Authors: Beryl Kingston
It is a shattering thing to have your dreams suddenly come true. Exciting certainly, but the excitement brings apprehension nudging along behind it, and to experience two such contrary emotions at one and the same time is uplifting but daunting, as Harriet Sowerby was beginning to understand.
Ever since she'd first seen the gentry arriving for the hunt ball at the Athenaeum, stepping down so elegantly from their grand carriages and dressed so splendidly in all their finery, she'd longed to attend a ball. She'd always known it wasn't possible, of course, because her father wasn't even on the fringes of Bury St Edmund's society. He worked as a junior clerk for Mr Alfred Cole, the bookseller in the Buttermarket, and although he and his wife were very proud of his position, he certainly wasn't gentry and neither was she. But that didn't stop her dreaming.
And now, despite everything, here she was, Harriet Sowerby, in the summer of her sixteenth year, actually dressing for her very first ball. She could hardly believe her good fortune.
She stood on her own in her little narrow bedroom, trembling with excitement, her fingers fumbling the tiny pearl buttons on her white ball gown, and her heart jumping like a wild thing caged. Her movements were so quick and her breathing so erratic that she made the candle gutter and spit wax. She withdrew from it at once, of course, pulling the long straight skirt of the gown away from harm, for it would never have done to get it burnt or spattered with candle grease, not after all the money Miss
Pettie must have lavished on hiring it. Dear Miss Pettie. This was all her doing. She was like a fairy godmother, arriving one afternoon with the ticket, âas a little reward for my Thursday helpmate, who has been so kind to me, coming to my house week after week to assist with the sewing'. And then, when Mr Sowerby had pulled a sour face and protested that, much though he appreciated Miss Pettie's undoubted kindness he could not afford the extravagance of a ball gown, she had hired a gown and long gloves and a dear little pair of embroidered dancing pumps, and even looked out a tortoiseshell comb of her own âto finish off your hair, my dear'.
Harriet had long straight fair hair which her mother always insisted should be worn in a modest plait behind her back or tucked away underneath her white day-cap. So it was a pleasure to be able to display it for once, especially as she knew that neither of her parents really approved but couldn't say so for fear of annoying Miss Pettie. They were rather in awe of Miss Pettie, for although they all attended the same Unitarian church, Miss Pettie was rich and lived in one of the grand houses on Angel Hill and had a fine carriage to drive her about the town, and the Sowerbys were really rather poor.
Harriet brushed her long hair and combed it until there wasn't a single tangle left, and then she set about the complicated process of coaxing it into a fashionable topknot, holding the pins between her teeth, and smoothing and patting until she was quite sure there wasn't a hair out of place. It would have been a great deal easier if she'd had a looking glass so that she could see what she was doing, but she wasn't even allowed a little hand mirror. Her mother, who was very religious and horribly strict, maintained that mirrors were an encouragement to vanity in young girls and wouldn't permit one in her daughter's room â although she had a cheval glass in her own bedroom, and checked her appearance in it every single morning. As Harriet knew, because she'd watched her doing it. But perhaps, she thought wryly, fixing the tortoiseshell comb in place, it was only young girls who grew vain if they looked at themselves in a glass.
However, there were ways round most things if you used your wits. When her hair was dressed to her satisfaction she put the candle on the edge of her wooden chair and knelt down on the floor beside it so that her face was level with the low window. Her mother might have forbidden mirrors, and of course her mother had to be obeyed because that was one of the Commandments, but there was nothing anyone could do to prevent a reflection in a window.
The Sowerbys lived in a cramped four-roomed cottage, next to a laundry at the unfashionable end of Churchgate Street in Bury St Edmunds. One of a terraced pair, it had been built at the time of the great Elizabeth for a local butter merchant who had money to spare, and in its day it had been quite a desirable residence. Now it was dark and damp and old-fashioned, and the fact that it was the best that Mr Sowerby could afford was a source of constant irritation to his wife, who did daily battle with mice and cockroaches and weekly battle with bugs and fleas, so that all four rooms always smelt of camphor and turpentine.
There were two rooms upstairs, just as there were two rooms down, and in both cases the back room, which was small and narrow, led directly out of the front room, which occupied the meagre eight-foot width of the house. Harriet's bedroom was above the kitchen and its one low window gave out to an inner courtyard where the laundry hurled its daily suds and the privies oozed filth onto the cobbles in winter and attracted a buzzing cloud of flies in the summer. What little light that managed to filter in through the window was smeared and grubby, as though it too had been dunked in the dirty suds with the washing. But at night and with a candle to encourage it, it would sometimes give you back your reflection. As it was doing now.
There was her face, ghostly white in the smudgy glass, but looking very grown-up beneath those unfamiliar folds of twisted hair. Do I look right? she wondered, peering at the image. It was so important to look right when you went to a ball. Balls were where you met important people. Balls were where young ladies of quality met the young men
who were going to marry them and make them happy ever after. She knew that because she'd just finished reading Miss Austen's new book
Pride and Prejudice.
For Harriet Sowerby had a dream. Nourished by all the successful matchmaking in Miss Austen's novels and encouraged by Miss Pettie's highly romantic view of the world, she felt sure that one day a young man would fall in love with her and take her away from the home where she wasn't wanted into a new life where she would be happy and cherished. She was good and quiet and obedient, except in her thoughts, and surely, surely there must be a reward somewhere, sometime, for all the effort that took her.
It was going to be such a splendid occasion, a âGrand Subscription Ball' to celebrate the defeat of that awful Napoleon and the end of the French war, which had been going on for years and years. It had started in 1792, so Miss Pettie said. Imagine that! Seven years before she was even born. And now it was over at last. Everybody who was anybody in Bury society would be certain to be at the ball â Miss Pettie said so. The mayor and Mr Cole the bookseller, and the Honeywoods who were very, very rich and owned all the land from Bury to Rattlesden, and the great Easter family who were newsagents and owned newspaper shops all over England and were even richer than the Honeywoods and lived next door to Miss Pettie. And tonight she would be dancing among them. She, Harriet Sowerby. Was it any wonder she was trembling? Oh it was a very great honour. But the nicest thing about it was the fact that her mother hadn't been invited.
Harriet was always extremely careful to obey her mother in every particular, and when she sat in church of a Sunday, she accepted that it was a child's duty to âhonour' her parents, which as far as she could see meant doing everything they said. That was what the Commandments required, so that was what she did. But secretly she knew that she didn't really like either of her parents. They made her too unhappy and they frightened her too much.
Her life might have been easier if she'd had brothers and sisters, but she was an only child, born in the first
month of the last year of the old century, when her mother was past forty-four and her father nearly forty, and as an only child she had to carry the full weight of her mother's rigid upbringing.
âAn imp of Satan,' Mrs Sowerby had said, looking down at the peaceful face of her newborn infant. âAn imp of Satan, like all newborn creatures. Full of original sin. We must tame her, Mr Sowerby. It is our plain Christian duty.'
âIndeed we must,' Mr Sowerby agreed.
They set about their God-given task immediately.
So Harriet was taught to control her appetites from the first bewildered day of her life. When she cried to be fed, her mother made her wait, listening to her screams and telling herself complacently that it was necessary to fight sin from the very outset. When she was a little toddling creature, no more than a twelvemonth old, her curiosity was curbed with a stick. When she was three and able to express a preference for pretty clothes and pretty toys, they were instantly removed from her and never returned so as to inculcate a proper sense of modesty and decorum. By the time she was seven, she was quiet and withdrawn and fearful, a perfect child according to Mrs Sowerby's religious cronies, all of whom were convinced that children should be seen and not heard and that the best children obeyed without question whatever their parents saw fit to command.
But although Harriet obeyed any order meekly and immediately, rebellion bubbled inside her sleek little head. As it was doing now.
âI am going to the ball,' she said to her reflection, âand Mama cannot stop me.' What a lovely private pleasure it was to be able to say such things!
In Angel Hill, a mere three hundred yards away from the Sowerby cottage, Miss Pettie was just beginning to dress for the ball, and next door to Miss Pettie, the Easter family were still at dinner.