For better or for worse

Months of polite conversation, flattery and wearing fashionable clothes will finally reward Miss Garland.

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1. For better or for worse

“There, perfect,”. After meticulously arranging the final curl my mother scrutinises me. Thankfully she is evidently pleased with the result of the three hour struggle that was strictly necessary for me to even be seen by Mr Smith. She took particular pains to ensure my dress was suitably constrictive; she maintains it is to force me to be the right shape, however I am not convinced that is not a purposeful move on her part to take away my ability to breathe in enough air to say anything that would jeopardise the chances of my impending proposal.   Today, if events go according to my mother’s plan, he will become £20,00 richer, be viewed as an even more respectable pillar of society and have them means to produce a male heir. All this on the pretence of declaring his undying devotion to me. It is of course beneficial to my family as well for I will stop being a burden on their income and they will not have to endure the shame of having an old maid in the family. (Theoretically) all I have to do is say yes.

 

“Today it is essential appear femininely charming and you must be appropriately appreciative when he proposes. If you believe yourself capable of expressing what an honour it is then you might would sound somewhat ladylike. I know perfectly well that you are fully aware of what you are expected of you. However unfortunately I also know what an obstinate and headstrong girl you are and therefore how reluctant you will be to do it.”

“Yes, mama.” I do not mind being polite, obedient and femininely charming on the relatively rare occasion when I socialise with people of consequence; however I have no stamina when it comes to playing parts. I am fortunately not so badly affected as my younger, and only sensible sibling, Ruth. She frequently has awful nightmares; last night she dreamt she was trapped on stage wearing a wedding dress; unable to move or speak.

 

I am absolutely perplexed as to how I am going to cope when I accept Mr Smith’s proposal; he and the entirety of his family are of consequence. This of course means that when I bear his children they too will be of consequence and I shall have to play act in front of my own children! Although I suppose I shall seldom see them anyway, so I have no need to fear on that account. My disposition renders it an impossibility for me to be the angel of the house; instead I shall be forced to be the actress of the house.

 

My thoughts are interrupted by the dreaded rattle of carriage wheels on the cobbles outside. My mother sheppards me into the parlour where my dowry has very conveniently been placed behind a vase so it is near at hand without it being obvious that his proposal is an expectation. My sister Catherine is standing idly in the corridor ; evidently trying to ensure she over hears everything that  is said. Either Mr Smith’s mind is preoccupied or else he is very unobservant because he strides past her without giving her a second glace. “Good afternoon” he says composedly.

“Good afternoon Mr Smith”. He does not seem in the least anxious or nervous.  “I have a reasonably significant income, a medium sized estate in the country and a townhouse in one of the most fashionable parts of London I have now reached the time in my life when it is considered proper to settle down and have children however I have a predicament in that I am not yet in the possession of a wife. . I am course not descended from aristocracy; however I am sure you are aware that my family is ancient and exceedingly respectable. It is also of relative consequence. As your family is likewise of relative consequence and for this reason our matrimony would be decidedly suitable. This, Miss Garland, is why I am asking your hand in marriage. Do you accept?”

 

He almost speaks as if I have a choice. What are the alternatives to accepting his proposal? The only other eligible bachelor, who is aware of my existence, is Mr Willoughby and half the girls in the neighbourhood are competing to be his wife. It is unsurprising for he is reputedly wealthy, incredibly charming and has the most exquisite blue eyes. Only once have I seen another person with eyes as remarkable as his. Last spring, when calling upon him, I happened to look out of the window and see a baby wailing in his mother’s arms. It was a pitiful sight; a once respectable parlour maid now reduced to begging outside her master’s kitchen.

 

I suppose my choice is either to become Mrs Smith or an old maid; spurned by respectable society and reliant on the generosity of others. I would be even less independent than if I accept Mr Smith. That settles the matter, it may not be much of a choice; to live my entire life pretending to be someone I am not, or to be a parasite sucking the people of finical resources. I am making the honourable and dignified choice; I will not bring shame upon my family or reduce myself to desperately begging them for money . I will be comfortable, universally respected and perhaps have a little independence. Also I am certain that with time, practice and perseverance being the model wife will come more naturally to me.

 

I suddenly realize that Mr Smith has been staring at me throughout my meditations. I look straight at him: as always his moustache has been shaped with precision, his hair perfectly combed, his expression radiates confidence; he obviously fully expects to be accepted. “Thank you very much for your exceedingly kind offer. I am truly flattered however I feel unable to accept it.” I have no idea what possessed me; the words just slipped out of my mouth so easily. “Really Miss Garland are you quite well?” His face displays pure astonishment.

Only if I speak now, deeply apologetically, blaming my rash speech on the heat of the room or some equally illogical and unrelated factor  then I can still become Mrs Smith. For men’s general opinion of women is so low that they rarely question anything we say; even if it is nonsensical in the extreme. Now is the moment of truth I hope I find the courage to say the right thing. “Quite well Sir. If I might be so bold to mention my sister Catherine who happens to be listening to our conversation. She is a great admirer of your and would delight at the prospect of being your wife.” I seize my dowry, push past an absolutely livid Catherine, hear the servants draw in their breath, see Ruth’s mischievous smile, walk out into the street and keep on walking.

 

It is only after traversing seven streets that the magnitude of what I have just done slaps me in the face. Those words can never be unsaid. My chance at becoming the wife of Mr Smith, or any other remotely respectable gentleman has just been made completely impossible. My entire life has been devoted to gaining the accomplishments necessary for obtaining a husband, however now that is deemed impossible what is left?

 

Thoughts, ideas, dreams? I have always had plenty of those; when I was a child my ambition was to be a doctor. No matter how many times I was told I refused to believe it was impossible. The only tangible thing I can think of are the feminist books my friend Charlotte gave to me before she became a suffragette and I was banned from ever speaking to her. Although I do not see how books will help me not to starve on the streets. Charlotte might help me though. Fortunately I have memorized her address and although I realize that she almost certainly will not be able to do anything to help me  I have no other option. I also nothing to lose except her good opinion and as I have already lost the good opinion of everyone else I know today it cannot not make much difference. Surveying the streets makes me terrified; there are so many people who are freezing, homeless, starving. £10,000 will not last forever; soon I could end up like them. Oh god I wish I knew what the future held.

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