"Extremely impressive . . . . A wonderful read from a born storyteller." -Chris Cleave, New York Times bestselling author of Little Bee
The setting: London, 1794.
The problem: Four nouveau riche fathers with five marriageable daughters.
The plan: Give the young women piano lessons. Present them at a concert performance for young Englishmen with titles but no fortunes. Marry off the daughters-very well, indeed.
The complications: The lascivious (and French) piano teacher; the piano maker's jealous (and musically gifted) daughter; marriageable daughters with mating plans of their own.
While it might be a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a title and no money must be in want of a fortune, what does a sexually awakened young woman want? In her wickedly alluring romp through late-Georgian London, Italian piano-making, and tightly fitted polonaise gowns, Katharine Grant has written a startling and provocative debut.
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About the Author
KATHARINE GRANT is (as K.M. Grant) a children's book author, best known in the UK for her prizewinning DeGranville Trilogy. The Marriage Recital is her debut novel for adults. She was brought up in Lancashire, England, amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was the last person in the UK to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. She lives in Scotland with her husband and three children.
Read an Excerpt
The Marriage Recital
By Katharine Grant
PicadorCopyright © 2015 Katharine Grant
All rights reserved.
Upstairs at the V & B, three men were in close conversation at a small round table. Their coats steamed and their faces were shadowed, Mr. W. favoring cheap tallow over expensive wax candles. Nor could the V & B steal light from neighboring shops, situated as it was between Gadhill the barber, who kept his lights low, and what had been the gunpowder office, now a storing, roasting, and grinding shed for the beans Mr. W. insisted, for quality's sake, must be kept in the dark. Even when a few rays of sun managed to twist down the street, the crust on the V & B's windows was as good as plate armor.
The men were waiting for the fourth of their party and looked to the door as he stamped in clutching Spence's Penny Weekly. A coffeeboy fed up with the V & B's poor gratuities and spoiling for a fight called out "Good news then, Mr. Brass?" since it clearly was not.
Gregory Brass turned on him. "Good news? Can't you read, boy? Votes! Tax! We'll all be ruined. Spence and his like should be hanged for traitors. Hanged and then quartered."
The coffeehousers were momentarily distracted from bills of lading and tide calendars. "Spence's already in prison," said somebody mildly.
"Prison! Bah!" Brass banged his fist on the counter. "A public lynching's the thing. That'd teach him. I mean, the poor can't eat the vote or fornicate with it, so what use is it to them?"
Laughter. Brass whipped off his wig. "You think it's a joke?" He squared up.
Archibald Frogmorton rose, grasped his friend's arm, and would not be shaken off. "For God's sake, Brass, stop brawling and come and sit down. I'm not bailing you from Newgate again."
This last remark had some effect. Brass followed Frogmorton and threw himself into a chair. "It's a disgrace, I tell you." He waved the penny weekly in Frogmorton's face.
"Enough." Frogmorton seized the newspaper, folded it, and used it as a wedge to stop the table from rocking. "We haven't got all day. Let's turn to the matter in hand." Brass, still muttering, subsided. Chairs were pulled in and coffee called for.
The four men's chief interest was cloth, liquor, furs, leather, timber — anything that could be bought low and sold high — but it was domestic husbandry, not trade, that had drawn them here today to sit at a private table rather than the long trestle in front of the fire. Archibald Frogmorton, Gregory Brass, and Sawney Sawneyford each had one living daughter and Tobias Drigg, at forty-three the youngest of the men, had two. With Marianne Drigg eighteen at her last birthday and the other girls close behind, the time had come to find the girls husbands. Trade in its own way, though the four fathers were not after money: they wanted grandchildren of a certain kind and were willing to pay.
Worldly success offered acquaintance, not friendship, with the rank of people these men had earmarked for their daughters: landed people, titled people, "the quality," as Mr. Drigg's father -in-law called them. Yet no matter how large the profits engineered by these four — and the profits were substantial — and no matter how significant Archibald Frogmorton's elevation to Alderman of the City of London, commercial gratitude was laced with social distaste. True, the Duke of Granchester did inquire after Georgiana Brass's health and Everina Drigg's talents, but these were simply polite precursors to inquiries about the ducal investments.
The water urn blew its lid. The coffeeboys cheered. "The girls must all be wed this time next year," Frogmorton declared, frowning at the noise.
"Yes, yes, that's right. By this time next year," Drigg agreed. Drigg's fatherly affection did not blind him to the fact that his daughters were too like their mother for complacency. Currently, Marianne and Everina were soft and plump. Soon they would be tough and fleshy — more likely to pick up a butcher than a baronet.
"Wed this time next year," echoed Sawney Sawneyford softly. He was the only widower among the four, and his tone was both agreement and disagreement, a confusion he cultivated. Marriage talk unsettled him. The others saw silken grandchildren behind unassailable social ramparts. Sawneyford saw his daughter sweating under Tamworth-pink flesh. Was that worth a coronet? Was it worth a rampart? Was it worth a dead candle? Sharp against his buttocks were three diamonds he liked to keep secreted in the lining of his coat: tiny things, the first gems he had ever touched. His eyes swam. Diamonds suited Alathea. What was he doing here? He didn't want Alathea to marry at all.
"This year's all very well, but we mustn't sell the girls short." Brass, still prickling, purposefully irritated Frogmorton, who had suggested no such thing. Brass was conscious of being the handsomest, his nose less bulbous than Frogmorton's and his ears neater, his eyes less fishlike than Drigg's, his chin round against Sawneyford's rapier. He had a powerful physique that always needed feeding, not necessarily with food. Losing his temper whetted his appetite for his new French belle amie. He drummed his fingers.
"Apply your minds, gentlemen," Frogmorton said. "Our daughters need some very particular attraction, an accomplishment beyond the accomplishments of others. All are pretty." He gave a superb smile. Having fathered a beauty, he did not have to worry about Everina's unfortunate teeth, Georgiana's hiplessness, or Alathea Sawneyford's — what was it? He felt a clogging in his throat. That girl. He tried not to think of her. "As I say, they're all lookers in their own ways, but that's not enough. All young girls of a certain age are lookers." He wiped his forehead. The fug made him sweat. "Most girls can draw and some can sing. It strikes me that we must find our daughters something else to make them enviable and envied — something spectacular."
There was talk, none of it conclusive. Finally, Drigg coughed. "Do you think we could perhaps make something of the rivalry between the harpsichord and these newfangled pianofortes?" The others looked at him with surprise — even Sawneyford. Drigg liked the attention. "It's the talk of St. James's Street, and the pianoforte, I'm assured, will soon be a feature in every home. If our girls were to master it before other girls, they would be at a distinct advantage."
Brass was openly derisive, which made Drigg more determined than was wise. He had no idea of music. There had been none in the Foundling Hospital in which he and Frogmorton, the latter superior because his mother had left him with a name grander than her own, had been raised. There had been none among the lighters on which Drigg spent five years coal heaving before he pulled a drowning Frogmorton out of the low-tide slime of the Thames, a rescue that set him on the road to riches. When he spoke, as he did now at some length, about the differences between harpsichord and pianoforte, his opinions were at least secondhand. He knew he was overpersuasive, goaded by Brass's sneers. But he did not stop and Frogmorton, initially sceptical, was soon quite taken with the picture Drigg painted. Encouraged, Drigg began to elaborate until somehow the notion of a concert party at which the girls would perform in front of potential husbands took shape.
After a while, Frogmorton raised his hand. "You speak of a grand pianoforte, Drigg. It will be large, I assume. Our girls must be seen. Will they be visible behind it?"
"Everina certainly will," said Brass with a snort.
Drigg snorted back. "Georgiana may vanish entirely. Mrs. Drigg wonders if she's quite well."
"Mrs. Drigg can save her wondering. Georgiana's well enough to bang a few keys." Brass was not worried about his daughter. Skinny and fey she might be, but she was musical. He was certain of that. She must be or what was the use of her?
"Do you think it a good idea, Sawney?" Frogmorton asked. The others stopped talking. Sawney utterances were rare enough to be overvalued.
"Your plan seems good enough." Sawney picked at fraying cuffs.
"Our plan, Sawney. It's all of ours," rapped Brass. He thought, why does Sawney wear rags? He could buy a whole tailoring business. Or get that disturbing daughter to do some mending.
"We have a plan," repeated Sawney. "Why not?" Alathea already had a pianoforte but he kept that, as he kept many things, to himself.
"Well then," said Frogmorton. "Are we agreed on the principle?"
Nobody demurred so he turned to Drigg. "We must purchase an instrument," he said. "Drigg, you can see to it."
"Oh, I don't think so," Drigg said, suddenly alarmed. "It's a big purchase. We should all go."
"Nonsense," said Frogmorton. "If we go as a group of City men, we'll be fleeced. You must go alone. Don't you agree, Brass?"
Brass, keen to increase Drigg's alarm, agreed. "Then we can blame you if it all goes wrong."
Sawneyford didn't care who bought the thing, or if nobody bought it.
"That's settled, then," said Frogmorton.
More details were hammered out. Since the Frogmortons' Manchester Square house was the grandest, the pianoforte was to be delivered there, and through the pianoforte dealer, Drigg was to employ a tuner-teacher. Frogmorton would pay this music master every week and the full bill would be divided among them at the venture's conclusion. The girls would be chaperoned by Mrs. Frogmorton as they took lessons and when the music master was satisfied the girls were ready, invitations would be sent out and the girls would perform.
As the clock struck three, the men's minds turned to their offices. Clerks would be waiting. They pushed out their chairs, found their coats, and went to the counter, where Mrs. W. noted down each man's dues. She accepted few notes of credit but she trusted these four to pay at the end of each quarter. So far, prompting had not been necessary and Alderman Frogmorton could be relied on for a good tip.CHAPTER 2
The girls were not consulted. Had they gone to the workshop of the pianoforte maker at Tyburn, things might have been different. As it was, Tobias Drigg made his way to Vittorio Cantabile's workshop without the girls knowing anything of their fathers' plan. Drigg did not choose Cantabile: Cantabile was the only pianoforte maker of whom he had heard, and he could find his way easily enough. Ten years after hosting the last wretch's execution, the Tyburn gallows remained, even the destitute superstitious about chopping the famous arms for firewood. Today Drigg wished he could not find his way. He wished he had not been so assertive. He wished he had never mentioned the pianoforte. He wished he was back in the V & B discussing plundered ships and the muleishness of Yorkshire jaggermen.
One of the gallows' arms pointed to the right, and after a brief meander during which he seriously contemplated abandoning his commission, Drigg found himself in front of two square stories of black brick, the sullen hub of five narrow warrens. Lean-tos would have softened the workshop's appearance, but nothing touched it apart from the cartwheels that habitually clipped the corner stones of the three sides where the road passed very tight. On the fourth side, the road was wider, and a wooden pavement had been attempted. The building marked a boundary for local robbers: on the east side, official thief-takers and Bow Street Runners; on the west side, devilry. The window and the door were on the east side, as was the attempted pavement. It was a good place for the alehouse it eventually became.
Drigg rat-tatted on the door. No answer, except for jeers from a crowd of beggars. Drigg pushed the door open and took a moment to shut out the street. For a second, he could have been in the V & B — that tallow tang — then his eyes readjusted and he found himself contemplating a scene of destruction. Of the fifteen or so instruments in the workshop, few were whole. Two single-manual harpsichords had vomited their innards and from a spinet, a spew of shriveled veins. Another, skeleton cracked, had lost two legs and was frozen in a crippled buck. Others were covered with shrouds. Over the lid of a lion-footed clavichord, keyboard missing, implements to pluck, hit, squeeze, stretch, and force were spread in the manner of an orderly torturer. Directly in front of Drigg was a large desk, a stool behind it. Set in the right -hand wall, a fireplace, fire unlit.
Drigg shuddered. Overlaying the smell of tallow was a smell much more fungal — an undertaking smell. He ventured past the desk, dodged the shrouds, and was further unnerved by the drafts that caused a permanent whispering and twanging, as though a concert was either finishing or just about to start. He stiffened his spine. "Hulloa! Hulloo there!" He could feel dust spores in his throat and his nose prickled.
From somewhere emerged the proprietor, balding, thin as drawn steel and draped about with wire and ivory, felt and pivots, jacks, stops, mutes, and pins. His hammer was poised for a burglar.
Drigg blurted, "I wish to buy a pianoforte."
Cantabile at once recognized a City creature, a coffeehouse man. Which coffeehouse? Lloyd's? No Lloyd's man came this way. Garraway's? No banker's sheen. Batson's? Possibly, though the man lacked sawbones' smuggery. Cantabile kept the hammer raised. The Bedford? A man who shouted "Hulloa!" supping with poets? No. The Virginia and Baltick. That was it. Plain as plain. A V & B man. Cloth and furs. Thick thread and dead animals.
Cantabile did not see himself as a vendor of keyboard instruments. He was a musical craftsman like his late father and, also like his late father, he had achieved renown in their native Milan but no fortune. London had promised more discerning customers but in this Cantabile had been disappointed. Sales had been good — his reputation preceded him; it was the customers who appalled. He found it painful to part with creations over which he had crooned and labored, to imagine them under the thumbs and fingers of buffoons, money grubbers, and imbecile girls. He drove harder and harder bargains. Shortly before customers refused to buy from him, Cantabile refused to sell. Only when starvation threatened did an instrument depart. Cantabile did not care who saw him weep.
Starvation threatened today but he moved sideways and gently closed the lid of the pianoforte he was currently refining. This pianoforte was not a work of art, it was a work of genius. Under -dampers of brass and a sounding board of seasoned beech achieved resonances beyond anything Broadwood or Erard could boast. Innovation, materials, and the dexterity of a master combined with uncanny precision so that every grain and splinter, block and hammer, string and pad, screw and hinge was perfect. Cantabile had gilded the small rose in the middle of the sounding board as tenderly as an artist paints roses in a woman's cheek. He loved this instrument without reserve. It contained more of him than his child. It was, indeed, the child he should have had. He stroked it with spread fingers. Not a wisp of the V & B should taint it.
Drigg gave the piano no more than a glance, since it was brown and unattractive. Cantabile saw the dismissal and took umbrage. This beauty, this divinity, passed over as nothing by a V & B man! He reached for the pistol under the counter, then stopped himself. He had a better weapon at his disposal. "Annie, Annie," he thundered.
His daughter materialized. Drigg was knocked backward. Under her cap, Annie boasted lustrous chestnut hair. From wide forehead to sculpted nose, she was pretty. Below the nose, catastrophe. A harelip created a whole new gummy feature in her chin and Annie gave Drigg the full benefit.
Ah, Annie. She was beyond price. Cantabile had vomited when she was born and ordered her swilled away with the afterbirth. His wife objected. The baby was a baby, she said, her baby. In a moment he everafter counted as cowardice, Cantabile gave in. He had had no peace since. He had not gotten over his daughter's deformity as his wife had. The stabs of tenderness that caught him unawares mocked him when he looked at her face: a book with split pages, beauty above, monstrosity below. And ridiculously unstable. Annie's mouth drifted. He could not stand the smudginess of it. It tore at him, what the girl might have been and what she was. When Annie was three, he had sought help, but surgeons were afraid of adding to the damage. A harelip was not dangerous, they said. Dangerous? Of course it was not dangerous! It was horrible. Was that not as bad? Cantabile took her home again, a small, solemn, lisping child, who would learn to eat facing the wall.
She did have her uses. With Annie in sight, Cantabile could leave a pot of money in full view of the street and as soon as she could sit at the keyboard unaided, he set her to play in the window, a display that had helped custom fall away so satisfactorily that the show was soon no longer necessary. Instead, Annie buried herself in the brick fortress, absorbing music and the craft of instrument making as other children absorbed fairy tales and the craft of pickpocketing. Her presence agitated Cantabile, yet he could not do without her. When her mother took ill, Annie turned nurse and she worked harder on the instruments than any apprentice, playing better even than her father. He might have been jealous, but as she grew, the lip grew more prominent and kept her meek. Father and daughter lived like porcupines, prickles up, Cantabile's sharp with aggression, Annie's blunter, for defense.
Excerpted from The Marriage Recital by Katharine Grant. Copyright © 2015 Katharine Grant. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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