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Thornfield HallJane Eyre's Hidden Story
By Emma Tennant
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Emma Tennant
All right reserved.
Tomorrow is the Pierrot in our pantomimes.
All facts look so much the more like fairy stories because, in our time, fairy stories take unconscionable pains to look like the truth.
—Balzac, Cousin Pons
We lived in Paris, in a house on a long, gloomy street, the rue Vaugirard in Montparnasse, but our house was far from being somber or sad. There were three stories: the maid Bettina under the eaves, with a little child's bedroom next to it that I seldom occupied, as Maman allowed me to sleep on the chaise in the sitting room next to the pretty bedroom she had to herself. On the first floor lived old Tante Irène, who some said was the cousin of Herr Graff, whose house this really was—he who made a fortune from promoting the railroads in Baden. But in reality
Tante Irène was a milliner, and I would search for scraps for her all day: a feather from the park for a hat for the Comtesse Popinot, a twist of silk from Jenny's latest costume (Jenny was Jenny Colon, the famous actress). She was Maman's best friend, and when she came to visit, she would laugh at the new conservatory. This was on the ground floor, just off what had once been a dingy little salonwith no space for more than a table and four chairs: "Céline Varens!" Jenny would cry in astonishment—though of course you couldn't tell whether she was in earnest or not. "Ma chère Céline! Has the milord from England bought you this? How many francs did this cost to erect, I ask you?" And she would sweep around the glorious ballroom of glass, with its pink frosted chandelier and the parrot shrieking on its perch. "When is he coming to take you to his castle, ma chérie? One thing is certain, you can't take this contraption with you—the frost in Angleterre would crack it and the snow would come drifting in!" And Jenny, making a scene so realistic of the glass igloo where my mother would be forced to live that we'd both shiver in the heat of a Parisian afternoon, would go off into more peals of laughter. She was afraid, I believe, that she would lose Maman to the country over the gray sea—but I didn't like to think of her going there, and, with a regularity that must have been tiresome to both friends, I burst into tears at this point, and Maman was forced to lay her finger over her lips. She and Jenny weren't in the profession for nothing, however, and they'd mime the life Céline would be subjected to if she went to this fabulous castle in the north of a cold country—picking icicles from the windows, throwing around their shoulders the cashmere shawls the milord sent Maman from his travels to India, and making a pretense of building a fire in the little paved garden beyond the walls of the conservatory.
For all their clowning, I couldn't be persuaded to smile. I didn't know the milord—though Maman told me I'd met him when I was very small. I knew I never wanted to meet him—"Cher Edouard," as Jenny mockingly named my mother's protector and lover of times gone by. Then she'd set off for the theater. Like Maman, Jenny could turn her hand to most kinds of acting and singing, whether vaudeville or opéra comique. But only Maman, the beautiful and famous Céline Varens, daughter of the old Funambules Theater before it was transformed, danseuse de corde—tightrope walker many leagues in the air—could master all of them. Maman could sing like a nightingale, and she could play the great tragic roles as well. She would be Phèdre, pacing the glass cage the new conservatory now became—waiting for her young lover, and I the incestuous stepson Hippolyte. How proud I was of Maman! There was literally no one like her—for it was impossible to know what she would next be like.
Our days in Paris, so far as the changing nature of her roles permitted, followed a pattern of which I never tired. After a morning in the sunny glass room, banked high with roses and freesias from Maman's admirers, we would abandon the attempt at lessons (I was supposed to learn English, but the thick, ugly language stuck in my mouth like unchewed meat) and set off for the park. It might be the Luxembourg Gardens, neat and yet with secret twists and turns, box hedges and laurel cut in half-human shapes, so that Maman would bow gravely, feigning acquaintance with a topiary bush. Passersby would stare at us, and of this I was also proud, for I knew by their gaze that I was pretty, too, and that my good looks accentuated Maman's. Sometimes a man would say in a hushed voice to his companion, "Surely that must be Céline Varens!" and I would be prouder still. I was the spitting image of my mother—so Jenny and all Maman's friends said. On our outings to the park, walking the dark length of rue Vaugirard to the Luxembourg Gardens, I glowed in the knowledge that I wore the same dress— pale blue like forget-me-knots, with rose pantalettes—as the celebrated Céline Varens. "Madame is today, mademoiselle is tomorrow," said our dandy, a flâneur or boulevard walker known slightly to Maman; a man who searched endlessly for novelty and amusement. And Paris could provide them: I loved to feel, in those moments, a part of the great city, the capital of luxury. I loved to be tomorrow, walking always a few feet behind today. Little did I know then the cruel pantomime I would be coerced into making come true.
When my mother was in a piece at the Funambules Theater, I would go and watch—a panto or a fairy-tale play, as they called them—and whichever one of Maman's admirers was in attendance at the time would carry me right up to . . .
Excerpted from Thornfield Hall by Emma Tennant Copyright © 2007 by Emma Tennant. Excerpted by permission.
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