Only A Factory Girl, Chapter 2

In Which Our Heroine Prepares to Receive the Nobility.

(Previous installment here.)

The chilly morning fogs had not yet dissipated when Mary and Kate arrived at the great factory doors, still deep in trivial and happy bickering over which of the two was as a rule more punctual. They were still bickering when the melee of the cloakroom rush broke up chit-chat until they took their places.

The noise of the factory made conversation difficult at the best of times, but Mary and Kate had settled into a customary place across from two other veterans of the floor; their ears had grown accustomed, and their eyes could all but read each other’s lips. And if the general hubbub discouraged communication, it also precluded easy eavesdropping.

Sarah Connolly was there before them–she had a husband who worked on the docks, and three children who left her with perpetual dark circles under her eyes. Hepzibah Habergram came stumping in after. Her hair was red and she was inclined, as Mary put it, “to notions.” Mary always mentioned the two facts in conjunction, though the relationship between them is yet unverified. Hepzibah’s last notion had involved taming a city pigeon to eat out of her hand and and be her boon companion. The pigeon, having notions of its own, had fluttered out a window and perched on a chimney, forcing Hepzibah, like the good shepherd, to follow.

The sprain was mostly healed.

“Hepzibah,” called Sarah as they settled into their work, “Hepzibah, I’ve found just the man for you. My Tim’s second cousin, just come down from Liverpool, so tall, and handsome, and no objections to birds whatsoever.”

Sarah was forever finding Hepzibah eligible young men, in blithe denial of her loud and repeated insistence that she would die a happy old maid.

The object of Sarah’s matrimonial schemes fixed her with a gimlet glare.

“Connelly. What have I told you, Connelly, about collecting men for me?”

“That you’d rather die alone than live a slave, that your heart is made of ice, we know, we know.” This was Mary, who had just cut her finger and was sucking on it in great disgruntle.

“Exactly,” said Hepzibah, unruffled.

“I work sun-up to sundown to make a living for myself in this half-penny Gehenna, and now I’m to come home to some great lump demanding his supper and putting up his feet on my granny’s ottoman and asking if my cousin Edwina couldn’t come some other week?”

Sarah could not restrain a laugh at this picture of conjugal felicity.

“Well, you know, he would have things of his own, and work of his own.”

“Yes, worse and worse. To be the little woman to his great man of the house, knowing his wages are twice mine.”

“Tim’s very grateful for what I bring home.”

“That’s no way to work on Hepzibah, Sarah dear,” Kate jumped in. “Next you’ll be saying he’s proud of you and lets you buy whatever you choose and she’ll be straight off to make a bonfire of marriage licenses and we’ll have to finish her work for her.”

“But tell me it doesn’t drive you mad,” said Hepzibah, “knowing the night shift men come in and do shoddy work and half the time leave everything out of order for us to scramble at in the morning, and for a day of their wages any of us would count ourselves rich!”

Two pink spots appeared in Sarah’s cheeks.

“I won’t say it doesn’t,” she said slowly, “but that’s not Tim’s fault, and the pennies he makes aren’t so grand for the grind of it, either.”

“And after, all, the men have families to provide for. It’s fair enough that their pay should take that into account.”

At this Sarah turned on Kate, her quiet voice breaking. “How can you, Kate Barrett, of all people, say that? You with a mother and sister depending on you for everything. And I’m not so badly off, but I break my back here before I go home and care for my babies, and I’m supposed to be earning a little pin-money to buy myself hat trimmings? Hepzibah’s right, it does drive me mad.” She finished, a little out breath.

“All right Sarah,” said Mary, more gently than usual, “Mind your work or you’ll cut yourself like I did.”

Kate was silent. She could not see herself as the family provider, entitled to the corresponding prerogatives without, she felt, somehow accusing her father of having left her in a lurch by dying, and this was impossible.

Mary gave her hand a squeeze under the worktable.

“All right, Heps, tell us what kind of man you might deign to consider,” Kate said. She had habituated herself to shaking off painful moods, and it was easy when Mary was on hand. “Set us a challenge and we shall endeavor to rise to it.”

“You might as well give up now, because there’s nothing you could possibly tempt me with.”

“Not if he offered you a whole menagerie of pigeons and peacocks?” said Mary.

“Shut up.”

“Not if he thought your hair was made fire and your eyes were made of stars?” said Sarah.

“Not if he were handsome as a prince and could make them double your wages with a snap of his fingers?” said Kate.

“Not for any of those things plus all the tea in China thrown in.”

The other three refused to leave her alone until she provided what they considered a fair answer.

“All right, perhaps if he had a house of his own and I had one of mine, and he liked all my hats, and took me out to tea and never asked me to cook for him and never fussed or bothered, and had dark eyes and waving hair and a cleft chin and a beautiful singing voice, then I might consider it–no guarantees and I should probably refuse anyway. ” She glowered around the table like a lioness made self-conscious and unaccustomed to the feeling.

“What about you, Katie?” said Sarah. “What would it take to make you think about a man?” Kate had admirers every now and then, but she never took them seriously. She was too busy, she always said, between work and and and mother and sister to go gadding. Besides, she always walked home with Mary.

“Nothing much, nothing extravagant, just a castle, a fortune, a villa abroad, a stallion to ride, and a rope of pearls as long as I am tall to wear on my wedding day.”

Sarah and Mary laughed, but Hepzibah was a lover of justice.

“That’s not fair; I had to answer straight, and so do you.”

“All right, don’t bite me, give me a minute to think.”

She lowered her head as she thought, looking at her work.

“You know, I really can’t say,” she finally answered, a little surprised at herself. “He’d have to be kind, I suppose, and someone who could go halves with me in life. But really, I can’t imagine anyone. Perhaps I will join Hepzibah’s legion.”

Mary giggled.  “Not when I’ve already got your dream husband picked out and waiting for you. Look me in the eye and tell me that you could refuse Mr. Bartholomew Mortimer once he starts twirling that moustache in your direction. Oh crumbs, speak of the devil.”

Bartholomew Mortimer was the floor manager, a hard, squeezing, cruel, grasping man with a sweet, unctuous, ingratiating voice. He cheated the women of their wages, turned a deaf ear to their complaints, punished without discretion or mercy, and engaged in long-running campaigns of spite against any worker unfortunate enough to offend him. If he had a virtue, it was honesty; the long, greasy moustache he was perpetually twirling instantly announced him as a villain. This was, all things considered, rather sporting of him: no shy newcomer could be taken in by him, or fail to mark him instantly as an unregenerate scoundrel prone to nefarious schemes.

In Kate’s first years at the factory, the sweetness and docility with which she would make an excuse for a late comrade, or distract him from one of his vindictive outbursts had charmed him and won his approval. But eventually it had begun to occur to him, at some level below explicit articulation, that for every sunny smile and humble “Yes Mr. Mortimer, of course Mr. Mortimer, how shocking Mr. Mortimer! Have you trimmed your moustache, Mr. Mortimer?” some rightful exercise of his powers slipped through his fingers. He began to suspect he was being laughed at.

Like many men of few qualities and a love of dominion, the desire to punish a woman and the desire to woo her were easily confused, then entangled, in his mind. He noticed that she was impertinent and that she had grown pretty almost at the same moment. However, he could not check the vaguely suspected impertinence because he enjoyed the smiles, and he found courting the smiler equally difficult. Somehow, with Mary standing by, clear-eyed and impassive, it was impossible to say what he had planned. This in turn increased his frustration and stung his vanity, and the upshot of the cycle was a half-cringing, half sneering attitude to Kate, and the tendency to torment her and seek her favor by regular turns. It made Sarah uneasy, but Mary was not inclined to take him seriously or disturb Kate unnecessarily; she treated the whole thing as a joke, and teased her friend about him at every possible opportunity.

Now he was calling for silence and mounting the makeshift podium from which he always made announcements.

“Your attention, please, girls.” He always called them girls, which had on more than one occasion made Hepzibah threaten to blind him with her hatpin.

“As I think I reminded you last week, today you are to be the recipients of a very high and unmerited honor. Lady Elinor Montmorency, the Lady Elinor Montmorency, will be visiting the factory on behalf of the Women’s League For the Moral Uplift of the Masses, this very afternoon. I have since been informed that we will be so favored as to also receive Lord Claude Bletchmore, ninth earl of Twichester and a particular friend of Lady Elinor’s.  Now, I believe I told you to dress with care and to please ensure that you are scrubbed, clean, and fit to meet so high a station.”

Kate glanced at Sarah, who, like her, had forgotten. Kate had run out the door late with her curls swept unbrushed into a ribbon and looked slightly shabby, but Sarah was truly bedraggled. Her youngest had the colic, and Sarah bore the marks of it.

“I feel I need not remind you of the weightiness of this event and the expectation that you all display only your best behavior. Had I, in fact, any reason to remind any of you, the consequences would be….unfortunate,” he said, twirling his moustache with more than usual gusto.

“However, I have no doubt that your deportment will reflect the best of your abilities. Try,” he said, with an affected titter, “to imagine you are ladies. You will assemble in line after lunch in the front of the floor to greet Lady Elinor. That is all, return to your work.”

“Crumbs,” repeated Mary, as he finished his speech. “What an awful load of malarkey. Standing half the day in front of two posh idiots telling us how to do our work, or whatever it is they plan to drone on about.”

“At least we shan’t be working,” said Hepzibah.

Sarah was in a quiet panic. “I do wish I had remembered,” she whispered, looking down at her worn-out shoes in misery. Kate reached over and patted her hand.

“Whatever will Mr. Mortimer say when he sees me? It’s the sort of thing he’d like to make an example over.”

“Don’t worry, dear, we’ll get you wedged into the back behind Hepzibah’s head of hair and my patchy dress and no one will think to look at you or be any the wiser.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Mary “imagine asking us to primp for a couple of toffs, as if we’d nothing better to do or think about.”

To turn her thoughts Kate launched into an impression of the imagined Lord Claude; he was in her rendering both extremely effeminate and incapable determining how to remove his gloves without the advice of several servants. Sarah brightened a little, and the workday wound on towards noon.

***********************

“But Elinor, my dear, are you sure I won’t rather be a hindrance to you than not?” asked Lord Claude, trying to keep the hope out of his voice. He was lunching in a West End restaurant, pushing the paupiettes de sole au vin blanc around his plate. It was too fashionable a place for the food to be very good, but the wine, he had noted with relief, was excellent.

Lady Elinor smiled an indulgent smile. She was tall, slender, and of a commanding mien, with, as one unsuccessful admirer had put it, “nobility arched in each brow and flared in each nostril.” She also possessed the combination of beauty, charm, and force of personality that overcomes most obstacles, and her engrossing, glacial-blue eyes were said to rival the city’s most prominent barristers in argumentative power. Claude wished she would fix them on something else, though under an ostrich-plume hat and neat mass of golden hair their effect was lovely.

“A perfect angel” was the generally accepted epithet for society’s most proficient philanthropist, and she did indeed look like an angel of of biblical lore: radiant, bent on the Lord’s work and not about to stand any nonsense in its commission. She lacked only a flaming sword, and doubtless could have produced one had it become really necessary.

“Darling, I’ve told you time and again, you mustn’t underestimate yourself so. Besides, it’s so important that you become acquainted with my work, not just through what I tell you, but really involved in it, don’t you feel that?”

Lord Claude did not feel that, but having spent his breakfast disdaining the idleness of most debutantes, realized he was in a moral corner. He knew he was being a silly ass; he only wished that awareness alone would dissolve his asinine inclinations.

“Of course, you’re right.”

“Oh Claude, I’m sure it will do you good. We fortunate know so little of the working class–the degradations, the shocking habits that reproduce themselves from generation to generation. It is our duty to be aware of them, to be their guardians and good angels, to help them better themselves.”

“Yes, yes, you’re absolutely correct. I really am grateful, you know, to be included.”

“Just let’s settle up the bill then, or we’ll be late.”
Converting mutiny to gratitude was a talent of Lady Elinor’s, and one she exercised across all areas of her life.

Only A Factory Girl, Chapter One: Introductions

Dear Reader,

By a strange chain of circumstances involving an unexpected legacy, a secret cupboard, and the lost continent of Lemuria, I came into possession of an early manuscript edition of Only A Factory Girl, one of the late, great, Rosie M. Bank’s early romance novels. There being little market for these things nowadays, and summer being the appropriate season to read sentimental fiction, I thought I might as well publish it here in serial form. Without further ado:

Only A Factory Girl

Chapter One: Introductions

To many men, a clamorous superabundance of marriage-minded society beauties might seem quite a pleasant little problem with which to beguile the leisure hours; but Lord Claude Bletchmore, Earl of Twichester, was fed to the teeth. As the sun’s first rays slipped into the bedroom of his spacious flat, furnished at great expense and to questionable effect, he cast his mind over the scene from the night before. Here he was certainly in the minority; most attendees of the annual Gala for The Royal School of Deaf Harpsichordists were still too deeply dreaming off their hangovers for reflection. But Lord Claude had always felt that sleeping past the sunrise was somehow a cowardly retreat from life, no matter how demoralizing the previous night had been.

And this had been one for the ages. The endless array of girls, women, their grande dame chaperones, swimming up to him like so many tropical fish: shimmering in jewels, laughing over champagne–not a one distinguishable from the others in features or address, except, occasionally, the the more interestingly hideous chaperones.

Perhaps he would marry Mrs. Booth out of spite.

Mrs. Booth was a recently widowed American steel baroness, ugly as sin, enormously fat, and with an undiminished appetite for life. He would enjoy seeing their faces as he led her to the altar.

It wasn’t, he thought, the girls themselves. It was not their fault if they were young, or silly, or if they failed to stir any tender passion in his breast (he could hardly blame them for his good taste). Were they not so obvious and fawning in their intent, he imagined many of them might be quite pleasant. Really, it was the mothers to blame. It was perhaps excusable, if rather vulgar, to set portionless daughters with fortunes to make husband hunting. But it seemed that no one, however comfortably settled in their own right, could abstain from the season’s blood sport. And Lord Claude was their quarry.

Donning his favorite silk dressing gown (purple, embroidered with little gold kimodo dragons), he wondered if perhaps he weren’t being a tad unfair. This was, after all, what they were bred for. To spend a few seasons at the same round of parties, murmuring through the same conversations, moulding themselves into identical paragons of refined and unserious correctness; to be rewarded for these efforts by the name and children of a suitably wealthy and prominent man.

And who could be more suitable, wealthy, and prominent than the ninth Earl of Twichester, hero of the polo-field, occasional lecturer on ancient Cypriot weaponry, mountain climber, philanthropist, and heir to Thwistlesham Halll.

Really, he had no one but himself to blame. He should never have let Great Uncle Reginald buy him that polo pony. How often, he reflected, with a groan, do we in our youth sow the seeds of our own destruction. He was beginning to feel the pangs of a slight headache.

As if in answer to a distress signal, Phipps entered, bearing the silver tray, the steaming teapot, in fact, the whole apparatus of a bearable morning.

“Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, Phipps. I’ll take it out on the balcony.”

“Very good, sir.”

Lord Claude had never once been able to conceal an incipient hangover from Phipps’ eye, by turns judgemental and sympathetic. His valet coughed.

“A trying night sir?”

As  Lord Claude had surmised early in their relationship, “a trying night” was Phipps’ preferred euphemism for “blotto carousing.”

“Indeed it was, Phipps, in more ways than you ken.”

“The ladies, sir?”

Phipps was far too chivalrous a soul to elaborate further.

“The ladies, Phipps.”

“If your Lordship will forgive me, this is precisely why I suggested that your Lordship appear with Lady Elinor.”

Lady Elinor Montmorencey  was not exactly Lord Claude’s betrothed, but as they had known each other since childhood, were regularly seen together, and enjoyed a pleasant similarity of fortune and birth, it came to the same thing. Lord Claude dimly felt that in the end he would delight their respective parents and take her to wife–if he had reasons for postponing the tender proposal, for dallying and tarrying in the comfortable shallows of informal expectation, as had been his policy thus far, they were even more obscure, and nothing he cared to probe. In the meantime, he generally squired her about when he came to town, and she had provided an armor against the most explicit and determined attacks on his bachelorhood.

“Believe me, Phipps, no one could regret her Ladyship’s absence last night more. But you know how she is with her Women’s Union for the Moral Uplift of the Masses. Wouldn’t desert her  bally masses and their squalorous vices were I pleading on my deathbed for one last kiss to my alabaster brow. I suppose,” he said, flicking a jammy crumb to an inquisitive pigeon that had alighted on the balcony’s railing, “I should not object.”

Phipps, forbearing comment, retired to draw the bath.

Certain factions of Lord Claude’s family regularly begged him to trim his mane of chestnut curls into a less eccentric style.  And certain men, jealous, lesser men, doubtless, men who hung around the edges of dances, unsought by Claude’s throng of damsels, had been known to mutter under their breaths, “Curse Bletchmore, that blasted dandy. Can’t imagine what they see in him,” when he waltzed by; but if Claude could not in good conscience claim that his leonine profusion was his only vanity, it was the one he had decided to live with openly, and the flowing locks remained. He shook them out now. They were indeed striking above his blue eyes and broad shoulders, giving him the air of an Apollo Belvedere statue suddenly come to life and not quite certain what to about it.

He lowered his body into the steaming tub. No one, at least, could accuse him of maintaining a foppishly boyish softness. The polo field, tennis court, fox hunt, and mountain cliff had all lent him a powerful musculature coupled with an unexpected bodily grace. This did not endear him to his detractors. But it probably attracted more admirers than Lord Claude, who rarely bothered attributing more than one dimension to young women’s motivations, might have guessed.

Claude splashed about the bath like a destructive island god, creating tsunamis for his unfortunate rubber duck, ruminating as he did. He still felt dissatisfied and out of sorts with the memory of last night. Was it, as Phipps thought, because he had not brought Lady Elinor with him? He thought not. Besides, he could not cling to her skirts and otherwise refuse to face the world; though it was a tempting option: Elinor had a way of managing so that everything seemed natural and settled and there was very little for you to do.

The truth was, he was bored and tired, and wanted a change. But what, and where? He cast his mind over the usual spots:  Capri, Cyprus, Prague, the Alps. None of them appealed to him. Perhaps he should take up that offer of a guest lectureship at Oxford. Oxford would be pleasant, and removed enough, and there would at least be a different sort of party. But Lord Claude was honest enough to foresee for himself the same restlessness and rebellion, this time against quiet and seclusion. He knew he was not really a scholar at heart, only a connoisseur,  and would soon grow tired of courteous dons and frolicsome undergraduates.

Reviewing possible avenues of refreshment and variety, he remembered with a jolt that he’d promised to accompany Elinor to the factory she was visiting this afternoon. Well, he reflected, he had wanted to see a different slice of life. His conscience pricking him for it, he groaned, and disappeared beneath the bubbles.

******

On the other side of London, Kate Barrett was also making a sunrise breakfast. She had not risen from silken sheets, nor was her family crest carved into the handsome oak headboard above her. Indeed, her blankets were moth-eaten and threadbare, and the mattress of her narrow, rickety brass bed sagged. But she tucked into her tea and toast with at least as much gusto as Claude did his silver breakfast tray. The tenement kitchen in which she ate was tiny, with stubborn yellow grease stains left behind from previous tenants; but it bore the signs of care. The table and floor was worn from scrubbing, and the copper kettle shone bright and sang out a tune of good cheer. In the center of the table, on the window sills, and corners, stood tiny nosegays of the humble and unregarded flowers that grow in cracks and corners of cities. They stood in chipped mugs, cracked glasses, and other ad-hoc vases, and their yellows and purples lent a dauntless charm to the room.

The small, smooth head so lustily tearing into buttered toast possessed the same dauntless charm. This was unsurprising, as the flowers, like the scrubbing, were her doing. One could not say that Kate Barrett was beautiful. True, her dark shining hair lay around her face like the tendrils of a blooming vine, and the line of her jaw somehow managed to suggest both strength and delicacy, but these alone are not beauty. Her lips, parted in eagerness as they were now, held a suggestion of devilish mischief in their upturned corners; perhaps, had they not been disfigured by a freckle, they might have have called pretty. But her large eyes, full of waifish poignancy and latent fire–these were certainly compelling rather than lovely. No, Kate Barrett  was not a beautiful girl.

From around the kitchen doorpost peeped another head, an almost exact replica of Kate’s on a much smaller scale. A tiny girl, clad in a nightgown much too large for her, was rubbing sleep from her eyes.

“Come and have some breakfast, Jo, It’s butter day!” Kate waved her bread about like a flag of victory, careful not to lose any fat from the melting pools. Last night Kate had parted with a portion of her wages to purchase such luxuries as butter and beer. Josephine climbed on Kate’s lap and began munching on her toast, and Kate, as was her custom, made no protest against these gross liberties with her person and property. Instead, she began braiding her sister’s hair with nimble, work-worn fingers, pausing every now and then to look down into the girl’s face as if memorizing it. This was the part of her day that she lived for: when London roused itself from slumber, between the first gray hints of dawn and the sounding of the factory whistle; when, having both family and hot buttered toast within reach, she lacked for nothing.

“Is mother up yet?”

“No, she’s fast asleep still. More toast please.”

Kate put more bread on the rack, and broke the remaining slice into pieces, which she shared one by one with her sister.

“Let’s let her sleep, her cough’s been getting worse all week. You can get yourself ready for school, can’t you?”

Jospehine nodded, mutiny in her eye.

“Why can’t come I come to the factory with you? I hate school. I’d much rather be with you.”

This was a familiar argument.

“You’re going to school, ragamuffin, and that’s that. Now go wash up.”

Kate glanced at the clock. Late to meet Mary–just time to snatch up hat and coat and apron and race out the the door and down the lane. Breathless, she pulled up at their daily meeting place.

Mary had one arm around the lamppost, and was grinning her broad Cheshire cat’s grin.

“You’re late.”

“Shut up.”

They ran, arms around each other at a lopsided galloping gait.

As long as she’d worked at the factory they’d walked there together in the mornings like this, sometimes half running, depending how much time they had to spare. Kate was almost always punctual.

They’d met ten years ago, on the factory floor, when Kate had been nothing more than a wretched little sparrow, large-eyed, shivering, still in shock from the death of her father.

It had been a fire in one of the tenements next door. They’d all been able to get clear, but he’d heard Mrs. Malone’s stifled cries–she was too old to move quickly–and gone in after her. Granny Malone had survived. Joe Barrett had not.

Kate knew she ought to remember him away from all that horror: smoke, heat, everything collapsing into rubble and all the rotting corners of the tenement exposed by the flaming light. She ought, she knew, embalm him in some peaceful memory of home life. Slurping one of her mother’s stews, waggling his eyebrows to show that he knew she disapproved such breaches of table etiquette, and wanted to simultaneously goad and compliment her, like a schoolboy; or the schoolboy lovelight in his eye whenever he put his arm around his wife; or perhaps tucking Kate in at night, telling her about the palace in the moon they’d have one day. But somehow she could only remember him as she’d last seen him, blue eyes brightened by the flames reflected in them, his jaw set, his shoulders squared against–what? She had never been able to guess. She did not think it was the fire, exactly. He looked so strong, so dauntless, she would have bet that nothing on earth could ever beat him. But the smoke had.

Kate had not quite been able to believe it, but Kate’s mother, who had then been pregnant, took it quietly. When Kate’s father talked about her mother, she was like a princess in a fairy tale: lovely, laughing Annie, and himself the rascal who’d run off with the pride of three counties. Kate was lucky she took after her mother, he’d said, and Kate believed him, though time and pain had changed the woman in Joe’s stories. Annie Barrett was, in her own way, as dauntless as her husband; her infirmity made her more quiet, smiling, gentle refusal of defeat all the more gallant; but she was weak, and the shock of her husband’s death on top of a difficult pregnancy made her weaker. When she’d suggested taking a post herself in one of the factories, on top of her sewing, Kate, eleven though she was, had shaken her head, and her mother had not disputed. She knew it was against all their interests for her to die too.

Little Josephine had been born prematurely nonetheless. And in the aftermath Annie had contracted a pneumonia that exacerbated her frailty and permanently weakened her lungs, and which put into Kate a constant terror that her mother would fall victim to that curse of poor districts, tuberculosis. Nowadays Annie still plied her needle, but most evenings saw her younger daughter take over its passage through the yards of fabric as her mother’s fingers grew heavy with fatigue.

Kate and Annie Barrett had both insisted Josephine attend school during the day. Every so often her younger sister would urge Kate, now de facto head of the family, to reconsider the question, and Kate would think back to her first days on the factory floor before returning the invariable verdict: Josephine was to continue her education.

The recollection was both dim in places, and, as childhood memories are wont to be, sharp in others. The noise and movement, new and jarring, rendered her insensible of almost everything but a few instructions and the hum and clack and whirr of work all about her. It was hot, and she could not breathe, and the too-quickly barked directions bounced off the surface of her attention, and she did not know where she was to go or what she was to do, and this elicited sneering, humiliating, somehow distinct and audible snarls from her supervisor. For a child just plucked from the protection of her father and the safety of home this was was beyond endurance, and hot tears filled her eyes and obscured her vision before rolling down her cheeks. Then, like a ministering angel, a face appeared close to hers. The face was older, already fifteen, but it was full of kindness.

“Here, hold your thread like this.”

“How?”

“Like this,” and Mary took the clumsy little hands in her own to show her, at risk of her own scathing rebuke from the floor manager. But Mary Rodd, Kate was soon to think, was not afraid of anything.

She helped Kate all through her shift, and at the end waited by the big double to doors to catch Kate by the braids as as she skiddered past–all the energy of childhood had momentarily returned to Kate’s exhausted body when the whistle blew.

“Hey, going to run by your old friend without so much as a ‘good evening?’”

Kate blushed, conscious of and mortified by her lapse, but she saw that Mary’s eyes twinkled, and walked home with her.

The next morning, her second shift at the factory, Kate found Mary waiting for her by the lamp post. At first the older girl patronized the younger out of a concerned pity expressed in jocular gruffness. But she soon found that Kate, with those she trusted (she had trusted and shly adored Mary from the moment she saw her), Kate could repay gruffness with cheek, and could offer a perceptive and piquant commentary on the street, the factory, the cafe where Mary took her for a cup of tea at the end of her first week. As she found her bearings, she helped Mary once or twice, with a boldness that surprised the older girl, by coming forward with a quick excuse delivered in a pretty manner. Indeed, she soon learned to exercise her wits on behalf of any worker she saw in a jam, and for this soon became known and loved. Still, she clung to Mary, took Mary’s opinion as the final arbiter of any question, and loyalty to Mary as the unspoken anchor of all her daily dealings. And over time Mary came to regard her less and less as a rescue and more and more as an equal.

Three Novels That Should Have Ended in Boston Marriage

For the Untutored

1. Fanny Price and Mary Crawford

“Should have ended” is not quite right here. Mansfield Park is a perfect book and cannot be improved, and if Mary Crawford is less monstrous than her Grendelesque brother, that is a testament to him, not her.

But entertain the possibility for a brief moment.

Mary, after losing Edmund’s love, sees the error of her wicked ways and clasps her arms around Fanny’s knees in a plea for forgiveness and redemption. Fanny, for her part, is too heartsick at Edmund’s obdurate preference for Mary and complicity in his family’s abuse of her to want anything more to do with him; besides, the deep wells of mercy in her are touched by the repentant sinner, and she takes Mary into her arms and under her wing. Mary’s income and abandonment of expensive vice enable them to rent a cottage: retired, secluded, not too far from Mansfield, where Mary’s moral education begins. She and Fanny read together, and Fanny teaches her the names of the constellations on clear nights. Mary grows every day in appreciation of Fanny’s sterling worth, as well as in her desire to protect and emulate her. She gives Fanny a hitherto unimaginable gift: a home where she is never mocked, never trampled on, never made to feel inferior, where her tastes are consulted, her opinions sought, her fears gently allayed, where Mary’s adroitness and acumen have turned to delicacy and solicitude in the care of Fanny’s feelings.   Mary teaches Fanny how to gallop, and Fanny gives Mary a conscience. Mary teases Fanny with the teasing of security and intimacy and equal familiarity, and Fanny begins to love it more than civility.

Mary becomes good, and Fanny quietly merry.

At one point. Edmund half-heartedly attempts to renew his advances to one or both parties. He is rejected but always welcomed in the cottage.

Henry dies of syphilis, and only Mary mourns.

2. Elizabeth Bennett and Charlotte Lucas

This only works if Lizzy gets Pemberley, so we will have to make her a recently bereft widow by a terrible pond-diving accident. In the mean-time, Charlotte has numbed herself to the horrors of days and nights as Mrs. Collins, and is accustomed to praying only for the sweet release of death when she gets the note from Lizzy.

“My dearest Charlotte,

In this sudden grief I have only one consolation—that I am now able to offer you a home. Pemberley is far too large for me to wander its halls alone with any comfort or propriety; and though I cannot promise that you shall ever dine with Lady Catherine should you join me here, I trust that the remembrance of our long friendship will induce you to overlook these deficiencies.

Your affectionate,

Lizzy”

That night, Charlotte brings up Lizzy’s proposal at the Collins family dinner table. Her husband not enthusiastic. That his wife should leave the protection of her own hearth, not to speak of her duties to husband, to parish, to her patroness—no, it was not to be borne.

“But consider, my love: Mr. Darcy was such a particularly beloved nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and if his widow condescends to call on me to condole with her in this time of affliction, I hardly know how to refuse . The greater the sacrifice of your comfort, the more your patroness must honor you for making it.”

Mrs. Collin’s bags are packed that night.

Mr. Collins soon finds he can bear the loss of his better half remarkably well, and Lizzy and Charlotte spend their days rambling about the grounds, educating Lydia’s children, and curating Pemberley’s library.

The only men regularly found on the premises are in livery.

3. Mary Garth and Dorothea Brooke

Throw Mary and Dorothea together before any of their massively inferior suitors get hold of them and you’ve got a partnership up there with Clare and Francis, Benedict and Scholastica. Dorothea would give Mary the intellectual companionship she’s never had, a relationship in which she is not the only adult, and scope for her talents unencumbered by the narrowing grind of penury and drudgery it imposes. Mary would temper Dorothea’s vision, not with fussy nay-saying, but with a grim practicality unfazed by the obstacles at which Dorothea’s sheltered delicacy quails. No one else can do this for Dorothea—not Cecilia, not Chettam, not her uncle, not Mrs. Cadwallader, not Will, not anyone who is less than her equal. The most they can do is suppress, or, in Will’s case, divert her visionary zeal. Mary would root Dorothea in the ground, and Dorothea would draw Mary up to the skies.

Will goes off to Italy to make sad pre-Raphaelitish paintings of Dorothea look-alikes. Fred learns to content himself with Mary’s stern motherly guidance. Casaubon finishes his book, or doesn’t. Mary and Dorotha found an egalitarian farming collective, several beguinages, and die within hours of each other at the ripe age of one hundred and five.

Dear Future Husband,

Even though we haven’t met yet, I feel as though I already know you. I picture you all the time in my mind’s eye–your laugh, your smile, your Art of Manliness prescribed vintage shaving accoutrements. I often wonder how we’ll come across each other: by the ocean, your eye caught in a purely spiritual and aesthetic appreciation of my retro one-piece bathing suit? Or sipping a latte in the local cafe, will I look up from my Alice von Hildebrand hardcover to catch the spark in your eye? Either way, I want you to know that I trust you to pursue and cherish me, to spiritually direct and lead our relationship. And when you get down on one knee and ask for the heart I’ve been guarding, the kisses I’ve been saving up only for you –I’ll be ready.

Love,

Your Future Wife

 

**

Dear Future Husband,

It’s totally ok that you haven’t  written back yet, because (future) marriage is a commitment
that requires patience and sacrifice. Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a verb. I’m committed to you, and serious about our future life together.

[Speaking of which, I’m sure you’re already onboard with washing my feet instead of throwing the garter. But I was thinking about carrying a crucifix instead of a bouquet. You know, one of the real bloody Spanish ones. I feel like it would be a powerful witness to the true nature of marriage.]

So anyway, yeah, it’s completely fine that you haven’t written back yet. True love waits!

Love,

Your Future Wife

PS-speaking of commitment, I want to start preparing for our relationship. What are your favorite foods? Where do you see yourself living? Do you consider your job a career? Knowing these things will help me make decisions centered around us.

 

**

Dear Future Husband,

I pray for you every day, and continue to guard my heart against all possible distractions as we discern our relationship.

Perhaps you didn’t understand when I said that I was consciously committing to and prioritizing our life as a couple. This means that I will be making decisions about my own life–job offers, educational opportunities, etc– ased on what I know about you. Which, as of now, is nothing! So you can see how that would be difficult!

I feel really blessed by this opportunity to work on our communication skills. Someday our marriage will be all the stronger.

Love,

Your Future Wife

 

**

Dear Future Husband,

Since you have yet to write back, I’ve decided to participate in an international tango instructor exchange in Argentina for a year. I’ll get back to you with my new address.

Your Future Wife

 

**

Dear Future Husband

Argentina is great. Considering settling on the pampas permanently.

Your Future Wife

 

**

Dear Future Husband,

I wasn’t sure how best to tell you this, but I’ve met someone else.

He lives in Buenos Aires and is an excellent kisser, which, to be frank, was never exactly your forte.

I hope you believe that I never meant to hurt you, and that someday we can be friends. I wish you every happiness moving forward. Please return my letters at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Your Ex Future Wife

Interlude: Babes in Real Life

Clare:i’m too scared

i don’t want to die
i know i will die

Christine: uh, why?
Clare: [deep-fried burger joint] sounds too good
  it would kill me
Christine: a little death
  OKAY I’M DONE
 Clare: NO DON’T STOP
Christine: CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP
  ALL CAPS
  CAPS LOCK
Clare: why aren’t you ever in new york
Christine: SLANT RHYME
Clare: HOOKED ON CAPS LOCK
  FEMININE RHYME
  not really though
Christine: PATRIARCHAL PENTAMETER
Clare: WHAT IS THAT A THING HOW DO I KILL IT
Christine: Shakespeare in the park
Clare: poisoning shakespeare in the park
Christine: with a Shakespeare hologram like Tupac at Coachella
  kill the hologram
  make a science fiction movie about it?
  one that passes the Bechdel test
Clare: an all female cast
  IN SPACE
Christine: “SALLY RIDES AGAIN”
  too soon.
 Clare: ……….
  is it though??
***
Pop culture, rhyme schemes, and off-color jokes…  All in one charmingly beribboned package.
We could be less weird, but would it be as fun?