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My father was reading Smile shortly before his death. I have no opinion of that rabble-rousing author, Rousseau, who decreed, among other absurdities, that women should be educated to serve and please men. My blood boils at the very memory of those infamous lines. That pernicious doctrine is partly responsible for the position I now find myself in.
Nesbitt Hall was entailed on Cousin Geoffrey, so Rousseau is not responsible for his taking over my home when Papa died, but I might at least have been left money enough to make me independent. Instead of that, I am at the mercy of Geoffrey. He and my father concurred absolutely with the Frenchman, who ordered that "women have, or ought to have, but little liberty." Between the pair of them, they schemed to curtail my liberty to either marrying Geoffrey or being destitute.
I chose the latter. One of the perquisites Rousseau bestowed on gentlemen was that they should follow their instinct. I took the privilege for my own. And without any monetary help from the Ogre (Geoffrey), I now enjoy a sort of precarious independence. Thank you, Rousseau. It was fury with you that made me take up pen and spew out all the poison that was choking me. God bless you, Mr. Pepper, for accepting my essay and giving me a contract to publish it in your magazine, and paying me what I consider a quite inordinate sum for the privilege (The Ladies' Journal, October 1,1817, entitled "A Daughter's Dilemma," by an Anonymous Gentlewoman, if you wish to have a glance at it).
The "anonymous" is not due to shame for my outspoken tirade against injustice. I would proudly scream Emma Nesbitt in letters ten feet high if I had my way. Ionly withheld my name for the family's sake. My Scotch aunts Theodora and Ariadne are getting on in years. They are perfect models of Rousseau's ideal ladies, and as they are both as rich as Croesus, my instinct bade me not to offend them by any impropriety. The appearance of a lady's name in print for any other reason than to announce her birth, marriage, or death would be considered extremely questionable by them. By hook or by crook, I'm determined to be rich yet, even if it means hoodwinking my aunts.
Mr. Pepper kindly mentioned in his letter that he would be most interested to see any other essays I had on hand. The words "always delighted to discover a new writing talent" and "would be honored if you would call on me to discuss further articles next time you are in Bath" gave impetus to my departure. I had sent my article to a London publishing firm as well, not really expecting to hear from them. Actually I did receive a rejection two days later, but by then I was too euphoric to care. Bath was more my style than wicked London. And of course it was the check for five guineas that made my going to Bath possible.
My chaperone, a sharp-tongued, repressed spinster cousin named Annie Potter, tried to stop me. "Take off to Bath with five guineas in your pocket? You're mad, my girl. It cannot be done."
"Can it not? The arrangements have already been made. I have booked seats on the mail coach and room at a hotel in Bath for two, but if you are not interested in accompanying me, then I shall go alone."
I am not so harebrained as this speech would suggest. By means of those little economies practiced by every housekeeper since Eve, I had a couple of hundred pounds put away. My aunts usually gave me money for my birthday as well.
After a few bouts with Annie, she agreed to accompany me on what she chose to call a visit, but I had no notion of ever returning, except possibly to see old friends and gloat over Geoffrey after I am famous.
I informed Cousin Geoffrey over dinner a few nights later of my departure. He asked where I was going but did not inquire when, or indeed if I ever meant to return, and I did not volunteer the information.
"I must return to Iverton to wind up a few business details," he said. "I am leaving tomorrow morning, and shall be gone three days. I hope you have a pleasant journey, Emma."
"You also," I replied woodenly. The outward shell of civility was maintained throughout my cousin's takeover, doing considerable damage to my internal organs.
The unworthy thought popped into my head that he had invented this trip to his old home on the spot to deny me the use of the carriage. It made not a ha'penny's difference to me. In fact, it turned out for the best. With Geoffrey out of the house, I had more freedom for my packing, and took three trunks with me, leaving behind only my mourning gowns.
"You're never wearing a blue gown, and your poor papa hardly cold in his grave!" Annie exclaimed when I dressed on the fateful morning.
You'd think it was Joseph's coat of many colors to hear her rave. My decent navy gown was just a step livelier than mourning. "Papa was cold before Death got its hands on him. I will not indulge in the hypocrisy of mourning a man who treated me so abominably. If I had a scarlet gown, I'd dance through the streets in it before leaving!"
"Oh, Missie!" she said, highly distraught. "Your father did not mean any harm. He was just afraid some fortune hunter would rob you of the money. You know you were always headstrong, darting off without thinking, just like this visit."
"He never liked me, Annie. He pushed me off to school every chance he got, and treated me like a stranger when I was home. If it weren't for you, I would have been reared by servants. I cannot mourn for him after that will. You know in your heart I am right, even if I offend the proprieties."
She looked at me aslant from her sharp green eyes and drew a deep sigh. "You have seemed happier since receiving Pepper's letter. At least you don't strut about with your jaw clamped all hard and square, looking ready to kill someone. I should like to know what you wrote, that he gave you five guineas for it."
"I wrote the truth," I said, jaw once again assuming an angular appearance. "That women in England are treated no better than children. Good God, I am two years older than Cousin Geoffrey, and ten times as clever, yet the law handed over to him my ancestral home, and Papa gave him my fortune. The amazing thing is that Mr. Pepper chose to publish it. He must be a very daring gentleman. I look forward to meeting him."
Annie wore enough crape for both of us. I talked her into leaving off the face veil for the trip, but she was in black from head to toe.
As the coach rattled through the downs of Devon into the lusher countryside of Somerset, I enjoyed a daydream of my brilliant future. Until the day my father's will was read, I never entertained much interest in how we ladies are treated by society. One accepts customs, however bizarre they prove upon examination to be. I felt an occasional prick of annoyance at having to await some footman's pleasure before I could drive into town, perhaps.
From time to time interesting gentlemen visited the neighborhood, and it always seemed the more interesting they were, the louder Papa shouted that I would not be permitted to meet them. On those few occasions, I rather wished I had a gentleman's freedom, but for the most part, I enjoyed being Miss Nesbitt. It seemed to me the grosser iniquities were visited on the poor. Now I would have a taste of that as well.
My reading was largely limited to novels, the more gothic the better. Had it not been for Cousin Geoffrey's oblique mention of Rousseau's part in my father's will, I doubt I would have struggled through a novel written all in French. But reading that subversive thing on top of the misfortune that had befallen me, I came to a sudden realization that I had been treated like a child all my life.
Dashing off my infamous essay took care of my fit of pique. My future writings would take a quite different course. I would become the next Mrs. Radcliffe. My father had provided me with a plot: I the hapless heroine, Cousin Geoffrey the villain, and the hero...
Like any lovelorn romantical lady, I had been busy turning my savior, Mr. Pepper, into Prince Charming. He would miraculously rescue me from the abyss of my woes. My fortune would be restored, with a husband thrown in for good measure. Mr. Pepper would be tall, elegantly lean, and dark of complexion. Oh, it was a lovely trip to Bath, interrupted only by the invariably complaining statements of Annie Potter.
"Garlic," she whispered in my ear when a new patron entered the coach at Glastonbury. If he smelled of garlic, the aroma was overriden by a not unpleasing scent of Steeke's Lavender Water.
"I don't see why the roads should be so rutted in the autumn," she grouched on another occasion, when we hit a minor bump.
The man smelling of garlic was so unwise as to volunteer a word. "You think this is bad. I've just been out west, toward Cornwall. Terrible what they call a road in the West."
Annie snapped her eyes at him, showed him her back, and said in a quite loud voice, "Impertinence!"
My daydream continued after this little contretemps. We had left Milverton on the morning coach. We arrived at Bath as twilight was falling. Everything was fine until the coach arrived, and we were put down in a bustling, cobbled coaching yard, with people shouting at the top of their lungs all about us. I looked at Annie, she looked at me with a wild eye, and I knew she was shaking in her shagreen slippers. I felt quite out of my depths, and was happy it was not London that had accepted my essay.
Lacking a servant, we should be demanding our own trunks and locating a hackney to take us to the hotel. We were such greenheads, and there was such confusion, all we could do was stare. To make oneself heard over the din was impossible, unless one's voice had been trained at an auctioneer's school. The so-called gentlemen jostled us aside and had their luggage put down. They managed to get hold of all the hackneys, and in a short space of time Annie and I were the only remaining passengers, standing alone in the great cobbled yard, with our trunks sitting on the ground beside us.
"This is a fine how-do-you-do," she said, pinning me with an accusing eye.
Lady Luck was with me. At that moment a late-arriving hackney drove into the yard. In a trice, our trunks were stored above and we were inside, driving to the Pelican Inn, where the late writer, Doctor Samuel Johnson, used to stay when he was in Bath. Papa stayed there once when he came to take the waters. Of course, he had not brought me with him, but he said it was centrally located and genteel without charging a fortune.
We were very well pleased with our rooms. It was my intention to go in search of regular lodgings the very next day, but for this one night we had each our own room. And soon we would have an apartment, paid for by my pen.
With evening settling in, we had no intention of venturing into the town before morning. Fatigue from travel, if not propriety, would keep us indoors. After dinner in our rooms I wrote a note to Mr. Pepper, to be delivered to his publishing house the next morning at nine. In it I requested an interview at his earliest convenience. This done, I was free to spend my time deciding what outfit would make the grandest impression on him. I put my faith in the old adage that first impressions are lasting, and meant to cut a dash.
Annie finally accepted that I could not wear black when every black stitch I owned was still at Nesbitt Hall. She consoled herself that no one in Bath would know of the recent death, and agreed with me that my navy serge pelisse was not unhandsome. With it I wore my matching bonnet, trimmed with the eye of peacock feathers, which added a certain je ne sais quoi. If pushed to give a translation, "elegant" would do.
We studied the Rooms to Let columns of the journal for the remainder of the evening, consulting our map and circling those that were within easy walking distance of the center of town. At ten o'clock Annie declared she was so tired even her hair ached, and went to bed. I closed the intervening door and prowled my room awhile, too restless to settle down.
Eventually I put on my nightdress and went to the mirror to brush out my hair. It was rather a dingy mirror, and ill lit, which suited me just fine at that hour of the night. I didn't want too clear an image of the lady staring back at me. I knew well enough she was no longer in the first blush of youth. Twenty-seven, and looked every month of it. But in the kindly shadows of night, she did not appear unattractive.
The light from behind glowed like copper through my hair as I brushed it. It was long, wavy, and quite luxurious in texture. My face looked uncommonly pale, but I put it down to fatigue. Pallor emphasized the size and darkness of my green eyes. They looked like dark emeralds, but in daylight would be revealed as closer to the inferior peridot. My nose was straight, and my jaw firm. Too firm. How the anger lingered over the inequity of that will! I consciously relaxed it, forcing my lips to curve upward. There, that was better.
At a sturdy five feet and six inches, I had no hope of appearing femininely fragile, but at least I no longer looked angry. The embers of resentment were there, burning inside, but I did not want to look like a harpy to the inhabitants of this new world I was entering, especially to Mr. Pepper.
The day I received Mr. Pepper's letter, I began keeping a sort of combination diary and Common Book, in which I jotted down a few thoughts each night before retiring. So little written by a female pen has been recorded for history. Many years hence, when my bones had turned to dust, some scholar might want these insights into the mind of an enlightened lady of the early nineteenth century. I sat with pen poised, waiting for the important images of the day to rise to the surface.
I wrote: I have cut the cord tying me to Nesbitt Hall and a life of docile servitude to Geoffrey Nesbitt. The beginning of a new life. Henceforth, I am a free agent. I shall do no man's bidding. Point to ponder--why has it taken me so long? We are all victims of habit and that tired old tyrant, Tradition.
It was a short entry, but to the point. I was tired and went to bed.