Saturday, November 26, 2016

Story: Her Most Remarkable Performance. Chapter 2.

by Camille Langtry Chapter 2
Evelyn Fairchild stood in front of Arctic Fur Store at Chepstow Place and looked in awe at the luxurious offerings on display: fashionable mantles and dalmans, heavy floor-length coats, delicate opera cloaks and wraps, hats and muffs that appeared almost weightless. It wasn’t just the beauty of these items that mesmerized the pretty young woman, it was their extravagant prices. Even the simplest muff went for 12 guineas and a Russian sable coat she loved the most was 70 guineas –  an impossible sum if your weekly wage at the Royal Strand Theatre is just three pounds.

Evelyn did the quick calculation in her head: she would need to starve and stop paying rent for almost six months in order to save enough to buy the fur coat. However, she could probably borrow from some of the girls at the theatre to buy the muff –  and then repay them over a few months –  but what good was a muff if she had no gowns, hats or coats to go with it? Her dresses were nothing to look at, her undergarments were simple cotton, she had only two good pairs of shoes, and her old coat had gone at the elbows and was unlikely to survive the next winter.  She also had no jewelry to speak of. The straw hat she had on was not something one could find in the last issue of Le monde élégant and her plain brown dress’s tournure, in defiance of latest Parisian styles, was far too small. Evelyn was utterly, humiliatingly démodé.
A pretty shop girl in a very tight-fitting high-necked blue dress with a long row of brass buttons, its cuirasse bodice accentuating her tiny corseted waist, smiled at Evelyn from across the window and motioned for her to enter the store. Evelyn smiled back, but didn’t enter. Even that shop assistant is dressed smarter than I am, she thought to herself, turned her back to the shop window and began walking toward Kensington Gardens.

She was not poor –  far from it –  and compared to how she grew up, she now lived like royalty. Her mother, an uncultured, destitute woman,  was doing laundry work for a half-crown a day in the East End and her father, before he had drunk himself to death, worked odd jobs. To help her family, Evelyn entered service at the age of 14, first working as a scullery maid and then as a junior maid at a large new hotel near Sloane Street. It was very hard work for very low pay, but at least it helped them survive. While young Evelyn went about her humble duties at the hotel she could see fashionably dressed men and women, these visitors from a different universe. As she scrubbed the doorsteps or washed the floors, those beautiful people would pass her by, merrily chatting away and paying her as little attention as they would to a fly on the wall.

It was then that Evelyn began developing an ambition for something more exciting than cleaning. For someone of her origins, nothing was more natural than becoming a maid.  Most girls she grew up with in the East End were completely content to spend their lives doing all sorts of menial jobs. Gradually they would become just like their mothers and grandmothers before them - bedraggled, miserable and always exhausted. Those that were able to find themselves positions as maids in good households or upscale hotels were actually considered extremely lucky. Still, Evelyn did not find such career prospects appealing in the least.  She deserved a lot better, she knew it.

It was almost by chance that she decided to try her luck as an actress. After all, she was blessed with a beautiful face, a lovely singing voice and natural grace that one would have never suspected in a girl of her humble origins. It wasn’t the most respectable of professions, but for young Evelyn, practically anything was better than the life of manual labor that destroyed her mother’s looks and made her into an old and sick woman well before her time.

She started as a back row dancer at the music hall, initially making just a little bit more than what she did as a hotel maid. Evelyn’s mother strongly disapproved of her daughter’s career choice. “Why won’t you get yourself a respectable job, like everyone else? What was wrong with being a hotel maid? Actresses are Jezebels, everyone knows that!” the poor woman proclaimed, when she heard the news.  Evelyn wanted to ask her how she knew that if she had never been to a theatre or met an actress, but bit her tongue. It was pointless arguing with her.

However, it wasn’t too long before Evelyn got noticed because of her beauty and grace and, after a brief stint as a middle-row dancer, graduated to the first row and moved on to more upscale West End theatres. She was finally able to land herself a job at the Royal Strand in Westminster shortly after it reopened following a sumptuous renovation.

Her thick working class accent made most speaking parts off limits for Evelyn, but after rigorous training by the theatre’s persistent tutor, Mr. Noble, she’s learned to keep her “h”s where they belonged.  Following that, she’s proven herself as a versatile performer, even though she was still waiting for that one role that would propel her to stardom. All she needed was just a little bit of luck.

Evelyn always looked at her profession as a ticket to the world of luxury and fame. She was young and attractive and far more graceful than most of those rich and noble ladies she’d seen in the theatre with their husbands.  They wore their fancy evening frocks and real pearls and diamonds –  not the cheap imitations she wore on stage that only looked good from five yards away. They had everything handed to them on a silver platter and, as far as Evelyn was concerned, they didn’t deserve their rich and pampered existence. They didn’t fight for it, and therefore took it for granted. Wasn’t Evelyn as deserving of living the life of leisure? Of course she was, the young beauty would tell herself as she contemplated her sad lot in life.  

For a lot of these high society ladies the likes of Evelyn were just a half step away from the working classes, deemed acceptable to entertain their betters with their song and dance, and nothing more. But she also saw the faces of the young –  and not so young –  men that came to her performances. They were full of blatant desire and barely hidden admiration. There was never a shortage of eligible suitors and stories were told of exuberant gifts and secret affairs with people of rank, that hardly ever ended with marriage. Nevertheless, they made many a stage beauty very wealthy women.  

All of this potential was within Evelyn’s grasp, she felt it. She just had to wait and play her cards right –  for every Dolly Tester and Marquis of Ailesbury there were 50 unlucky girls, who wasted their best years on some obscure baronet with no prospects of marriage or even prosperity. Evelyn was determined not to join the swelling ranks of the unfortunate ones.

But for now she felt that her acting career had hit a wall. She was recently passed for a few promising roles, and her pay, while queenly by her poor parents’ standards, was a far cry from what she needed to live the life that she thought she deserved. Evelyn rented three furnished rooms in Soho –  it was not the nicest of neighborhoods, but the pound a week she paid each Monday to the landlady was barely enough to rent a single bedroom in a more respectable area.  Her only luxury –  or, a necessity rather, giving her work schedule –  was paying a housemaid, a taciturn Irish girl names Susan, who would come three times a week to do the washing and the cleaning.

When her cousin Sarah came to visit and told her of Lady Ashburton’s proposition, Evelyn thought it was a bad joke at first. Sarah wasn’t the smartest girl around and, truth be told, Evelyn didn’t meet her side of the family that much –  giving money to her own mother was one thing, but socializing with the likes of Sarah, a living and breathing reminder of the fate that was awaiting her, if she didn’t follow her lucky star, was not her idea of a day well spent. But surely, why would anyone dress up as a maid, unless she was a character in a play?

When she heard Sarah’s strange proposition, Evelyn was immediately reminded of a story one of her fellow actresses, Jenny, told her of a particularly generous high society suitor, who liked to dress her as a maid when he took her to his private countryside retreat. He only ever made love to her when she was in her full servant regalia and Jenny used to quip that his lordship would have saved himself a small fortune on jewelry and gowns, if he just slept with the chambermaid instead of having his mistress dress as one. Rich men were strange this way, but why would a noble lady find this in the least appealing? Evelyn could not find an answer.

Sarah couldn’t quite explain it herself and, in the true spirit of a gossiping maid, told Evelyn everything she needed –  and didn’t need –  to know about the “spoil’d little thing” she worked for. Lady Georgina’s father passed away three years ago, leaving her one of the richest heiresses in all of London. Her mother, Lady Olivia, was a noted society beauty; before her premature death of consumption last spring, she spent most of her time looking for a good husband for her only daughter. Hardly a week had passed by without a soirée or a party or a ball, with Georgina Ashburton, naturally, at the center of everybody’s attention.


Unlike her gorgeous mother, the young heiress was hardly a beauty, Sarah added with not a small amount of malicious joy in her voice and gave a rather unflattering description of her mistress. She was skinny and not particularly tall, her nose was way too long and she had a weak chin. If it wasn’t for her family’s wealth, no one would have looked her way twice.  She was not ugly, just plain and forgettable. The only beautiful thing about Lady Georgina was her thick silky hair, that almost reached her knees, but even that was a source of Sarah’s frustration as a lady’s maid as it took her too much time each day to put in order.

Since her mother’s untimely demise, Lady Georgina became withdrawn. There were no more parties, almost no visitors and, while she still received letters –  Sarah was certain they were all from potential suitors –  they mostly remained unopened. Her father’s multi-million estate was now run by a trustee –  a bespectacled gentleman with sideburns that came to see Georgina every two weeks or so.  Sarah didn’t know for certain, but the consensus among the servants was that the gentleman was Lady Georgina’s distant relative because he had a certain resemblance to her departed father. Her mistress was incredibly vagarious and moody; she could go from complete apathy to agitation in the course of ten minutes, making her a very hard employer to please, the young servant complained to her cousin. And this whole game, where Georgina would dress Sarah up as a rich lady and then pretend to serve her as a personal maid was nothing short of bizarre.  

Evelyn was  most intrigued by all of that and told Sarah that she’d come meet her mistress for a talk. And the following day, after a morning shopping detour, she found herself at the gates of the Ashburton residence, just off Grosvenor square.  

29 comments:

  1. Lovely build up and fleshing out of characters Camille.
    Well done!
    I do hope though, that your more sensitive readers aren't too offended by the references to the wearing of fur.
    BillA.

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    1. Touché! And imagine all the things the characters can do or say when wearing fur. I can't even begin to imagine how deeply insulting it may be!

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    2. BTW: An elegant, fashionable and noble lady without wearing fur??? Unimaginable!
      Why should a demanding mistress take care of those animals while she even doesn't take any care about her personal servants?

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    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Yoh9AgcCms

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  2. Thanks, Camille. Nice, beautiful, well written language. I have a difficulty enjoying a downgrade story where the hero is not beautiful. Or becomes fat and uggly. My problem, of cource.

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    1. Thank you. Physical uglification is not this story's main theme so you shouldn't worry too much I think.

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  3. A very nice sense of place and time. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.

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    1. Thanks for the compliment. If I could boast just a little bit, a lot of the little details in this story are actually pretty historic. Nothing makes me angrier than lazy anachronisms - crinolines in the 1890s, huge broadbrimmed hats in the 1880s, nylon stockings in the 1910s and so on. And this is just fashion, don't even get me started on the bigger picture stuff like occupations, society views and government policy!

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  4. Dearest Camille, thank you so much for this wonderful story. It must mean really hard work to Write it.
    The Story is wonderful well written placed in a the victorian time I like so much with its tight corsetted Ladys who takes the Services of personal maids for granted.
    Would such a lady ever wast a single thougth about dressing or bathing herself?
    No! Her Ladys maids have to do everything for her ladyship.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, I am very glad you liked it.
      Not all Victorian ladies were alike - as much as it's tempting to assume that they tended to behave like strict and very demanding mistresses. However, what's the fun to read about a nice and understanding lady that is a friend to her servants? Not much.

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    2. Of course not all victorian lady's where alike....but we like to assume they would always strict and demanding. Let us dream dear Camille, thats why we are here. Who want always to read story's or seeing movies about the whole true???
      So I hereby declare that a noble lady is NEVER the friend of her servants!

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    3. Not being a friend and being strict and demanding are different things. Without spoiling that for you, let me say that further in the story you'll see that not being strict can be even more hurtful than being strict!

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  5. very good start. i can't wait next part.

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    1. Cheers, you won't have to wait very long, I promise!

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  6. Agree with an earlier comment. Although this story and writing is extraordinary, it falls short with the rich heiress plain at the outset. Would you be willing to rewrite and correct this? When I read this, it hit me like a thud between the eyes. Thanks

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    1. I see your point and I will think about it, there is scope to re-do and expand it later as I ready the story for publication as an e-book (assuming it continues to get good reviews from you readers). The rationale for not making Georgina a striking beauty is three-fold:

      Firstly, it partially explains her insecurities as well as her mother's attempts to constantly put her down. Secondly, I thought that is was a bit cliche for such stories to make the heroine beautiful. Let's face it, the vast majority of Victorian ladies (or contemporary ladies, for that matter) were not sexy goddesses. I know, I've seen thousands of their photos and portraits-). Thirdly, it was done to contrast Georgina with Evelyn, who is very beautiful, as her occupation requires to a significant extent. The difference in their appearance will be a major plot driver.

      Furthermore, plain does not mean ugly. Just average. I think it fits Georgina's persona quite well.

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    2. Wha-a-at, you mean not every aristocrat is a beautiful as the dawn? Surely that can't be so! ;-)
      The contrast in appearance between Georgina and Evelyn also feeds into a common theme of stories like this, in that a beautiful aristocrat and an average-looking maid conform to stereotypes (as mocked above). Georgina, looking at the pair of them in their respective "costumes", might feel as though an injustice were being righted.
      I do think you are an excellent writer, and I look forward to reading the rest of the story, and to reading its polished final version.

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  7. Had no idea you were such an accomplished writer. Thought you were the host of the site with others contributing to the library. If you were to tweak this story just a tad, it would be the crème de la crème. Was going to suggest you put it out on the commercial market.

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    1. This is very flattering, thank you. I think I will try doing that if I manage to overcome my all-encompassing procrastination! Feedback from readers has been very positive so far, a lot more positive than I could have imagined. It really adds fuel to my writing speed. Thank you for that!

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  8. Hmmmmm....
    A very very very promising beginning.
    Although it might be already quite obvious how the story will develop, I really like your style.
    I especially enjoy your approach to respect and include both protagonists point of view. A really beautiful kind of storytelling, seen in perfection by the unforgettable Emma Finn...
    I am definitely hooked.

    Marc

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    1. Thank you. I do hope I can still surprise a few readers with a plot twist or two. I am not sure I can ever approach Emma's quality of storytelling, but she was definety an inspiration!

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  9. An appreciative readerNovember 27, 2016 at 2:56 PM

    Wow, this is turning into a social history as much as a downgrade story! I have no problem with the plain (not ugly) Georgina; it's a nice twist, everything she's been granted has come by her wealth and position and, as we know, that she will lose. Evelyn has everything BUT wealth, and that too will change.

    I'm sure you have twists ahead but so far this is a brilliantly researched and plotted story! I agree Emma Finn was a superb author, I loved her stuff, but despite not knowing her I am sure she would have loved this. Great stuff!

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    1. We'll soon find out, but that is a safe assumption to make given the genre. I can guarantee that it wouldn't be a straight line though, that would be too boring.
      I didn't get a chance to show this story to Emma, although we discussed a different lady-to-maid story of mine, which was also set in Victorian London, and she gave me some very useful advice that influenced this one to some degree. I do hope she would have love it.

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  10. I love how you make the description of the characters bring forth vivid images of them as they go about their lives in Victorian London. Another wonderful chapter and await eagerly the next one.

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  11. Camille mam is there any possiblity of molly next version. Eagarly waiting...

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    1. There is, but it will be a while, need to finish this one first!

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