by W. S. F.
Introductory Note: “Real Ladies” was published in The Ladies’ Journal, a journal marketed to adolescent girls. In this adventure story two working-class women masquerade as “real ladies” on their week off. The story provides commentary on a rigid class system, as well as exploring what it means to be a lady.
There are few prettier, cosier villa residences in the suburbs of London than may be found lying embowered in the fine old trees of Clapham Park; and certainly none of those can vie with the one occupied by a certain Mr. and Mrs. Etterson and their family.
But though they reared the loveliest of flowers in their garden, and their espaliers blossomed and fruited luxuriantly, custom demanded that the Ettersons should leave their pretty home just as its surroundings were at their best, and squeeze themselves into dreary seaside lodgings for the season.
To those left in charge, this was no time of rest. There were sundry repairs to be made during their absence; and after the workmen had effected these, there were carpets to be taken up, paint to be cleaned, floors to be scrubbed, furniture rubbed, and everything in and about the villa brought up to the highest pitch of cleanliness and polish.
This elaborate housecleaning was a yearly affair, and the two servants to whom it was entrusted had, with the occasional help of a charwoman, plodded steadily through it.1Charwoman: an English cleaning lady. From attic to basement, they conscientiously chased dirt and spiders, never relaxing in their toils till the evening fixed for the return of the family.
A ring at the bell! But it did not herald the couple of cabs piled high with luggage, as the bright-faced, active little housemaid who had flown to the gate, quickly discovered.
“It was only the postman,” she announced on her return to the kitchen. “Half a dozen more circulars—My! what a heap of them there was already!—and a letter from Mrs. Etterson. They cannot be coming till to-morrow!”
“So much the better!” sighed the cook. She was not as plump and rosy, and quick of temper, as the sisterhood are generally reported to be; on the contrary, she was very thin and sallow, slightly deaf, and spoke in such mournful tones that her master had christened her Mrs. Gummidge, by which name, consequently, she was better known in the house than her real one of Julia—or, according to her own pronunciation, Juleyer More.
“So much the better,” she repeated; “it will give my legs and arms time to take a little rest. And my back too! what with reaching up and stooping down, and brushing here and scrubbing there, my poor back is aches and pain in every jint of it.”
“Poor old cookie!” ejaculated her companion, sympathetically. “Why will you persist in doing so much! But let’s see what this letter is about. Another week or ten days! They are not coming home for another week at least. Think of that!”
Mrs. More examined a bony knuckle that had received a contusion during her labours. and sighed more dolefully than before.
“And that’s my reward for toiling and slaving, and having the best of dinners all ready for them to sit down to as soon as they set foot inside their own doors! If there’s anything I can’t abide, it’s to see good victuals wasted.”
“It is a pity certainly; but do listen to the rest of the letter. This is what mistress says, ‘As you and cook may not have another opportunity, you had better take advantage of our prolonged absence and have a week’s holiday. I have written to Mrs. Moggs the charwoman. She is a very trustworthy person, and she and her eldest son the commissionaire shall take the charge of the house off your hands so that you can start to-morrow.’”
“Now, isn’t that delightful!” cried the reader of the letter, rolling it into a ball and tossing it up in her delight. “To be our own mistresses for seven days! answer no bells, run no errands; get up when we like, go out whenever we please, or lie on the drawing-room couches and read novels, with no one to find fault with us for it! Why, it’s downright delicious! What shall we do with ourselves? Stay here or go away?”
“I think I shall spend my holiday in bed,” responded Mrs. More. “I believe it would do me more good than gadding about.”
“No, no, you must not do any such thing,” she was eagerly told.2“She” refers to Mrs. More. Emma is the speaker of the quotation. “I want you; I cannot do without you. Recollect I have no friends, nor have I ever had a right-down holiday since I came here from the orphan school where I was educated; so I mean to have one now, and you shall share it.”
“But good gracious, Em, what are you going to do?” demanded Mrs. More, sitting upright and forgetting her aching back as she gazed at the girl’s flushed face and sparkling eyes.
Emma Garner was a very fair specimen of a rosy, healthy English girl, with merry brown eyes, a well-shaped mouth filled with the whitest of teeth, and a figure so svelte and well-proportioned that the Misses Etterson had been heard to marvel how it was that Nature had given her a shape their corsetière could not bestow on them.3Svelte: slender and elegant. Corsetière: a woman who makes or fits corsets.
“What am I going to do?” echoed Em; “I am going to be a real lady for once in my life, and you shall help me.”
“My dear, there isn’t the makings of a lady in either of us,” Mrs. More assured her, mournfully.
“Who says so? and what makes a lady? Fine clothes and money, that’s all. I’m as pretty as my master’s daughters; aye, and prettier—I can’t help seeing that in my glass, can I? and I dress with more taste, though they go to an expensive French modiste, and I have to be content with a cheap English one—so why shouldn’t I do as they do for once?”4Modiste: a fashionable milliner or dressmaker.
“But how?” queried Mrs. More, much confused.
“Why, you and I will go to some fashionable watering-place and take genteel lodgings. You shall be the ma—you don’t look at all amiss, cookie, when you put on that black silk and cashmere I persuaded you to buy—and I’ll be the daughter; and we’ll go in for all the seaside amusements, bathing—”
“Nothing shall ever persuade me to make a guy of myself in a blue flannel pillow-case,” interposed Mrs. More, firmly. “No, Em, never! I’m not the figure for it!”
“Well, then, I’ll bathe and you shall sit on the beach the while. We will spend the days in flirting, driving, sailing, or lounging on the pier, and the evenings in whatever amusements are offered to us. For one whole week we will forget your kitchen and my pantry; we will be Lady More and the Honourable Emmeline More, and do nothing but enjoy ourselves.”
“And who is to pay for it?”
“I shall,” was the prompt reply. “My savings are all in the purse—nine shining sovereigns besides some silver; and I won’t hear a word about banking them. I want a taste of high life. I want to know how it feels to be rich and idle; and if you’ll not go with me, cookie, I’ll go by myself.”
Mrs. More demurred.
“It’s a wild idea, and it will come very expensive; and then maybe you’ll blame me for not standing out against it. I’ll not deny that it has a pleasant sound, and it might take the aches out of these poor limbs of mine if I could sit still and rest them.”
“Say no more—it’s decided!” cried Em. “Where’s ‘Bradshaw?’ I’ll open his leaves at random and start at ten o’clock to-morrow morning for the first place my eye falls upon.”
“It mustn’t be Brighton, because our people are there,” she was reminded.5“She” refers to Emma. Mrs More is the speaker of the quotation. “Nor Worthing, because the master’s sister has taken her family to Worthing; nor Folkestone, because that’s where the missuss’s brother is staying; nor Bournemouth, for fear we should meet the people next door. As for the maiden ladies opposite, two of them have gone to Hastings, and the other three to Scarborough, and—”
“Southsea,” read Emma from the time-table. “And Southsea it shall be!”
“It will be a very expensive trip,” her meek companion again objected. “It will cost us a heap of money.”
“I don’t care!” responded Em, recklessly. “I am so tired of hard work—nothing but hard work, every day alike—that I must have a change. I stay here because I promised the matron that I would keep my places, and because you are good to me; but I’m tired to death of this dull underground kitchen, and being shut in week after week, except when I am allowed out to afternoon service on Sundays. I am going to the seaside, and you must go too and take care of me.”
To which, as Mrs. Julia More had no answer ready, she consented.
Bright, warm weather; throngs of people, old and young, all bent upon pleasure; gay doings on board the men-of-war stationed in Portsmouth Harbour; military movements on the common; nightly concerts on the pier, and excursions daily to the Isle of Wight or Southampton; everything seemed to have combined to make the well-known watering-place at its gayest and busiest when Em and her chaperon arrived.
Lady More, and her honourable daughter pro tem, did their best to uphold their dignity on the journey.6Pro tem: for the time being.
Cook had been duly cautioned before starting to say as little as possible, to wear her gloves which she had a habit of taking off and rolling up, and to call her companion “my love” when addressing her instead of “Hem,” as she was too fond of doing. With some difficulty she had been induced to refrain from wearing a very large-pattered plaid gown to which she was much attached; and we are afraid that her pleasure in the holiday was marred by Em’s insisting that she should don her “best things” on a week-day, and wear them constantly.
Em herself had no such scruples, or possessed a more extensive wardrobe. It comprised of a couple of her prettiest cambrics for morning wear; the pale gray costume for evenings to which one of the Misses Etterson had objected as much too dressy for a housemaid; and a cream canvas worn at the wedding of a fellow-servant and kept ever since “to look at,” as its owner would say, with a sigh.
These, with a cheap but effective dust-cloak, and a coquettish straw hat trimmed with wild-flowers constituted the “war-paint” in which the Honourable Emmeline More intended to display her attractions on the Esplanade and pier.
It is true that she and her mamma travelled third class; but, as they argued, who would ever know that? Not even the cabman who received directions to convey them and their luggage to one of the best hotels near the sea.
But when he drew up outside to wait till a carriage laden with huge trunks had been moved from the door, cook was seized with a fit of trembling, and clung to her companion:
“It’s too grand for the likes of us, Em—it is indeed! Don’t insist on going there. S’pose they find us out or ask for references—let alone the cost! We shall feel out of place and most uncomf’able.”
“Oh, this is too ridiculous!” cried Emma, with a toss of her head. But perhaps she inwardly shared cook’s misgivings, for the cabman was informed that the hotel he had chosen was much too public for the ladies, who wished to be very quiet; he must drive them to some respectable street where they could get apartments in a private house.
As the man happened to know a decent widow who eked out a small annuity by letting lodgings, he drove there; and though Em murmured when she found that the widow’s dwelling was a very tiny one, far removed from the palatial terraces that front the beach, after Mrs. More pointed out that it was clean and comfortable, and the rent demanded for the rooms was not exorbitant, she gave way.
“Besides,” she reminded herself—“besides, ladies often prefer to live very quietly, don’t they? I remember hearing Mrs. Etterson say that she saw a dowager duchess compelled to put up with a very stuffy, poky lodgings at St. Leonards because it was the height of the season. Let’s fancy we are here from choice, and then we shall soon reconcile ourselves to the small rooms and common furniture.”
One inconvenience attached to the widow’s house was that it so closely resembled those of her neighbours on either side. Coming home from their first walk, Em knocked at the wrong knocker, and was half way along a passage, and into the presence of a couple of young men, before she discovered her mistake.
One of the young men turned away to laugh at her embarrassment; the other, with more consideration, followed her into the street, that he might pick up Mrs. More, who, in retreating too rapidly, had slipped down the steps and found a seat on the pavement.
It was very undignified and provoking, as Em said afterwards, yet the occurrence had its bright side too; for the young man was polite and sympathizing, insisting on giving the unfortunate cook his arm to the widow’s door. He also recognized Em’s pretty face as soon as it appeared on the beach in the morning, and left his friend and his newspaper to come and inquire if Mrs. More felt any the worse for her accident.
Either Em’s smiles, or her naïve pleasure in all she saw, or the innocent frankness with which she commented on it, or asked questions concerning everything nautical that she did not understand, must have been very attractive, for her new acquaintance remained by her side till a whisper from cook that she was “a’most starved” necessitated taking her back to their lodgings.
Whenever she remembered it, Em talked importantly of “My mama,” and “Our house in town,” and deported herself generally—or thought she did—as a real lady should do; and when at parting the young man produced a neat card-case, and asked if he might introduce himself by giving her the card of the firm of solicitors to which he belonged, she accepted it with what she believed to be the proper blending of civility and hesitation.
“Neither Lady More nor myself have our cards with us. Indeed, we came here intending to live quite retired and make no acquaintances. But you have been so kind that—we must make you an exception; only if you should meet any mutual friends, don’t, please don’t say that you have seen us!”
Lennox Walters—it was a lovely name Em thought, and so gentlemanly—bowed and murmured something in reply. His grave smile was not altogether satisfactory; while the shrewd, thoughtful glance that travelled from the unmeaning features of Mistress Julia More to the sparkling ones of her reputed daughter, must have sought in vain for any resemblance betwixt them.
But Em stifled any misgivings his glance awakened by loudly assuring herself and chaperon that she had played her part to perfection.
“You looked as pretty as pie-crust,” Mrs. More admitted, “but I noticed twice you forgot yourself and called me Cookie instead of Ma!”
“Mr. Walters could not have heard it; he was too busy.” Em laughed, and blushed, “too pleasantly employed in gazing at me to listen to what I said to you. What a delightful morning it has been! Oh! How I am enjoying myself!”
She continued to say this day after day, for whether she dragged her passive companion away on the excursions that always gave the unlucky Julia mal du mer or forgot her existence the while she wandered along the beach with Lennox Walters, she was drinking deeply of the honeyed cup first love held to her rosy lips.7Mal du mer: seasickness.
Mr. Walters’ friend attached himself to a party of gay young bachelors, whom he accompanied to Cowes; while Mrs. More, though she strove to appear to be enjoying her holiday, secretly wondered what pleasure people found in sitting on the hard, rough shingle, with nothing but a boat to rest one’s back against, or listening to the toot-tooting of a brass band that did not play half such lively tunes as the Germans who found their way to Clapham Park. Moreover, the clamour of the children annoyed her, and she suffered quite a persecution from the Italian boy, whose monkey insisted on mopping and mowing at her, and endeavouring to sit on a corner of the old red shawl she spread on the stones to protect her satin and cashmere.
Still she forebore to complain, for Em was happy; and there were nicely-stuffed seats on the pier on which she occasionally obtained delicious naps. Moreover, to the hardworking there is always such thorough enjoyment in having nothing to do, that Mrs. More was unpleasantly startled when Em tossed her purse on the table, crying, excitedly:
“There! I have changed my last sovereign, and our holiday is at an end. We might have stayed one day longer if the money would have held out. Pack your trunk, for we leave Southsea this evening. I have said goodbye to Mr. Walters. Today we are ladies; tomorrow we are cook and housemaid once more.”
“I hope you haven’t given yourself cause to regret coming here,” said Mrs. More, wistfully, as she surveyed the flushed cheeks and tearful eyes of the girl.
Em turned away in silence.
Did she regret the caprice that had brought her into contact with Lennox Walters? Alas! yes. As their intimacy progressed, and she comprehended more fully how upright and well meaning, how intelligent and perservering he was, her conscience had plagued her sadly. He was above subterfuge or concealment. He had taken pains to make her understand that, although holding an excellent position in a firm of solicitors, he was only one of their clerks—a man who worked for his living, not an idler or a gentleman.
What, she asked herself, would he think of her if he ever discovered that she had been duping him? Professing to be what she was not?
So thoroughly ashamed was Em of the deception she had practised that when she bade Lennox Walters a hurried adieu, she slipped into his hand a tear-blurred confession of it, bidding him forgive as well as forget her.
Mrs. Etterson remarked that her pretty housemaid was pale and listless, and did not appear any better for her trip to the seaside. However, Em, who considered these things part of her well-merited punishment, bore up bravely, avoiding notice as much as possible, and assuring everyone who questioned her that she was in her usual health and spirits.
But she staggered back, looking as if she would faint, when a summons from the bell having brought her into the drawing-room one evening, she found Lennox Walters standing there beside Mr. Etterson.
He had obeyed one part of her injunction and freely forgiven a deception which he had seen through long before; but he had not found it so easy to forget Em Garner’s pretty face and winning smiles, and the confession it had cost her so much to write, won for her the respect as well as the love of a good man.
Openly wooed and married from the house of her employers, Em is a very happy wife; but although her masquerading ended well, she often recalls the miserable days she passed after her return from Southsea when she believed Lennox Walters lost to her for ever by her folly in aiming to seem what she was not.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
W. S. F.. “Real Ladies.” The Young Ladies’ Journal, vol. 29, no. 1181, 1887, pp. 203-4. Edited by Madeline Olsen. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 29 November 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/real-ladies/.
11 October 2019
29 November 2023
|↑1||Charwoman: an English cleaning lady.|
|↑2||“She” refers to Mrs. More. Emma is the speaker of the quotation.|
|↑3||Svelte: slender and elegant. Corsetière: a woman who makes or fits corsets.|
|↑4||Modiste: a fashionable milliner or dressmaker.|
|↑5||“She” refers to Emma. Mrs More is the speaker of the quotation.|
|↑6||Pro tem: for the time being.|
|↑7||Mal du mer: seasickness.|