A Dress of Violet Taffeta

A Dress of Violet Taffeta

by Tessa Arlen
A Dress of Violet Taffeta

A Dress of Violet Taffeta

by Tessa Arlen


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A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of La Belle Époque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, who shattered the boundaries of fashion with her magnificently sensual and enchantingly unique design from the USA Today bestselling author of In Royal Service to the Queen.

Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?

When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option.

Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593436851
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/05/2022
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 68,527
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Tessa Arlen is the USA Today bestselling author of the Woman of World War II Mysteries and the novel In Royal Service to the Queen. Born in Singapore, the daughter of a British diplomat, she has lived in Egypt, Germany, the Persian Gulf, China, and India. She now lives with her husband in historic Santa Fe, where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


March 1893




The cup shook in Lucy's hand, slopping tea over the tablecloth. Damn. She blotted the spreading stain with her napkin, trying not to catch her mother's critical eye.


Mrs. Kennedy wrinkled her nose in fastidious disdain. "Not like you to be clumsy, dear," her mother said. "Are you feeling quite well?"


She was spared an explanation. "Oh, for heaven's sake! Will you look at the toast-quite burned-and they have forgotten the marmalade!" Lucy's mother rang the bell at her elbow. "Where is Palmer? What on earth is going on in this house?" She jangled the bell again, her eyebrows raised at the careless attention to their breakfast.


Lucy leaned her hot forehead into the palm of her hand. Please, she begged whichever god was responsible for deep, dreamless sleep. Just one night-is that too much to ask?


"Really, my dear, you must speak to them-they get worse every day." Her mother shook her head at the misery of poorly trained servants and opened her embroidered reticule. Lucy watched the sal volatile make its first appearance of the day and stifled irritation. If only all of life's real catastrophes could be righted with a sniff from a cut-glass bottle with a silk tassel, she thought as she hung on to silence. The signs were clear: her mother was having one of her bad days.


"I waited half an hour for my early morning tray, and it was brought up to me by an untidy-looking girl who I don't believe I have seen in the house before today. It's rather frightening, Lucy, to wake up to find a complete stranger in one's bedroom even if they are offering you tea." She took a delicate sip from her cup and put it down again, her lips pursed in a moue of distaste. "It's cold, and the milk-the milk has turned." Her voice sank to a martyr's whisper. "It's quite un-drink-able."


Lucy looked down at clotty clouds floating on the surface of dishwater gray tea. She took a mouthful and swallowed in defiance. "Yes, Mama, the milk's off."


Her mother's exasperation at Lucy's inability to supervise her servants drifted across tired table linen, mismatched china, and the offending toast. "They won't exert themselves if you don't take the time to correct them, Lucy, will they?" Her tight smile of grievance struggled against outright disapproval at her daughter's handling of her domestic staff.


All Lucy wanted to do was grope her way back up the stairs to her room, lay her aching head down on her cool, smooth pillow, and drop into sleep, but it was time to brief her mother on the uncertain future of her household-the House of Hell, as James had called it the last time he had slammed the front door on his way to his club.


She straightened her back and met her mother's gaze. "You are absolutely right, Mama. But I'm afraid that the servants won't exert themselves at all-because they have gone, all of them. I gave them notice two weeks ago." She tried to make her voice light, as if dismissing a houseful of servants was an everyday occurrence to be remedied by the Slade Domestic Agency. "Yesterday was their last day, which is why . . ." Her voice faltered as she saw the faces of women who had been her servants and companions for the past nine years when they had said goodbye. As they had held her hands or enfolded her in their arms and wished her all the best in the world. At least they found new, grateful, and hopefully stable employers. Well, nearly all of them.


Her mother's hand flew to the single strand of pearls around her neck and held on to it for dear life. "You let them go? My dear child, then who was that person in my room?"


"That was the scullery maid-I agreed to keep her on for another week or so . . . She is very willing."


Dismissing her maid, Clotilde; the housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson; Cook; the parlormaid, Palmer; EsmŽ's admirable but intimidating nanny, Mrs. Cameron; and the odd job man who came on Fridays had had a strange effect on Lucy, and its outcome lay upstairs in her chest of drawers, wrapped in tissue paper.


It was a complete waste of energy to try to put an optimistic gloss on what she must say next. "You see, Mama . . . James . . . It seems that James has left me."


Her mother held her breath. Her eyes closed for a brief flutter of a second. "Oh, Lucy, not again."


She might as well say: Which James? Lucy thought as she watched her mother struggle for composure. She never had time for him in the first place-no wonder she didn't notice when he left a month ago!


As she waited for her mother's "Whatever are you going to do, dear?" the skin on her arms seethed in a sting of unease so close to fear that she was amazed she could string two words together. Without a husband, or the necessary means, deserted wives simply did not survive, and if they did, it was not in a way that polite people recognized. We are equipped for marriage and bearing children but not for desertion. It was not a new realization. Lucy had known the moment James had stormed off into a rainy February night with a badly packed valise that she might very well be destitute within six months. Three if her plan did not work.


Her mouth was as dry as toast. She took another mouthful of sour tea. I'd give anything in the world right now for a whiff from that blasted bottle. She felt the familiar stirring of resentment and welcomed it as an alternative to dread. Why didn't she have a comfortable mother? A kindly woman with a soft bosom on which she could lay her tired head and cry out her crushing fears and the deep aching despair of being abandoned? Mrs. Kennedy did not encourage outward displays of emotion: swollen eyes and red noses were vulgar-even if the love of one's life had been carried off in three days, as in Lucy's father's case, by typhoid.


"I can't imagine he will be gone for long, dear. James tends to be unpredictable. I expect he'll be back when . . ." A dismissive wave of her elegant hand. From the moment Lucy's mother had met James she had considered him irresponsible: lacking in all reliable masculine virtues.


The money runs out? Lucy knew how her mother's mind worked. Is that the best you can do? Irritation rescued her from self-pity. "I'm afraid that this time it is for good. Even if he wanted to come back, I would say no. So, it seems I have no husband!" Lucy heard defiance in her voice. Her mother, no doubt, heard her remark as brazen.


I have no husband! A month ago, the dreaded words had left her trembling. Saying them aloud, she felt her fear begin to subside. A surge of something akin to excitement prickled in her throat with the exhilarating effervescence of champagne. Stop it, she told herself. Not enough sleep has made you light-headed. But the feeling of giddy elation persisted. Even if she couldn't pay the bills, and they were turfed out of the house, she was free of James: his erratic and badly timed disappearances, cold sarcasm, and two-day hangovers.


"He ran off with a pantomime dancer." She pressed the tips of her fingers to her lips to stop herself from laughing. I sound like a heroine in one of my sister's stories. She gulped another mouthful of sour tea. "Her name is Gilda, Gilda La Vie-I believe she pronounces it Lavvy." Laughter rippled upward, met cold tea coming down, and rushed it back the way it had come. She pressed her napkin over her mouth to prevent more damage to the cloth.


Her mother looked away. "I am not surprised that you are overwrought, dear. I always said that James-" She lifted a hand, palm outward. "Perhaps we should not discuss that now." Her mother's fragile bone structure, fine gray hair, and soft voice belied a deeply practical nature. "I am sure he has made adequate provision." She tugged a scrap of lawn and lace from the cuff of her sleeve and handed it to her daughter.


Lucy blew her nose. "There is no money-he took the last of it." She watched her mother's hands reach for each other: two terrified children seeking comfort. "I had to let the servants go so I could pay the rent." She didn't mention her other extravagant purchase the day before yesterday. Have I completely lost my mind? she asked herself.


"My dear child, whatever are you going to do?" Her mother twisted both of her wedding rings on her thin fingers. Twice widowed, she had married once for love to Douglas Sutherland, and the second time for financial security. When her second husband died of chronic dyspepsia, Mrs. Kennedy discovered that she had not married for an assured future after all and had come to live in Davies Street (just off the fashionable end of Berkeley Square, she told her friends) with Lucy and James.


Lucy knew exactly what her mother was thinking: I would be welcomed everywhere as a widow: no one wants an abandoned wife hanging around, particularly if there is no money.


She met her mother's gaze: She's hoping that if I am ever lucky enough to find myself a second husband, I'll choose one who is wiser with his investments, or, at least, easy on the brandy.


Her mother's expression intensified into one close to rebuke. And now she's worried that I am closer to thirty than to twenty.


She stared across the untidy table at her mother's pale, powdered face. "I would rather die than marry again." It was a challenge, quickly tempered by her mother in the graceful tit-for-tat she excelled in.


"Well, you can't marry again, can you, dear? You already have a husband." And then to cap it: "Have you told your sister?"


Lucy's resentment intensified. Her younger-by-a-year sister, Elinor, with her spectacular marriage to the heir of a rich family, was every mother's perfect daughter.


"No, not yet," she lied and crossed the fingers of both hands.


When her mother left the dining room she would go upstairs to put on her hat for her morning walk. The guest room door was directly opposite the door to Mrs. Kennedy's room. Lucy could see her mother jogging her sister awake in a flurry of concern and whispered lamenting as she announced Lucy's abandonment and looming financial catastrophe.


She glanced at the dining room clock. It was half past nine. Elinor was volatile at the best of times; if she were awoken too early, it would be fatal. In her eagerness to be rid of their mother's desperate need to discuss Lucy's dilemma, Elinor might give away everything she and Lucy had planned together last night.


Lucy reached across the breakfast table, took her mother's hand, and went to the heart of the matter. "There is nothing either you or Elinor can do to help, Mama. I have started divorce proceedings against James-for desertion. My decree absolute will be granted in a few weeks."


Her mother snatched back her hand and brought it down on the tablecloth with a slap that made the cups quiver in their saucers. "Divorce?" She hauled in air like a drowning woman. "Have you completely lawst your senses, Lewcy? If you divorce James, you will lose every single one of your friends. The scandal will be unimaginable. You will not only be destitute, an exile from all decent society, but your child will have no father! Have you thought of that? No, of course you haven't. Well, think of it now: if you proceed with this insanity, EsmŽ will be made a ward of the court."



Lucy pushed open the door to her sister's bedroom with her shoulder and, followed by her Pekingese, NouNou, and her plump puppy, Minou, maneuvered the breakfast tray into the dimly lit room.


A head lifted itself briefly from the pillow. "Oh, it's you. I thought it was Mama again." Elinor turned over onto her back, her long hair spread out on either side of her beautiful, grumpy face.


"She's gone for her walk, with EsmŽ."


Elinor's brows came down as Lucy dumped the heavy tray onto the bed. "You should never have told her about your divorce. She's frantic-unstoppably frantic. What you should have done . . ." Two hands pushed hair back from her forehead. "What you should have done was wait until it was final. You could have made up a story-and she would have believed you. James was hardly ever here anyway."


Lucy's head throbbed. Last night she and her sister had finished off the remnants of a decanter of brandy that James had somehow overlooked. She had hoped it would make her sleep-but it had kept her awake all night, tossing and turning in a depressed state of what-ifs.


"Yes, I know that she would far prefer me to be widowed than watch me stand up in court and tell everyone that 'my hubby ran off with a Gaiety girl.' But if I don't divorce James, there is nothing to prevent him moving back when he tires of this woman. And if, in the meantime, my scheme is successful, then he'll drink away any money I might have in the bank before he runs off with another dancer. It has to be divorce."


Elinor pressed the heels of her hands against her closed eyes. "Dogs off the bed." Lucy picked up both Pekes and put them outside the bedroom door. "You surely didn't tell her about Gilda Lavvy, did you, Lucy?"


"Whyever not? She needs to hear it from me rather than one of her gossipy friends. I didn't tell her anything else, by the way, did you?"


Elinor turned onto her side with her back to her, and Lucy swallowed down alarm-had Elinor told? "Elinor, don't go back to sleep, it's nearly eleven o'clock. Mama will be back soon, and I have a favor."


"Another one?" Elinor pushed herself upright to loll against her pillows and accept tea.


"I want you to take Mama back to Grosvenor Square with you. I have so much to do, and you know how demanding she can be. Anyway, I don't think she can survive without a crew of servants. She has to be given time to adjust, and I would prefer her to do it in your house and not in mine. It would be kinder."


"Kinder to whom? Certainly not me." Elinor sorted through the offerings on her breakfast tray with an irritable jabbing finger. "You seem to forget, Lucy, that Clayton is redoing the drawing and dining room. The house is in chaos, which is why I am staying here with you." And under her breath: "What on earth made me think that was a good idea?"

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