A poet in Edwardian London. A woman struggling to let her voice be heard.
In 1894, sisters Charlotte and Anne Mew take a solemn vow never to marry, and never to pass on the family curse: insanity. The spinster Mew sisters descend into genteel poverty, their mother on an invalid's sofa, Anne, the painter, in a menial job.
But Charlotte, the poet, will find immortality, and unexpected love.
Her path will require that she keep secrets and make sacrifices that may be too much even for Charlotte’s determined spirit.
In Bloomsbury’s Late Rose, Pen Pearson, herself an accomplished poet, has imagined a vivid and affecting story of a woman’s life in Edwardian London that will engage and move every reader.
|Publisher:||Chickadee Prince Books LLC|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.56(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Charlotte carried her umbrella. She stood on Gower Street, in Bloomsbury, waiting for an omnibus with her sister Anne.
"It mustn't rain," Anne said, "not on Henry's birthday."
"It might not," Charlotte conceded, but she was doubtful.
The horn-handled umbrella was more than half Charlotte's height. If asked about its company, she would say it was better than most, with her sister's company an exception. Anne, three years younger, stood a head taller. She carried a mixed bouquet of bright flowers in one hand and a carpetbag in the other. Both sisters wore woolen stockings under their long skirts, and topcoats over their shirtwaists and suits. A cameo brooch adorned Anne's high collar; a blue tie, Charlotte's. Their galoshes Anne carried in the carpetbag.
Charlotte and Anne's family resemblance began and ended with their fair complexions and fat earlobes. Charlotte had the petite figure and heart-shaped face of a fox, which framed large, deep-set eyes as alert as a startled hare's. Anne was softly rounded and as self-possessed as a roosting hen. Anne often complained that her ears stuck out like a Welsh corgi's. "But your eyes are the loveliest shade of violet," Charlotte, whose eyes were only gray, argued. Anne's eyes were indeed stunning, and every other feature except her comparative height was more feminine than any of Charlotte's features. But it was Charlotte, just short of five feet and with the hoarse voice of an unseasoned cello, whom people remembered, whether or not they could recall her name.
It was the end of March. Of course, it might rain, but it was more likely to mist or drizzle. The afternoon sky looked as if London's best linens had been washed in the Thames with King Edward's blackest stockings and hung from the bulwarks to dry. On the pavements, horse-drawn and motorized omnibuses jockeyed for right of way. The horse-powered buses, ubiquitous a few years before, were scarcer in number and, Charlotte thought, old-fashioned, much like herself.
Omnibus passengers were part of the street scene, particularly those who climbed the winding stair at the rear of the omnibus and took seats on the upper deck, as Charlotte and Anne did. The steep faces of Gower Street, monolithic institutions of stone and iron railings, hugged the pavements. The omnibus pulled into the fray of traffic, and the sisters were threaded through a narrow chasm past the British Museum on Great Russell Street and the heart of central London to the city's southern rim and their ultimate destination.
On an omnibus or in the underground, Charlotte felt almost thankful that her youthful prayer for fame had been denied, so that she could study people from behind a mask of anonymity. Today, a woman sitting catty-corner from Charlotte knitted what looked like the lid of a soup tureen but must have been a baby's bonnet. Three children jumped or climbed onto her lap, sometimes two at once, as the woman held the needles at arms' length. A thick wedding band squeezed her ring finger, while its fingertip ably tensioned the blue yarn feeding the needles from a misshapen bag at her side. With her right thumb, Charlotte twisted the gold band on her middle finger in sympathy, the same finger that wore a thimble when she embroidered years ago, the same thumb long familiar with Middle C on the Mews' piano.
Next to her, Anne sketched the bouquet of flowers with a charcoal pencil and sketchpad, her attention absorbed by the imitation of life. Occasionally she would look up, but only long enough to guess their progress.
The omnibus, emptied of all but three passengers, stopped on Linden Grove Road in Southwark, four miles south of central London, opposite two pairs of colossal pillars and a wrought-iron gate that opened onto a road stretching to the horizon. That hour the gate stood unlocked, its arms swung open in welcome. After helping each other step into galoshes, Charlotte and Anne walked through the gate purposefully, sure of their way despite a creeping fog, down what might have been a country lane if Nunhead wasn't the second largest cemetery of London.
The cemetery's vastness, expansive as heaven itself, was counterbalanced by overgrown flora. Towering trees and squat shrubs grew as thick as a fairytale forest. Large monuments to the great dead, themselves forgotten, stood censured by the erasures of time and neglect. Headstones listed to one side or pitched forward, while vines crept over untended graves. The fog crowded among the trees and lay over the gravel lanes and footpaths. Without knowing where one was going, it was impossible not to get lost.
Ahead on the lane, a figure raced toward them through the fog. Charlotte might have mistaken it for the shadow of a scudding cloud if there had been a sun. Anne turned to Charlotte. "Do you see what I see?"
Charlotte stopped. "That depends on what you see."
Anne stood beside her. "I see a child running toward us."
A boy, about six years old and dressed in a sailor suit, stopped short before them. "Eddie's gone missing," he panted. Not looking where his hand pointed, the boy waved at a bramble patch whose branches held the promise of summer blackberries.
"And who might Eddie be?" Charlotte asked politely.
Without comment, the boy raced back up the lane while yelling, "Eddie," his figure and voice merging with the fog. A string, for a kite or a pull car, hung unoccupied from the boy's hand and reached just to his bare feet.
"Stranger things," Charlotte said, and the sisters walked on.
Henry lay in the Victorian section of the cemetery among autumn's rusted bracken. Like the graves to either side, his headstone's gray existence was relieved only by lichen and an inscription. The fog blurred the stone's edge, so the marker appeared to hover just above the ground. The inscription's square letters, which said that Henry Mew was born in 1865 and died in 1901, were as black as the hard-won tarnish of a silver teapot.
The sisters stood on either side of their brother's grave without speaking.
Breaking the silence, Charlotte said, "Something's different from last year."
"Last year, the day was sunny, the bracken was green, and there was enough wind to fly a kite," Anne said.
"I meant aside from spring's late arrival." Charlotte looked down at the grave and recalled the pinecones that the sisters cleared from the grave each year. She walked around the foot of the grave to the plot's perimeter, where she peered through a hedge at a large, ugly stump. "The giant evergreen's vanished," she called over her shoulder. "The one we called 'Bertie' because of its resemblance to King Edward."
Anne knelt beside the grave on an old counterpane, taken from the carpetbag, and tended the grave. Charlotte joined her sister, standing over the grave after propping her umbrella against its headstone. She traced Henry's name with her ring finger and thought of the pact she and Anne had made, fifteen years earlier, never to marry. The sisters' annual visits to their brother's grave reminded Charlotte of the necessity of their pact, yet the sisters never spoke of it, not on this day or any other day of the year. It was as if by keeping the pact, they needn't mention it.
Anne talked as she methodically cleared the leaves and twigs of last year's storms. "If Aunt Fanny were here, she would say the fog is the fairies' way of making mischief for silly townsfolk who choose to waste an afternoon visiting graves."
Charlotte knelt on the counterpane beside Anne and took a white carnation from the bouquet. "Especially as the graves' occupants are frolicking in the woods with the fairies, making dandelion wine for the fairy king's inauguration, of which our dearly departed is a special guest." She held the carnation to her nose and breathed its clean scent.
"What still puzzles me," said Anne, rearranging the bouquet before placing it on the heart of the grave, "is that Aunt Fanny believed every word while insisting it was only make-believe." Charlotte laid the white carnation at the base of the headstone. "She knew reality and truth aren't synonymous. And she never grew up into a foolish human being."
Anne sat back on her heels. "Neither did Henry."
"But unlike Aunt Fanny," Charlotte said, "Henry never had the chance." She put her hand on the headstone to raise herself up, when a crimson mark, just to the right of the stone, arrested her vision. She crawled toward it, then peered around the stone's corner. "Anne, you won't believe this." Behind Henry's headstone lay a scarlet rose as fresh as if a wild rose bush bloomed nearby. The patch of red Charlotte had spotted was a stray petal. Anne joined Charlotte but remained standing.
Charlotte looked up at Anne, whose mouth formed an O. "Fairies?" Charlotte asked.
"Why it must be for another grave, mustn't it?" Anne replied.
The sisters searched for another grave directly behind Henry's. There was a grave to the right, and two graves to the left, but none that accounted for a single rose placed just so behind Henry's gravestone.
Charlotte stood and brushed off her hands. "Another mystery for the ages."
Suddenly, Anne's face shone. "What if Henry has an admirer. Even a sweetheart. A girlfriend who still pines for him?"
"It's possible," Charlotte said without conviction.
Anne's face fell. "The fairies are a more likely explanation," she admitted. "But the rose is certainly pretty."
The sisters again stood in silence.
Anne patted the headstone. "Happy birthday, Henry." She turned and took up the counterpane and folded it before tucking it away in the carpetbag.
Charlotte placed her hand on the cold stone, damp with fog, and shut her eyes. When she opened them, she hesitated a moment, then quickly stooped to retrieve the crimson petal, waxen as the inside fold of a dog's ear, and put it in her skirt pocket.
The sisters heard Eddie before seeing him. Snuffling among fallen branches on the trail of a squirrel, the Irish setter broke through the tall grass along the lane and bounded toward them, his tongue lolling from a side of his mouth. Mud encrusted the feathers of fur hanging from his underside and tail, a collar encircled his neck, and a leash trailed between his feathered legs. Cockleburs polka-dotted his once-sleek coat. He wagged his body and shook his head at the sisters, a grin creasing his face.
Charlotte turned to Anne. "Eddie, I presume?" The setter barked and jumped in the air, happy to find himself among friends.
Before they could search for him, the boy came padding down the lane, the limp string still dangling from his hand. With his other hand, he grabbed Eddie's collar. The setter sat next to the boy and looked up at him. Eddie's face said he was glad their game of tag was ended and the boy had won at last.
"You found him," the boy said accusingly.
"Truth be told," Charlotte said, "he found us."
The boy turned to leave.
"Wait," Charlotte said, "Where is your mother?"
"Home," he replied.
"Where is home?" Anne asked.
The boy pointed to the horizon.
"Are you alone?" Charlotte asked.
The boy shook his head. "Father's there." The boy pointed again, this time over his shoulder.
Anne looked to Charlotte.
Charlotte asked, "Could we meet him?"
The boy shrugged indifferently.
Eddie led the way, the boy holding the leash as the setter pulled him along, the sisters in tow.
Either the man was unusually short or the grave he dug was deep. They saw the top of his head and then dirt shower from the hole. He whistled a familiar tune. The boy stood over the hole and dangled his string into it. Curse words replaced the whistling. A shovel flew out, handle first.
"You better not been runnin' over the graves," the man said, abruptly hoisting himself from the hole to seat himself on its rim. He pulled a green apple from a rucksack and offered it to the boy.
The boy shook his head and motioned toward Charlotte and Anne, who stood eight feet from the grave. The man looked up at them without comment, as if gentlewomen watching him luncheon was all in a day's work. Despite the inclement day, the man's shirtsleeves were rolled up over his elbows. He bit into the apple and wiped his mouth on a sleeve. Like the setter's and the boy's, his hair was red beneath his cap.
Charlotte broke the silence. "We apologize for interrupting your work. But we wanted to be certain the boy wasn't alone."
The sisters and the man looked in concert at the boy. The boy wrestled a branch from Eddie's mouth with one hand while holding his string in the other.
"Have you been botherin' the ladies, lad?"
Before the boy could answer, Charlotte interjected. "Oh no, he's been a gentleman. We just ..."
"Wanted to be sure he was no orphan," the man finished. He threw the half-eaten apple into the grave, stood up and brushed off his trousers. He turned to Charlotte.
"The missus and I tried tradin' him and his sisters to gypsies, but all they'd give us for the lot of 'em was a horseshoe to hang over our threshold, as though to say without children we'd have all the luck in the world." The man winked at the sisters.
Afraid for half a moment the man had been in earnest, Charlotte breathed out.
The man bent to gather his things, but stopped, a pickaxe in his hand, and studied them. "What brings you to these parts, and on a bloomin' day like this?" he asked, turning his head in the fog. "Come from London to visit country relatives?"
"Yes," Charlotte said, "in a manner of speaking."
"Our brother is buried here," Anne explained.
The man nodded. "The boy's mother tells him if he goes off with his father to work, he mustn't walk on top the property of other folks. That doin' so might wake what lies there. It's not houses that are haunted, she believes, but people. And the surest way to becomin' haunted yourself is by walkin' on a body's grave."
Charlotte looked to Anne, whose eyes conveyed Charlotte's own dismay. It had occurred to Anne just as it had Charlotte that the man had mistaken the sisters for ghosts.
"Our aunt always said any sprites one meets in cemeteries are bound to be fairies, not ghosts," Anne spoke quickly to reassure the man they were among the living, "and that all fairies are well meaning, even those who are mischievous."
"Gypsies, ghosts, fairies. And the only name I'm called is gravedigger because I work 'ere." The man swung his pickaxe around his head before putting it in his toolkit with the shovel and a spade. "If I dug holes in a churchyard, they'd call me sexton and ask me to ring the bell on Sundays." The man hoisted his toolkit and rucksack onto his back and tipped his cap to the sisters in farewell.
"Eddie," the man called. The boy came running, the string still clasped in his hand, but the Irish setter was nowhere to be seen. The boy and the man turned to leave.
"Just a moment," Charlotte said, her hand instinctively grasping Anne's arm for support. The man and the boy turned. "We thought Eddie was your setter."
The man looked down at the boy and shook his head at him, clearly exasperated. The man nodded toward his son and said, "He's Eddie." The boy pulled an innocent face. The man whistled sharply, and the setter came bounding through a hedge, pleased whatever its lot.
"So who's this," Anne asked of the setter, unsure of the punchline.
"'enry," the boy shouted. The setter barked and rolled onto his back. Eddie put his hands over his mouth and giggled, the string at his lips the last word. As if the boy's conspirator, Charlotte tossed her head and laughed out loud. Then Eddie, with the gravedigger and with Henry, disappeared a second time into the fog.
Before the sisters arrived home, the heavens would open and the rains pour down. For now, each lost in her own thoughts, they made their way up the lane to catch the omnibus back to Bloomsbury in time for tea.
Finally, Anne mused aloud, "What do you think Eddie had on the end of his string?"
"I think," Charlotte said wistfully, remembering Henry as a child and the evergreen that had overlooked his grave, "it was nothing less than the whole world."CHAPTER 2
An oversized wooden door shut heavily behind Charlotte and Anne, enclosing them in a cool, dark vestibule, where the strains of a pipe organ filtered to them from the nave. Each year, in the same week that they visited Henry's grave, the sisters attended Sunday services at Anne's church, St. Mary's, located a block south of Gordon Street.
Reverend Cecil stood before the nave's entrance. He held his hands together in front of his vestments and greeted them with a ceremonial air. "Ah, if it isn't the sisters Mew," he said, taking Anne's outstretched hand in his while looking down at Charlotte.
"We could hardly be anyone else," Charlotte replied, then bit her lip.
"Quite true," he said. "It's good to see you, Charlotte, after so long. You mustn't let my senseless comments keep you from God's house." He turned to a family of four, dismissing the sisters.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bloomsbury's Late Rose"
Copyright © 2019 Pen Pearson.
Excerpted by permission of Chickadee Prince Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.