Read an Excerpt
London, February 1817
Discomfiture, for all that it felt like a constant companion, never failed to find new and inventive guises in which to appear.
“I’d like to take out A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the first volume.” Her sister’s voice soared into every corner of the lending library, all but rattling the bay window in whose alcove Kate had taken refuge. “I’m engaged at present in a work of my own that will build on Miss Wollstonecraft’s foundation. Where she restricted herself to theory, however, and broad societal prescription, I address myself directly to the individual woman of today, arming her with practical methods by which she may begin even now to assert her rights.”
She wouldn’t speak of bodily emancipation in such a setting, would she? Kate held her breath. Surely even Viola had better sense than to—
“In particular I introduce the idea that women will never achieve true emancipation until we have absolute governance of our own persons, within marriage as well as without.”
A stout young man, sitting at the long table nearest Kate’s alcove, looked up sharply from his book. An elderly woman seated on the opposite side of the room did the same. So, no doubt, did every peacefully read- ing patron in this establishment. Vi’s was a voice that commanded attention, all crisp consonants and breath support, exactly the voice you’d expect from the granddaughter of an earl.
Or the daughter of an actress.
The young man’s table was scattered with volumes, all perused and discarded by patrons who hadn’t bothered to return them to the desk. Kate swiped one up and bent her head over a random page, to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes. To Elizabeth it appeared that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit or finer success . . .
Pride and Prejudice. That single line was enough to set Kate’s bones vibrating like a struck tuning fork. Surely it had been written for her, this tale of a young woman struggling under the incessant mortifications thrust upon her by a family that did not know the meaning of discretion.
She turned a page. No more sound from the library’s other end; the clerk must have gone to fetch the requested volume, and to escape any more discussion of practical methods for asserting a woman’s rights. In the book, meanwhile, the party at Netherfield dragged dismally on, plaguing Elizabeth with the disagreeable attentions of Mr. Collins and the cold silence of the Bingley sisters and Mr. Darcy.
Of course Mr. Darcy had already begun to take note of Elizabeth’s fine eyes by this point in the story, and Mr. Bingley was so smitten with Jane that he never noticed half the graceless things the Bennet family did. Could there really be such men in the world? And if so, where did they reside?
“There you are.” Viola stood at the other side of the book-scattered table, Vindication volume in hand, peering at her through those plain glass spectacles she always insisted on wearing in public. “Are you ready to go?”
The stout man glanced up again, no doubt recognizing Vi’s voice. He sent a quick look from one lady to the other, piecing together their relation.
And then he saw Kate, properly. Though he’d been sitting no great distance away, a mere half turn of his head necessary to bring her into view, his eyes apparently had not landed on her until now.
A dozen or more variations she’d seen of this response, on too many occasions to count. Some men managed it without looking witless. Most, unfortunately, did not.
The man’s features stalled, then veered away from the jolly smirk they’d been forming in favor of a glazed-eyed reverence. He blushed, and bowed his head once more over his book.
Not terribly useful, the admiration of such a man. Still, it gave a girl hope. If she could one day drive a marquess, for example, into a like slack-jawed stupor—and why should she not? Title notwithstanding, a marquess was a man with the same susceptibilities as any other—then she might make something of the triumph.
“Novels and more novels.” Her sister, indifferent to such small drama, had begun turning over the discarded volumes on the table. “I suppose nobody wants to read what might actually improve his mind.” The man abruptly closed his book—doubtless a novel—and shoved it away as though he’d only just noticed its offending presence in his hands. His gaze averted, his cheeks pink as fresh-butchered pork, he pushed to his feet and fled to some other sector of the room.
“Yes, I’m ready.” Kate’s own voice had all the patrician clarity of Viola’s, though she aimed it for shorter distances and always took care to stir in a bit of sugar. “Help me gather up these books. They oughtn’t to be left lying about.”
How long could a marquess, once stunned, be counted on to remain in that state? Could he procure a special license and marry her that same day, before his first rabid infatuation receded to the point where he might think of meeting her family? Or maybe she’d do better to get him out of London altogether, that he might not encounter any friends who would feel it their duty to knock him back to his senses. She’d have to count on sustaining his state of stupefaction, in that case, for the length of the journey from Mayfair to Gretna Green.
Difficult and unlikely. But not impossible, necessarily; at least not for her. Stupefaction was her stock-in-trade, and she would not stoop to the tedious false modesty of pretending not to know it.
The library clerk, when she stopped at his desk, accepted her armload of stray books with an effusion of gratitude such as no plain-faced lady would ever have received for the same task, and fetched her the other two volumes of Pride and Prejudice. She signed her name, paid her pennies, and emerged with her sister into the chill February afternoon.
“You’ve read that already” was Viola’s pronouncement on ascertaining what book she held.
“Indeed I have. But you own that volume of the Vindication of Women, and every other volume, too. Surely you’re the last person who ought to be questioning someone else’s borrowing habits.”
“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, it’s called. The meaning is entirely different. And my purpose wasn’t to borrow a book, but to begin making myself known.” She drummed her gloved fingers on the volume’s binding, a rhythmic accompaniment to the ring of their heels on the pavement. “The more library clerks and booksellers I make aware of my project, the more likely it is that they’ll mention me in discussions with one another—perhaps even in discussions with publishers. In fact, I think it very likely that publishers spend time in just such establishments. One day I may well be overheard, and approached by some enterprising man who sees that the time is ripe for a book like mine.”
Oh, she’d be approached, certainly enough. Behind those false spectacles and taut-pinned hair and the sensible Quakerish garments she favored, Vi had her share of the Westbrook beauty. One day some man would see past her brusque manners to notice the fact, and if he was enterprising, it would surely occur to him to feign an interest in her book, perhaps even to present himself in the guise of a publisher.
That was why Kate could not allow her to undertake these errands alone. For a young lady of intellect, Viola was shockingly ignorant in some matters.
“I wonder, though, if a more gradual kind of persuasion might be to your benefit.” At the corner she turned east, steering her sister along. “If perhaps you concentrated your efforts at first on pleasantries—on asking the clerk to recommend an interesting book, for example, or even speaking on commonplace topics such as the weather or an amusing print you recently saw—then by the time you introduced the subject of your own book, you might have a reservoir of goodwill already in place. Even a clerk who doesn’t necessarily subscribe to your book’s ideas might be disposed to advance your cause with his publisher friends, simply as a favor to a charming customer.”
“But I don’t want to be a charming customer.” Viola’s voice sank into the low passionate chords of the instrument with which she shared a name. “I want to be taken seriously. I want to know my book is appreciated on its own merits—not because the reader finds me sufficiently charming. I’m sure Thomas Paine never concerned himself with whether or not he was charming.” The word apparently furnished endless fuel for disgust. She jabbed at Pride and Prejudice. “Your Mr. Darcy isn’t the least bit charming, and yet everyone tiptoes about him in awe.”
It’s different for women. She needn’t say it aloud. Vi knew well enough.
Kate shifted the volumes to the crook of her other arm, and fished in her reticule for a penny as they approached the street crossing. She wasn’t without sympathy for her sister. The constraints of a lady’s life could be exceedingly trying. Demoralizing, if one allowed them to be.
The trick was not to allow them to be.
“Lord help us all if you mean to pattern yourself after Thomas Paine. Perhaps he wouldn’t have got into such trouble if he’d spent a little effort on charm.” She paid the crossing sweep, a ragged dark boy, with the penny and her sweetest smile. “And Mr. Darcy had ten thousand a year and a grand house to his name. Much will be forgiven in the manners of such a man.” She caught up her skirts and stepped into the street, sister alongside.
“What of his Elizabeth, then?” The unavoidable legacy of a barrister father: progeny always on the lookout for an argument. “She never takes pains to charm anyone, least of all Mr. Darcy, and yet— Where are we going?” She halted, abrupt as a fickle cart horse. “We ought to have turned north by now.”
“The girls won’t be through with lessons for nearly an hour.” Kate took her sister’s elbow to usher her the rest of the way across. “That gives us time to go by way of Berkeley Square.”
“Berkeley Square?” The way Vi pronounced it, you’d think she was naming the alley where the meanest residents of St. Giles went to empty their chamber pots.
“Berkeley Square, indeed. I have a letter for Lady Harringdon.” Might as well serve up the objectionable news all at once, rather than by spoonfuls.
“On what possible subject can you be writing to that . . . woman?” She knew how to pack inordinate amounts of meaning into a pause, Viola did, this time suggesting she’d groped for a word suited to Lady Harringdon’s perfidy and found none strong enough.
“She’s just married off the last of her daughters this week. I’m offering my congratulations, as civil people do on such occasions to their kin.”
“Kin, do you call her?”
Yes, she’d known that word wouldn’t pass without remark. “She’s married to our father’s elder brother. That makes her our aunt.”
“Well, somebody ought to tell that to her. Her and Lord Harringdon and whatever mean-spirited offspring they spawned.” Viola walked faster, swinging Vindication, volume one, in a pendulum motion as though she were winding up to brain one of that family with it. “Good lord, Kate, do you secretly correspond with the dowager Lady Harringdon as well? With all the aunts and uncles who refuse to know us? I would have thought you had more pride than to truckle to such people.”
“I don’t secretly correspond with anyone. I’ve already told you the occasion for this note, and I hardly think a word of congratulations can be construed as truckling.” To keep her voice light and unruffled required a conscious effort, but she had plenty of practice in the art. “Indeed I should think it will provide an instructive example of proper manners to Lady Harringdon, while proving that her own lapses in civility do not guide the behavior of Charles Westbrook’s children. You see, I’m partly motivated by pride after all.”
Partly. But in truth she had grander ambitions than to simply make a show of unbowed civility to her aunt.
They weren’t really so unlike, she and her sister. She, too, intended to be known. One day the door to that glittering world of champagne and consequence—the world that ought to have been her birthright—would crack open just long enough to admit a girl who’d spent every day since the age of thirteen watching for that chance, readying herself to slip through. Even at two and twenty, she hadn’t given up hope. Enough attentions to people like Lady Harringdon, and something must finally happen. Someone must recognize the aristocratic blood that ran through her veins, and the manners and accomplishments worthy of a nobleman’s bride. Then she’d dart through that open door, take her place among her own kind, and single-handedly haul her family back into respectability.
“Do what you must.” Viola’s shoulders flexed, as though the insult of a trip to Berkeley Square had an actual physical weight that wanted preparation to bear. “My pride shall take the form of waiting across the street while you go about your errand. Anyone looking out the window may see that I am not ashamed of our mother.”
That was petty; the argumental equivalent of jabbing her with a sewing pin. And it smarted every bit as much. “Neither am I ashamed of her. Only I’m not willing to dismiss Papa’s family as a lot of villains because they objected to his marrying an actress. No family of good name would desire such a union for one of their sons.”
“ ‘Such a union?’ To a woman of character and intelligence, you mean, daughter of a proud theatrical family, who studied Sophocles and spat on indecent offers from gentleman admirers? Yes, doubtless any reasonable family must abhor that match, and strive instead to get their son shackled to some insipid chit who hasn’t any interests or passions of her own and whose talents extend only to a few polite pluckings on the harp. There is a recipe for conjugal felicity, to be sure.”
Kate made no answer, beyond a small inward sigh. Really, it must be very pleasant to live in Viola’s world, with everything drawn in such broad strokes. People and actions easily classified as righteous or knavish; no margin granted for human fallibility or the claims of society. No energies squandered in pondering extenuating circumstances. No time wasted on doubt.
One of the Pride and Prejudice volumes was pressing a sharp edge into her forearm, so she switched to a one-handed grip, like Viola with her Vindication. Conjugal felicity, indeed. That came in several guises, surely, or at least you might get there by more than one path. If Mr. Darcy, for example, had come to her with that first grudging proposal, openly acknowledging his abhorrence at so lowering himself, she would have swallowed her pride long enough to choke out a yes. Affection and understanding could come afterward—or if they never came at all, she would have a good name and the grounds at Pemberley on which to build all the felicity she required.
As they made their way into the residential streets of Mayfair, she tipped back her head for a view of remote upper windows. Surely somewhere in London was a gentleman who would suit her needs. Surely some aristocrat—some marquess ripe for stupefaction—must appreciate a beautiful bride with such pragmatic expectations of the wedded state. Surely someone, someday, could be brought to lower himself as Mr. Darcy had, and spirit her out of that middling class in which she had never truly belonged.
Surely that man did walk and breathe. The trick was only to find him.
Round the landing, down the stairs, and through the heavy oak front door, Nicholas Blackshear spilled out into the cold sunlight of Brick Court, black robes billowing in his wake. Time and Tide tarry for no Man, warned the inscription on the sundial where he paused to confirm the hour. It told the truth, that inscription, but far from heeding its exhortation to haste, he always seemed to stop here an extra moment, reflecting on the hallowed figures who must have consulted this same timepiece as they’d gone about their business in the Middle Temple.
William Blackstone and Oliver Goldsmith had each surely stood here—he had only to glance up at Number Two Brick Court to see where the jurist and the writer had slept and studied a few generations ago.
But so it was throughout the Inns of Court. Just as he always had to stop at the sundial, so must he quietly marvel, every time he took a meal in the Middle Temple Hall, at the serving table whose wood came from the hull of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. So must he always attempt, mid-meal, to picture all the details of the evening, some two hundred years ago, when the benchers and students had been privileged to witness the very first performance of Twelfth Night in that same room.
To be a London barrister was to live surrounded by the best of everything England had to offer, all from men who’d charted their own courses to greatness. A fellow might end up anywhere, who began here. If he was literarily inclined, he could look not only to the example of Goldsmith but also to the poet Donne, the satirist Fielding, the playwrights Webster and Congreve—onetime barristers all. If he aspired to etch his name in big bold letters upon the pages of English history, there were Francis Bacon’s footsteps to follow in, or, more recently, William Pitt’s.