The Wives of Highbury, Part I

Miss Emily Brown stood before her mother’s looking glass. The glass had been in her family for generations, which was clear from its condition. The color was beginning to tarnish, and there were small cracks spiraling arbitrarily though the glass.

But Emily knew her mother and grandmother stood before it on their wedding day, just as she was doing today. And from what they both told her, time didn’t change how a young woman felt on the most important day of her life.

She was wearing the same gown they wore on their special day. It was altered to fit her figure, which was much smaller than either her mother’s or her grandmother’s. She had admired the dress through her entire childhood. It was a favorite pastime to hide inside her mother’s wardrobe so she could look at and touch the blue and white lace that covered the ivory satin gown, caressing the material between her tiny fingers. She dreamed of the day it would be her turn to wear it.

And now her day to wear the gown had arrived. Did they feel the way she did when they wore it? Were they excited yet nervous? Happy yet apprehensive? Did they know their duty, yet were they afraid?

How was she, a mere girl of 17, to please a man of 32? It was true her mother had taught her well. She was capable of running a household. She was proficient at many of the accomplishments she should be; she could sing and play the piano, spoke French and Italian, and could draw and paint. She loved children and loved teaching them. In truth, as she got older, she loved it so much she told her father what she really wanted was to be governess.

But it was not to be. Her father said only girls that were poor were governesses. John Brown was a solicitor in their town of Highbury. He was known for his knowledge of laws that affected the landed gentry in the area and was well regarded for his efforts. Yet he was not welcome in the social circles of the gentry that he served. She knew he wished to change that. When one of his best clients, Mr. Henry Woodhouse of Hartfield, a popular gentleman and landowner, happened to mention he would like to find a wife, her father invited him to dinner, where he was introduced him to Emily. She found Mr. Woodhouse to be fairly good looking. He was charming and articulate. She liked him, but never thought, because of the difference in their stations, that he would be interested in her as anything more than someone who could make good conversation and amuse him with her musical talents. He was just another one of her father’s wealthy clients.

He came to their home only a few times for tea before he took her for a walk one evening and told her he had asked her father for her hand, and he had consented. He told her it would be his greatest pleasure if she would become his wife.

She was stunned; unsure of what to do, and more importantly, of what to feel. He was a good man, her mother said. He would give her and her children a good life. Still, Emily felt confused. What about love, she asked her mother. Shouldn’t there be at least some love; some feelings of passion?

True love took time, her mother told her. She said she was not in love with her father at first but learned to love him. And as for romantic love, well, that didn’t last. Mutual respect and caring were much more important.

Her father wasn’t as kind regarding her questions of love. He said her marrying Mr. Woodhouse would raise the entire family up. Her sisters would be able to make better matches when it was time for them to wed. It was her duty to the family to accept the proposal. So, she did her duty, accepting Mr. Woodhouse, and hoped that all would work out well.

She jumped when there was a knock on the door.

Mother, is it time?” she asked.

“Not yet,” she said. “But something has come for you from Hartfield.”

Her mother opened the door and handed her a small box with a note.

“Looks like something from your intended,” her mother said with a knowing smile. “I will let you enjoy it in private.”

She closed the door behind her. Emily opened the box to find a pair of earrings. They were beautiful; a diamond earring with a drop emerald. She had never owned anything so elegant.

She opened the letter.

My Dearest Emily:

I hope you like the earrings; they belonged to my mother, and they were among her favorite pieces. I think they will look

well on you; enhancing the beauty of your eyes that are almost as green as the stones.

My dear, I know you don’t know me well, and you are apprehensive. I must tell you I feel the same. But anything worth having in life is worth the risk. We can never know for sure what life has in store for us. What I can tell you with certainty that I will be true to my vows to love, honor and cherish you. But I also promise to respect your wishes and your opinions, and we will have a full partnership in all things. I will be your protector, your confidante, and most importantly, your friend.

I’ll see you at the altar, my darling. I will be waiting.

Your husband-to-be,

Henry Woodhouse

“I declare, I just don’t understand it,” said Elizabeth Weston. “It is hard to fathom why a man like your friend Mr. Woodhouse would marry someone such as this Miss Brown. I’m sure she is lovely and poised, but he could have had any number of girls with twice the breeding and the dowry. He certainly could have done better than a solicitor’s daughter.”

Frank Weston sighed, looking out the carriage window. “Henry is quite smitten with Emily,” he replied. “She will make him a good wife. And Henry says she is quite accomplished.” He turned, taking his wife’s hand. “Besides, if you were so conscious of station, Lizzie, you would not have married me, a mere military man.”

“That’s another matter entirely,” said Elizabeth. “You came from a family of means, and they were able to purchase your commission. You have done well for yourself, my love..”

“Yes, my father was what people would call a nabob.”

“That is a terrible term. It is a crime to make money in the Far East? I think not. Your father did well there and brought his wealth back to England. I say it shows great ambition and ingenuity.”

He laughed. “I would have been nice if your father had thought that.”

“Yes, well, my family believes wealth must be inherited. They don’t understand the world is changing, and that anyone with the right connections can earn their way into good society if they choose, such as your father did. Still, a tradesperson’s daughter? Mr. Woodhouse could have done better.”

Frank didn’t answer. Elizabeth had her opinions about things, and he had learned in the short time they were married that arguing with her about them was futile. He didn’t bother to correct her that solicitors were not considered tradespeople, and many of them had married their sons and daughters into the upper classes.

Sometimes he wondered who this woman was that he had married. Their courtship had been a short and passionate one. He met her at a ball given by one of his fellow officers when they were billeted in Yorkshire. When he thought of it today, it still made his heart pound. Elizabeth Churchill was everything he ever wanted. Beautiful, well-spoken and mannered, intelligent and funny. He was sure he’d found the woman of his dreams.

But her family had other plans for her. The Churchills were one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Yorkshire. They had promised her to the son of her mother’s sister when she was still an infant; a cousin that had £30,000. per year. Frank could never compete with such a sum, even though he had enough to provide Elizabeth a good life. Elizabeth was given a choice, either marry her cousin as planned, or marry Frank and be disowned by her family.

Frank told her he understood; that making such a choice would be impossible, but she said no, she wanted to be his wife more than anything. They ran away to Gretna Green in the middle of night, and Elizabeth never looked back.

Or did she? He sensed a restlessness in her at times. He gave her all the material things she wished, but she could no longer fraternize with the people of her youth. The social circles she’d been a part of all her life were now closed to her. When she saw these old friends in the streets and tried to speak to them, they looked down and quickly walked away. She was lonely and discontented, and he could not be with her during the times he was called up. He wondered if she was sorry that she married him and turned her back on the life she had known.

He was sure that soon she would have a child to occupy her, but in the interim, she needed something to ease her troubled disposition. “My dear,” he started, “I have been thinking. Soon we will have a family, and I don’t wish to raise them in town. My father’s house in Highbury has been vacant for some time. We could move there temporarily, and then build a place of our own.”

She stared at him. “You want to live in Highbury? But I know no one there, Frank.”

“I grew up there. I know pretty much everyone. And you have always been very adept in the social graces. You would be the most important lady of the town in no time.”

She sat quiet for a moment. “I will think on it. You say most of the people in the town will be at the wedding?”

“Absolutely. I think you will find them all quite amiable. Many of the people I grew up are like we are, newly married

and starting families. A new generation of residents are emerging. It will be a wonderful place for our children to grow up in. And when I am away with the militia, you will have friends to look after you. Also, Surrey is only 16 miles from London, should you wish to partake in the amusements of town on occasion.”

“And they are all respectable families?”

“Well, of course.”

She lowered her voice. “You know what I mean by respectable, Frank. I mean people that are equal to our station. You know I cannot be expected to fraternize with farmers and artisans.”

“I think that is of minor importance,” he said, his tone curt. “But to answer your question; yes. There is Mr. Knightley of Donwell Abbey, a widower with two young sons and of course there is Henry Woodhouse, and many others.” He reached for her, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. “Trust me, Elizabeth, it is for the best.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “Alright, Frank. I will be very astute today in my observations of everyone, and I inform you as to what I think.”

“That sounds fine, darling,” he said. Elizabeth could observe all she wanted, he thought, but the decision had been made. He would take her after the wedding and show her his father’s house, which he had completely refurbished just to her taste. She would be thrilled, and ready to show it off. They would be happy, and her memories of life before their marriage would fade.

He just knew that all would be well. He could make her happy again. He was absolutely sure.

Eleanor Bates sat in an empty corner of the courtyard at Highbury. She had finally been able to escape all the wedding guests, none of which she wished to speak with. Having to smile and curtsey and try to make conversation was terrifying for her. She was happiest alone in her room with her books and writing her stories.

She had told her aunt, Mrs. Sophia Bates, she did not wish to attend the wedding of Mr. Woodhouse. She offered to stay at home and care for her little charge Molly, who was five years old. Her aunt and uncle had employed her as governess for the little girl. Molly was an eager learner, loving to draw and read. She and Molly would have a wonderful time together at home, she was sure.

But Aunt Sophia said no, that since her uncle was the vicar, and was performing the marriage ceremony between Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Emily Brown, their entire household was obligated to attend. It was their duty, she said.

She relaxed for the first time all day. Taking a deep breath, she could smell the mix of honeysuckle and lilac floating in the air. Off in the distance, she could see Miss Emily, now Mrs. Woodhouse, greeting her guests. She seemed very happy. She floated around in her lacy blue and white gown with an ephemeral flair. But Eleanor wondered, was she really happy? She knew Miss Emily’s marriage to Mr. Woodhouse had been an arranged match. The idea of that appalled her. She wanted to marry for love. She wanted to fall in love, like the girls she read about in Fanny Burney’s novels. That was the only way she would marry. And if she didn’t find this love, she would work as a governess, as she was now with little Molly. She knew an intellectual life was inappropriate for a young lady, but it was her heart’s desire, and she was determined to have it.

She jumped at the sound of a voice coming up behind her. “Eleanor Bates, there you are!” said Sophia. “What are you doing out here?”

Eleanor stood. “Just enjoy the grounds, Aunt. They have such exquisite gardens here at Highbury.”

Sophia narrowed her eyes. “Eleanor, we talked about this. You have to learn to make conversation and engage other people. I promised my sister that I would make sure you became a proper young lady.”

“I am a proper young lady,” Eleanor replied, hands on her hips. “You would not have entrusted me with Molly’s education if you did not think so.”

“That is true. But you are 18 years old. You must start thinking about your future.”

“I have. My future is in my scholarly pursuits and in teaching others.”

“So you wish to be an old maid? Old maids don’t have much of a life, Eleanor. What will you do for money?”

“I will make money from my writings and from teaching young girls.”

“That is not a life for a young woman like yourself. Your parents would not have allowed this, and neither will I. As long as I am responsible for your care, you will at least learn some social skills.” She grabbed her hand. “Look at you! You look lovely in that dress. Don’t you want others to see how beautiful you look?”

The dress was ugly, thought Eleanor. She hated pink. It was girly; a color worn by silly girls with empty heads. But her aunt insisted the color was perfect on her. Gave her skin a bloom. And her aunt had insisted she wear a corset. Every breath she took was agony.

“Come now, you have yet to meet the bride.”

“Do I have a choice?” she asked.

Mrs. Bates grinned. “Absolutely not.”

“Yes, I suppose I should get used to not having a choice. If you are determined to marry me off, I certainly won’t have my own free will once I am someone’s wife.”

“Be quiet now,” said Mrs. Bates in a low voice. “Young ladies must speak in a low voice.”

The new Mrs. Woodhouse was sitting with Mrs. Weston.

Mrs. Bates stopped, turning to Eleanor. “Sitting with the bride is Mrs. Weston. As a member of the Churchill family, she was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte before her marriage. She is also a friend to the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Georgiana. She is one of the most fashionable women in London.”

“Then what is she doing in Highbury?” Eleanor whispered.

“She married Mr. Weston against her family’s wishes.”

Eleanor grinned. “I like her already.”

“Yes, well, she will probably become most important here. She and her husband are thinking of building a new home here, so we must be exceptionally polite.” She pulled on Eleanor’s hand again as she hesitated. “Come along now before we lose sight of her.”

Mrs. Weston was definitely copying the Shepherdess style made so popular by Marie Antoinette. Her huge hat sat high on her head. The blue and white bow around it was almost as big. Her long curly brown locks flowed freely around her shoulders. Her blue and white striped gown had large puffy sleeves trimmed with lace. The dress was accented with a low neck that most women would consider indecent.

“Mrs. Weston, may I introduce my niece, Miss Eleanor Bates. She is living with us and working as a governess to Molly.”

The woman smiled, then looked her up and down. “Yes, your uncle the vicar spoke well of you to my husband. He says you at quite good at your books. But remember, dear, your books won’t get you a husband.” She looked at her again, then looked over at Mrs. Woodhouse. “What do you say, Mrs. Woodhouse? Do you think this girl will be the next one down the aisle?”

Emily Woodhouse smiled. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bates. Thank you for sharing our special day with us.”

Eleanor congratulated her. “I hope you and Mr. Woodhouse will find much happiness together.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “I’m sure we will. I am very lucky. Mr. Woodhouse is a good man.

Mrs. Weston pushed herself back into the conversation. She took out her handkerchief, gingerly wiping her cheek. “All husbands are wonderful in the beginning. Give it time. You will see his flaws soon enough. But you didn’t answer me, Mrs. Woodhouse. Is Miss Bates the next bride here in Highbury?”

Emily’s cheeks reddened. “I cannot say, Mrs. Woodhouse. Do you seek a husband, Miss Bates?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” blurted Mrs. Weston. “Every young girl seeks a husband. She just has to be pointed in the right direction.” She took Eleanor’s hand. “When my husband and I finally settle at Randalls, I will take you under my wing, young lady. After being under my tuteluge, you will have such graces no man will be able to resist you. You will be better wed than our Mrs. Woodhouse here.”

“Ellie!” said an excited child’s voice.” Little Molly Bates ran to Eleanor, grabbing her around the legs. “You must come with me to the duck pond. There is a new duck there. They call it a Muscove duck. It was brought here from another country by Mr. Woodhouse’s friend.” She grabbed her hand, “Come, please.”

Eleanor looked at Mrs. Bates, her eyes pleading.

Mrs. Bates nodded. “Go ahead, my dear. You and Molly have fun.”

Eleanor smiled, looking relieved. She curtsied, then ran off after her little charge. The ladies stood watching them.”

Mrs. Bates sighed. “She does need help in the social graces. What 18-year-old do you know that would rather look at ducks than socialize? I do worry about her so.”

“Everyone grows up at a different pace,” said Emily. “I think she may need more time before marriage.”

“What she needs is to be taken in hand,” said Mrs. Weston.

Mr. Woodhouse appeared, standing behind his bride. He took her hand in his, then looked around at the women’s faces.

“What are you ladies contriving?”

“What makes you say that, Mr. Woodhouse?” asked Mrs. Bates.

“Because I always know when ladies are up to some scheme.”

“Mrs. Weston was just saying we should try and help Miss Bates get a husband,” replied Emily.

He shook his head. “Oh no. Matchmakers are the worst. They create all kinds of trouble.” He pulled Emily away, his brow arched in suspicion. “Come, my dear, we have more guests to greet.”

As they walked away, Mrs. Weston shook her head. “Men just don’t understand. No two people can make a marriage happen alone. Help is always required. It takes an experienced woman to know that.”

Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Bates turned to watch Molly and Eleanor. They had removed their shoes and stockings and were jumping around in the pond with the ducks, kicking water and laughing.

Mrs. Weston shook her head. “We have a lot of work to do, Mrs. Bates.”

“Yes, it appears so,” said Mrs. Bates. And while she knew Mrs. Weston was right, she turned her head, and smiled.

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