Around the corner from the elegant townhouses on Albion Place is Britannia Mews, a squalid neighborhood where servants and coachmen live. In 1875, it’s no place for a young girl of fine breeding, but independent-minded Adelaide Culver is fascinated by what goes on there. Years later, Adelaide shocks her family when she falls in love with an impoverished artist and moves into the mews. But violence shatters Adelaide’s dreams. In a dangerous new world, she must fend for herself—until she meets a charismatic stranger and her life takes a turn she never expected.
A novel about social manners and mores reminiscent of Edith Wharton, this story of love, family, and the price one must pay for throwing off the shackles of convention is also a witty and incisive dissection of the “upstairs, downstairs” English class system of the last two centuries.
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By Margery Sharp
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1946 Margery Sharp
All rights reserved.
Britannia Mews was built in 1865 to accommodate the carriage-horses, coachmen, and other respectable dependents of the ten houses in Albion Place. The Place, facing directly upon Hyde Park, and forming in fact a section of the Bayswater Road, was bounded by the north-and-south perpendiculars of Chester Street and Bedford Street; its back doors opened on Albion Alley, which also debouched on these streets; and Britannia Mews opened off the opposite side of the Alley, through a wide and rather handsome arch. The Mews, too, ran north-and-south, squeezed up in the shape of a gin-bottle between the backs of the Chester and Bedford Street houses. Carriages passed in or out by the archway only, and to reach their appropriate front-doors in Albion Place went round, in the current phrase, by either Chester or Bedford. This gave rise to a topographical joke very popular among the young fry of the Place — "James is late again, what can be amiss?" "You know he has to come round by Chester, Mamma!" Many families thought it good enough for Punch.
The Mews contained ten sets of stables, each with a three-roomed flat above reached by a steep iron stairway outside. From the head of the stair a narrow iron balcony was carried across the width of the coach-house below, with the door of the flat opening in the middle. As for the interiors, they were rightly considered luxurious. Each separate coach-house boasted its own water-tap, so that housewives had to carry their pails up only one flight of stairs, while in the apartments above were sinks with waste-pipes. Fuel also was carried up, and the combined ovens and hearths necessitated fires all the year round — but it was a great convenience to be able to keep one's half-sack of coals out of the way below. On an average the women made no more than six or seven such trips a day; and a good housekeeper, like Mrs. Benson at Number 2 (her husband coachman to the Culvers in Albion Place), could show a spotless establishment by twelve and go out sewing in the afternoon.
There was naturally a manure-heap. It was neatly confined within a low brick wall, and wholesomely redolent not only of itself but also of coachmen's perquisites — being drawn on at regular intervals by local gardeners. The cobbles, scoured by the water of perpetual carriage-washings, rang cleanly under the horses' hoofs; and the horses themselves shone with good grooming like chestnuts, or rosewood, or polished iron.
Such was Britannia Mews in its too brief prime; but besides the archway a second exit, at its northern end, pointed towards the more dubious neighbourhood of the Edgware Road. This "slype" or foot-passage emerged between a public convenience and the Cock public-house, whose side-door ("jug and bottle") actually opened in it; moralists anxious for the good standing of the Mews perceived a perpetual tug of war, pull-Devil-pull-Baker, between the Cock at one end and Albion Place at the other. Their worst fears, alas, were swiftly realized: within but a decade the Cock gained the upper hand and it was apparent that Britannia Mews would soon go, so to speak, entirely native.
In this catastrophe Albion Place was not guiltless; and here a word must be said as to the character, both architectural and moral, of the Albion Place houses. They were tall and porticoed, but less roomy than their elevation promised; they copied the bad Mayfair example of sacrificing too much space to a handsome drawing-room, cramped the entrance hall with a couple of hollow pillars that supported nothing, and relegated the servants to box-rooms above and cellars below. The nurseries were in the attics — for the denizens of Albion Place, unlike their genuinely fashionable exemplars, lived in London all the year round and reared their families on the spot; nurseries there had to be. In short, the dominant characteristic of these houses was falseness; as a direct result, the tenants tended to live beyond their means. For they had to keep up appearances. The large drawing-rooms demanded to be filled, the pillars in the hall postulated six-course dinners in the dining-rooms. Not for Albion Place the Bloomsbury saddle of lamb, the Baker Street pair of fowls — and not for Albion Place, either, the liberal supply of butcher's meat below-stairs. One had to economize somewhere; though living above one's income, one didn't (in Albion Place) go the whole hog and ruin oneself. But one economized where one could; one subscribed with particular alacrity to the new convention (discovered about 1870) that it was just as smart to "job" a brougham (got up of course to look like a private carriage) as to keep one's own cattle. Horses were sold, coachmen dismissed, the last locks of hay mouldered in the empty cribs; by 1875 only four sets of stables, all at the Albion or anti-Cock end, retained their proper tenants. In these flats, the windows were clean and curtained; Number 2 still showed pots of geranium on the sills; but the rest of the Mews had long been "squatted" by a low-class colony of private traders — flower girls, step women, knife-grinders, a chimney-sweep, a Punch-and-Judy man, their numerous progeny often unlicensed shoeblacks — whose iniquity blackened all about them. Here windows were often broken and always dirty; washing was left to hang till the dust from beaten mats grimed it afresh; slatternly women gossiped and quarrelled, debated the affairs of their petty Alsatia, and shouted ribald abuse at the men round the door of the Cock. If it were asked What was the landlord about? the answer was that he had found out the value of slum property. Britannia Mews cost him not a penny, and let at three shillings a week per fourth part of a room.
At half-past ten on a May morning, in the year 1875, Adelaide Culver, aged ten and a half, issued from the back-door of Number 8 Albion Place, and slipped across the Alley, and entered the Mews.
She had no business there. The Mews was strictly forbidden territory to both the Culver children, though Treff, as a boy, could always escape blame by lisping that he had gone to look at the pretty horses. But he rarely went. He was not an enterprising child. Even then, from where she stood just under the archway, Adelaide could see him waiting patiently, ready, dressed to go out, at the back-window of the nursery upstairs. Adelaide flashed him a look of contempt. About four years younger than herself, Treff appeared to her the merest baby, unworthy of any serious consideration. ("What a dear little brother you have!" ladies used to say, at Mrs. Culver's tea-parties; and though Adelaide had early learned the proper answer, she frequently gave it in so off-hand a tone that the ladies were quite disconcerted.)
Adelaide too was dressed for Kensington Gardens, her short jacket buttoned, her beaver muff hanging on its cord round her neck; it was long past the muff season, but Adelaide had a passion for muffs and a stronger will than her governess's. In conjunction with the bunched-up rear of her fishwife skirt this muff gave her upper part a very solid, almost matronly appearance, whereas her legs in their striped stockings were unmistakably the legs of an active and wiry little girl. On her head she wore a pork-pie hat, maroon felt trimmed with a quill, and round her neck a sort of lace cravat — the costume, in fact, destined to be preserved for at least three more generations in the popular art of the scrap-book and Christmas cracker. It suited Adelaide well enough, and perhaps better than any prettier or freer style, for she was a plain child, with features already strongly marked — aquiline nose, black brows, and stubborn chin. Her mother hoped she would grow up to look distinguished; Adelaide for her part secretly considered her appearance interesting, and was almost too satisfied with it.
She now took a step forward, under the arch. At that morning hour the Mews was quiet enough, placid in the spring sunshine; for a moment the child was seeing it as the complacent builder saw it ten years before — neat, cosy, a model dwelling. No one now remembered the builder's name, but perhaps he had been country-bred, for in one corner he had spared a triangle of soil, brick-bordered, about the roots of a lime-tree.
Adelaide turned round, and so discovered that she was now in the Mews, looking out. On the other side of the cobbled Alley rose the tall backs of the houses in Albion Place; they had no gardens, only yards, bounded by a wall with spikes on top. The ten back-doors were all painted green, and showed up nicely against the brick; the house next to the Culvers', however, had its wall whitewashed, and this, together with a lilac appearing over its top, made it the most attractive in the row. The Culvers' house had nothing remarkable about it at all; it simply looked, like all the rest, solid, rather ugly, and very difficult to burgle. Noting that. Treff was no longer at the window, Adelaide gave a last glance into the Mews; and at that moment the side-door of the Cock was pushed open and out came a little girl carrying a jug.
No neat pork-pie crowned the tangle of red hair, no striped stockings clothed her dirty legs. She wasn't barefoot; she wore a pair of old boots, many sizes too large. A ragged shawl was tied over a ragged tartan dress, of which the skirt was far too short. At the sight of Adelaide she stopped dead, like an animal in its form, clasping the jug to her flat bosom. Adelaide felt slightly unsure of herself. She knew only one mode of approach to a "ragged-child" (they were a definite species, like "gun-dogs"), and that was to give it a penny. She had occasionally done so, in company with her mother or Miss Bryant, and the ragged child (similarly accompanied by a ragged adult) gave a grateful snivel. But now no adults were at hand: the two young female creatures met without any social buffer. There was of course no reason why Adelaide should not simply walk off, but such was not Adelaide's way.
The purse inside her muff contained five coppers. She fumbled one of them out and held it up.
"Little girl, would you like a penny?"
The child merely stared.
"Here's a penny for you," persisted Adelaide.
The child set down her jug and stealthily advanced. Then she took the last few steps at a run, seized the coin, and fled back. She had not uttered a single word, she hadn't even smiled, and Adelaide was naturally annoyed.
"You should say thank you!" she called angrily.
Instead, the child did an astonishing, a wicked thing. As she stooped to her jug she also picked up a small pebble and threw it hard and straight at her benefactress's legs. Adelaide uttered a cry of pain; immediately the door of Number 2 opened, and down rushed Mrs. Benson. The ragged child made off.
"Miss Addie!" cried Mrs. Benson. "Whatever's amiss?"
"A little girl threw a stone at me!" wailed Adelaide. "A little girl with red hair!"
"And what were you doing playing with her?" retorted Mrs. Benson unsympathetically. "You've no business in the Mews, as well you know! I never heard of such a thing!"
"I wasn't playing with her!" protested Adelaide. "I only —"
"She's a bad child," raged Mrs. Benson, "and you're to have no truck with her. I've a good mind to tell your mamma."
Adelaide ignored this, long experience having taught her that servants never did tell Mamma, for fear of the consequences to themselves.
"How is she bad?" she asked curiously.
"She's a thief," said Mrs. Benson.
Instinctively Adelaide clutched her muff more tightly. Instinctively she glanced over her shoulder at that comfortable row of spikes. For the word "thief" — a sly, secret word, like the whish of a knife — produced in her the same shiver that the word "gipsy" produced in a country child of the same age and standing. London, Adelaide knew, was full of thieves: they crept behind you in a crowd and stole your purse: they lurked in the area to steal your table silver; they stole your dog, sometimes holding him to ransom, sending — oh, horror! — his tail in a brown-paper parcel through the letter-box. It was dreadful to think that a person of this stamp lived so close to Albion Place.
"Does — does Papa know?" stammered Adelaide.
"If he don't, it's no business of yours to tell him," retorted Mrs. Benson illogically. "You go straight back to the house, Miss, and never let me see you here again."
With as much dignity as she could muster Adelaide turned and walked away. But luck was against her. Just as she reached the back-door it opened in her face, and there stood Miss Bryant, white with anger, all save her nose, which remained red.
"There you are!" cried Miss Bryant. "How often have you been told not to go into the Mews! You are a very naughty, disobedient little girl."
Adelaide took this calmly enough, for she was rather out of the current fashion in that she neither loved nor hated her good governess. She tolerated her. Miss Bryant, without being consciously aware of this, nevertheless felt something amiss in their relations. It made her over-emphatic.
"And there's poor Treff waiting and waiting!" she elaborated feverishly. "We shall be late for our walk, and we mustn't be late back, for you're going visiting with your mamma this afternoon, and Treff must get his rest —"
"Treff isn't coming visiting," said Adelaide calmly.
"Oh, isn't he?" said Miss Bryant.
"No," said Adelaide.
Every morning the Culver children met their cousins, the Hambro children, in Kensington Gardens: on this occasion, owing to Adelaide's disobedience, the little Hambros were there first. There were four of them, Alice and the twins and the baby Milly, so that they had a nurse as well as a governess. Her name was Miss Grigson. Alice was more than a year older than Adelaide, and far prettier: she had pink cheeks, a rosebud mouth, the upper lip slightly lifted over little white teeth, and quantities of naturally curling light brown hair. Even her fringe curled neatly above her fair eyebrows, and when she ran her thick mane flew out in a picturesque cloud. She was living for the day when she would be able to sit on its ends, and with this object let the twins, James and John, pull her hair whenever they wished.
"Why have you got a muff?" asked Alice at once.
"I like muffs," said Adelaide.
"But people don't carry muffs in May."
"I do," said Adelaide.
Treff meanwhile had run off to join the Black Watch. This famous regiment, composed of a dozen children whose nurses, if not their mothers, all knew each other, mustered every morning opposite the new Albert Memorial. He was just in time to answer to his name — "William Trefusis Culver?" "Here!" piped Treff — and to take part in the opening ceremony, which consisted of the following chant: —
The Black Watch will go night and day.
The Black Watch can be depended upon in any climate.
The Black Watch always keeps time.
The Black Watch never needs winding.
The Black Watch can be depended upon for any period.
They were then inspected by Sir Garnet Wolseley.
Adelaide and her cousin watched these proceedings with matronly tolerance. (No girls were allowed in the regiment, and no girl would have admitted to such an ambition.) Then they strolled off towards the Round Pond, for they were permitted to walk, together, wherever they liked in the Gardens. Alice was very fond of her little brothers and sister, but she really saw quite enough of them at home.
"Mamma says," she told Adelaide, "if you and Treff would like to come to tea this afternoon, we can make toffee."
"I can't," said Adelaide at once. "My mamma is taking me calling."
Alice regarded her with envy. To be taken calling was one of the major pleasures of her life.
"Just one call, or a whole lot?"
"Just one. I don't suppose it will be much of a call. It's on a very poor person."
"Then it isn't a call at all," said Alice firmly.
Adelaide hesitated. She was more than a little dubious herself, for there was something about the afternoon's engagement which she would in later years have described as fishy. From scraps of conversation overheard between her parents she had gathered that this particular visit was one Mrs. Culver wished to avoid. "After all," said Mrs. Culver, "I suppose it's a duty"; and then they had both glanced uneasily at Adelaide. "I suppose it is," said Mr. Culver. "After all, at that age —" said Mrs. Culver; and then, very firmly, "Poor thing, one mustn't be uncharitable...."
Excerpted from Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp. Copyright © 1946 Margery Sharp. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wonderful historical romance with several twists.