The Wives of Highbury, Part II

Six months later

Emily sat alone, basking in the morning sun as it washed through her window. This room was her favorite in the house. Henry had refurbished the alcove just off their bedroom for her as a wedding gift. It had a large comfortable chair and ottoman, covered in her favorite shade of aqua. Next to that was a beautiful oak tea table that had belonged to Henry great-grandmother. The table had drawers beneath it that kept the china blue tea service from Wedgewood that was a wedding gift from her parents. Beyond that was a matching oak desk where she spent time writing her letters.

A welcome gust of wind blew through the light, lacy white draperies, cooling her face as she sipped her favorite brew of tea. Henry always teased her about liking such strong tea, but she couldn’t start the day without it. She never had such delicious, full-bodied tea until she came here to Hartfield. In fact, everything seemed better here, in her own home, and in this new life she loved.

She looked down at her belly, which now pushed ever so slightly against the fabric of her dressing gown. She felt she was lucky to have conceived right away, knowing how much Henry wanted a child. If all went as planned, the child would be born just about the time of their first wedding anniversary.

Emily smiled to herself, thinking how foolish she had been to worry about marrying Henry. With an arranged marriage to a man that was a stranger to her, she feared for her happiness. But the last six months with Henry had been more wonderful than she ever could have imagined. No woman could ask for a better husband. He was kind and gentle in all things, always looking out for her comfort and care. She had never felt this cared for even by her own family. Life could not be more perfect.

She was so deep in thought she jumped when her maid entered. Tess had been a servant at Hartfield since Henry was a child and was very fond of him. At first, she regarded Emily with suspicion, and later admitted she was skeptical about the match. But Emily knew she could bring her around, and now they were great friends.

Tess smiled; her face alight with so rosy a glow she looked wind burned. “Oh, I am sorry, ma’am. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

Emily put down her tea and sat up tall. Usually, she knew Tess was coming before she even arrived in the room. A woman with a large girth, she could always hear her coming down the hall, her shoes banging heavy against the wooden hallway floor.

“It is alright, Tess. Usually the tea makes me more alert, but today I feel a bit dozy.”

“Oh, that is natural, ma’am, in the beginning when you are with child. It is good for you to rest. I know Mr. Henry would wish it.” She lowered a silver tray down to Emily’s level. “Just wanted to bring this letter to you. It arrived just a bit ago.”

Emily took the note. Gazing at the unfamiliar seal, she turned it over and saw it was from a place called Randalls.

“Randalls? I thought that place was vacant,” said Emily.

One thing she could always rely on from Tess was knowing the gossip going on all over Highbury. “Randalls has been occupied, ma’am, by young Mr. Weston. Of course, he is not young any longer, but it was the house of his father before him. They say Mr. Weston means to build a new home here, and they are living at Randalls just for now.”

“The Westons? Oh, yes! I remember now! Mr. Weston is Henry’s friend from his childhood. He speaks very highly of him. And I spoke with Mrs. Weston at the reception. She is an interesting woman.”

“Yes, she was part of the Queen’s court, they say,” said Tess. “She is quite the lady of fashion.” Tess giggled. “I’ve heard she is quite one for society. She will certainly stir things up in this neighborhood.”

Emily broke the seal. She rubbed the fine linen stationery between her fingers before reading the invitation aloud:

“Mrs. Frank Weston requests the pleasure of the presence of

Mrs. Henry Woodhouse

At an afternoon tea on Saturday next at two O’Clock

Your Answer is requested.

Tess peered over Emily’s shoulder. “Ma’am, how exciting! Why, an invitation from Mrs. Weston is the most sought after in town.”

A male voice came booming into the room. “Invitation?” said Henry, “Who is extending invitations to my wife and not to me?” He bent down, kissing Emily on the forehead. “Have you a secret admirer?”

Emily laughed. “Not hardly, darling. I have been invited to have tea with Mrs. Weston.”

His jovial face suddenly grew serious. “Yes, I have spoken with Frank Weston. I will be good to have him back in the neighborhood. The wife, well, I am not so sure.”

“But sir,” Tess chimed in. “It would do a young wife like your missus good to be associated with a woman of society like Mrs. Weston.”

Henry glared at her. “That will be all for now, Tess.”

Tess looked down at the floor and curtseyed. “Of course, sir. I will take my leave of you.”

He sat down on the ottoman and took her hand.

“Are you feeling well, my love? You look well today.”

“I feel well,” she answered.

He gazed over at the tea table. “You did not have Tess bring you a single bite of food. How do you expect this baby to grow if you don’t eat?”

She shrugged. “I’m sorry, Henry. I have every intention of eating later. I am queasy in the morning. I do not like to lose my stomach.”

“Alright, my dear. Just make sure you do.” He put his hand out. “May I?”

She gave him the invitation. “It’s just tea, Henry. And I thought Mr. Weston was your friend. Do you not wish our families to socialize?

“I do wish it,” he replied, still staring down at the paper, his eyebrows bent in vexation.

“I was told her family was part of the peerage. She’s a very fashionable woman. With her accomplishments, she will run a fine house for Mr. Weston, I am sure.”

Henry got up, placing the invitation on the tea table. “I have known Frank Weston since I was a child. There was a time when we saw each other every day before he went off to the army. He was always such a sensible gent, not at all taken in by people with airs. But that wife of his; I don’t understand how someone like him, someone who always had such good judgment, would marry such a woman. I find her coarse and conceited. Look at the way she pranced around at our wedding. It was like had to be the center of attention. And that business about matchmaking for Reverend Bates’ niece? Like she was some expert on the subject. I don’t like it, Emily.”

Emily had forgotten all about the conversation at the reception regarding Sophia Bates. She touched Henry hand. “I doubt anyone even remembers that. It was just mentioned casually, nothing serious.”

“Women like Mrs. Weston are never casual about stirring up trouble.” He looked at his wife and smiled. She was a beautiful woman, but she was innocent and naive as well. It made Henry yearn to protect her. But she also had to learn some things on her own about people.

She looked up at him, smiling. She brought his hand to her lips. “Henry, please. It’s only tea.”

“You really want to go that much?”

“I want to make friends,” she said. “I’m new here, Henry. I’m sure I will meet other ladies there. I promise I will not get myself into anything I shouldn’t.”

He looked into her pleading eyes with pleasure. How could he deny this exquisite creature anything? “Alright,” he replied. “Only if you promise me you will watch yourself with that woman.” He sighed. “Maybe I am over-reacting. Maybe now she is a wife she will guard her behavior and want to make her husband proud. You know, she is also with child they say. You will probably have a lot to discuss, both of you being first time mothers.”

Emily nearly jumped out of her seat. “Oh, Henry, that is capital! We will have something in common right from the beginning. You will see, everything will be fine. You will see you had nothing to fear.”

He pulled her into his arms. “All I fear is you will not be happy or be hurt.”

She looked up at him. “Unhappy, Mister Woodhouse? As your wife? Absolutely impossible!”

Eleanor hated sneaking out of the house, but in her mind, it was absolutely necessary.

She was determined that she should get a real education, not just an education of female accomplishment. It was just like Mary Wolstonecraft said in her new treatise “Vindication on the Rights of Women; female accomplishment got women nothing. It made them ornamental only. She wanted to be more than dressing on a man’s arm. She wanted to be a person with her own mind, in her own right. And she would get that education even if she had to do it secretly.

She was grateful to her aunt and uncle for taking her in after her parents died. They had been kind to her, provided for all her needs, and made her always feel like a real part of their family. And she enjoyed her role as governess to her little cousin Molly.

But she knew what was being planned for her, and she would have none of it. She had seen the invitation her aunt received from Mrs. Weston and remembered the conversation at the Woodhouse’s wedding. Find her a husband? Not before she got the education she wanted and became the person she wanted to be. Then if the right man came alone, so be it. But it would be of her own choosing, when she was ready, and it certainly would not be decided by that nasty Weston woman.

As she emerged onto the lane from a path through the woods she had personally created for her secret journeys, she nearly collided with Mr. Perry, the apothecary. He stumbled, dropping the knapsack he carried filled with medicine bottles. The bottles made a clinking noise as they hit the ground.

His eyes grew large behind his spectacles. “Miss Bates, what on earth are you about, running in the woods at this early hour?” He grabbed his bag, pulling at the flap that had fallen open. “These bottles are expensive. If some of them are broken, I will hold you responsible.”

Eleanor kneeled down with him, helping him pick up the few bottles that escaped the bag. “I’m so sorry, sir,” she said, handing him one. “But it looks like all is intact.”

As he returned the bottles to the bag, he held one of them. The morning sun hit the glass, revealing a bright yellow color. “It’s just I have been looking for these plants for weeks. It is very helpful to Mr. Cole’s rheumatism. I would hate to lose any of it. Isn’t the color lovely?”

“What sort of plant is it?” she asked.

“It’s called Cat’s Claw,” he replied, beaming at her interest. “It is good for the swelling.”

“I hear ginger and turmeric are also beneficial for that ailment.”

He smiled, turning his head to the side. “You know of these things?”

“A bit,” she replied. “My uncle has a book on treatments.”

“You are smart young lady, Miss Bates. I say, you will make someone a good wife one day. Nevertheless, I am curious why you are lurking around in the woods by yourself.”

As much as she liked Mr. Perry, she knew if he knew the truth he would run and tell her aunt and uncle. As it was, he would probably tell them he saw her. “Just going for a walk before the day begins, sir. Good for the health, wouldn’t you agree?”

He smiled, the broken veins on his cheeks bursting red. “Yes, indeed. I commend your efforts. It is a lovely morning. The fresh air does everyone good.” He threw his bag over his shoulder. “Have a blessed day,” he exclaimed as he waddled down the lane like the ducks she and Molly fed in the pond.

At last she could see the schoolhouse. She picked up her pace, nearly breaking into a run. Every time she saw the little white house that contained Mr. Goddard’s School, she felt the excitement well up inside her.

She met Mr. Arthur Goddard when he came to give a progress report to her uncle about a boy he was sponsoring. He was a farm boy named James Martin. He was a member of her uncle’s parish that he felt had potential for the ministry someday and he was paying for him to attend Mr. Goddard’s school.

Eleanor generally took no interest in the guests that came to the Bates’ house. Most of them were there to glean assistance, and they were bland and had little of interest to say. She usually stayed upstairs with Molly until they left. But that day, when she heard that Mr. Goddard of Goddard’s School would be coming for tea, she was determined to procure his attention.

She made sure she looked well but didn’t want to look too frilly and fancy for someone she hoped would be a serious scholar. She wore her plain grey gown and pulled her long dark her back away from her face. She wanted to be taken seriously, and girls that were too frilly and overdone were not.

When she was introduced to Mr. Goddard, he rose, bowed and took her hand. “En chante, mademoiselle,” he said, “It is nice to at last meet you. I have heard much of you from your uncle.”

Eleanor pulled her hand away. This was no serious schoolmaster. This man was a dandy. It was clear he was wearing a tight corset underneath his coat to trim his silhouette. His plaid pants were of fine fabric and matched the red velvet of the jacket. His dark beard shadowed his very round face. But the most prominent feature of all was his moustache, which was waxed skinny into a large curl on both sides. It was so large that Eleanor couldn’t pull her gaze from it.

Mr. Bates cleared his throat. “Eleanor, you’re being rude. Please sit down.”

His chastising pulled her from her stupor. She no longer wanted to talk to this man. She was sure from the look of him he would never support her as a student. She wanted to excuse herself and walk away, but she knew this would seriously displease her uncle, so she sat down, allowing her aunt to pour her some tea.

Mr. Goddard took a sip of his tea, then put a napkin to his moustache. Eleanor wondered if the wax would melt from the hot liquid. “So, Miss Bates,” he said. “Your aunt tells me you are quite the reader. What is your favorite? I know most young ladies enjoy Ann Radcliffe, or Fanny Burney.”

Thinking she had nothing to lose, she told him the truth. She certainly didn’t want to attend a school with a silly schoolmaster. “I do enjoy a novel on occasion, sir, but I feel I should read more important texts.”

“And what might those be?” he asked. He crossed his legs, then began twirling his moustache.

“I like German philosophers very much. My favorite is Goethe.”

“I see,” he said, “I admire him as well. And he has just finished his new play, Torquato Tasso, which I hear is amazing. Do you like the theatre, Miss Bates?

“I’m sure I would. As you can imagine, we don’t get much theatre here in Highbury.”

He nodded. “I see. Well, I’m sure someday that problem will be remedied. But I think Goethe’s time has come and gone. We are close to a new century. It is time for new men and woman to take their place on a new stage and show the world a new way.”

Her uncle fidgeted in his seat. “Truly, Mr. Goddard, we have tried to show Miss Bates the right way for ladies. But no matter how we try, she still seems to find her way to things that are unsuitable.”

Mr. Goddard held his teacup in an exaggerated way with his pinky finger sticking out. “No, no, Reverend. No learning, in any capacity, is bad for anyone, male or female. The more learned all people are, the better the world we live in will be.” He turned back to her. “Have you had the pleasure of reading Mr. Blake’s work?”

“Mr. Blake?”

“Yes, William Blake. He has new poems. I just received a copy.”

“Poems, sir? They do not interest me much,” she replied. “I prefer to read essays. They are much more serious and tell us much more about the world.”

“Ah, that is where you are wrong, miss. Poets tell us of the human heart. Have you not read Shakespeare?”

“Shakespeare?” she asked. “He has been insignificant for many years. Have you not read Mr. Johnson?"

He placed the teacup down, shifting forward in his chair. “You are mistaken. Shakespeare never goes out of style. You must read his works. It is essential in your understanding of the world.”

It was her that was now leaning forward in her seat. She looked into his eyes. They were an a light green. But in their cool, quiet color, there was an excitement; a passion that Eleanor knew was like her own. Suddenly the silly clothes and moustache were no longer pertinent in her view. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. There was a ubiquitous understand that needed no words.

The moment was broken when Mr. Bates cleared his throat. “Mr. Goddard, I don’t think those things are appropriate for a young lady to read,” he said in a cutting tone. “Eleanor, you should be reading Fordyce’s Sermons.” He turned to Mr. Goddard, his cheeks going crimson. “Sir, you have been teaching young men too long to know what is appropriate for a young lady.” He cleared his throat again. “In Shakespeare there is much, shall we say, fornication.” He stood. “Excuse me, I must see if Mrs. Bates needs my assistance.”

As he left the room, Eleanor again locked eyes with Mr. Goddard. They broke into laughter.

He reached out and lightly touched her hand. “Miss Bates, never let anyone keep you from improving your mind.” He leaned in again, whispering. “Have you heard of Mary Wolstonecraft? She is a great supporter of women’s learning.”

Eleanor felt as if the sun had come out after a long rain. “Sir,” she looked around, then whispered, “I have been trying to read it, but as you can imagine,” she looked toward the door where Mr. Bates exited, “it isn’t without difficulty.”

“Why not come to the school and read? I will give you access to my library. Is there a time you can escape the house for a time?”

“When shall I come?”

“Come in the morning, when everything is quiet. No one will disturb you there.”

So began Eleanor’s morning journeys to Mr. Goddard’s library. In the last several months, she had read many of Shakespeare’s play and his sonnets, was able to finish “The Vindication of the Rights of Women,” and other books, all at the suggestion of Mr. Goddard, who would leave a note on the door for her every week with recommendations.

After a while, it wasn’t enough to read the books, she wanted someone to discuss them with. She asked if Mr. Goddard would mind meeting her once a week. He agreed, and their discussions, always over tea, were interesting and stimulating. The night before, she could barely sleep, brimming with the anticipation of the next day’s conversation.

She was at last at the door of the school. She looked around and behind, making sure no one saw her as she opened the door.

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