision of all. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of London and New York in the First World War, No Angel is, as British Good Housekeeping wrote, “an absorbing page-turner, packed with believable characters and satisfyingly extreme villains, eccentrics, and manipulators.” Readers of Maeve Binchy, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Anita Shreve will fall in love with this epic, un-put-downable novel.
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Table of Contents
Part One - 1904 – 1914
Part Two - 1914 – 1918
Part Three - 1918 – 1920
ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR
ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Almost A Crime
An Outrageous Affair
An Absolute Scandal
This edition first published in the United States in 2003 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
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Copyright © 2000 Penny Vincenzi
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For Paul: with love. Not to mention huge appreciation for some particularly crucial structural advice.
As always, a long list of people without whom this book would not have happened. Probably top of the bill should go to my agent Desmond Elliott (no relation to the villain of the piece) for his encyclopaedian knowledge of publishing, after a wonderful lifetime in the business. Stories, anecdotes, facts and figures tumbled down the wires from his office to mine; the book would have been much the poorer without him.
I owe a big debt too to Rosemary Stark who gave me an extraordinarily insightful view of twin-ness, as did Jo Puccioni.
I would like to thank Martin Harvey for taking me round the Garrick Club and acquainting me so patiently with its history and its connection with publishing, and Ursula Lloyd who once more guided me through the complexities of medicine in the early part of the century, and Hugh Dickens for an immensely authoritative over-view of military matters.
For legal and other advice, I owe, as always, huge gratitude to Sue Stapely who either knows whatever I need to, or someone else who does; and to Mark Stephens who adds zest and originality to his fearsome knowledge of libel law and publishing.
I have delved into some particularly wonderful books for information: most notably Despatches from the Heart by Annette Tapert, In Society: The Brideshead Years by Nicholas Courtney, The Country House Remembered edited by Merlin Watterson, Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter by Diana Souhami and the marvelous Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves. Huge thanks to my four daughters Polly, Sophie, Emily and Claudia who continue to endure my self centered and panicky ramblings as publication draws nearer with kindness and sympathy, never indicating for a moment that they find (as they must do) the annual repetition of the drama rather tedious. I am and always will be immensely grateful to them. And to my husband Paul who has to endure even more of it, and (almost) never indicates it either…
I owe everybody a great deal. It has, as always, in retrospect anyway, been tremendous fun.
1904 – 1914
Celia stood at the altar, smiling into the face of her bridegroom and wondered if she was about to test his vow to cherish her in sickness and in health rather sooner than he might have imagined. She really did feel as if she was going to vomit: there and then, in front of the congregation, the vicar, the choir. This was truly the stuff of which nightmares were made. She closed her eyes briefly, took a very deep breath, swallowed; heard dimly through her swimmy clammy nausea the vicar saying, ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’, and somehow the fact that she had done it, managed this marriage, managed this day, that she was married to Oliver Lytton, whom she loved so much, and that no one could change anything now, made her feel better. She saw Oliver’s eyes on her, tender, but slightly anxious, having observed her faintness, and she managed to smile again before sinking gratefully on to her knees for the blessing.
Not an ideal condition for a bride to be in, almost three months’ pregnant; but then if she hadn’t been pregnant, her father would never have allowed her to marry Oliver anyway. It had been a fairly drastic measure; but it had worked. As she had known it would. And it had certainly been fun: she had enjoyed becoming pregnant a lot.
The blessing was over now; they were being ushered into the vestry to sign the register. She felt Oliver’s hand taking hers, and glanced over her shoulder at the group following them. There were her parents, her father fiercely stern, the old hypocrite: she’d grown up seeing pretty housemaid after pretty housemaid banished from the house, her mother, staunchly smiling, Oliver’s frail old father, leaning on his cane supported by his sister Margaret, and just behind them, Oliver’s two brothers, Robert rather stiff and formal and slightly portly, Jack, the youngest, absurdly handsome, with his brilliant blue eyes restlessly exploring the congregation for any pretty faces. Beyond them were the guests, admittedly rather few, just very close friends and family, and the people from the village and the estate, who of course wouldn’t have missed her being married for anything. She knew that in some ways her mother minded about that more than about anything else really, that it wasn’t a huge wedding like her sister Caroline’s, with three hundred guests at St Margaret’s Westminster, but a quiet affair in the village church. Well, she didn’t mind. She didn’t mind in the very least. She had married Oliver: she had got her way.
‘Of course you can’t marry him,’ her mother had said, ‘he has no money, no position, no house even, your father won’t hear of it.’
Her father did hear about it, about her wish to marry Oliver, because she made him listen; but he reiterated everything her mother had said.
‘Ridiculous. Throwing your life away. You want to marry properly, Celia, into your own class, someone who can keep you and support you in a reasonable way.’
She said she did not want to marry properly, she wanted to marry Oliver, because she loved him; that he had a brilliant future, that his father owned a successful publishing house in London which would be his one day.
‘Successful, nonsense,’ her father said, ‘if it was successful he wouldn’t be living in Hampstead would he? With nowhere in the country. No, darling,’ for he adored her, his youngest, a late flower in his life, ‘you find someone suitable and you can get married straight away. That’s what you really want, I know, a home and husband and babies; it’s natural, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you. But it’s got to be someone who’s right for you. This fellow can’t even ride a horse.’
Things had got much worse after that; she had shouted, raged, sworn she would never marry anyone else, and they had shouted and raged back at her, telling her she was being ridiculous, that she had no idea what she was talking about, that she clearly had no idea what marriage was about, that it was a serious matter, a considerable undertaking, not some absurd notion about love.
‘Very over-rated, love,’ her mother said briskly, ‘doesn’t last, Celia, not what you’re talking about. And when it’s gone, you need other things, believe me. Like a decent home to bring up your children in. Marriage is a business and it works best when both parties see it that way.’
Celia was just eighteen years old when she met Oliver Lytton: she had looked at him across the room at a luncheon party in London given by a rather bohemian friend of her sister’s and fallen helplessly in love with him, even before they had spoken a single word. Afterwards, trying to analyse that sensation, to explain it to herself, she could only feel she had been invaded by an intense emotion, taken hold of, shaken by it; she felt immediately changed, the focus of her life suddenly found. It was primarily an emotional reaction to him, a desire to be with him, close to him in every way, not mere physical attraction which she had experienced to some degree before; he was quite extraordinarily handsome, of course, tall and rather serious, indeed almost solemn-looking, with fair hair, blue eyes, and a glorious smile that entirely changed his face, bringing to it not just a softness, but a merriment, a sense of great joie de vivre.
But he was more than handsome, he was charming, beautifully mannered, clearly very intelligent, with a great deal more to talk about than most of the young men she had met. Indeed he talked about things she had never heard a young man speak of before, of books and literature, of plays and art exhibitions. He asked her if she had been to Florence and Paris and when she said she had, asked her then which galleries she had most enjoyed and admired. He also – which she found more engaging than any of the rest – had a way of treating her as if she were as clever and as well-read as he. Celia, who was of a generation and class of girls educated at home by governesses, was entirely charmed by this. She had been brought up in the only way her parents knew and recognised: to marry someone from her own social class, and to lead a life exactly the same as her mother’s, raising a family and running a household; from the moment she set eyes on Oliver Lytton, she knew this was not what she wanted.
She was the youngest daughter of a very old and socially impeccable family. The Beckenhams dated back to the sixteenth century, as her mother, the Countess of Beckenham, was fond of telling everyone; the family had a glorious and quite grand seventeenth century house and estate called Ashingham in Buckinghamshire, not far from Beaconsfield, and a very beautiful town house in Clarges Street, Mayfair. They were extremely rich and concerned only with running their estate, conserving their assets, and enjoying what was mostly a country life. Lord Beckenham ran the home farm, hunted and shot a great deal in the winter, and fished in the summer, Lady Beckenham socialised both in London and the country, rode, played cards, organised her staff, and – rather more reluctantly – saw to the upkeep of her extensive wardrobe. Books, like pictures, were things which covered the Beckenham walls and were appreciated for their value rather more than for their content; talk at their dinner table centred around their own lives, rather than around abstract matters such as art, literature and philosophy.
Confronted by a daughter who professed herself – after only three months’ short acquaintance – to be in love with someone who, by their standards, was not only a pauper, but almost as unfamiliar to them as a Zulu warrior, they were genuinely appalled and anxious for her.
Celia could see that they were entirely serious in their opposition; she supposed she could marry Oliver when she was twenty-one, but that was unimaginably far off, three years away. And so, staring into the darkness through her bedroom window late one night, her eyes sore with weeping, wondering what on earth she could do, she had suddenly found it: the solution. The breathtakingly, dazzlingly simple solution. She would become pregnant and then they would have to let her marry him. The more she thought about it, the more sensible it seemed. The only alternative was running away; but Oliver had rejected that sweetly but firmly.
‘It would cause too much anxiety, hurt too many people, my family as well as yours. I don’t want us to build our life together on other people’s unhappiness.’
His gentleness was only one of the many things she loved about him.
Just the same, she thought that night, he would not accede to this plan too easily. He would argue that pregnancy would also cause great distress; he would not see that they deserved it, her blind, insensitive, hypocritical parents: hardly models of marital virtue themselves, her father with the housemaids, her mother with her lover of many years. Her sister, Caroline had told her about him, the year before, at her own coming out ball at Ashingham. Caroline had had too much champagne and was standing with Celia between dances, looking across at their parents talking animatedly to one another. Celia had said impulsively how sweet it was that they were still so happy together, in spite of the housemaids, and Caroline had said that if they were, much of the credit should go to George Paget. George Paget and his rather plain wife, Vera, were old family friends; pressed to explain precisely what she meant, Caroline said that George had been her mother’s lover for over ten years. Half shocked, half fascinated, Celia begged to be told more, but Caroline laughed at her for being so innocent and launched herelf on to the dance floor with her husband’s best friend. But next day she had relented, remorseful at disillusioning her little sister, said she mustn’t worry about it, that it wasn’t important.
‘Mama will always keep the rules.’
‘What rules?’ Celia said.
‘Society’s rules,’ said Caroline, patiently reassuring. ‘Discretion, manners, those sorts of things. She would never leave Papa. To them marriage is unshakable. What they do, what all society does, is make marriage more pleasant, more interesting. Stronger, actually, I would say.’
‘And – would – would you make your marriage more pleasant in that way?’ Celia asked and Caroline laughed and said that at the moment, hers was fairly pleasant anyway.
‘But yes, I suppose I would. If Arthur became dull, or found pleasure of his own elsewhere. Don’t look so shocked, Celia, you really are an innocent aren’t you? I heard it said the other day that Mrs Keppel, you know, the king’s mistress, has turned adultery into an art form. That seems quite a nice achievement to me.’
Celia had still felt shocked, despite the reassurance. When she got married, she knew it would be for love and for life.
So – Oliver must not realise the full extent of her plan. She knew exactly how one became pregnant; her mother had instructed her with great and unusual forthrightness on the subject when Celia had her first menstrual period, and besides, she had grown up in the country, she had seen sheep and even horses copulating, had been present at the birth of lambs, and had spent all of one night in the sweet steamy stench of the stables with her father and his groom, as her father’s favourite mare dropped her foal. She had no doubt that she would be able to persuade Oliver into making love to her; as well as being absurdly romantic, constantly sending her poems, flowers, love letters pages long, he was passionately affectionate with her, his kisses far from chaste, intensely arousing – to them both.
Celia had rather more freedom than many girls of her age. Having raised six children, her mother had become weary of the task, and was in any case extremely busy and inclined to leave Celia to her own affairs. When Oliver came for the weekend at Ashingham, invited to join one of the Beckenham house parties as Celia’s guest, they were able during the day (Oliver being quite unable to join in any sporting activities) to roam the grounds on their own and after dinner to sit in the library on their own talking. The roaming and talking had led to a great deal of kissing; Celia had found she quite literally could not have enough of it, and was yearning for more – as, quite plainly, was Oliver.
She had not experienced passion before, either in herself or any of the young men she had met; but she found she could recognise it very easily now. As easily as she had been able to recognise love. He had been very respectful of her virtue, naturally, but she was absolutely confident that she could persuade him to take their physical relationship forwards without any difficulty whatsoever. Of course he would be anxious, not only that they would be found out, but that she would become pregnant. But she could reassure him about that, tell him some lie – she wasn’t sure what; she believed there were times in the month when you were supposed not to be able to become pregnant, she had read it in some book in her mother’s room – and then when it happened – well there would be nothing more to worry about.
She was very precise in her plans: she pretended to have acquiesced to her parents’ views, to have come to see that Oliver was not the right man for her – although not too swiftly, lest she arouse their suspicion – and stayed at home dutifully for several weeks, while writing to Oliver every day. Then she went to London to stay with Caroline for a few days, ostensibly to do some shopping, and it had all been absurdly easy. Caroline had discovered that she was pregnant herself, and was wretchedly sick, totally uninterested in what her younger sister was doing, and unwilling as well as unable to chaperone her. Absences of two or three hours while Celia was officially shopping, seeing dressmakers, having fittings for the London Season, but actually discovering the raptures of being in bed with her lover, went almost unnoticed.
Celia had been right, Oliver was initially resistant to the risks of making love to her; but a mixture of emotional blackmail and a determined onslaught on his senses worked quite quickly. She would meet him at the big house in Hampstead, where he lived with his father, in the early afternoon; his father still spent every day at the publishing house, and it was easy for Oliver to pretend to be lunching with authors, or visiting artists’ studios. They would go upstairs to Oliver’s room, a big, light book-lined affair with huge windows on the first floor, overlooking the Heath, and spend the next hour or so in the rather narrow almost lumpy bed that swiftly became paradise for Celia. They found a physical delight in each other almost at once; Oliver was not exactly experienced, indeed his own knowledge had been gained at the hands of a couple of chorus girls introduced by his best friend at Oxford, but it was sufficient to guide him through Celia’s initiation. She lay there, that first time, braced for discomfort, for pain even, looking at Oliver as he took her in his arms, promising to be very careful, and found herself discovering almost at once an acute capacity for sexual pleasure.
‘It was wonderful, so wonderful,’ she said, lying back, breathing hard, drenched with sweat, smiling at Oliver, ‘I couldn’t believe it, it was like – like a great tangle somewhere deep inside me being – being sorted out.’
He kissed her, surprised, at her pleasure and at his power to grant it to her; then he poured them both a glass of champagne from the rather warm bottle he had smuggled up from his father’s cellar and they lay there for an hour telling each other how much they loved one another, before he had to return to the offices of the Lytton Publishing House in Paternoster Row, and she to her sister’s house in Kensington (stopping off first to collect a bagful of fabric samples from Woollands of Knightsbridge). Two days later, they had another tryst and two days after that yet another; then she returned home, her head filled with happy memories, her heart with more love than ever before.
She calculated (having studied the subject carefully) that she was quite likely to have become pregnant that week, but she was disappointed; it took two more visits to London before her third period most wonderfully failed to arrive and, even more wonderfully, she began to feel sick.
After that there was, despite her happiness, dreadful retribution. She faced her parents with great courage and determination, and had to face Oliver’s fear and shock as well. That was almost worse; he found himself confronting not only her condition, but a demonstration of her formidable will and what he was forced to recognise as her capacity for deceit. He had wanted to use contraceptives after the first time, but she had refused, saying they hurt her, that there was no need, she had taken advice on the subject, had talked convincingly of a douche (which she did not even possess). Oliver found her behaviour very difficult to come to terms with.
Nevertheless, through it all, through the rows, the raging, the threats of disinheritance, of banishment, of surgical intervention in the pregnancy, all of which she knew were not to be taken seriously, through the plans to which her parents finally agreed for a wedding (‘small, very small, the fewer people hear of it the better,’ Lady Beckenham had said) through Oliver’s distress and the doubt in his eyes that came close to mistrust, through her own increasing physical wretchedness, through all these things she was happy. For the rest of her life she was to remember those afternoons in the small uncomfortable bed, in the big rather cold room, filled from floor to ceiling with books, when she soared into orgasm, and then lay in Oliver’s arms, listening to him talk not only of his love for her and of their life together but of his hopes and plans for his own future within Lyttons. He told her of a wonderful new kingdom, a seemingly magical place where books were created; stories told or talked about, ideas mooted and discussed, then turned to pages within covers, authors commissioned, illustrators briefed. She felt an immediate understanding and something close to affinity with it all. Thus sex and work became permanently joined together in her heart; and were to remain so for the rest of her life.
Her father was very good at the wedding; she had to admit that. Having finally agreed to it, declared himself beaten, he had gone into it with whole-hearted generosity; he instructed the staff to prepare a lavish wedding breakfast, made a splendid speech, produced an enormous amount of champagne, and finally disappeared, ostensibly to sleep but probably, as Celia observed to Caroline, to rendezvous with the latest parlourmaid.
Lady Beckenham had behaved rather less well; she was icily courteous to the Lyttons, sat stony-faced through the speeches – particularly the one made by Oliver’s best man and older brother, Robert, who had recently emigrated to New York for a career on Wall Street, commenting in a hissing whisper to Caroline, that she considered both him and it rather common. She ignored Jack altogether, despite all his efforts to be charming and friendly to her, and looked coldly on as he flirted tirelessly with every pretty girl in the room. She spoke insultingly briefly to old Mr Edgar Lytton, who was struggling to cope with what he clearly regarded as a painful and difficult situation, and to Oliver hardly at all. Finally she pointedly settled herself down for a long time with her two eldest sons and their wives, making it plain that was where she felt her proper place to be.
But to most of the guests, and certainly to anyone looking at the official photographs afterwards, of Celia in the exquisite lace dress her father had been unable to deny her, with the Beckenham tiara in her gleaming dark hair, and Oliver so extremely handsome, by her side, it was hard to believe that the day had been anything but exceptionally happy.
The young couple honeymooned very briefly – as befitted their income and Celia’s rather fragile physical condition. At three months, she was at the peak of her pregnant misery, constantly sick, and plagued with headaches; so wretched in fact, that she was almost unable to enjoy her wedding night. They went to Bath for a week, and while they were there she suddenly began to recover, so that by the time they reached London again she felt almost well, had lost her pallor and regained her energy. It was just as well. Again greatly to his credit, Lord Beckenham had bought the young couple a house as a wedding present; it was in Cheyne Walk – he had insisted that it was not to be in Hampstead – charming, large, but in an appalling state of repair.
For the first few months of her marriage, indeed until the birth of the baby the following March, Celia was entirely occupied with restoration and refurbishment. Rapturously happy, she transformed it into something quite gloriously original. At a time when walls were heavily coloured, hangings dark, lamps dim, Celia’s house was a brilliant statement of light, somehow a reflection of the river which she loved. They were white-painted walls, curtains in bright blues and golds, pale wooden floors, and several of the new impressionist-style paintings instead of the heavy portraits and landscapes so fashionable then.
Having worked on her house all day, she would wait impatiently for Oliver’s return, and they would often dine in the morning room on the first floor, with its lovely view of the river, while she pressed him for every detail of his day.
Oliver was only able to afford the most modest staff: a very overworked cook-general and the promise of a nursemaid when the baby came, so she often made supper and served it herself, which gave her great pleasure. Quite often she insisted he brought his father home for supper. She adored Edgar Lytton; he had Oliver’s gentle courtesy, his charm, his deep poetic voice. He had also, clearly, once had the same golden looks. He was an old man now, seventy-five years old, for Oliver and Jack had been late children, the result of a second marriage. His wife had left him a year after Jack was born. But he still worked all day at Lyttons, with Oliver and the daunting Margaret, still showing the flair and business skill which had brought the publishing house its admittedly rather modest success – and said it was there that he wished to die.
‘I hope I shall be found in my office, entirely penned in by books,’ he said to her more than once, and Celia would kiss him fondly and tell him she hoped nothing of the sort would happen for a very long time.
He took her to the Lytton building in Paternoster Row at her own insistence, and was surprised and charmed by her genuine interest in it and in his stories of how he had launched the company. Lyttons was now rising to join some of the great names in London publishing, Macmillan, Constable, Dent, John Murray, but its beginnings had been extremely humble and its success entirely due to Edgar’s talents and foresight.
He had made a marriage in 1856, which was both happy and fortunate, to a Miss Margaret Jackson. Margaret’s father, George, owned a bookbinding shop that was also a printing works, and when his ambitious young son-in-law professed an interest in printing a set of poetry books to add to the educational pamphlets he was already doing well with, George encouraged him. These were followed by a history of England and by the time George died in 1860, the publishing house of Lytton-Jackson had been launched. Its greatest success was based on Margaret’s suggestion for a series of books to be published in serial form, after the style of Mr Dickens. A new and brilliant young writer was commissioned to write fifty-two weekly instalments of The Heatherleigh Chronicles, the story of a small town in the West Country, not unlike Mr Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. These made a great deal of money. The next piece of publishing inspiration was a set of school primers and then an exquisitely printed and illustrated set of Greek and Roman legends. The first editions of those books were extremely valuable; three of the five volumes owned by Lyttons were kept in the company safe.
Margaret, however died in 1875, having borne Edgar Robert and Little Margaret. Broken-hearted and lonely, Edgar then made a disastrous second marriage to Henrietta James in 1879. She was a silly vapid woman and ran away with an actor five years later, leaving behind two sons Oliver and Jack. Her defection was almost a relief to Edgar, and this intrigued Celia considerably.
‘Such a sad story’, she said, when Oliver told her, ‘but I’m so glad he did marry her, otherwise I wouldn’t have you now.’
Little Margaret showed a great flair for publishing from her earliest years; it was considered inevitable that she should follow her father into the firm. In an age where women had no rights, apart from those granted them by their husbands, and few were educated beyond the age of fifteen or so, she was highly unusual not only in winning a place at London University to read English, an almost unimaginable achievement, but in holding a highly complex and difficult job, working alongside men as their undisputed equal. Robert, on the other hand, showed no interest in publishing at all, and became a banker, sailing for America and the heady delights of Wall Street in 1900.
But Oliver, like Margaret, seemed to have printing ink in his blood. By the time he was fifteen, he was working at Lyttons in his school holidays – his father was proud to have been able to send him to Winchester – and at the age of twenty-two, down from Oxford with a first in English, he moved into what was known as the second office, as Edgar’s undisputed heir. If LM, as Little Margaret was now called (a most unsuitable name for a girl over six feet tall, with, a resounding voice and an imposing manner) resented this, she never said so or even hinted at it; she was in any case paid exactly the same salary as Oliver, and her influence was as broad as his. It was a highly successful partnership; LM’s talents were for the business side of publishing and Oliver’s for the creative.
As for Jack, he showed little interest in anything except pretty girls and certainly in nothing remotely intellectual; the army had been suggested as a career by his housemaster at Wellington, who had said he was, if nothing else, brave and extremely popular.
Celia loved Jack; they were the same age, and like her, he was a youngest child.
‘Both of us spoilt babies, and isn’t it nice?’ he said to her once.
He was extremely charming, less serious than Oliver, amusing, irresponsible, always full of fun. Oliver doted on him, but at the same time worried about his tendency to play his way through life.
‘Oliver, he’s only nineteen,’ Celia said, ‘not an old married man like you.’
However Jack had slightly redeemed himself in the family’s eyes recently; having joined the army, he had been commissioned into the 12th Royal Lancers and seemed set for a successful career. His commanding officer told Edgar that Jack appeared to have that rare combination of qualities, so essential to good soldiering which made him popular both with his men and his fellow officers. It was a long way from the bookish world of his family, but it seemed to suit him.
Celia also invited LM frequently to the house and sought her friendship. Despite her slightly daunting personality, Celia had liked her immediately. LM was almost fearsomely clever and articulate, could demolish anyone in argument, and appeared rather serious, but she was actually very good company, had a slightly quirky sense of humour and an intensely curious and ingenious mind. No one seemed to know much about her; she lived on her own, and kept her own counsel. Although she dressed rather severely, and wore her dark hair pulled starkly back, she had style and something that came close to glamour; in a crowd, she attracted attention, and men, almost to their surprise, found her attractive and even sexually disturbing.
She was very kind to Celia, if slightly sternly so, and appeared to like her, even inviting her opinion on the latest books from time to time; it also helped Celia in those early days, intellectually in awe of the family as she was that LM clearly regarded Oliver very much as a younger brother.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Oliver,’ she would say, or, ‘Oliver I sometimes wonder if you have the slightest idea what you are talking about,’ and would even occasionally catch Celia’s eye and wink at her. She was already, Celia felt, a most valuable friend.
Giles was born in March 1905. To Celia’s total astonishment, her mother (who had refused to have anything to do either with her or the house until then), arrived two days before the birth, with a large suitcase and one of the maids from Ashingham. She not only stayed with Celia throughout her labour but then remained – an immense comfort and help to her – for a month afterwards. Although she neither explained nor apologised for her earlier behaviour, Celia recognised the gesture for what it was, and accepted it gratefully.
Celia was in fact deeply shocked by the experience of childbirth. Although she bore it with stoicism, and not a sound reached Oliver’s ears as he paced the house in an agony of anxiety, she suffered very much. It was a long labour, although straightforward. She felt the first contraction at dawn on one day and was not delivered of Giles until a brilliantly bloody sunset flooded the river the following evening. It was not even the pain which distressed her, nor the exhaustion, so much as the brutality of the whole procedure, the humiliation and what appeared to be the wrenching apart of her entire body. She lay in their bed afterwards, exhausted and exsanguinite, holding Giles in arms so weak she feared she would drop him, wondering why she felt so little for him. She had expected some sort of rapture, an echo of the flood of love which she had felt for Oliver, and found only a rather dull relief that the pain had stopped. He was an ugly baby, and a large one – eight pounds – and he continued to wail for most of the rest of the night. Celia felt he could at least have rewarded her with a smile, or a nuzzle of his surprisingly dark head. When she told her mother this, Lady Beckenham snorted and said there was nothing on God’s earth as unrewarding as the human baby.
‘Or so ugly. You think of foals, lambs, puppies even, all much prettier, and a lot more interesting.’
Celia had decided – having read a great many rather modern books on the subject – to breast-feed him, but he was a finicky feeder and she found trying to thrust an agonisingly tender nipple into his ungrateful mouth so unpleasant that she handed him over with great relief to the nursemaid after two days. At least that way she got some sleep.
‘Very sensible,’ Lady Beckenham said, ‘so common, really, breastfeeding, the sort of thing the tenants do.’
But if Giles was something of a disappointment to Celia, he gave great pleasure to his father. Oliver would spend literally hours holding him, jiggling him on his knee, studying his face for family resemblances and even, to the nursemaid’s horror, giving him the occasional bottle.
The arrival of Giles prompted a truce between Oliver and Lady Beckenham; she was a naturally talkative woman and not prepared to sit with him in silence at mealtimes during Celia’s lying in. Moreover he had managed to find a topic on which he could ask her advice. Lyttons were to publish a book about the great houses of England, and since his mother-in-law had personally stayed in at least half of them, she was able to give him a great deal of information.
She had photographs sent from Ashingham of the shooting parties which she had attended and given. Oliver looked at them, at the men in their tweed suits, greatcoats and brogues, at the women in ankle-length gowns, with large hats on their heads, and realised the pictures encapsulated the 1900s, the decade already known as the Edwardian era: an era when the rich lived lavishly and with extraordinary self-indulgence. At the great houses, Lady Beckenham told Oliver, tea was a full dress meal, ladies in elaborate gowns, gentlemen in short black jackets and black ties.
‘And at dinner, seven or eight courses, full evening dress of course with decorations.’
After dinner at Cheyne Walk one night, slightly drunk on Oliver’s finest claret, she explained what she called the disposition of the bedrooms at house parties.
‘One had to know who should be near whom. The card placed on each door wasn’t just to let every guest know where to sleep, but to be a guide – if you follow me – for anyone else who needed that information.’
Oliver nodded courteously while Celia sat transfixed, waiting for further revelations, but they did not come. Her mother realised she was talking too much and retired to bed.
It was a measure of her warming attitude towards Oliver, that she actually offered to introduce him to a few owners of the great houses. Nevertheless she still did not invite him to call her by her first name.
‘I can’t think of anyone who does, except Daddy,’ Celia said, ‘and she calls him Beckenham, you know, even to this day’ but she did at least begin to address Oliver by name for the first time.
‘I still think he is a rather odd husband for Celia,’ she wrote to Lord Beckenham, ‘and a very odd father, far too involved with the baby, although one has to admit he is devoted to Celia and Giles and is certainly trying to do his best for them both. He does have a certain facility for conversation, and can be quite amusing, but I worry about his political views. He expresses some sympathy for the idea of the trades unions; I suppose that is his background and can’t be helped. I’m sure he will learn in time.’
Giles was christened in Chelsea Old Church with at least some of the splendour that Lady Beckenham had wanted for the wedding. He wore the Beckenham family christening robe, a one hundred-year-old mass of frothing lace, received the family silver spoon and teething ring from his maternal grandmother, a large cheque from his paternal grandfather, and numbered an earl and a countess among his five godparents.
‘Is it really necessary to have so many?’ Oliver had asked, and yes, Celia said, it was.
‘Caroline’s baby had four and I’m not going to be outdone by her at the christening as well as the wedding.’
Oliver didn’t quite like to point out that it had been entirely her fault their wedding had been such a low key affair; she had become slightly formidable since Giles’s birth. Something to do, he feared, with the arrival of her mother in the household.
Edgar Lytton particularly enjoyed Giles’s christening; he spent much of the time holding the baby, giving him his finger to suck, rocking him when he cried, and appeared in all the official photographs beaming with happiness. It was extremely fortunate that the day gave him so much pleasure, that it had been, as he remarked to LM later, one of the happiest of his entire life, for that night he had a heart attack and died just as dawn was breaking. Oliver was at his deathbed, summoned urgently by LM, but was never quite able to forgive himself for failing to stay and have a glass of brandy with his father after escorting him home from the christening.
‘Do stay,’ Edgar had said, ‘I don’t want the day to end.’
But Oliver had refused, said he must get back to Celia and the baby. What he was actually anxious to be getting back to was not the baby, but Celia, and moreover a Celia naked in bed, as she had whispered to him that she would be before he left Cheyne Walk. She had only just felt able to resume their lovemaking after the traumas of childbirth. To the relief of them both, it was as rapturously wonderful as ever; but it was a long time before Oliver was able to experience it without a sense of guilt and betrayal.
The other legacy of Edgar’s death, delivered into Oliver’s hands at the end of a hideously sad time, was the control and, indeed, the ownership of Lyttons.
Celia picked up a silver candlestick (being the nearest object to hand) and hurled it at the nursery door which Oliver had just closed gently behind him.
‘He’s a beast,’ she said to Giles, who was sitting placidly in his cot waiting to be taken out and dressed, ‘an old fashioned stuffy beast.’
Giles smiled at her; she glared at him for a moment, then smiled back. He had an oddly radiant smile which transformed his rather solemn little face. He was a year old now, and while still not beautiful, he was a nice looking child, with large dark eyes and brown hair. He was also extremely good; after the first fretful few months he had suddenly become an angel baby, sleeping through the night and between feeds, and when he was awake, lying gazing at the teddies which Jenny, the nursemaid, kept propped up on his cot and at the mobile of tiny cardboard birds which Celia had made and strung across it, after reading that children should be stimulated from the earliest possible moment.
He had developed a little slowly, probably, Celia felt, because he was so placid and happy with the status quo, but at thirteen months, he was doing all the requisite things, standing, and crawling in a perfectly textbook manner and saying mum-mum and dad-dad and na-na which was his name for Jenny. Jenny had proved a great success; only nineteen years old when she arrived in the household, and virtually untrained, she had swiftly become a model nursemaid, adoring Giles, while not being foolishly indulgent with him, surviving the sleepless nights and noisy days with cheerful resignation, and managing the mountain of washing and ironing for her charge with formidable energy.
After Edgar Lytton died, and Oliver became modestly well-off, there was talk of hiring what Lady Beckenham called a proper nanny, but Celia had resisted this. She would rather have a proper cook, she said, and a decent housemaid; Jenny was more than competent, and pleasant to have around, indeed Celia had come to regard her as one of her closest friends during the first difficult months of motherhood. She said as much to her mother, who replied that she hoped Celia wasn’t making the all too common modern mistake of thinking that servants could be dealt with on a friendly basis. Celia, stung by this, said Jenny had done more for her sanity since Giles’s birth than anyone else in the world, and she didn’t know where she would be without her.
‘Well, you are playing with fire,’ said Lady Beckenham tartly, ‘and I should know. Very tolerant with the first couple of Beckenham’s housemaids and simply made a rod for my own back, even expected to give houseroom to a baby, which she swore was his. Of course it wasn’t,’ she added. ‘You have to keep servants where they belong, Celia, which is at a distance, both literally and metaphorically.’
Celia said nothing more and continued to regard Jenny as a friend, and when Jenny asked her on her twentieth birthday if she could be called Nanny now, Celia was quite hurt.
‘Jenny’s your name, that’s how I think of you, why do you suddenly want to be called Nanny?’
‘It’s the other girls, Lady Celia, the other nursemaids and the uniformed nannies in Kensington Gardens. They think it’s very odd you call me by my name. And I’d like to be called Nanny, it would make me feel proud. As if I had a proper job, wasn’t just a nursery maid.’
‘Oh – all right,’ said Celia, ‘I’ll try and remember.’
But it wasn’t until Giles started calling Jenny by his pet name that she made a real effort, again at Jenny’s request, and still felt hurt at what she felt was a rejection of her friendship.
The reason for the hurled candlestick that morning had been Oliver’s second refusal to let her play even a modestly active role at Lyttons. Celia was bored; she found domestic life and motherhood intellectually unsatisfying. She was extremely intelligent and she knew it. Moreover she was becoming well-read; during the long days of her pregnancy she had pored over the works of Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, George Eliot; she also devoured the daily papers, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, and had persuaded Oliver to take out subscriptions to the Spectator and the Illustrated London News, so that she had a better grasp of current affairs. She also, with great daring, occasionally bought the Daily Mirror; among other things she shared with Oliver was a degree of social idealism. It was one of the first things she had loved about him and found fascinating.
She had read the writings of such people as Sydney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells and found that what they had to say about social injustice made absolute sense to her. She and Oliver had agreed that they would vote for the Labour Party in the next election, and spent long evenings in the small downstairs sitting-room at Cheyne Walk discussing the rise of Socialism, the increasing role that the state should play in improving the lot of ordinary people, and how to combat the poverty which underpinned the wealth of the upper and middle classes. It was for Celia, at least, largely an emotional reaction; part of her stormy move away from her roots, a discovery of yet another new world which appealed to her idealistic heart.
But she also wanted to do more than run her household and care for her child; she found the company of her immediate circle dull at best. Gossip, except of a very high calibre, bored her; she hated cards, she even grew tired of shopping, and although she enjoyed entertaining and giving dinner parties, these hardly filled her days and certainly didn’t employ her brain. Neither, for that matter, did playing with Giles.
Oliver’s life, on the other hand, fascinated her; she read all the literary reviews in the papers and the magazines, and whenever Lyttons gave a party for an author, or to launch a new series, she felt herself in heaven. She loved talking to writers, liked their odd blend of self-confidence and self-doubt, never tired of hearing how they wrote their books, where their ideas came from, what inspired them. She found illustrators equally fascinating. She had a strong visual sense; changing fashions in design and colour particularly intrigued her. Often, rather than go to yet another tea party, she would wander round the Victoria and Albert museum or the Tate Gallery; she had books on the work of the great art nouveau masters, Aubrey Beardsley, Mucha, Boldini, and was au fait with the more modern artists such as Augustus John and Duchamp. And then she loved Lyttons itself; the big imposing building in Paternoster Row with its wonderfully grand entrance hall leading into a series of untidy dusty rooms, with battered old desks where Oliver, Margaret, and other senior members of staff worked. The place felt like a library and study combined from the huge basement where the books were stored and where a tiny wooden train whizzed truckloads of books around on a metal railway line, to the wrought iron spiral staircase at the back, which rose dizzily up the full height of the building.
Edgar had been well off rather than rich when he died; he had left only £40,000 to be shared between his four children, but the value of Lyttons was considerable. Assets consisted not only of the books themselves and the worth of the authors under contract, but the very substantial building which Edgar had shrewdly bought with the money left to him and Margaret by George Jackson.
Celia had become more and more fond of LM. Where she could have met with hostility and condescension, intruding as she did into a very tightly bonded professional and personal relationship, she found only friendship and a genuine interest in her. And LM, too, shared the new liberal attitude to society which had so charmed her in Oliver. Their friends intrigued her too: they were not quite part of the bohemian set so prominent in London at that time, their lives and concerns were a little too commercially based for that, but they were intellectual, free-thinking people, given to rich conversation and with attitudes and views which would have shocked the Beckenhams. It was meeting those people, writers, artists, lecturers, other publishers, that made her daytime friends, as she thought of them, seem so unsatisfactory and so dull; and that had led, indirectly, to the candlestick being hurled at the nursery door.
‘I want a job,’ she said to Oliver, ‘I want to use my brain. I think you should let me come and work at Lyttons.’
The first time she made the suggestion he had been almost shocked; it surprised her, for many of the women she had met through him worked for their living.
‘But you are my wife,’ he said, his blue eyes quite pained as he looked at her, ‘I want you to be in our home, taking care of our son, not out in the rough world of publishing.’
Celia said it didn’t seem very rough to her, and had argued her case for some time. ‘You don’t have any women on the editorial side, and I think you should. I might not be much use at first, but I’d learn quickly. And I’d love it so much, darling, darling Oliver, working alongside you, being part of all your life, not just the dull bit at home.’
Oliver had said, even more pained, that he was sorry she found home life so dull; Celia told him he should sample it for himself and then he would see what she meant, and that she found it almost insulting that he should consider her suited to it. They had quarrelled quite badly after that, and only made up in bed, as they always did; she had left it for a little while, and then tried again, that very morning; Oliver’s response had been exactly the same, the pain mixed this time with some irritation.
‘My darling, I told you before, you’re my wife. And the mother of my son. And—’
‘So that excludes me from doing anything more challenging than seeing to the laundry and singing nursery rhymes, does it?’
‘Of course not. You know I value you far more highly than that.’
‘Then prove it. Let me show you my real value: working with you, making Lyttons even more successful than it already is . . .’
‘Celia, you know nothing about publishing.’
‘That’s a ridiculous argument. I could learn.’
‘It isn’t quite as easy as that,’ he said, and she could see he felt defensive; it amused and annoyed her at the same time.
‘I suppose you think I’m not capable of it.’
‘No of course I don’t. But—’
‘Then why not? Because I’m your wife?’
‘Well – yes. Yes, that’s right.’
‘And that’s the only reason?’
‘Is that the only reason, Oliver?’
‘Celia, I don’t want you working outside our home.’
‘But why not?’
‘Because I want you supporting me from inside it. That’s far more valuable.’
‘So a wife shouldn’t work. Is that what you’re saying?’
He hesitated. Then, ‘Yes. Yes it is,’ he said, very firmly. ‘And now I must go.’ And walked out, shutting the door rather loudly behind him.
Later that day, LM walked into Oliver’s office.
‘I want to talk to you,’ she said.
‘Oh yes? What about?’
‘Celia? If she’s been talking to you—’
‘She has, yes,’ said LM calmly. ‘Isn’t that permitted?’
‘About her working here? I’ve told her, I will not have it, she has no right to bother you about it.’
‘Oliver, you sound alarmingly like Lord Beckenham,’ said LM. ‘I’m surprised at you. Celia has every right to telephone me if she wants to. You don’t own her, and I hope you don’t think that you do. Anyway, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Celia hasn’t even mentioned working here. She simply telephoned me to say that she’d been thinking about the letters of Queen Victoria which John Murray are about to publish. I’d told her I thought it was a marvellous coup, so she suggested that we commission a biography of the queen, to coincide with their publication. It seemed to her that we might benefit from all their advance publicity. I think that shows a rare combination of editorial and commercial sense. It’s a marvellous idea and I’m convinced we should go ahead with it. And if Celia did ever want to work here, I, for one, would encourage it greatly. We would be foolish to reject her. Now, you might like to consider who should write this book; in my opinion, it should be put in hand immediately. Oh I hope you’re not going to turn the idea down because of some outdated idea about wives and where their place might be . . . yes, I thought so. I see I have struck home. Really Oliver! I’m shocked at you.’
When Oliver arrived home that night, Celia was not downstairs. She heard him moving from room to room looking for her; finally he opened their bedroom door, his expression a mixture of irritation and anxiety. It changed then; she was sitting up in bed naked, her long dark hair trailing loosely over her shoulders and on to her breasts.
‘I’m sorry if I made you angry,’ she said after a moment, holding out her hand to him. ‘I only, truly, wanted to be of use to you. Please come and join me, I can’t bear to be quarrelling with you all the time like this.’
He did what she said, as she knew he would; he was still completely unable to resist her. Later, over a rather belated dinner, he said slightly awkwardly, that LM had persuaded him that perhaps he had been wrong, and he should consider allowing her to work at Lyttons. She did not take issue with the word allow; her triumph was too fragile to risk.
Looking back, she saw the evening as the major turning point in their relationship: more important in some ways even than the one when she had told him she was pregnant. She had defeated him, just as she had defeated her parents, by a mixture of deviousness and determination. From then on, she had her way: both at home and, more importantly to her, at Lyttons.
Celia moved into Lyttons a month later; she was given a modest office on the second floor which she turned into her own small kingdom, with a large leather-topped desk, on which she installed several silver-framed pictures of Giles, an exquisite library lamp, and a small portable typewriter. The walls were hung with framed book covers and Mucha posters, and on either side of the small fireplace she put two leather-covered button-backed sofas.
‘So that I can talk to writers in a relaxed atmosphere,’ she said to Oliver.
Oliver, who was still not entirely comfortable with the arrangement, said rather stiffly that it would be quite a while before she was talking to writers.
‘You have to learn the basics of publishing first, Celia, it’s imperative you understand that.’
Celia said meekly that of course she did, and worked goodtemperedly and patiently for some time on all the more tedious tasks which came her way: and a great many of them there were too, she had a suspicion that Oliver fed her more proofs to check and manuscripts to mail out for approval than he did to the other editors, but she didn’t care. She was totally besotted with her new life; it was like a love affair. She woke up longing to be with it again, and left the office later and later, reluctant to part from it, often missing Giles’s bedtime. She tried to keep this from Oliver; she knew it would upset him. He had only agreed to her joining Lyttons on the understanding that it would not come too seriously between her and Giles. Jenny, who had been given a pay rise and a rather grand new uniform in honour of the new arrangement, and was very happy indeed with it, was often obliged to cover up for her mistress, implying, where a conversation with Oliver required it, that Celia had arrived home far earlier than she actually had.
Celia was paid a salary: one hundred pounds a year, all of which she passed directly to Jenny. Both Oliver and LM had agreed that it was essential her position at Lyttons was on an official basis. The other staff, initially suspicious of her, irritated by her appointment, came swiftly to accept her; she worked so hard and so uncomplainingly, never pulled rank, made appointments to see Oliver and LM like everyone else in the building, agreed, publicly at least, with everything Oliver said, and made so many good suggestions that it was impossible for them not to appreciate her presence. Although Lyttons was an important publishing house, extremely well-regarded both for its innovative approach and its high standards, it was small, especially on the editorial side, employing only two senior editors and two juniors; an extra brain, and one of such high calibre, was very welcome.
Celia was a superb proof reader; she never missed a single typographical or grammatical error while remaining sensitive to every writer’s style. She even quietly pointed out errors in detail or sequence, such as when a character left the house on foot and yet arrived at his destination by hansom cab, or had a father who died a few months before the onset of a fatal illness. The first time she noticed a mistake of this kind, she was shocked, surprised that a powerful creative intelligence could co-exist with such incompetence. Oliver told her it was extremely common.
‘They get carried away with the excitement of telling the stories, and then can’t be bothered, when the work is finished, to go through the tedious business of checking. We once had a two-year pregnancy in a published novel; carry on your good work, my darling, we need it.’
He came round quite slowly to her being at Lyttons; he still felt manipulated into it, and the knowledge made him angry. On the other hand, she did have an inordinate number of good ideas. Her most successful was a series of simply written medical books, aimed primarily at mothers, incorporating tips for diagnosis, first aid, and simple precautionary advice against infection. It was such a great success that LM went into Oliver’s office, shut the door behind her, and told him that the annual profits of Lyttons would be boosted by at least five per cent and that Celia should be rewarded: ‘Either financially, which I doubt she would value, or by increased status. Make her an editor, Oliver; you won’t regret it, I’m quite sure.’
Oliver said there could be no question of Celia becoming an editor so soon, others in the firm had had to work there for years before attaining such a position, and she had only been there for just over twelve months. LM who told him he was being pompous and biting off his nose to spite his face (she was rather given to clichés) nevertheless conceded. However, when the biography of Queen Victoria went into its sixth printing, and Celia suggested a companion volume about Prince Albert, to be sold as a bound set with the first, as a Christmas gift, things changed. She found herself sitting in Oliver’s office, with a glass of madeira wine in her hand, being asked it she felt able to accept a new position as junior editor with a special interest in biographies. Celia smiled sweetly first at her husband and then at LM, and said that she did indeed feel able, promised to work very hard indeed and hoped that they would not regret their decision.
Oliver said later that night, rather stiffly, that he would regret the decision on one basis and one basis only: if Giles were to suffer from a lack of attention.
He was devoted to Giles; fatherhood, despite its rather precipitant entry into his life, had made him extremely happy and given him a confidence that he had lacked before. He found watching Giles turning from baby into little boy and observing his development, extraordinarily fascinating. He loved to hear the shout of, ‘Daddy, Daddy, hallo, hallo,’ each night, which was Giles’s special greeting to him (Celia only got a single, ‘Hallo Mummy’) and loved to have him on his knee, singing and playing with him, looking at picture books.
Celia promised him that Giles would continue to receive as much of her attention and time as he needed, and then proceeded to break her promise on an almost daily basis as she fell into her new world and work with a passion and a delight which surprised even her. Fortunately for her, and for the time being at least, Oliver did not notice and Giles was unable to complain.
Four days late now. Or was it five? Yes, five. Five days without it. Without the wonderful, reassuring, blessed pain and mess and extra work; five days of a growing fearful worry; five days of trying to face what it meant; five days of trying to imagine what they could possibly do.
If only she’d said no; if only. She knew when it had been; that Saturday night, when he’d had the glass of beer and everyone had been asleep. She hadn’t wanted to, of course she hadn’t; but he’d been so good, he worked so hard, was so generous to them all, and uncomplaining.
‘Come on old girl,’ he’d whispered, ‘just quickly now. I’ll be very careful, I’ll pull out.’
It hadn’t seemed fair to refuse him. He didn’t have many other pleasures in life.
Sylvia sighed and heaved the bucket of grubby water up on to the table to soak the baby’s nappies. That was what she did, soaked them in the water she’d already used; she’d only washed a few things that day, in any case, just the baby’s things and the boys’ shirts. It would save her going out to the yard for clean water twice. It was hard work, that. And tonight Ted was going to want his bath. It being Friday. He needed more water than the children; it meant two more trips out to the tap, and then heaving the pans on to the stove to heat the water for the tub. Sylvia felt weary even thinking about it. Although maybe the strain might bring it on. It had happened before. She must try not to think about it, about her missing monthly. The more you thought about it, the more it could delay it. Once she’d been almost sure, then the baby had got a fever and she’d been so worried, she forgot and sure enough, next day, there it was.
She sighed, and looked at the clock which stood on the table. It had been her mother’s, that clock; it kept good time in spite of being so old. It was already seven o’clock. Ted had been gone half an hour. She’d nursed the baby while he had his breakfast, and if she was quick now, she could sweep the floor before she woke the other children. And maybe get their bread and dripping on the table. The main thing was to keep the ex-baby in bed as long as possible. He was such a problem, was Frank, such a large, energetic child. Sylvia hated having to restrain him in the high chair, but it really seemed the only thing to do for most of the day. That or tying him to the table leg. It was just too dangerous, with the stove alight, and the hot water on it in the big pans, to have him crawling about. And he was trying to stand now, he’d pull it over on himself if she wasn’t careful. She would really make an effort today, to finish her work by the time the children went back to school after dinner, so Frank could crawl round the front steps. Or maybe if she didn’t manage that, perhaps one of the older ones would take him out down the street for her. Poor little chap. He cried a lot. It must be very dull for him.
Sylvia and Ted Miller lived in Lambeth, with their five children. They had one quite large room about twelve foot square, and one smaller one, in the basement of a house in Line Street, one of several like it off Kennington Lane. Steps in the front of the house from a tiny hall led up to the street. The back room led straight outside to the yard which housed the tap, the privy, and a hanging larder which kept the milk and dripping and so on cool – in the winter at least. In the summer, it didn’t work too well.
Sylvia, Ted, the baby and Frank, the ex-baby, slept in the larger room which doubled up as kitchen and temporary bathroom twice a week. Frank shared their bed, the baby slept in the bottom drawer of the large chest-of-drawers bequeathed to them by Sylvia’s mother. It stored their clothes, some food, and indeed most of their other posessions. On one side of the room, facing the bed, was the coal-burning stove, and there was just room for a small folding table under the window and the big old high chair that had been Sylvia’s mother’s.
The family ate in shifts; there was no room at the table for them all to sit at any one time and, anyway, there were only two chairs. The children usually ate standing up, or sitting on their parents’ bed. The three older children slept in the small room, in a large bed, top to tail like sardines in a tin. There was room, Sylvia reckoned, for one more child in that bed, for Frank when the baby finally outgrew her drawer. After that – Sylvia resolutely turned her mind away from after that. It was possible to make a cot out of a banana crate, lots of the families did that, and there was just room for it in the back bedroom.
Ted worked in a city warehouse, an hour’s walk away; he did a twelve-hour day, and was paid twenty-three shillings a week. It was said in the district that as long as you earned about a pound a week, you could manage; the minute you dropped under that, even to nineteen shillings and eleven pence, you were in trouble. The rent was seven shillings a week, and the family spent another shilling a week on coal. It was a lot, but then the basement was cold and damp; that was the drawback of the low rent. Sylvia’s friend, Joan, who lived just beyond the Oval, had three upstairs rooms, seven children and managed on far less coal. Still, Sylvia wouldn’t have swapped places with her; Ted was so kind and gentle, had hardly ever hit any of the children, and had certainly never hit her.
He had even given up smoking years ago, and scarcely ever drank. Although if he did, he changed a bit. Joan’s husband had a terrible temper; he beat the children if they were naughty, or even cheeky, with a leather belt, and if Joan didn’t have his dinner ready, or his breakfast, for that matter, when he came through in the morning, he hit her too. And although he earned more than Ted, as much as thirty shillings in a good week, he spent up to a shilling on drink.
Ted and Sylvia had been married for eight years now; and they were still happy. Life wasn’t exactly easy of course, but their children were all healthy, and the three at school were doing well, could all read and write their names and the oldest, Billy, was really good at his numbers. And it was a nice street they lived in, very few troublemakers, everyone ready to lend a hand to everyone else. The landlord wasn’t too bad either; twice when Ted had got behind with the rent, once because the baby was ill and they’d had to pay the doctor, once when Ted himself was ill and off work for three weeks, he’d given them time to pay. Being thrown out on the street was not something Sylvia worried about. Finding room for them all, within their few, constricting walls, keeping them healthy with the constant damp, keeping them clean with the high cost of soap and of heating water, keeping the housebugs at bay, those were the daily problems she had to cope with. Somehow, with Ted’s kindness and patience, she managed, and managed to stay fairly cheerful as well. But she was very much afraid that if she was in the family way again, she might not be able to.
She couldn’t be. She simply couldn’t be. Not now. Not just when everything was so much better; not when her work was so wonderfully enthralling and satisfying; not when she was feeling happy and strong; she just couldn’t be. Of course she wasn’t. It was only a few days late. Probably because they’d been so busy lately. Yes that must be it. And worrying about it of course. That always held it up. But – well she knew when it had happened. If she was. The night after a literary dinner where Oliver had been the guest speaker. He had been terribly nervous, had rehearsed his speech for days. She’d listened patiently, making suggestions, admiring this turn of phrase, that literary reference, all the jokes. It had been at the Garrick, so she hadn’t been able to go. He had got ready, dressed in his white tie and tails – it had been that grand – in silence. He had been white-faced, clearly felt sick.
‘You mustn’t worry,’ she’d said, going over to him, putting her arms round him, ‘you’ll be marvellous. I know you will. And I shall sit here, thinking about you and just willing you through it.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he’d said, ‘but you don’t understand, so many marvellous people are going to be there, all the giants of our business, Macmillan, John Murray, Archibald Constable, Joseph Malaby Dent . . . it will be David and Goliath, Celia, I really don’t know—’
‘Oliver,’ she said almost severely, ‘that is an absurd thing to say. You know perfectly well David slew Goliath. As you will tonight. Now give me a kiss and let me do your tie. You know you can never do it when you’re nervous. There. You look wonderful. So handsome. And more important, very impressive and – and literary. Now go along, my darling. And don’t forget to pause at the end of each paragraph. Don’t hurry it. Let them enjoy it, savour it.’
She sat, as she had promised, in her small sitting-room on the first floor, reading, thinking of him, when she heard the car pull up in front of the house – very late – after one. She ran down the stairs two at a time. He came in the door, threw his hat down on a chair, looked at her solemnly for a moment, then smiled.
‘It was marvellous. I probably shouldn’t say it, but it was. The whole thing was magnificent. What an occasion! If only, if only my father had been there to see it.’
‘Come upstairs,’ she said, taking his hand, ‘I want to hear about every moment of it. Every single moment.’
‘You’re so good to me,’ he said kissing the top of her head, ‘to me and for me. I could never have done it without you. Never. And you’ve stayed up waiting for me all this time. You must be so tired.’
‘I’m not a bit tired,’ she said, ‘and of course I couldn’t have gone to bed. Now I mean it, every single moment—’
Later, empowered by happiness and triumph, he had made love to her. She had lain in bed, waiting for him, excited, both physically and mentally, had felt her body lurch with pleasure at the first touch of him. She had been impatient, hungry, the ecstasy had been huge, intense, straight away; she reached one orgasm swiftly, felt herself rise, crying out, to touch the next. Too good, too strong, too overpowering even to pause to think of the consequences, never mind take any kind of action, but as her body finally quietened, fell into peace, she did think, with a touch of panic, that it was exactly, exactly the very time she was most likely to conceive. And – well maybe she had. And if she had – Celia wrenched her mind away from her biology and tried to concentrate on what was going on.
It was the weekly editorial meeting, and she had an idea to propose. A very good idea. She was nervous about that as well. Waiting for her turn to speak, her heart was thumping so hard she was sure that nice Richard Douglas, the senior literary editor sitting next to her, must be able to hear it. She always tried not to show emotion in the office. It wasn’t fair. Apart from LM, she was the only woman, and if you were going to work as men’s equal, then you must behave like one too. But this was very difficult. It would be even more difficult if Oliver turned the idea down.
He shouldn’t; of course he shouldn’t. If he did, it would only be because she had proposed it. He was still inclined to do that, even now. Even now that she had several successful books either out, or in the process of coming out. He seemed to feel he had to: not because he resented her success, he was very proud of that, but because he was so anxious to be fair. Not to favour her in any way. Not to abuse his position. She liked that in a way, but on another level it irritated her dreadfully. Because it actually wasn’t fair. She tried to take it well, tried not to refer to it even, when they were at home together, or travelling back from the office, in the motor car Lord Beckenham had insisted on giving them for their last Christmas present.
Oliver had tried to resist it, but she had persuaded him it would be unkind and hurtful.
‘He really likes you so much, Oliver, Mama told me so. Ever since Giles was born, he’s thought you were wonderful. He wants to help. And it would be enormously helpful anyway, to have a car. I hate always having to catch the bus, especially in the evening. It makes me late for Giles.’
This was quite untrue, since if she was late leaving the office (supposedly never after half past four these days) and she couldn’t find a bus, she simply took a hansom cab. She argued to herself that it was an entirely appropriate call on her salary, but she knew it would annoy Oliver, who was naturally careful with money, a legacy from a childhood when everyone had talked constantly about his mother’s extravagance. It upset him, those references. Even though he couldn’t remember his mother, he had felt in some way that her behaviour reflected badly back on him; and it had left him with a strong resolve to behave quite differently. He feared greatly, and sometimes even expressed the view, that Jack took after her.
LM, who was even more thriftily inclined, walked to work most days. She had sold the big house on Fitzjohns Avenue which her father had left her, bought a far more modest one in Keats Grove, and had adopted a mode of dress on her thirtieth birthday - long skirt, white shirt, coloured cravat and neatly tailored jacket – which was never to alter for the rest of her life, and which saved her from having to keep up with (and therefore spending money on) fashionable clothes.
Celia, who adored clothes, and spent a great deal of money on them, mostly with the allowance from her father, found this almost impossible to understand, but she did feel that LM, rather perversely, looked very nice in her uniform. It flattered her tall but distinctly shapely figure, and the large, loosely knotted cravats in a range of brilliant colours set off her strong, dramatic features, her large dark eyes. LM clearly took after her mother, Celia thought. Oliver’s golden looks came from Edgar. No one would ever have dreamed they were half brother and sister. Robert on the other hand, she remembered thinking at the wedding, could have been LM’s twin. Celia had liked Robert; she wished they saw more of him. He had, despite his rather serious manner, a wonderful and rather wicked sense of humour. He was apparently becoming extremely rich, in his tall building in New York’s financial district. Half the mothers in New York must be after him for their daughters.
‘Yes, Celia?’ Oliver was saying. She jumped. She really should concentrate harder in meetings. She found it rather difficult, even when she wasn’t worrying about her biology. Her mind roamed around as they discussed costings and publication dates and the wording of Lyttons’ entry in the Writers and Artists Year Book, a new work of reference for writers, illustrators and publishers.
She looked at Oliver and flushed; he was wearing his sternest, I-am-not-giving-you-any-special-concessions-just-because-you-are-my-wife expression.
‘I think you had an idea to discuss?’ he said.
‘Yes. Yes, I have. Actually. I – well I was thinking about the Everyman series.’
‘We’ve all been thinking about that,’ said Oliver heavily. The new Everyman imprint, launched by Joseph Malaby Dent, was pledged to publish a cheap library of the greatest works ever written. And it was doing well; self-improvement was very much on the agenda in these times of social change.
‘I think we should launch a series of biographies. Equally cheap. About the outstanding men – and women, of course, lots of them – in history. I think it would do extremely well. I don’t think we should necessarily run it chronologically, because people are so much more interested in more recent figures. Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Mr Dickens himself, would all be wonderful subjects. Lord Melbourne even; everything to do with Queen Victoria still seems to attract great attention. Henry Irving, Mrs Siddons, there are so many. And we could commission an original illustration for each one, as a frontispiece, and—’
She stopped; everyone was staring at her. Their faces were unreadable. She flushed, faltered, then went on.
‘And maybe those illustrations could be offered separately with each book. As a promotional item. And each book could contain an advertisement for the next one at the end. And I thought we could launch the series through The Times book club, make a virtue of the beastly thing, perhaps offer a bigger discount than usual . . .’
‘Oh no,’ said Oliver firmly, interrupting her. ‘Definitely not. Nothing would persuade me to do that.’
Celia felt rather sick; she looked at him. He was looking sterner than ever. She’d been sure, so sure this was a good idea. So sure, indeed, that she hadn’t even sounded him out in private beforehand, as she sometimes did. She should have done. Saved herself this kind of humiliation. She looked down at her shoes. They were very nice shoes or rather short boots, in grey leather with black buttons at the side. She’d been really excited when she’d found them. They looked wonderful with her new grey skirt and jacket.
‘Pretty shoes,’ Giles had said when she’d gone up to see him, wearing them for the first time. ‘Pretty Mummy.’
She’d been so pleased at that. Absurdly pleased. Maybe she should give up on her career, for a while at any rate, immerse herself again in the more normal business of life like buying clothes and playing with her child. Then it wouldn’t matter if she – well if she was pregnant. Everything would be safer, easier. In fact—
‘Absolutely brilliant idea,’ Richard Douglas was saying, ‘really quite, quite brilliant, Celia. What a clever girl you are. What do you think, LM?’
‘I agree with you,’ said LM. ‘The market for biography is very large. It could run for years. Always new people coming along. Or rather, leaving.’
‘What on earth do you mean, leaving?’ said Oliver. He looked rather irritable.
‘Dying,’ said LM briskly, ‘every obit is a potential new subject. I even agree about The Times book club, Celia.’
‘I said no,’ said Oliver.
‘Well – maybe not.’ LM smiled at him. The Times book club was not so much a thorn in every publisher’s side as a dagger. Formed in 1905 to increase circulation of the paper, it offered books to members of their reading library – supplied at a discount by publishers – which were then sold on cheaply as used books even after only two or three borrowings. ‘But we would certainly value the exposure they offer. Celia, it’s a splendid idea. I really am most impressed.’
‘I agree with you about launching the series with more recent subjects,’ said Richard Douglas. ‘In fact, we might even make the whole thing alphabetical. What about that?’
‘Couldn’t keep that up,’ said Oliver, ‘you’d get some new subject with a name beginning with A and then where would you be?’
‘I do like the library idea though,’ said Celia earnestly, ‘so that it is something people collect. Build up. Maybe the spines could have letters on them, quite large, I mean, above the title. So that people could file them and find them easily.’
‘Possibly, yes,’ said Richard. ‘I see this as having altogether a very strong graphic style. Don’t you, Oliver?’
‘What? Oh – yes. Yes indeed.’
Celia looked at him again; he was finding this difficult, finding it hard not to feel jealous. She must be careful.
‘Fairly lyrical, I think,’ said Richard, ‘the style, I mean. Art nouveau, I would suggest. And the binding, possibly dark blue. I’ll get the studio to mock some things up. We mustn’t waste time on this. Definitely get the first two or three out for Christmas. I like the idea of selling the illustrations separately, Celia. My goodness. What a clever girl you are.’
He had a tendency to sound patronising; he did then. Celia knew he didn’t mean to. And he had been more encouraging to her than Oliver had. But there was always an element of surprise expressed in any praise he gave her: that she, a woman, could have strong, clever ideas.
She felt clever: clever and strong. What had she been thinking of, ten minutes earlier: something about staying at home, giving up work? Absurd. Totally absurd.
‘We must find a name for it,’ said LM, ‘the imprint that is. Any ideas for that, Celia?’
‘Well—’ she hesitated, looked round. She had of course: a wonderful idea. But they were most unlikely to like that as well, surely.
‘Well, I thought – I thought – Biographica. What do you think?’
Another silence. Then LM said, ‘I think that’s marvellous, Celia. Very, very strong, simple, memorable. Moreover—’ she hesitated – ‘moreover, I think we should consider letting it be your responsibility. Your own imprint. Would you agree, Oliver?’
It was a bold suggestion; she was the only person who could have made it; being a Lytton, not being married to Celia, and of course not having any editorial territory of her own to defend. Celia stared fixedly at the grey boots again. Of course Oliver would never agree to that, to her looking after the series.
‘Well – well, we could consider that, I suppose,’ Oliver said. He cleared his throat. ‘As long as other senior people are happy with it, of course. I wouldn’t like the decision to be taken here and now in this room.’
‘Why ever not?’ said LM briskly. ‘We three make all the major decisions. I don’t recall you getting Mr Bond’s agreement, down in accounts, to the launching of the new Heatherleighs, or Miss Birkett’s to the medical series. That was Celia’s, too. Good gracious, Celia, we shall have to look to our laurels, if we are not to see you in complete control of Lyttons soon.’
Celia smiled at her; she felt she could have flown through the air. But then she looked at Oliver again and he was patently struggling to smile, to look good-humoured. This was hard for him. She had to show him she still felt quite clearly that he was in charge.
‘I absolutely agree with Oliver,’ she said, ‘this is not a decision to be taken here. Not while I’m here, even. But of course I’m really pleased you all like the idea so much. And I would love to be properly involved, with it. Please.’
She could feel Oliver easing, saw his face relax, and returned his swift, careful smile. It was a long time, she suddenly realised, since he had had a really strong idea of his own.
‘Ted,’ whispered Sylvia, ‘Ted, I’ve got something to tell you.’
‘What? What’s that?’ His voice sounded startled, confused. He was always so exhausted at bedtime, that he fell asleep at once. Except very occasionally. Pity he hadn’t that night.
‘Ted, I’m – well, I’m in the family way. Again. I—’
‘What?’ He sat up, shocked into wakefulness, forgetting to be quiet, ‘Oh, Sylvia, no. Oh, dear, oh dear girl. How’d that happen?’
‘Usual way, I suppose,’ she said, managing to sound light-hearted, even in her anxiety and with the nausea which was always worse in the evening than the mornings. Probably just as well.
‘But I was so – well, I thought I was any road – so careful. Oh dear.’
‘I know, Ted. But – it does happen so easy. Doesn’t it?’
There was a long silence. Then, ‘When?’
‘Christmas. Thereabouts anyway . . .’
‘What are we going to do?’
‘I don’t know. Well, I’ve thought a bit. We can just manage – just this time. Put Frank in the other room, in an orange crate. Then Marjorie can come in with us. And the new one in the drawer.’
‘I s’pose. Yes.’ There was another pause. ‘How you feeling?’
‘Not too bad. Tired.’
‘I’m sorry, old girl,’ he said, ‘very sorry. I won’t let it happen again. I swear.’
Sylvia was touched; she leaned over and kissed him, trying not to disturb Frank.
‘It was my fault as well,’ she said, untruthfully implying that she had been as enthusiastic as he. She felt he’d earned that much at least. And they’d never be able to cope if they started quarrelling.
She was pregnant, as she had known of course that she must be. And having once got used to the idea, and despite the sickness and the lassitude, she was pleased. Of course it helped with Oliver; made him less touchy about her working at Lyttons. And very happy, of course: happy and proud.
He was not so foolish as to suggest Celia might consider staying at home, at least for a while, but he did say he thought she should take things a little easy, and perhaps work shorter days; Celia (rather to his surprise) agreed that it might be a good idea and then, entranced by her new job and its new responsibilities, anxious to prove herself worthy of it, proceeded to work harder and for longer hours even than before. Three months later, LM found her curled up with pain on her office floor; that night she miscarried the baby, a little girl, and lost so much blood that it was feared for twenty-four hours that she might not live.
Oliver, as angry with her for putting herself at risk as he was distressed at the child’s loss, forbade her to work at all until further notice; Celia, weak and wretched, could only feebly agree. The doctor, having established to his satisfaction that there was no serious physical cause for the miscarriage, that she had not had a fever, and that there were no indications of any tumours, ‘although she might have a weakness in the neck of her womb’, said that in his opinion it was a simple case of what he called over strain.
‘Nature intends you to rest while your baby matures,’ he said sternly, ‘not rush about putting an undue burden on your body.’
He prescribed a strong tonic for her, containing a great deal of iron, and complete bed rest for at least two weeks, had a quiet word with Oliver as to the danger of another impregnation taking place too soon, and warned Celia that once a miscarriage had taken place, there was a very real danger of it happening again at the same point in any subsequent pregnancy.
‘Your womb may have a weakness; it will expand as long as its unhealthy condition will permit and than will relieve itself of the baby, unless you are very careful indeed. No lifting, even of books, no running up and down stairs. I always advise against opening windows, that sort of thing.’
Celia nodded dully at him and didn’t speak.
She recovered physically quite quickly, but mentally suffered severe depression, lying in bed, in an uncharacteristic lethargy, crying a great deal, staring up at the ceiling with blank eyes, fearing, indeed knowing that this was the price she was paying for her crushing ambition. She was hostile to everyone around her – with the rather surprising exception of Jack.
He arrived home on leave while she was still in bed and spent many hours sitting with her. Being emotionally uninvolved, and in any case, cheerful and uncomplicated, he was simply sweetly sympathetic, which was exactly what she needed. He told her funny stories about life in the mess, played draughts and various uncomplicated card games with her and generally made her feel something like normal again. The night before he was due to leave, he found her weeping copiously; too upset to pretend, she told him she was dreading being without him again. Touched and sad, Jack got on to her bed and sat with her in his arms, promised to write regularly, and even offered to sing her a whitewashed version of a few barrack room songs, if she thought that would cheer her up.
That made her first giggle and then cry again, but less desperately; finally she fell asleep in his arms, her head on his shoulder, whereupon he crept away, leaving a funny message pinned to her pillow about being afraid of Oliver challenging him to pistols at dawn if he found them together. She often thought of that in the years to come, of his kindness and sweetness and what a good friend he had been to her – and of how extremely depressed she must have been, not to have found him attractive . . .
But once he had gone, she lapsed back into misery and into a growing difficulty with Oliver and with her marriage. She felt, indeed knew, that Oliver blamed her for the miscarriage; he was withdrawn from her, refused to discuss how he felt, and indeed when he did visit her room, was more inclined to sit making polite conversation or even reading, than showing her any kind of understanding or comfort. One night she found a book called Women in Health and Sickness, rather pointedly laid open on her dressing-table. Celia put down her hairbrush and read, ‘Women’s sphere is not to sparkle in the realms of literature, but to shine with a clear, steady and warm light in the home’, then ‘a healthy body with a fairly informed mind is preferable to an overtstocked brain and a delicate frame’. Oliver had obviously left it for her; she cried almost all night and could hardly bear to look at him for days, so badly did she feel at his continuing hostility and her own remorse.
Eventually, though, Oliver became worried enough about her state of mind to consult not only the family doctor, but also a gynaecologist, then a psychologist, and even a herbalist. To no avail; Celia continued in her state of blank misery.
Finally, in despair, Oliver asked her mother what she thought he should do; Lady Beckenham arrived at Cheyne Walk, complete, as usual with her maid, and after a couple of days, told Oliver she thought the best thing Celia could possibly do was go back to work.
‘She’s just lying up there feeling sorry for herself, with nothing to do; she needs occupation. I always found a week’s fishing up in Scotland put me right after one of these things. Don’t look so surprised, Oliver, I lost at least four. Bloody miserable it is too, you couldn’t begin to imagine it, being a man. Can’t imagine much about anything, if you’re at all like Beckenham. I’d rather thought you were a bit different, I must say. And she thinks you blame her; you shouldn’t. These things happen. I’ve ridden to hounds when I was pregnant with no mishaps; lot more likely to induce miscarriage than bookwork, I’d have thought. Anyway, I don’t imagine fishing would do Celia much good, but I hope you take my point. You let her get back to that work of hers, she really loves it, heaven knows why and I think you’ll find she’ll be as right as rain in no time. Only don’t get her pregnant again yet, for God’s sake. It happens horribly easily afterwards. She’s not as strong as she likes to think.’
Oliver was so appalled by the picture she painted of him that he went straight up to Celia, took her in his arms, and said tenderly, ‘Darling, I want you to know I do love you.’
‘Do you?’ she said, looking at him warily. ‘You don’t seem to.’
‘Of course I do. I’m sorry you’ve had such a rotten time. And—’ he paused, looking back at her just as warily, ‘well, I want you to come back to Lyttons as soon as you possibly can,’ adding, ‘only part-time at first,’ when she sat up in bed, her face flushed with excitement and said:
‘No darling, not tomorrow. Next week, if you’re good.’
At which Celia burst into tears again.
‘Darling, please don’t. I want fewer tears now. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea,’
‘No, no, it is. I just need to have something else to think about. I’m so, so sorry, Oliver, I feel so guilty, so bad. I should have been more careful, it’s quite right what the doctors have all said; it was selfish of me, and it’s hurt you so much as well as me. Please forgive me.’
‘I do forgive you,’ he said, kissing her, ‘of course I do. And you – well you weren’t to know,’ he added with great generosity. ‘But next time, well of course you must do what the doctor says. Rest, rest and more rest.’
‘And you’re not angry with me any more?’
‘Not angry. Sad for us both, that’s all. But next time we’ll get it right. And that isn’t going to be for quite a while,’ he added firmly. ‘We must be very, very careful. Now your mother thinks you should join us for supper downstairs. Feel up to that?’
‘I do, yes.’
‘Wily old bird, your mother,’ he said, ‘lots of common sense. I like her more and more. She told me she had at least four miscarriages herself. Did you know that?’
‘Not till today,’ said Celia, ‘when she told me. I suppose it’s not the sort of thing you’d talk to your children about. But I did find it comforting. It didn’t stop her having more babies. So—’
‘Darling, I told you, no talk of more babies.’
‘Well – all right’ said Celia with a sigh, ‘but I have missed loving you dreadfully. It’s one of the things that’s made me most miserable. I thought you didn’t want me any more, that you were too angry with me.’
‘I want you terribly,’ said Oliver, ‘and if – well, as I said, we must just be very careful. I know you don’t like that, but—’
‘We will be careful,’ said Celia, ‘I promise. If I can have you loving me again, I’ll promise anything.’
Biographica was launched in December 1907 with the first three volumes boxed together, the biographies of Florence Nightingale, Lord Melbourne, and William Morris, each one with a frontispece illustration by a new artist Celia had discovered, with the auspicious name of Thomas Wolsey. The series was sold out in days. An army of collectors – the young men who literally collected volumes from the publishers and delivered them to the booksellers – was kept fully employed right up to Christmas.
Celia was already working on the next set, in between performing (rather perfunctorily) her proper Christmas duties of present-buying and tree-trimming. She was almost, but not quite, too busy to notice how tearful she felt every time she saw a baby in a perambulator, or even the ubiquitous infants lying in straw-filled mangers with their mothers bent tenderly over them, hands clasped in prayer. It was especially bad when she took two-year-old Giles to a crib blessing at Chelsea Old Church, so bad, indeed, that as they walked home together, hand in hand, he looked up at her and asked her why she had cried so much in church. Celia smiled down at him and said she hadn’t really been crying, it was only that she was so happy and so lucky. And when they got home, and Oliver was waiting for them by the huge Christmas tree he had had set up in the hall, with presents for them both, a toy pedal car for Giles and an exquisite three-strand pearl choker for her, she did feel that to a large extent, she had spoken the truth.
Meanwhile, in her bed in Line Street, with the mattress carefully covered with layers and layers of newspapers, her children banished to a neighbour’s house, her husband pacing wretchedly up and down the tiny corridor, trying to ignore the sound of her groans, a great pan of water boiling endlessly on the stove, and attended only by another neighbour who was unofficial midwife to the district, Sylvia Miller gave birth to a rather small but perfectly healthy baby girl. Lying in bed afterwards, pale and exhausted, but very happy, showing the baby to the other children, she told them her name was Barbara.
But little Frank, who had just begun to talk and was very excited by the new arrival, said, ‘Barty, Barty, Barty,’ while stroking her small silky forehead.
And Barty she remained for the rest of her life.
‘Well I’m going to. You have no right to stop me. I am not your – your chattel.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Celia,’ said Oliver wearily, ‘of course you’re not my chattel. I hardly think urging you to take care of yourself, to take things very easily indeed, constitutes laying down some kind of diktat. I’m worried about you. You and the baby. We must not have a repetition of what happened last time.’
Celia met his eyes and flushed.
‘No,’ she said, quietly, ‘no of course not. But I have given up work, Oliver. For the time being. Until the baby is safely born. All I plan to do now is join Mrs Pember Reeves’s group, and observe one of these pathetic families. Once or twice a week. It will probably be marginally less exhausting physically than playing with Giles. It’s important, Oliver. I’m surprised you don’t support me more. Obviously your socialism is hardly even skin deep.’
‘Oh, Celia, really. This has nothing to do with the depth or otherwise of my socialism. Or yours for that matter. It is concern for you and for our baby. You need absolute rest.’
‘That’s not what Dr Perring said. He said I should be careful and take plenty of rest. Especially at the stage when it happened last time. Which is still a long way off. When it comes, I shall take to my bed for a week or so, I promise you. I am doing what he said, I am sleeping for at least two hours every afternoon. This work is not going to prevent me doing that. Anyway, Oliver, unless you want to be branded as an outmoded, capitalistic-style husband to the whole of the Fabian society, you have to let me do it.’
Oliver looked at her. ‘Tell me again,’ he said, ‘precisely what this task involves.’
‘I knew you weren’t listening. Mrs Pember Reeves, she’s such a wonderful woman, Oliver, it was in her house the Fabian Women’s Group was founded, she has come up with a scheme for helping poor families in Lambeth. Well poor families everywhere. Not by doing charitable works, raising money, taking them soup, all that nonsense. Mrs Pember Reeves has a permanent solution in mind. She says the state must be obliged to realise its responsibilities, must understand exactly what the poor are condemned to unless they are given what they need. Which is decent housing, and a chance to raise their families without the constant fear of poverty and illness.’
‘And how does she propose to make it realise that?’
‘Well, by showing, in a properly informed, detailed report, exactly how poverty damages people, damages them permanently, it’s a vicious circle, condemning the children, and especially the girls, to a life-pattern which repeats that of their mothers, only then can the state be persuaded to provide the basic human needs. And satisfy the most basic human right, that of decent living conditions and a chance for women particularly to better themselves.’
‘Does this have anything to do that other subject so dear to Fabian hearts, getting the vote for women?’
‘No, not really. Only very indirectly at any rate. Of course I care about that as well. But I can’t start demonstrating, tying myself to railings and so on, or you really would lock me up.’
‘And I think I can do more good this way. Do you know, Oliver, there are families not two miles from here, large families, living on less than a pound a week, in a couple of rooms a quarter the size of this one. And the mothers, decent, intelligent women, simply can’t make a tolerable life for their families within those homes. The infant mortality rate is dreadfully high, not because the mothers are ignorant or incompetent, but because they lack the money to provide for their own and their families’ needs. They don’t have enough food, they don’t have enough clothing and they certainly don’t have any facilities for recreation. And it won’t get any better until they obtain those things. As a right. If Mrs Pember Reeves’ scheme comes to fruition, there will be hope for these women. And I intend to help her see that it does.’
Oliver sighed. ‘Well, I can’t stop you, I suppose. I’ve never been able to stop you doing anything. Even,’ he said, with the shadow of a smile, ‘even from marrying me.’
‘I don’t see what you’re afraid of, Oliver.’ Celia said impatiently,
‘What harm do you think this will do me?’
Oliver looked at her. ‘I’m afraid of two things,’ he said. ‘One is that you will harm yourself and the baby. The other is,’ and here he stopped, smiled again, almost involuntarily, at her, ‘the other is that in spite of everything you’ve said, you will arrive home one day with one or more of these families, and inform me that they are coming to live with us.’
‘Oh don’t be so ridiculous’ said Celia, ‘we are absolutely forbidden to make any kind of personal input. I could be expelled from the Fabian society if I did. That really is one thing you don’t have to worry about.’
LM was taking the short cut up from the underground station towards her house; she was lost, not so much in thought, as in financial consideration. She had a remarkable facility for mental arithmetic, she could carry three or four columns of figures in her head, add them up, subtract them, make percentages of them: it was not only an enormous help to her in her work, it was also a pleasure, almost a recreation. Just as some people recite poetry in their heads before going to sleep, or on a walk, played with figures. Tonight though, she was not playing; she was calculating the precise profit Lyttons were making out of the three new volumes of Biographica. They had had to be priced at a higher level than originally planned; such considerations as the book club and library discounts, the new titles on approval scheme for the central London book showroom, the rising cost of binding – all these things had meant that the series had been launched at six shillings per volume. That had been all right the first year: just. This year, it looked as if they might have to be six shillings and sixpence, which hardly met with their original criterion of a cheap library of quality books. And even at that, they would do well to make a profit of half a crown a book; which meant that for their initial print order of five thousand, they would make a little over a thousand pounds. Not enough. Just not enough. But—
‘Now what is a lovely lady like you doing walking out on her own at this time of night. And in a dark alley like this too? Eh?’
LM said nothing: just stood absolutely quiet and still.
‘Going to come quietly? Much better if you do.’
Hands were on her now, strong hands, one gripping her shoulders, the other on the back of her neck.
‘Come on now. Just along here. This way, that’s right, on you go – no, no, don’t you try biting me. I wouldn’t like that at all. Not yet, any ro ad—’
They had almost reached the street lamp at the end of the walk; one of the man’s hands had moved down, was caressing one of her breasts.
‘Very nice. Very nice indeed. Can’t wait to see a bit more of those. Really can’t wait. Hey, now, I said no biting. I get quite aroused when I’m bitten. Or scratched, so don’t start that either.’
LM swung round swiftly, suddenly, confronted him; under the street lamp his face was very clear. A well-shaped face it was, with a strong jaw and a wide mouth; dark waving hair, thick black eyebrows and set quite deeply, a pair of very dark eyes. They were smiling, the eyes: smiling confidently.
‘Like what you see, do you? I certainly like what I see.’ He reached up, touched her mouth; she took his finger between her teeth.
‘Now now. Temper temper. Come on now, this way. And get a move on. I haven’t got all night.’
‘Haven’t you really?’ said LM turning to face him winding her arms round his neck. ‘well I have. And I really hope you’re up to it.’
She had met him at a meeting of the Independent Labour Party in Hampstead; she had noticed him straight away, because he wasn’t quite like most of the people there, the self-consciously middle class folk in expensive clothes; he was clearly working class, in his heavy tweed suit, a scarf knotted round his neck, his hair untidy. He had been leaning against the wall; he’d noticed her too, was watching her with a half-smile on his face.
Afterwards he told her he’d felt her, even before he looked at her; ‘Felt you under my skin, getting at me.’
The meeting was badly attended; afterwards, there was been an invitation from Michael Fosdyke, a local party member, to come to his house up on the Heath, for tea and biscuits. ‘Or beer, if anyone wants it. Or a glass of wine.’ She’d been hurrying away from the hall and the crowd, not wishing to take any of Michael Fosdyke’s hospitality, for she found his social conscience, worn stark naked on his sleeve, hugely irritating, when the man had stopped her. Quite courteously, but firmly: simply stepped in front of her.
‘Not going up to the big house? To discuss how to improve the working man’s lot over a glass of madeira? Shame on you.’
‘I am not,’ she said, meeting his amused dark eyes with her own. ‘I happen to think I can do more for that than I could by eating a lot of expensive biscuits, baked by Mr Fosdyke’s rather underpaid cook.’
‘My goodness,’ he put his head back and laughed. ‘Well that’s a novel view. And how would you then? Improve our lot?’
‘I don’t think yours needs improving too much,’ she said, ‘you seem fine to me. But I’m in the publishing business. And I have friends in journalism. The Daily Mirror and so on. I think a few well-expressed articles are worth a million words of waffle.’
She was aware she was talking too much to him: encouraging him. It was dangerous for a woman to talk thus to a young man. Whatever his social background. She didn’t quite know why she was doing it; he just made her want to.
‘And . . . you’re all alone. You’re not afraid of being attacked?’
‘Of course not. It’s greatly overrated, that fear, in my opinion. I walk all over London. I love it. Nothing’s happened to me yet. Anyway—’
‘Well. I’m hardly a – a young girl.’
‘So what? That’s a stupid thing to say.’
‘I hadn’t noticed attacks being limited to young girls. Besides, you’re a very attractive woman. If you’ll pardon my saying so.’
‘Thank you.’ She looked at him; he wasn’t being insolent, his expression was charmingly serious.
‘So, why don’t I walk you home?’
‘Oh no. No, you mustn’t do that.’
He might attack her on the way. Or even burgle her house, at some later date, if he knew where it was. He might. But it did seem unlikely.
‘Why not?’ he said again.
‘No reason really,’ she said and realised he was smiling at her; a slightly knowing smile.
‘Well then. Let me take you. Not far is it?’
‘No. No, just down – down there.’
‘You’d better tell me exactly where,’ he said, ‘I’m going to find out sooner or later. If I’m going to walk there with you.’
‘Yes. Yes of course. It’s in Keats Grove.’
‘Yes. Yes it is.’
She could be making an appalling mistake; telling him all this. Then she thought that if he had been some well-spoken middle class Hampstead resident, she wouldn’t have hesitated, and felt ashamed of herself. Just the same—
‘Look, it really isn’t necessary,’ she said rather feebly.
‘I know it isn’t,’ he said simply, ‘but I want to do it. All right?’
‘Yes,’ said LM, ‘yes all right.’
They walked in silence for a few minutes, then she said, ‘So where do you live?’
‘Oh, down the bottom. Near Swiss Cottage. Got a little house there.’
‘Of your own?’ she said, and then hated herself for sounding surprised.
‘Yes. Belonged to my auntie. She left it to me. I was her favourite. I let half of it out, to pay for the outgoings, rates and that.’
‘Yes, I see.’
‘This printing business of yours—’
‘What’s the difference?’
LM chose her words carefully. ‘Publishers sell the books; printers – well – print them.’
‘Oh yes? What do you do there then? You a secretary or something?’
‘No,’ said LM who had always found honesty a most valuable and underrated commodity, whatever the circumstance, ‘no I own it. With my brother.’
‘Yes. Absolutely. It was founded by our father.’
There was a silence; then the young man smiled.
‘I knew you were quality,’ he said, ‘soon as I saw you.’
‘Knew you were keen too,’ he said several hours later. They were sitting on the sofa in LM’s drawing room; he was kissing her. LM was responding with considerable passion.
She’d asked him in for a cup of tea. She told herself it was only polite, it had been quite a walk, and he had another, much longer one before he got home. They were engrossed in a political discussion by then: about whether the Liberal Party would manage to bring in enough social reforms to improve the conditions of the working class before the decade was out. It was quite a complex discussion. He was extremely well-informed. Anyway, her housekeeper, known as Mrs Bill, was at home; she had moved with LM from the big house, quite sure she was incapable of looking after herself. She now had a pair of pretty little rooms on the top floor. She was actually called Mrs Williams, but had been christened Mrs Bill by LM herself when she was tiny.
She really wanted to go on talking to the man: she liked him. Liked him a lot. His name was James Ford, ‘But my friends call me Jago.’ He was what Celia would call charming and what she would call easy. Easy and intelligent and with a quirky sense of humour. He talked well, he was articulate and opinionated, and although he had a London accent, his turn of phrase was surprisingly polished and confident. He drank two cups of tea, brought by a resigned Mrs Bill, who was used to what she called funny people coming to the house and then (as the debate on the Liberal party had still not been quite settled) she offered him a beer; he shook his head.
‘No thanks. You having one?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t like beer. I might have a whisky.’
‘You could offer me a whisky. Not suitable, for the likes of me, is that what you thought?’ His expression was amused.
‘No,’ she said angrily, feeling her face flush, ‘no I didn’t think that. I think it’s unfair of you even to imply it. I just thought – well, that you’d like beer. Most men do. Of course you can have a whisky. I’d like it if you did.’
‘Your brother like beer?’ he said, ‘the one who owns the publishers with you?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘he doesn’t. But my father did. Very much. So can we drop this absurd disussion?’
‘If you like. No need to get aerated. And I’ll have a whisky. Please. Suits you though,’ he added.
‘Getting aerated. All rosy you look. Really pretty. Much younger. How old are you?’
‘Thirty-two,’ said LM after a brief pause, ‘what about you?’
‘Thirty. My word, you don’t look thirty-two.’
‘Well – thank you,’ she said slightly awkwardly.
‘You got a trades union at your place?’
‘No. No we haven’t.’
‘Print unions are getting quite strong, you know.’
‘I do know,’ she said, ‘printing costs are quite high. Quite rightly. In my opinion. Although it causes us problems of course.’
‘Your brother think like you? A socialist as well, is he?’
‘Of course,’ said LM simply, and then added, her eyes suddenly amused as she looked at him, ‘and so is his wife.’
‘Oh yes? She another upper class lady is she?’
‘Very upper class. Her father is an earl.’
‘Oh God,’ he said, ‘bet she’s a nightmare.’
‘Actually,’ said LM, ‘she’s not. She’s extremely clever. And a very good, loyal friend. And she has done wonders for my brother, who used to lack self-confidence. I like her. She works at Lyttons with us. She’s an editor.’
‘She is? Unusual place it must be, employing women in positions like that.’
‘We believe in employing women,’ said LM, ‘it’s perfectly simple. Provided they’re up to the job of course.’
‘Yes, well, lots of women believe in being employed, too. Doesn’t make it easy for them to get the jobs though, does it? Except in service of course. Helps having friends in high places I suppose.’
‘Yes, I suppose it does,’ said LM briskly. ‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a builder,’ he said. ‘A roofer. Not bad work in the summer. Horrible in the winter. And a lot of the time, you get laid off, especially if the weather’s really bad. I’ve been out of work for weeks now. Nice new job starting next month though. Row of houses near Camden Town.’
‘So – what do you live on?’ she said, genuinely interested, ‘when you’re out of work?’
‘Well, I’ve saved a bit. Get a bit off the dole if I’m lucky. They’re not exactly forthcoming with it though. Then there’s the rent from my tenants. Capitalist really, I am. Just like you.’
‘Have you got a family?’ she said, ignoring this.
‘No,’ he said briefly.
‘You’ve never married?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘Look,’ he said, suddenly defensive, ‘I’m not asking you a lot of personal questions, am I?’
‘No. I’m sorry. Have another whisky.’ It seemed important to win him back over.
‘Yes I will. Thanks.’ He drank it in silence, looked at her awkwardly.
‘I was married,’ he said suddenly, ‘but she – well – she died.’
‘I’m sorry. So sorry.’
‘Yes. Bit difficult.’
‘Did you love her – very much?’ she said. She surprised herself: that she could ask him something so direct, so intimate.
‘Very much. Yes, I did. She died having a baby. And the little one went with her. Bad business.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said again. She felt tears in her eyes. She blinked hard, took a large sip of whisky. He looked at her surprised.
‘You mean it, don’t you?’
‘Of course I mean it. It’s such a sad story. It – well it shocked me.’ He turned away, pulled a rather ragged, grubby handkerchief out of his pocket, and blew his nose.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘sympathy gets to me. Can’t help it.’
‘When – when did she – did it happen?’
‘Beginning of the year,’ he said briefly.
She was shocked; that he had faced such grief so recently. She put out her hand, put it on his arm.
‘That is so sad.’
‘Yes, well. She was – she was everything to me. She was lovely. Gentle and good. And so brave. God, she was brave. I still can’t believe it. Bloody doctors.’
‘Oh, it started coming too early. Only eight months she was. They said she’d be all right, didn’t need any special care. That she was young and all that. Turned out the – the afterbirth, it came first. So the baby died. And then she – well she died. Loss of blood. Nothing they could do, they said. Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?’
He sat there, his head bowed, looking at her hand, on his arm. Then he looked up and his dark eyes were full of tears. He managed a shaky smile.
‘This is daft. I only wanted to see you home. Not tell you my life history. But you’re nice to talk to. Helps a bit, when you can talk. Now I’d better be off. That woman of yours will think I’m up to no good.’
At the front door he turned, smiled at her.
‘Thanks. Thanks for everything. It’s been really—’ he hesitated –
‘really enjoyable. And I still don’t think you look your age. Nothing like.’
There was a silence. Then, ‘Well I didn’t attack you did I?’ he said cheerfully, ‘And I won’t be back to do your house either.’
‘I bet that’s what you thought,’ he said, ‘when I first offered to walk you home.’
Anger shot through LM: anger threaded with guilt.
‘How dare you say that?’ she said. ‘How dare you make such an assumption about me?’
‘I dare,’ he said, ‘because it’s quite likely to be true.’
‘Oh is it really? I offer you hospitality, kindness, and you reward me with a hide-bound, class-entrenched attitude like that.’
‘Oh, come along, Miss Lytton. You’re giving yourself away. Of course you’ve been very nice to me. Very kind, done your duty, like the good socialist I’m sure you are. But listen to you, you’re still spelling all that out.’
‘Please leave,’ she said, her voice shaking, ‘at once.’
‘All right,’ he said grinning, slightly awkwardly now, ‘No need to get upset. I’m only—’
‘There is every need,’ she said, ‘and I am upset. Very, very upset.’ Fresh rage and a pang of fierce loneliness hit her together; the tears rose again in her eyes. She turned away.
‘I’m not crying. And please go.’
‘You are crying,’ he said again, and put out his finger and wiped away the one tear that had escaped on to her cheek. ‘What an emotional creature you are.’
‘I am not emotional.’
‘Yes you are,’ he said, ‘very.’
‘I am simply,’ she said, struggling for dignity, ‘simply very angry. And insulted. That you should regard this evening as a bit of – of social work on my part. I’d like you to leave.’
‘All right. All right, I’m going.’
Mrs Bill appeared. ‘You all right, Miss Lytton?’ she said, her voice loaded with meaning.
‘Yes, Mrs Bill I’m quite all right,’ said LM firmly. ‘My guest is just leaving.’
‘Yes I am,’ he said. He opened the door, went out into the porch, turned, smiled at her differently, quite gently. ‘I’m sorry if I upset you, very sorry. But you must admit—’
‘Well, that it was what you thought,’ he said, ‘at the beginning. I know it was. I could see it in your face. That’s what makes this so ridiculous. Why don’t you just say so?’
And LM, confused with emotion, unable to keep up the lie, said, her mouth twitching at the corners, ‘Yes, all right. I admit it. I did. I’m so, so sorry.’
‘And that’s why you were so angry? Because I guessed? And that made you feel bad?’
‘Yes. No. Oh, I don’t know.’
‘So much for socialism,’ he said and his expression was an extraordinary blend of contempt and amusement. ‘I knew it was too good to be true.’
LM took a deep breath. ‘Why don’t you come back in,’ she said, ‘and have another whisky?’
Half an hour later, she had locked the drawing-room door, and removed most of her clothes.
Jago Ford was not her first lover. She was a woman of extraordinary passion. She had lost her virginity at the age of seventeen to her father’s best friend. Precocious and self-confident, strongly attracted by him and eager to discover for herself the delights of an activity she had managed to glean only a very little information about, she set out to seduce him. It had not been difficult; he was not only charming, good-looking and rather vain, he had recently been widowed, and he found her enthusiastic advances irresistible. It had not lasted long, but long enough for LM to discover a considerable appetite for sex; at nineteen she had another affair with a young man at university. She was far more in love with him than he with her; astonished at her willingness to sleep with him, he had continued the relationship until they both graduated. There were only four women in her year; and she was infinitely more attractive than the other three. She was broken-hearted when he left her to become engaged to a rich, vapid debutante; desperately hurt that having shared much brilliant conversation and even more brilliant lovemaking and for quite a long period of time, he regarded her nonetheless as unsuitable to be a barrister’s wife. That, above all, had shaped her attitude to men of her class and age; she was terminally suspicious of them, would have no more of them. She had no desire to be married herself, hated the idea of having children; she wanted companionship, good conversation, and above all physical fulfilment. It was hard for a woman to find.
There had been a few unsatisfactory relationships through her twenties; two of them with unhappily married men, who found in her not only the companionship and physical release they needed, but also complete discretion. Each time however, she was left hurt and freshly lonely, her sense of self-respect diminished.
In Jago Ford, she found absolute happiness. He was interesting, challenging, he liked and admired her; and he was a superb lover. As was she.
‘You really know what to do, don’t you?’ he said, as they lay exhausted and smiling in one another’s arms, the first wonderful, tumultous, noisy, astonishing time.
‘I should hope so,’ she said, half indignant, ‘what did you think I was, some kind of Victorian virgin?’
‘Now don’t get aerated,’ he said, kissing her tenderly, ‘I didn’t mean that quite. I meant you know it’s about taking as well as giving. You need it don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said LM sighing, half rueful, half amused, ‘yes, I really do.’ She found it hard that first time, not to think of his wife, of the gentle, kind Annie he had loved so much, and had so recently lost. It inhibited her, worried her; she felt she was robbing Annie of Jago as she took him into her hungry body, stealing memories, breaking trust.
But, ‘don’t,’ he whispered to her as she held back, confused by those thoughts, recognising them for himself, in himself even, ‘she’s not here, she’s gone. She’d want me to be happy. And you won’t be the same.’
She wasn’t the same: he told her that, too. Close enough now to talk about her, LM learned that Annie had been awed, even shocked at times by sex; raised by a strict mother, taught to keep herself safe, told she would find marriage something to be endured, she had nonetheless managed more than that. But her role had always been passive, anxious, seeking mostly to please; and Jago, recognising that, had held back too, afraid of hurting her, asking too often, giving too little pleasure. In time they had come to enjoy each other; but it was a careful, watchful enjoyment, and by then the baby which was to part them for ever had been conceived, and from the beginning Annie had been unwell.
‘I loved her altogether,’ he said simply to LM, ‘but being with you doesn’t hurt her. Nor remembering her. You don’t have to worry about her. You just worry about me,’ he grinned suddenly, ‘and do what you can for me.’
She seemed to be able to do a lot.
Jago’s father had been a clerk in an insurance office and had been eager to see his only son educated. Jago had won a scholarship to a boarding school and had done very well there; there was even talk of teacher training college. But then his father died; Jago at fourteen was clearly old enough to earn a living and help to keep his five younger siblings. The easiest option was manual work; he had become apprenticed to one of the legion of builders covering London with houses. He had done well, and by the age of sixteen was earning half the family income; he had set aside, without too much bitterness, his dreams of a different kind of life. What he could not set aside, however, was the sense of injustice that had brought it about; that the widow of a man who had worked and died, as his father had, in the service of a large company, should have been left with almost nothing to live on. He was troubled, too, by another injustice: that the men who owned the companies drew from them large amounts of money on which they paid virtually no income tax, lived in great luxury in big houses, ate and dressed superbly well, and enjoyed the best of everything, while the men who made the money for them and worked a great deal harder, lived very often close to poverty.
He had been brought up by his father, a timid man, to accept such things, as an unalterable fact of life; but as he grew older, he became first puzzled and then angry, joined the trades union movement and the new Labour Party, and resolved to change the world. He even made speeches at a few political meetings and might have made a concerted effort to enter political life at least at a local level, had he not met Annie and fallen in love. Responsibility and the prospect of fatherhood had blunted such difficult ambitions; like his father before him, he needed his job and his salary; there was little room left for idealism. Grief and loneliness had reawakened it to a degree, but had taken away any real stomach he had for fighting; when LM met him, socialism was once again an interesting notion rather than a crusade.
‘The buggers’ll win whatever you do,’ he said to her more than once,
‘might as well grab what you can and make the most of it.’
Although he was clever, he had a certain resistance to further self-improvement. He said life was too short, that learning was for childhood, adulthood for living. He read the newspapers, followed politics and the progress of socialism, but that apart, pursued a rather self-indulgent intellectual road.
‘So don’t you try getting me to watch Shakespeare and read Dickens,’ he said to LM, ‘because there’s other things I’d rather do. I need cheering up after a long day in the cold, not preaching.’
LM said Dickens had never preached, and indeed held views on society which she was sure Jago would sympathise with, but he said all he could remember was some nonsense about a little chap being sent to the workhouse and working as a pickpocket before being reunited happily with his high-born family.
‘That wouldn’t ever happen, Meg—’ he called her Meg, said it was his own name for her, that LM didn’t sound like the sort of woman she was. ‘It would never happen, not in real life and you know it as well as I do.’
He had a certain passion for geography, dreaming of other places, other peoples and LM gave him, for their first Christmas together, a subscription to the National Geographic magazine, which he devoured, bombarding her with information about remote tribes in Africa, Eskimos, the Chinese and their astonishing early civilisation. He dreamed of travelling one day, if only to Europe; she promised him that they would do it together. She had travelled a little with her father, to Rome, Florence and Paris; she said it was indeed a most wonderful experience.
The more she knew of him, the better she liked him; even his considerable tactlessness was the result of an impeccable honesty which echoed her own. The only difference was that she had learned to stay silent, not to speak her mind.
He never said he loved her; but he told her he enjoyed being with her more than he had ever enjoyed anything. ‘Except being with Annie of course.’
‘Of course,’ said LM, struggling not to feel hurt, and then he said that being with Annie was different, and she was not to mind.
‘She was very young for a start,’ he said, ‘it was me telling her things, not the other way round.’
She could have talked to him forever; enjoyed their agreements, which were many, as much as their disagreements. On Sundays, they would go for long long walks, sometimes just over the Heath; sometimes they would take an omnibus out to the country, to the Hog’s Back in Surrey, to Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire and talk endlessly, about politics, class, the countryside – in which he was surprisingly interested – about travel and religion. He was a passionate atheist, she was a modestly committed Anglican and liked to go to church.
‘Although how you can look God in the face after what we’ve just been doing without His blessing, I don’t know,’ Jago said, the first time she left him on Sunday morning.
She told him she thought God had meant people to enjoy sex, and wouldn’t care if they were married or not. ‘And besides, I love the words. They’re very beautiful. You should come with me.’
‘Not me,’ he said, reaching out to stroke her dark hair. ‘If I did find God it’d be in a forest or on a mountain top, not in some grim church.’
LM said that was what all non-church goers said and that most churches were far from grim: ‘Wait till you see Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Or St Peter’s in Rome. Then you’ll change your mind.’
Jago said he was quite happy to wait and turned over to go back to sleep.
They had been together now for three years; happy, odd years. They gave each other great contentment, saw one another at least three times a week, spent most Sundays together, shared one another’s hopes, fears and pleasures, agreed that they were as happy as two people could be, and yet they told no one officially of their relationship. Jago feared ridicule from other people on the subject, and LM feared humiliation.
They occasionally discussed meeting one another’s families, wondered whether it would make their lives together easier or more difficult, and always finally decided against it.
‘They’d just be watching us, wondering how we got on and what might happen in the end,’ Jago said. ‘And not just yours, mine as well. Mine more so, I should say. So let’s just keep ourselves to ourselves. It’s worked pretty well so far. Might spoil it if we changed anything.’
It wasn’t quite as difficult as one might suppose, this near-secrecy; their individual lives were perfectly self-sufficient. They both worked hard, long hours, albeit in rather different ways, and then LM’s life had always been entirely absorbed by Lyttons, work, and to a lesser degree, her politics; they were hardly likely to find friends in common.
LM was quite sure it would not last, and if people saw her abandoned, left to her loneliness and singleness again, it would hurt twice as much. She was aware that Oliver and Celia suspected there was someone in her life, but they both respected her reticence: Oliver out of delicacy, Celia from a sense of sisterhood. Celia was an extraordinary woman friend; unquestioning, undemanding, untroubled by secrets. Her philosophy was based on the simple assumption that if LM – or indeed anyone – wanted to tell her something, then they would; if she did not, then Celia had no desire whatsoever to know it. LM was quite sure that if she had asked Celia to buy a white dress for her, recommend a priest and suggest some music suitable for a wedding (or, for that matter, to lend her a baby’s cradle and a perambulator) she would do so without asking a single question.
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Meet the Author
Penny Vincenzi is married with four children. She has been writing since she was nine-when she put together her own magazine called Stories-and has written for Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Her novels include Something Dangerous and Into Temptation, also to be published by Overlook.
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If you enjoy family saga's, you should really enjoy this book. Celia, the main character is facinating. The other characters are interesting and have depth. I have not enjoyed a family saga like this in years. Yes, it is quite a large book - 600 plus pages, but it's like a good movie that is twice as long as the normal movie; you just don't realize the length because it is just so captivating. When I was not reading the book, I found myself wondering about what was going to happen next. I finished this book and am already into the second of the trilogy - Something Dangerous. I am new to this author and so glad to have found her. I highly recommend this book; especially if you like a great family saga!
THIS BOOK WAS A GREAT READ - DID NOT WANT IT TO END EXCELLENT AUTHOR
Glad it is a 3 book series!!!!!
I don't know what I'll do when I am finished reading all of her books! I have read at least 8 and just love the characters. They stay with me for a while .......Especially the No Angel Trilogy. Keep writing Penny !!!!
I rated this five stars in retrospect; wanted to finish the whole trilogy before giving my opinion. Five stars not because this is great literature but because it was so much fun to read. You will not be disappointed with the story of Celia and her family. History background was wonderful; I cannot remember the last time I lost myself in a family saga like this!
When I saw the three books in this series advertised, I thought I would either love them or hate them! I LOVED them!!! The Lytton family comes up with one surprise after another! Thank you Penny Vincenzi and thank you BN for calling my attention to them in one of your ads! A great read - by the fireplace on a cold day (or many cold days)! Don't let the size of the books deter you!
No Angel is a book I s stumbled into. What a lucky stumble. I live in the Midwest and we are seriously into winter as I write. This is THE perfect book to snuggle into a comforter with and enjoy the read and the trip with the Lytton family. Or, it is a book just made for summer, heat, and the beach. Wonderfully long, you enter the world of this English family and all those who enter their lives. Why haven't I found this author before? No matter. I am going to seek out her other works. It is a page-turner in the manner of Gone With The Wind and Ladies Of The Club. Thanks so much Penny V. for this glimpse of England in the late 1890s and beyond, and the people who made up the class structures and the changes that came into English society. Get this one? Oh, yes! Read this one? Absolutely!
I loved this trilogy. However, it was ironic that the story was about a family in publishing and there were so many editing/grammatical mistakes thoughout the 3 books.
This trilogy was one of the best I have ever read--Comparing it with Adler-Archer and Bradford--I think she might come out ahead. Only one problem with this--Each book is about 800 pages--I spent one week reading all of them. I almost could not stop and do anything else until the last word was read. Don't miss this. I am now going on to some of her other works. I hope they are equal--certainly couldnt be better.
Very good. I really enjoyed it. Looking forward to her other books.
I had a hard time connecting with the book in the beginning. I stuck with it, and I am glad I did. The novel was not perfect, but had some very good characters. I enjoyed reading about the publishing industry. I wasn't sure if I hated the main character or accepted her despite her flaws. Some of the lesser characters were terrific, including Celia's mother and LM. This is my first Vincenzi book, but not the last. I look forward to reading the others.
Is this theaudio version or an actual ebook?
If you like historical fiction, this first book in a trilogy leads you through the lives of a powerful British family before WWI. Absolutely fascinating. I read all three books in a row, unable to put them down,not wanting them to end.
If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, you must read this book. I couldn't put it down. It was riveting!
Just finished this book, I loved it, well written, couldn't put it down, didn't want it to end. I just ordered the next 2 books in the sequel. Can't wait to start reading the next one. Hopefully all of her books are this good. I will buy them all.
I was so sad when it ended.. thank goodness there are two more!
great start to a family saga with well developed characters and good following with history of wwI. it fills in history with survival and strong women and acceptance and positve endings. could end the story or as i will continue with the trilogy