Thursday, 22 November 2012
Setting a Scene
Imagine if you will the Victorian or Edwardian periods – definitely earlier, although certain forms of terminology would have to be changed, but little closer to the present for bureaucracy tightens its grip the further forward we come in time. Go back far enough - before the English Republic that existed between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, when all such machinations were made illegal – and so-called 'wardships' were a bought and sold commodity. With care an inheritance acquired in such a manner could be milked until the cash-cow ran dry, well before the would-be beneficiary became old enough to exert control over his or her own estate – but where is the creative challenge in that? By the aforementioned Victorian or Edwardian periods one had to be more creative to achieve one's aims if by good fortune – or serendipitous mechanism, whether by chance or ingenious design - one found oneself in legal guardianship of some comely young delicacy a few years shy of 'coming of age' yet theoretically of consenting, or even marriageable, age.
Then there is the awkward wife who steadfastly refuses to move on in the face of the challenge of a rival. Wisely, since in marriage her spouse may well have gained control over her estate and, having wrested the purse strings from her hands, taken steps to have spirited much away. In the face of utter destitution is it any wonder she fights on. Or perchance he has never fully gotten his claws in - perhaps due to a mixture of astuteness and forethought on his wife's part – and now she fights to retain what is rightfully hers. Or she would fight on, given the chance. But there are individuals pitted against her possessed of other ideas. And, in an era in which almost any loss of composure on behalf of a woman might be cause for a diagnosis of hysteria or 'weak-mindedness', however just her cause might be she could find the cards well and truly stacked against her.
“She needs to be kept somewhere where she can be watched over, that one - all too capable of proving troublesome!” Or: “Pretty, bookish and shy she might be – but far too inquisitive for her own good!” Or, perhaps in the company of certain ‘enlightened’ confidants – and within earshot of the sullenly pouting teen in question: “…of course she has her hopes set on university – but meddlesome minds are best educated at home; don’t you think?”
One can’t help but wonder how frequently such words or similar may have been spoken in those past times by some troubled legal guardian or harassed, lone, stepparent - or even the frustrated (gold-digging?) mistress of some would-be divorcé, mired in convoluted legal wrangling? That first sentence is the one most fitted to the latter situation – though equally applicable to the former two – and if the young second-string were particularly resourceful may well have been followed up with a giggly: “…and I think I have found just the place!”.
The first of the former two scenarios and sentences might have been followed up with: “Dr…… says an overly inquisitive mind in a girl that age can lead to hysteria, but that he knows of an establishment she can be placed in within which that inquisitive streak can be curbed – given time.” Or: “Dr…… says too much by way of mental stimulation may trigger hysteria – even mental aberration – in a young woman and that she is to be restricted to prolonged bed rest, all books and periodicals removed from her sight and that the windows of her room must be locked, barred-over and whitewashed lest she be disturbed by the goings-on in the world outside”
The second of those foremost two phrases might have come with a mutual nod of agreement and the opined comment that: “A period of a good few years under the firm hand of a suitably stern governess is what she needs – time spent sitting at the sewing table or standing at the washing tub or ironing board – not swanning around learning some nonsense about equality.” Or: “I can see that new governess you hired has already made a good start, from the look of her – yes, Amelia, dear, no need to blush; you look very sweet in your new uniform, very smart!” Another might have added in: “Oh, and look at her wince when she shifts her weight on that footstall she’s sitting on – it looks like the woman is no slouch with the cane… and now she’s biting her lip…”
“Oh stop it, Alexandra – you’re embarrassing the girl. Look, her face has gone like beetroot.”
“It’s not me, Genevieve, it’s that dress if you ask me. It’s shocking – look you can even see her knees; it’s like a child’s frock. She won’t want to be wandering far from home in that!”
“I had the same reservations at first, but her governess says it’s perfectly adequate around the home and it is good for discipline; discourages her from forming ideas above her station. Besides she isn't going anywhere outside these few rooms from now on. Look; there are big fat bars on all the windows to keep her safe, that hefty oak door you passed through from the passageway on the way in and then that locking iron, barred, gate thing the governess said I should have fitted as an extra precaution. There is everything a girl could need within this suit of rooms – why a girl could live for… I don’t know… years… in here, and never need to stray outside. And we’re to call her Amy now, not Amelia… isn’t that right, Amy? … Yes what, dear?... that’s right! Yes miss…that’s better!
Now thank every one for coming to see how well-disciplined you’re becoming under the control of your governess rather than going to that silly university – what a silly, silly notion that was you had. Wasn't it, Amy?… Say how ridiculous you were being… come along, tell everyone what a silly little girl you were being… I’ll fetch your governess and she’ll put you over her lap and have those drawers down in front of everyone… That’s better. Now, up you get, Amy, and give your visitors a twirl so they can all see your new uniform properly – isn't that sweet ladies.
Now curtsy – and thank your visitors once again for coming… lower than that… ankles crossed over, skirt held out to the sides… yes I know they can see your drawers; they’ll see the insides of them too if I have to call for your governess to put you across her knee! Oh, you’re in your ‘special’ pantaloons; don’t cry, I didn't know – I could only see the leg cuffs below your skirt hem, and they all tie at that point with those big ribbon bows.
But I imagine you deserved it – what was it? Still refusing to use the chamber pot at your desk? Oh you need to go now? Well, it’s over there on the seat of your school desk – you can use it now why we wait, while we’re all still here… You don’t want to?… Then you’ll just have to wait until your governess returns – now back down on your stool, swivel round, nose to the corner and hands back on your head, please, Amy…Good girl! Now don’t you dare budge until you’re told to. We’re leaving now, but don’t think you can’t be seen – just you remember how the governess’s birch feels”
There’s a collective gasp and somebody whispers the word ‘birch’, a frightened awe detectable even as a whisper.
The voices will fade before the distant iron gate slams and the heavy oak door slams shut – and will come total silence… Then the gas lights will dim down and fade out – the gas taps and valves are outside, and ‘corner penance’ is always performed in the dark. So how will she be seen? She won’t be, can’t be. But she’s already too browbeaten to stir. Besides, she can be heard. There are two small bells sewn on each of the cuffs of her long-sleeved dress and another two hanging from the ribbon bows at her knees. And what could she do, where could she go? She couldn't use the chamber pot – the evidence would be clear – even if she could wrestle the padlock from the waistband of the rubber pantaloons or un-knot the laces securing the rear opening.
In the distance she can hear the chattering fade: “Of course it is a battle of wills... and she has to lose each one, one small step at a time, one battle at a time, if the war is to be won – that is what her governess says…. Oh yes, she knows what she’s talking about… Our poor Amy will hardly be able to hold a single thought in her head to call her own by the time she’s finished with her!”
Outside of that scenario perhaps there are other snippets of conversation we might have picked up on, in the Victorian era for example, that might have been worth exploring. Consider the following, overheard statement in response to a query from some personal friend or other interested party: “We did find her, but she ran away again. And now we fear she has left these islands for good; eloped with that ne'er-do-well young rake we told you about.”
You see, here is another fairly innocent statement if taken in isolation – unless one happens to align it to one of those mentioned at the top of this article, given previously and in other company. And what if it had then continued: “Still, the courts will help protect her – he won’t get his hands on her inheritance. We have already filed a motion for power of attorney so that should she not return by her majority, when she will inherit, we can manage her estate on her behalf. And of course we already manage her trust fund for her – we have only ever had her best interests at heart you see!” Ah, such good altruistic concern! But it was so much easier to cover over a trail then; it fair makes the heart beat faster and the imagination to burn feverishly.
Is the pretty, doubtless nubile, young thing's whereabouts really as unknown as all that? Has she left the country? Is there – or has there ever been – this young buck or 'rake' with an interest, romantic or fiscal or both, in our young heroine? Wasn't it true the flowering and increasingly buxom beauty had led a sheltered life, ever less frequently seen outdoors since first being moved to her guardian’s sprawling country seat upon her parents' and elder sister's disappearance following the tragic sinking of The White Star Line's Britannic, the Titanic’s sister ship? So how had she met her beau? Who was he? And what evidence was there that she had even ever left the house, let alone traversed the sprawling grounds - many, many miles from the nearest town or village and all of it surrounded by high and near-insurmountable walls and mantraps designed to maim would-be poachers and the like?
All these questions and many more would be asked today. Perhaps greater scrutiny would have been applied even in that era where the guardian was some handsome self-made, rakish 'new money' type himself. But if a woman was involved - let alone one with impeccably aristocratic 'old money' credentials – well, with such a woman her word could be taken as her bond as much as any gentleman; perhaps more so, given the circumstances. After all what interest could a woman have in a specimen of walking doll-like perfection such as our missing heiress if not the purely fiscal? But then 'old money' debts had an uncanny knack of floating just below the surface and remaining discretely overlooked. And that other motive, had there been any male involvement, was of course quite unthinkable in polite (or most any) society – and this despite there being a large and burgeoning underground literature, and even brothels, catering for the taste. Ahh! Let's hear it for the willfully blinded eye of denial! And that blinded by silver of course!
What relevance, if any, does any of this have to a tale set in today's world, in terms of plausibility? You may well ask – and I have no hard and fast answers. But the truth is, reality has a knack of being far richer than one's imagination.