When my friend Lucy Brayton first suggested a night at the opera, I imagined a quiet evening of enjoyment whilst we watched pageantry on stage. I could see myself wrapped snugly in my shawl and perched on a chair at the very back of a theatre, where I could remain perfectly anonymous, taking in the sights.
I do not enjoy calling attention to myself.
“Jane, my little sparrow of a wife.” Edward Rochester, my husband, teases me. But I do not mind. If he is smart, a small bird can observe much of the world around him from a safe vantage point, hiding behind the leaves of a tree.
Lucy had other plans.
“You will need a new dress,” she said, adding more sugar to her tea as we sat in the parlor of her London home.
“My garnet silk will do.” I raised my teacup to hide my smile. It seems that any activity will suffice as an excuse for Lucy to visit her mantua-maker.
“No,” she said with a kind but exasperated expression. “Your garnet silk is lovely, but it simply will not do. Dear friend, I recognize you have no desire to stand out in the crowd—and I have no wish to make you feel uncomfortable. Therefore, you must dress as Society dictates. When you are like them, you can easily blend in without calling undue attention to yourself.”
“Who decides what Society wears?” Now I was curious.
“For nearly a decade and a half, Beau Brummel dictated fashion.” She set down her own cup and folded her hands, assuming a schoolteacher’s posture. “Brummel was a bon vivant and friend of His Majesty, Prince George. As a result, men and women both spent countless coins on their wardrobe, each trying to follow the latest fashions. Indeed, those new boots your husband so admires? The ones my brother wears? That style—tall with tassels—was introduced by Brummel.”
It seems that Brummel advised the Prince in all matters sartorial, until the young upstart grew too bold. Not only did he make fun of George’s increasing girth, he also nicknamed Mrs. Fitzherbert “Benina,” a cruel way of comparing the Prince’s beloved to Big Ben. As a result, Brummel was “cut dead” by the Prince, the social equivalent of being banished. Perhaps the final blow came when the Prince ignored him at a fête, and Brummel dared to ask of His Majesty’s companion, “Who’s your fat friend?”
Not surprisingly, their relationship sputtered to an end. When word went out that he no longer enjoyed the Prince’s patronage, Brummel was hounded by his debtors—and finally fled to France. The Prince took Brummel’s place as the arbiter of all fashion. When he became King, George IV decreed that court dress would be more modern, especially for ladies. Hoops were no longer de rigueur but the necklines would still need to be low cut—and only a doctor’s excuse could circumvent that requirement!
Most alarming of all, it seemed that a train was a part of every formal evening gown.
“I have no experience with this,” I said, as the mantua-maker adjusted the trailing piece of fabric.
“Try walking with it,” Lucy suggested. As she, the seamstress, and her lady’s maid Polly looked on, I stumbled about the parlor.
“Hmmm,” said my friend. “You want practice.”
“But I need to take the gown with me so that I can make more adjustments.” The seamstress frowned, imagining (I am sure) the damage I might do to her creation.
“Leave it to me,” said Polly. “I have an idea.”
So it happened that I spent many hours marching around Lucy’s house wearing a tablecloth pinned to my shoulders. Edward promised not to laugh at me, and for the most part, he succeeded. Little Adèle, his ward, was captivated by my maneuvers. So much so that she pestered Polly until the lady’s maid pinned a tablecloth on her, too.
When the night of the opera finally arrived, I still felt ostentatious in my new apparel, as I am wholly unaccustomed to so much finery. But I am pleased to report that I managed the train quite well. Indeed, it was lighter and easier to maneuver than the heavy damask tablecloth!
Thanks to Penguin, I have one (1) copy of DEATH OF A DOWAGER to give away. Leave a comment to be included in the giveaway. The book will be shipped directly from the publisher. Contest ends April 11; US entries only per publisher’s request.
Meet the author
Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of three mystery series, including The Jane Eyre Chronicles, featuring Charlotte Brontë’s timeless heroine Jane Eyre. Slan’s most recent book is Death of a Dowager (Berkley). Critics have said, “For those who love Jane Eyre, she lives on in Joanna Campbell Slan.” Visit the author at www.JoannaSlan.com or on Facebook.
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