The Angel in the House

The curtains were half open, the first glimmers of dawn alighting on the opposite wall. The room was a typical eighteenth century bedroom, sparsely yet luxuriously furnished.

On one side of the room, a grand gothic style clock had its small hand on six and its long hand on four. There was no noise in the room apart from soft breathing; in, out, in, out. On the opposite side of the room, there was a small raised four poster bed, with a heavy oak frame.

Footsteps approached the door and soft knocking commenced.

A small voice cut through the silence.

‘Miss. Your mother wishes you to be ready for her in an hour. Miss Josephine, are you decent?’ The door opened inch by inch scraping against the carpet.

The breathing hitched and the mound in the bed stirred.

A woman dressed in a long black dress with a white apron and white bonnet swept into the room, averting her eyes. She drew back the curtains which grated against the iron rail. The woman curtsied in the direction of the bed.

‘Is there anything you need, miss?’ she asked. The maid’s eyes averted respectfully towards the floor as a small hand with tapered fingers threw back the white bedspread with more force than strictly necessary.

‘No Clarissa, that will be all. Will I meet my mother in the breakfast room?’ said the voice, which belonged to a young woman of twenty three, with wild dark hair sticking every which way.

‘No, miss. She said she will be here to lace you up. Miss…’ said Clarissa, chewing her bottom lip.

‘Yes? What is it?’ said Josephine, trying to reach the floor from the high mattress with some degree of decorum.

‘If you wish, I can lace you up,’ said Clarissa, smiling. Josephine, having successfully reached the ground, glanced up sharply at the maid.

‘I am not sure if Lady Hunt would approve of being deprived of her daily sermonising,’ said Miss Hunt, a mischievous glint in her eyes. Spreading her hands, she exclaimed, ‘Of course, we could just say that I was so eager to be laced up, that I could not wait.’ Clarissa curtsied and left the room to allow Josephine to perform her toilette.

Josephine shut the door and locked it. She washed herself quickly, and in record time, or so she thought, donned her undergarments and attached the bustle to her behind. Sat at her dressing table, she unlocked a series of drawers, which opened to reveal a small inkwell, a small bound book and a beautiful quill pen. Opening the book, she wrote with rapid strokes. The sunlight landed on her skin, the dust motes swirling.

The door handle creaked, and then rattled. Gasping, Josephine slapped the book shut and threw it and the pen into the open drawer, snapping the inkwell closed. Scrabbling with the drawers, she locked them, failing to notice the small ink mark on the side of her petticoat. The door handle rattled again.

‘Miss, I am here for the lacing. Miss? Did you lock the door?’ Josephine unlocked the door, peering around first, to find Clarissa frowning.

‘We best hurry, miss. I do not know how much longer Lady Hunt will be. I have heard that there is a gentleman meeting with your father this morning, and Lady Hunt has been talking about Miss Susanna.’

‘My sister? Has something happened?’ said Josephine, a tremor beginning in her left hand. She shook it, a frown furrowing her forehead.

‘You best not worry, Miss. Lady Hunt has been reading the news again,’ said Clarissa, glancing at the ink spot on Josephine’s petticoat. She opened a drawer, reaching for the detested corset.

Holding a bedpost, Josephine squeezed her eyes closed as her waist was tightened, her middle becoming rigid with the metal and bone.

‘Stop, Clarissa. That is enough,’ she managed to say, trying to calm her breathing, which was coming in shallow gasps. Loud knocking emanated from a door across the hall. The two women flinched. Clarissa snatched the dress and flung it over Josephine’s head. After more fumbling and extra lacing, Josephine slipped on her pointed boots and stuck them out to Clarissa, who tied them with deft hands.

‘Clarissa, hurry. Is there enough time to loosen the stays?’ Josephine’s eyes darted to the door, then back to Clarissa, who was putting the finishing touches to the laced up boots. There was a loud, authoritative knock on the door. Both Clarissa and Josephine straightened their backs.

‘Josephine, I have been informed that you are already laced up. Be mindful of Mr Fordyce’s foremost lessons, as we have a gentleman caller this morning. I trust you are presentable,’ said a shrill voice at the door. ‘She has been in the news again this very morning,’ said the voice, pausing. ‘It is highly unnatural, the way those shrill harpies carry on. We depend upon you more than ever. Be ready to meet the gentleman in approximately forty minutes to the hour.’

They listened as Lady Hunt’s footsteps retreated. Josephine’s chest thudded dully. Swallowing, she finally looked at Clarissa, who was, yet again, looking at the floor, a high blush on her cheeks. A moments silence passed.

‘Bring me the nearest newspaper, Clarissa. Now,’ said Josephine. She sunk to the dressing table chair. Realising that she only had twenty minutes for breakfast, she rushed out.

At the bottom of the stairs, a low murmur caught her attention. The breakfast room was on the right, but the voice had come from her father’s study. Of course, she reassured herself, it was the gentleman caller. With a quick shake of her head, she stopped, halfway to the breakfast room. Moving closer to the study door, she heard two voices. One of them belonged to her father; a low baritone, whilst the other was loud and deep.

‘Sir, I will take nothing less than exemplar behaviour. I do trust that I will get what I ask for. The top of my list is, naturally, obeisance. After your deep family shame, of, I have heard, all things, a suffragette, I must know of what sort of stock I will receive,’ said the loud, deep voice. ‘It will not do to have my reputation ruined by disgusting behaviour.’

‘I can assure you that your interests will be protected. Indeed, you can expect nothing less than complete obeisance and the finest compliant nature there ever was. Our training has resulted in the very best behaviour, and I am cheered that you may be able to mould it further. Indeed, the lacing has provided favourable results, and my wife is confident that you will be able to display a fine figure to society,’ said Josephine’s father.
‘Indeed. The lacing will be an asset. I have heard talk of dress reform for young ladies, which I am against. All women are the property of men. As such their bodies must be controlled in order to achieve maximum control of their temperaments.’

Josephine’s mouth dropped open. She backed away from the door. The study door opened, and the two men, still talking, walked out. Holding up the hem of her skirts, she almost ran into the breakfast room, sitting in the nearest seat.

Josephine ate her breakfast in silence. Her mother remarked on this.

‘You are very well behaved this morning, dear. Please do try to sit up straight.’

As her mother ushered her through to the morning room, Josephine kept her eyes averted, fixing on a spot above the fireplace. This proved awkward, as she almost lost her footing sitting down in an armchair. Her father stood up, looming over her.

‘Josephine, this good gentleman is Mr Price. We have been undertaking business this morning, and he was most eager to meet you,’ said Sir Hunt, a slow smile spreading across his gaunt face.

Mr Price did not match Sir Hunt’s smile. On the contrary, he looked as if he was appraising a purchase, his eyebrows knitted together. He was a tall man in his late thirties, thin and dark. He avoided Josephine’s eyes, instead fixing on a place in the middle of her forehead.

‘Miss Hunt, we finally meet. I trust I find you well this morning,’ he said, with no hint of sincerity or smile on his face. He sat down, not caring to take her hand, as was customary.

Josephine sat still, her back rigid in the armchair. She blinked occasionally as the men discussed current affairs and said nothing, not even when they began discussing literature, which was dear to her heart. Mr Price brought up the new proliferation of women’s writing, and dismissed it as ‘unnatural’ with a flick of his hand. With every moment, she felt increasing oppression. She thought about her sister, who she had heard was living with a group of women somewhere in Clerkenwell. Was it possible that she had been too hasty in dismissing Susannah’s activities? Was it not true that if given the chance, women could make full use of their mental facilities in order to vote, and write and learn? Her own efforts at writing allowed her to express herself. She was not an empty vessel, a lump of clay to be moulded. A whirlwind of thoughts blew in her mind. She must always remain silent, like her mother; who was Mr Hunt’s shadow.

After Mr Price had gone, Josephine retreated to her room. She sat on her bed, looking out over the garden. She sat this way for an hour, a faraway look in her eyes. A while later, when a robin perched on the tree outside and sang its song to her, she sprang into action.

That evening, Lady Hunt burst into Josephine’s room, after a search of the house. She was breathing hard, her face red. On finding the room empty and in disarray, her eyes lit on an envelope on the dressing table, addressed: ‘To Sir and Lady Hunt’. An inkwell sitting in a pool of black ink was dripping off the table.