A Lady’s Lesson has made the ALA 2012 mid-winter short list for Recommended Reading! The book receives 4.5 stars and Top Pick laurels from the Romantic Times, which calls it “compelling, exciting, sensual and unforgettable...a non-stop read everyone will savor.” All About Romance gives A Lady’s Lesson their prized Desert Isle Keeper status: “The fascinating and compelling characters, the vivid imagery and dynamic prose, the wonderful romance - it was all I can ask of a romance. Duran just keeps getting better and better.” Library Journal calls it “delightfully honest” and Publishers Weekly opines: “Well-developed lead characters and a perceptive portrayal of a poor woman's reaction to the lush lifestyle of the nobility highlight a top-notch romance...”
A girl got to thinking when her mother died. Some people were born saintlike, and Nell’s mum had been one of them: a gentle, quiet sort, with a pale, thin voice made for murmuring prayers in some hushed alcove where nobody could overhear. Not that it had done her any good. People said she’d been beautiful as a girl, but Nell had never seen it. Beauty was a broad grin, a loud laugh, the water beating up on the Ramsgate sands—things that would be here tomorrow, or that didn’t give a damn.
But Mum had always given a damn. Anxious, worn by it: that was Jane Whitby. Even her silences had offered reproach. Did you? Would you? Will you? Oh, Cornelia, what am I to do with you? Furrows in her forehead, bruises beneath her eyes, trembling hands permanently stained by tobacco—she’d been anything but lovely, and Nell wouldn’t think of her. Mourning was a luxury for the rich, a duty for the righteous poor. Nell was neither. Self-righteous, maybe. Poor, without doubt. But there it ended.
Nell smiled in the darkness, pleased with the finality of that. Ended. Oh yes, she knew her faults. No grace. No forgiveness. What modesty she had, came of shame. And in her heart no piety swelled, no compassion or sympathy. Resentment was what fueled her. Resentment and grief. They woke her in the morning, tossed her about the bed at night. They had brought her here to settle a debt long past due.
“Oh, Cornelia. I fear for you. Wickedness is in your blood.”
“Right you were, Mum,” Nell whispered. Dressed as a lad and set on bloody revenge: to become any more wicked, she’d need Lucifer’s own instruction.
She pulled back the hammer. Heard the hollow click of the chamber falling into place. Irons, now they were lovely. The one in her hand had been polished to a fine, gleaming shine. Brennan’s doing. He’d laughed when she asked for it, but a few coins had sobered him up. Hadn’t even tried to steal them. That wasn’t Brennan’s way. “You’ve got guts, Nell,” was what he’d said when he brought out the pistol. “Let me spiff it up for you. Make it a first class affair.”
Oh, she’d thought it very first class—the pistol, the hansom cab she’d hired to get here. No omnibuses for her, not tonight!
But now that she was inside, the taste of humiliation was back in her mouth, stale and bitter like old beer. First class, she thought with scorn. For all it meant to her kind, it might as well be a phrase from some foreign language. First-class cab? The residents of these parts owned too many coaches to count. Wasn’t anything first class about a chariot that stank of someone else’s vomit. Remembering it, she drew a deep, steadying breath—and then scowled.
The air in this dark hallway smelled better than she ever had. Not a trace of gas, and no smoke, coal or candle or otherwise. Fresh flowers and wax, the barest trace of some exotic cologne, mingled into a perfume that made her feel as if she was dreaming. Wealth: there was even a scent to it.
And a feel. It had never been hers, but Mum had described it so often that she’d known what it would be like; she felt it now, beneath her. The carpet was so thick that her feet sank deeper with each step, growing more and more difficult to lift. And the sound—no babies screaming for feeding, no kids shrieking in the stairwell. An immensity of silence filled the long corridor. The gentle ticking of a clock lulled her breath into calm rhythms. Be at peace, the house invited her. Feel . . . smell . . . rest.
Ha. No rest for her. Her grip tightened as she prowled forward, counting off the doors to her right. She’d watched for hours from the shadows of the trees in the square: as the lights had started to shut off, this area was where the activity had concentrated. The fifth door seemed about the right spot.
The crystal knob was cold, smooth beneath her fingers. Alas for Lord High and Mighty, his servants were proper workers; the door opened without a squeak.
A snore rattled through the room. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! If she hadn’t just eased off the trigger, she would’ve shot herself in the foot just then. How typical that would have been. Obviously God had no sense of irony, a mercy for which she paused to give quick, heartfelt thanks.
Three cautious steps carried her into the center of the room. Her eyes found the source of the noise, a portly, balding man asleep on a cot in the corner. Valet, that would be, and if she wasn’t mistaken, she smelled gin even from here. With a roll of her eyes, she moved lightly past him to the next door, which also opened soundlessly. She shut it behind her with a small click.
She turned, and as she beheld the canopied bed at the far end of the room, a sharp breath escaped her. So. She was here, then. End of the road. She swallowed against a welter of emotions too tangled to separate. Grief. Bitterness. Fury.
Not fear. That would be stupid.
Nevertheless, she paused for a moment to draw a few steadying breaths, to orient herself. Big room. Desk, dresser, standard assortment of furniture—glossy, thanks to some maid’s aching wrists. The curtains were drawn; through the open window came the rustling of wind in the leaves, the minute scurrying of some night creature through the garden. The moon was riding high in a bank of clouds, loosing a shaft of light that illuminated the rosettes on the dark Oriental carpet.
A grim smile twisted her mouth. She had enough of the stage in her to appreciate nature’s invitation. She moved into the center of the moonbeam and leveled her gun at the canopy.
“My lord,” she said quietly. “It’s Nell come to visit. Best awake and face your death like a man.”
“Like a man?” The lazy voice came from her right. She whirled, fingers tight around the barker. “Is there some template for a manly death?” the voice continued from the darkness. “Because I was preparing to weep and cringe. Is that off the table?”
She stared hard into the shadows. She couldn’t see Rushden’s face but his low, amused voice was enough to make her think he wouldn’t be weeping anytime soon unless she made him. “Step forward,” she said.
“So you can take better aim? That seems unwise.”
She hesitated. This was not the neat murder she’d envisioned. Also, Rushden sounded a small bit young to have tupped her mother some twenty-three years ago.
But Mum had called him the devil, hadn’t she? And devils didn’t age. “Here’s a tip,” she said sharply. “A man don’t cower in the dark.”
A soft laugh answered her. “Fair enough.”
He stepped forward into the square of moonlight.
Her heart leapt into her throat and pounded like it wanted out. If this man was the work of the devil, it was a wonder more men didn’t sell their souls. He was tall, broad-shouldered, lean. Black hair. Full, hard lips. Mocking eyes.
Naked as the day he’d been born.
The man’s laugh matched the look in his eyes, low and unkind. The moonlight showed his fine white teeth, as straight as rails. Nice to be him, nice to be raised on fresh meat at every meal.
“I wouldn’t be laughing if I were you,” Nell said.
“Yes, well, you’ll permit me that much. Otherwise, as you see, you have me at a slight disadvantage.”
She glanced down. No, she wouldn’t call it slight. Small mercy that the light probably kept him from seeing the blush on her face.
“Do you like what you see?” he murmured.
Maybe there was light enough, after all. Was this man enjoying himself, buck naked with a gun pointed at his pretty face? “Trying to distract me, are you?”
“Undoubtedly,” he replied.
She nodded. She could see how he thought his body might prove useful in that regard. What nobs she’d seen from a distance generally looked soft and doughy to her. Not this one.
He also didn’t look near to Mum’s age.
A memory sifted upward. Lord Rushden was never one for sporting, her mother had said that one and only time she’d spoken of it. He spent much of his time indoors. He took little interest in the work of his estates. I suppose that accounted for the sin in him; the devil loves nothing more than a pair of idle hands . . .
Her throat tightened. Mum had never been a hand with descriptions; she very well might have neglected to mention that her lover was a class-A looker with the body of a boxer. Still, trying to square Mum’s description with this body took more imagination than Nell possessed.
This couldn’t be the right lord.
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To write this story, I had to get into the head of a woman raised in extreme poverty in what was, in the 1880s, one of London’s seediest areas. The data on poverty in this period (and, indeed, in Bethnal Green itself) were not hard to find: journalists and social scientists like Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth wrote numerous detailed accounts of the city’s poor. But while such research provides a graphically detailed picture of the material conditions of urban poverty, it is less effective in communicating the humanity of London’s lowest tier. Before writing A Lady’s Lesson, I spent several weeks playing with the voice of my guttersnipe. Below is one passage written during this brainstorming period. If you’ve read A Lady’s Lesson, you’ll notice right away that this woman’s biography does not match Nell’s, and her voice is also somewhat different. I wrote this piece very early in the process of conceptualizing this book.
Polly’s brother died, suddenly, in the summer of ’78. A screw had come loose in the pressing machine. Or something like that. At the factory, every accident had the same explanation, fitting or not. No one wasted scientific particulars on the families of the people who worked there: illiterate Irishmen with a fondness for gin, no understanding of mechanics, nor any head for business.
So a screw was to blame; or maybe not. Could have been something else entirely. But the machine was broken and the boy was dead: that was all they needed to know.
“Thank you, sir,” her mother said softly, her hand gripping the ends of the shawl knotted beneath her chin. Her knuckles knobby white, as though her skeleton were trying to escape the worn layer of skin. She swung shut the door, closed out the man sent by the factory.
Any normal sort would have taken a step back so that the door didn’t close on his foot. To make sure the bereaved mother didn’t bear the added burden of slamming her front door on a guest.
But this man, having delivered his grim message, made no attempt to move. He was neither ashamed nor saddened by the tidings he’d brought. Polly saw this in the split second before the door closed. She was sitting by the hearth, stunned, insensible of the thick, greasy waves of smoke rising from the crisping, now burning, haddock. And the man’s eye caught hers. He eyed her like he would an unknown and grotesque species of animal—his reluctant curiosity shading into repugnance. Beneath his glossy, waxed, chestnut mustache, his upper lip curled.
Polly could still feel his eyes on her after the door shut. Sometimes, years later, she would wonder if she had ever stopped feeling those eyes. But she didn’t think about them too hard. If she did, the weight of their contempt would crush her.
It was the first time a stranger had needed to inform them of their own tragedy, but Michael was hardly the Maccabys’ first loss. Polly’s own twin, whom she remembered more as a feeling (gentle pressure of a hand in her own) than as a black-haired boy named Garod, perished of the flux before his third birthday. He had a small tombstone in a churchyard bordering Bethnal Green, which the family had visited every Christmas until Polly turned ten. By then three others had gone, little ones for whom there was no money to purchase memorials. After the third, Mum grew strange about death. She turned over her framed picture of the Virgin Mary. She stopped the family trips to the churchyard. Stopped going to church altogether.
But time passed. Pa came back from the sea long enough to give Mum a new set of twins, Mary and Patrick. Then Mum had to go back to church, so the priest would dip them in water and save their souls; “christened,” Ma called it, though at the time, Polly couldn’t see much difference between christening and bathing. She wondered why one would get you to heaven and the other would make you sick.
But she couldn’t begrudge the tots Mum’s attention. They brought happiness back into the house, and laughter. Mary was devilish and funny, Patrick sweet and shy (but with a sly streak to beat the devil, so maybe the holy bath hadn’t worked). They were children to keep hands and hearts full—and, Mum said, “to try the Lord’s own patience.” Accordingly, one day she flipped the Holy Mother’s face back around. “We need the help,” she said, and Polly, who was older now—fourteen, working herself now, folding flowers to sell in Covent Garden—quite agreed that a family of five, crammed into four walls and two beds, needed all the help it could get.
And then Michael died.
When a child passed, it was one thing. Children were fragile, soft, pink, all big, deep eyes and grasping fingers, innocence and smiles, silly baby gurgling. It was no surprise when the world proved too hard for them.
But Michael was twenty; no boy. He was a wiry, tough, loud-laughing man with a steady job at the Hughleys’ factory and a reputation that everyone agreed would see him through the ranks. He had a future. If anybody looked two stories up, they could see what it looked like in Mary Katherine, with cheeks and lips like roses and a brain sharp as a tack. She could read and write, and brought in fifteen shillings a week copying letters and contracts. Fifteen shillings. She could have had anyone. And she chose Michael. Why, between the two of them, they’d be rich once they married!
She went a little strange after he died, did Mary Katherine. For a month or more she wouldn’t stop coming around, knocking at the door. She would sit in the rocking chair, drink bohea, stare out the window and rock as Mum recited Bible verses. Silent, always. Neither a greeting nor a goodbye when she left.
Still, these visits suited Polly. She no longer loved the novelty of making money, of being an adult. All day she stood, and her feet started to ache; she came home exhausted, her arms laden with flowers that grew heavier every mile. She fashioned them into medallions late into the evening. At dawn, she sold them in Covent Garden, and used most of her money to buy more.
On the bare floorboards she sat, twisting together fragile stalks and razor-sharp wire while her fingers bled. The gentle, monotonous rhythm of the Psalms distracted her from the pain, freed her from the expectation of talk. During the daytime, she yelled until her voice gave out, “All a-blowin and a-growin!” When she’d been little, Mum had called her a liar for her tall tales, but Michael had teased and praised her for the stories she made up. Now, during the day, she used her voice to call the same few words every other flower girl used to advertise her wares. And at night, she didn’t want to speak at all. She lacked the energy. She lacked the voice: hoarse, raw, used up.
Perhaps, also, she lacked the thoughts. She did not want to think. She was afraid of the conclusions she might draw. She braided flowers for the pennies it brought Mum, whose budget was halved by Michael’s death. In turn, Mum spent what was necessary to feed them, house them, and clothe them all. They couldn’t count on Pa returning for another few months, a period in which a body could starve to death if it wasn’t careful. Polly knew well enough why she worked: to survive. There was no hope of improvement, no special someone two stories up whose help she might have to improve her lot. All hope of a better future had died with her brother. Now she and her mother were simply struggling to survive. One day they would die, but it wouldn’t be of starvation. That, at least, was something to be proud of.
Or so she hoped. But deep inside, she felt the factory man’s eyes on her, always, forever, invisibly. And she feared that there was nothing to be proud of. That the reason the factory men always died from a loose screw had nothing to do with their families’ inability to understand machines. Maybe it just didn’t matter. Maybe, when you were the sort for whom terrible hunger was always a few days, a few pennies, away, no one cared why you died, because no matter how it happened, it was inevitable. No matter how it happened, it would have happened anyway, sooner than later, in a dreadful way, in all likelihood.
Such thoughts did not sit well in Polly’s brain. But when Mary Katherine came, and her mother recited Psalms, there was no time, no silence in which to think them. Which was how Polly preferred it.
And then came one night when Mary Katherine didn’t stop by. Two evenings later Polly saw her walking arm-in-arm with Timmy Burke. She looked pale. Scared. But maybe that was just because her lip was swollen, and both her eyes were black.
Ma said it wasn’t none of their business. She made Polly turn away.
Next thing anyone knew, Mary Katherine was sacked from her job for being in the family way, and she was married to Timmy Burke.
Polly felt angry in a deep, burning, secret part of her. Betrayed. Her brother had been betrayed. She kept an eye on the couple. The babe came too early for respectability, but by that time Polly was learning that memory, much less respectability, ran short in Bethnal Green. Simple reason: to survive you had to forget. For a week or two after Michael’s death, people had drunk and wailed and wept over him, his poor family, his lost future. But then, all of a sudden, they’d stopped talking about him. Now it was like he’d never existed. His name would elicit nothing but a blank face and—through persistence—a weary, noncommittal shrug, the way a body might react when asked what they thought of the sky being blue.
But for Polly, there would be no forgetting Michael. For in the summer of 1878, his death forced her to face facts. For her sort, the future was not assured. No bother planning for it. No bother expecting anything of it. Everything, in time, was forgotten—and sooner where she lived than most places.
It was a good lesson, really. It made it easier to bear when her mother took to gin, and when her father stopped coming home entirely. By the time her little brother and sister died of cholera, in the spring of 1888, Polly could take it with a nod and a shrug, just like she might a comment on the blue, blue sky. Finally, at twenty-four years of age, Polly saw that she’d grown up.
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Some particularly useful primary and secondary sources consulted while writing A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal
Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London, by Charles Booth. This is truly Booth’s life work. The entirety of this massive work is available online through the London School of Economics website.
London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew. A fascinating look at various professions and living conditions in mid-Victorian London. Available online through the University of Virginia.
Toilers in London: or, Inquiries concerning female labour in the metropolis, by The British Weekly Commissioners (1889); and A Year’s Work Amongst Factory Girls, by Mrs. N. Parker (1884): invaluable resource for understanding the livelihoods and lifestyles of female factory workers. Both are available on Google Books.
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