I spent a lot of time deliberating about what I should write next, especially as I am going on an Arvon Foundation writing course next month and will need to take a work in progress with me to work on while I am there.
In the end I decided to go with the idea for a novel based on one of my favourite books: Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, only my version would be set in eighteenth century England and Paris and will involve a group of very English young ladies taking a foreign capital by storm instead of the Americans in Wharton’s amazing book.
Anyway, here is the first chapter so you can see how it is going so far. It will probably change a lot between now and completion as I have a habit of going back lots to adjust things and add new bits and pieces and also like to change my characters’ names quite a lot. Anyway, let me know what you think!
‘Bath, April 1787.
It was a gloriously warm spring evening. Too warm in fact, reflected Mrs Garland as she frantically fanned herself with an entirely inadequate painted paper fan that smelled unpleasantly of lacquer and tried in vain to catch the eye of a nearby sallow complexioned footman to implore him to bring her another glass of lemonade. He was equally determined to ignore her however, and lounged against the wall, keeping his small eyes fixed firmly ahead, plainly on the look out for far bigger fish than the ignored, overweight wife of a London businessman, who was furthermore well known amongst Bath servants to be a mean tipper despite reputedly being possessed of an enormous fortune. She had been sitting at the side of the Assembly Room for three hours now, sweltering in her best blue Spitalfields silk dress and watching with a disconsolate eye as her eldest daughter, Sophia was partnered through the dances by a series of unprepossessing young men, not one of whom, in her biased opinion was in any way worthy of this signal honour.
She looked slowly around the elegant dove grey and white ballroom, where the flushed faces of the dancers and the exquisite diamonds worn by the ladies shone and glittered in the mellow light of the huge crystal candelabras that hung overhead. In just one cursory glance she had noted in the midst of the throng at least thirty men of good fortune and property, half of whom had titles and yet if any of them had taken the slightest bit of notice of her lovely Sophia, who everyone said was an uncommonly pretty girl then they gave not the slightest sign of it.
‘Miss Sophia looks to be in fine looks this evening,’ a passing acquaintance murmured over the din of the music with a smile and appreciative glance towards the dance floor where that young lady was currently energetically storming through the steps of a country dance, hand in hand with the dark haired, ruddy faced son of a wealthy farmer. Her long corn coloured hair which had looked so elegant at the beginning of the night in a style that her maid had copied as best she could from a print of the French Queen Marie Antoinette was beginning to escape from its pins and ribbons and fall down about her neck and there was a hectic red flush to her cheeks that owed nothing to the paltry dab of pink rouge that her Mama had fondly allowed her to apply before leaving the house. ‘Such a pretty girl! You must be very proud.’
Mrs Garland graciously smiled and nodded. After twenty years of marriage to her charming but somewhat errant husband, there wasn’t much in her life to give her any feeling of pride other than her eldest daughter and, to a far lesser degree, her younger girl Eliza who at age fifteen was deemed too young for the evening balls in the Assembly Rooms and so had been left unwillingly behind at their ruinously expensive rented house on Gay Street, where she was probably at that moment sitting up in bed, reading one of Rousseau’s books by candlelight and eating pilfered preserved ginger biscuits while getting wax and crumbs all over the sheets.
It hadn’t always been this way, of course. There was once a time when Mrs Garland, then Miss Arabella Beckett, had had much to be proud about and it would be hard to imagine a more flirtatious and silly young lady than she had been at the age of sixteen upon her first debut into society, dressed up in her older sister’s carefully patched and darned hand me down dresses and with roses from the garden and a borrowed pearl necklace as her only adornments. Despite these drawbacks, her Dresden china shepherdess prettiness, blue eyes, tumble of blonde ringlets, light tread and winsome smiles had entranced several young men, including the heir to a Baronetcy before she finally settled on Mr Garland after meeting him at a ball. It was an unequal match in many ways – Miss Arabella being the youngest daughter of a rather impoverished but well connected country squire while her chosen suitor was the eldest son of a well to do merchant from Bristol, who had inherited not just his father’s determined jaw and taste for a decent claret but also his shrewdness and sharp head for business.
Miss Arabella had not cared about any of this however and had immediately fallen head over heels in love with George Garland’s fine dark eyes, good humoured ways and a bewitching smile that left her quite weak at the knees. Equally entranced by her wide eyed admiration of his every utterance, he had swiftly proposed while they were sitting together in her Mama’s sun filled yellow parlour and it was left to their fathers, both keen to protect their own interests and dignity to argue about the financial details of the match and come to an uneasy truce while the young couple wandered about her family’s garden together hand in hand, never missing an opportunity to touch each other and stealing hungry, breathless kisses behind the noble oak tree that had stood for centuries in the middle of the lawn. She blushed now, remembering the touch of his warm fingers delicately tracing the shape of her face, fondling the nape of her neck then slipping slowly down her throat and inside her silk bodice, making her sigh against his teeth and press closely against him. How long ago was that now? Twenty years? Twenty one? She sighed again, thinking of the girl and boy that they had once been.
He still made her feel weak at the knees though and even now, as Mrs Garland sat alone and forgotten at the side of the room, the sight of his mulberry velvet coat flitting in between the dancers as he wandered here and there with his friends made her feel quite heady with intermingled longing and regret. It had all gone wrong somewhere along the line, she just wasn’t sure when or how. She lightly touched the fine string of pearls that he had given her a week earlier, remembering how he had fastened them around her neck, smiled at her lovingly in the lace and ribbon bedecked dressing table mirror then bent to kiss the side of her throat, just has he had always used to, when they were both young and in love.
‘And what are these for?’ she had asked, her eyes shining as she looked in the mirror at the pearls and her handsome husband. He’d taken off his white powdered wig and cast it aside on a chair by the door as he entered her cosy, rose scented bedroom and she reached up now to gently touch the streaks of grey at his temples.
‘Do I need a reason to give my darling wife a present?’ he replied, dipping his head once again to her throat, his fingers dancing now around the edges of her low cut pink brocade bodice. ‘I saw these and thought instantly of you, my dear, is that not enough?’
She’d sighed and leaned back against her chair as he knelt before her and lifted her heavy brocade skirts and the dozens of gauze and silk lace edged petticoats that hid underneath, stroking the soft skin of her inner thigh with his fingers then followed them with his warm lips. The pearls gleamed and shimmered in the light cast by the candles on her dressing table and were the last thing she saw before she rapturously closed her eyes.
‘Mrs Garland?’ She opened her eyes and blinked with confusion as she looked up into the plump, overly rouged face of Mrs Knowles, who was gazing down at her with an expression of false concern and very genuine amusement. ‘Oh, I am sorry. Were you asleep?’ She did not wait for a reply and immediately sat down beside her, spreading out her shimmering bright yellow satin skirts and giving all the signs of being there to stay.
‘I was merely resting my eyes, Lavinia,’ Mrs Garland retorted rather tersely as she pulled herself upright in her chair and self consciously patted her powdered hair. ‘I am not as young as I once was.’
‘Nonsense,’ Lavinia Knowles replied, opening her spangled ostrich feather fan, which had been dyed to match her dress with an impatient snap. ‘You can’t be much more than five and forty surely?’
Mrs Garland sighed. ‘I am thirty seven,’ she murmured with a resentful look at her neighbour. At first she had been delighted to have a new friend in Bath, even one who seemed determined to criticise and compete at every possible opportunity but she had known Lavinia Knowles for a month now, which was more than long enough to decide that actually she was quite the most obnoxiously pushy woman that she had ever met and to resolve to ruthlessly break the acquaintance just as soon as they had all returned to London and she was back among her own circle of friends once more.
‘And how old is dear Sophia again?’ Mrs Knowles was merciless as she cast her dark, gimlet eye over the dancers. ‘Seventeen?’ She assumed a caressing tone that would have mollified her companion, had she not long since become wise to such strategies. ‘Such a pretty girl. I am sure that she will be betrothed before long. I expect Mr Devereux to propose to my Phoebe any day now. Eighteen is such a good age for a girl to marry is it not?’ She looked with much complacency towards her elder daughter, Phoebe who was dancing with the aforementioned Mr Devereux, a rather plump faced but extremely wealthy merchant who was at least fifteen years her senior.
Mrs Garland’s lace mittened hands itched to slap the other woman’s smugly smiling face but she manage to restrain herself and instead opened her own fan and waved it languidly in front of her face, trying her best to appear unruffled. ‘Sophia is nineteen,’ she said with a tight lipped smile. ‘There is plenty of time to think about betrothals.’
‘Is there?’ Before Mrs Garland could reply, Mrs Knowles bowed her head and smiled broadly at a passing Marchioness, who stared at her blankly. ‘Such a dear woman,’ she remarked, quite undaunted by the snub. ‘I must send an invitation to our next party.’
‘Perhaps you should,’ Mrs Garland murmured with a dark look. ‘I’m sure she would be delighted to receive it.’
Mrs Knowles smiled. ‘I am sure she would,’ she said before returning again to her favourite topic. ‘And no Eliza tonight?’ she asked with a raised eyebrow. ‘What a pity. I know that my dear Matilda was so looking forward to seeing her. Did I tell you that we are going to engage a governess for her?’
Mrs Garland turned to her in astonishment. ‘A governess? For Matilda?’ she echoed. ‘Whatever for?’ She looked across to where a very bored looking Miss Matilda Knowles was currently dancing without the slightest appearance of enthusiasm with a buck toothed young curate and thought that it would take more than a few French and watercolour lessons to make that mousy haired young lady a social success.
‘My dear Arabella!’ Mrs Knowles exclaimed with a titter, clearly delighted to have scored a point against her rival. ‘Did you not know that governesses are all the rage again? All the best families have them for their girls these days.’
‘Oh,’ Mrs Garland murmured, her mind suddenly working more rapidly than usual as she both took in this interesting piece of information and also tried to recover herself. ‘Of course I knew that, I was just surprised that you are considering engaging one for Matilda.’ She looked again at Miss Matilda who was now yawning without any attempt at concealment as the curate earnestly carried on trying to engage her in conversation. Well, maybe some lessons in manners and deportment wouldn’t be entirely amiss.
‘Are you?’ Mrs Knowles looked a little put out. ‘I don’t see why it should be such a great surprise, madam. After all, Phoebe is probably about to make a most advantageous match and so of course we are now thinking about how best to improve Matilda’s chances.’ She turned her critical eyes upon Sophia Garland, who was dancing up the line hand in hand with the farmer’s son and laughing at something he had just leaned forward to whisper to her. ‘After all, we all know that eligible young men are in short supply and must do everything we can to give our girls an advantage.’
Before Mrs Garland, who felt utterly exhausted and beleaguered after this conversation had a chance to reply, the music came to an end and the dancers made their way off the dance floor as the orchestra who sat in the balcony above rose to their feet and applauded them. She pinned a complacent smile to her face as her lovely Sophia came towards her, arm in arm with dusky haired Phoebe Knowles on one side and Matilda on the other. Despite her feelings of simmering mistrust and rage towards their mother, she had to admit to herself that the trio of girls made a lovely sight with their glowing, smiling faces leaning towards each other and their full pink, white and yellow muslin and silk skirts swaying together as they half walked, half skipped back to their mothers, who watched them jealously as they approached, envying their good looks, their youth and their confidence.
‘Did you enjoy your dance with Mr Devereux, my dear?’ Mrs Knowles asked her eldest daughter with a sly, sidelong look at Mrs Garland, who pretended not to hear.
Phoebe shrugged indifferently. ‘It was much the same as always,’ she responded without enthusiasm before realising that her Mama was clearly expecting a little more information and carrying on with a roll of her wide brown eyes. ‘He talked about the weather, the price of wine, how much his new waistcoat cost and how much it was pinching him and about how he really thinks that young men these days don’t make enough effort with their appearance.’
Sophia snorted with laughter, which she hastily repressed when Mrs Knowles turned her dark gaze upon her. ‘And how did you enjoy your dance with Tom Parkins, Miss Garland?’ she asked in dangerously silky tones.
‘Very well indeed, ma’am,’ Sophia briskly replied, her expression making it plain that she found the question both impertinent and annoying. She shared her mother’s impression of Mrs Knowles but was far less inclined to keep the peace, much to the amusement of the other girls and the mingled pride and dread of Mrs Garland who was torn between delight that Sophia disliked Mrs Knowles as much as she did and irritation that she was continually called upon to soothe that lady when one of Sophia’s darts went home.
The awkward silence that followed was broken by Phoebe, who nudged Sophia and discreetly jerked her head towards the dance floor, where a small group was currently making their way past the dancers on the other side of the room. At their head was a short, rather portly man in a blue velvet suit lavishly covered with gold embroidery and with an enormous, old fashioned wig on his head. At his side walked a tall, sallow skinned woman in a bright green satin dress with thick auburn hair that she wore lightly powdered and dressed very high with white spangled ostrich feathers and diamonds pinned amongst the elaborate arrangement of curls and ringlets. As she walked she smiled and nodded her head in the most friendly way to everyone, not appearing to notice when they looked hastily away or exchanged knowing looks while whispering behind their hands.
Behind this splendid pair walked a very handsome young man of perhaps twenty years of age who wore a slightly askew garland of pink roses on his white powdered wig and winked and grinned in the most flirtatious manner at all the young ladies, most of whom looked as though they would like to turn away but found themselves smiling back at him despite their better judgement. He was arm in arm with a very pretty, slender girl in a bright pink silk dress, whose astonishing scarlet hair tumbled down her back in long, silky ringlets. She was lifting her full, pink skirts just high enough to reveal shapely ankles and the flash of red and white striped stockings.
‘That hair cannot possibly be natural,’ Mrs Knowles remarked as she stared at the colourful newcomers who had taken seats at the far end of the Assembly Room and were now gravely surveying the other attendees, while they just as gravely stared back at them. ‘Who on earth are those people? They cannot possibly be known to anyone, surely?’
Sophia smirked a little. ‘It is Lord Wrotham and his family,’ she said. ‘They have just returned to England from India. I expect that is where Miss Wrotham dyed her hair that incredible shade of red. Papa has told me all about the henna dyes that the Indian ladies use.’ She touched her own fair curls and cast her mother a mischievous look. ‘I must confess that I am tempted to try it for myself. How do you think it would look, Mama?’
‘Very ill indeed,’ Mrs Garland retorted with a smile. ‘I wonder that Lady Wrotham does not mind her daughter going about the place looking like that, although she is a very pretty girl to be sure.’ She looked rather resentfully up the Assembly Room towards Miss Wrotham who was resting her lovely head on her brother’s shoulder and laughing immoderately at something that he was telling her. A quick glance around confirmed that every single young man in the room was also staring in the same direction, a fact that made her heart and that of every other ambitious Mama sink.’
There’s already been a few changes – most importantly the date, which has been moved forward from 1783 to 1787 because I wanted to incorporate the fortuitous visit of Madame de Polignac to Bath in the Spring of that year.
At the moment, I think that I will most probably be self publishing again as I am still too shy and nervously dispositioned to approach an agent. I also like the element of creative freedom that I get from self publishing, the lack of deadlines and the fact that I don’t have to go along with someone else’s decisions about content, editing and cover design.
Over the years, I’ve had quite a few people ask me why I bother writing when I am so unwilling to submit my work to a publisher or agent and it really does make me chuckle. Can you imagine going up to someone who enjoys knitting or pottery as their hobby and telling them that there is no point to what they do unless they either make money from it or exhibit in some way? No, exactly. It seems like you just have to make the merest mention of enjoying writing and all sorts of mad people come tumbling out, falling over themselves to try and make you feel as small as possible.
It sucks but what else can you do but rise above it and nod and smile and nod and smile?