Welcome to the third installment of this March Mashup special series! Once again, we bring you evidence of a remarkable and highly unlikely friendship: that of a wiser George Wickham and a young Margaret Hale.
We hope you enjoy his mature reflections and witticisms as he advises and befriends the new wife of a cotton manufacturer. If you have missed the first two serialisations, we have included links at the bottom of the page to them.
–Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
My Dear Sir,
I think if Mrs Wickham desires, you would not be hesitant to commandeer an entire car for her creature comforts when she comes away. However, I assure you that only a small trunk of her most particular favourites will be necessary. Selective she may be, but secretive she most certainly is not, for in our very first conversation she described most eloquently to me the essential qualities of a proper cushion to serve each office- supporting one’s head, one’s feet, softening the back and sides of the chair, and even the requirements made of a book pillow (although she claimed never to use one) and another for her proper pillows to all rest upon when laid aside. There was, you must imagine, one particular weave she found most pleasant, and as I was to marry a manufacturer of cloth, you may accurately discern that I listened closely to learn all I could.
I do not declare to you that my transition from humble parson’s daughter to the wife of Milton’s most prominent cotton manufacturer has been without a few bumps along the road. I do, however, assure you most happily that where I accumulated a bruise here or a wounded feeling there, my husband has soothed me most wonderfully.
Yes, my good sir, this bulldog of whom I once spoke is the gentlest man alive, but we suffered a deal of dissention in the early days of our acquaintance. I fear I blamed him for matters beyond his control, and he- proud man that he is- cared little for my blind, haughty ways. Love has its way of conquering the heart, but it was with the greatest degree of surprise that I first heard his confession, for I had no prior indication of regard! I disliked him as thoroughly as anyone could, you may be assured, but after that discovery and numerous other examples of his goodness to me, I was quite helpless against the will of love.
And so, sir, on the first day of our meeting at my old home on Harley Street, you encountered a humbled woman who had only just heard the news that her dear one- the one she had first scorned and then grieved as forever lost- had suffered a catastrophic failure in business. Indeed, my heart was rent with pity for him, and I would fain have remained in my room for the whole of the night rather than welcoming guests. It was your indomitable cheer which served as the one bright point that evening, and only a few days later my John and I were reunited with sweet promises and a shared dream of a unified life well lived. It is to be hoped that our own crossed paths would be in the end far too dull to excite the literary adventurist who was Mrs Thrale, for I should be hereafter content with a simple life with as little drama as may be managed.
One point on which I shall not retire, however, is that of the living conditions of many of Milton’s very poorest. I can scarcely imagine the bivouacs of your harshest military days could be more squalid, but perhaps I do not know of what I speak there. I shall spare you a description, for I know a man who has lived years of his life on the battlefield can well imagine what daily hell awaits a poor working family. I am pleased to report that, with the help of my husband’s influence and the vocal support of many of Milton’s ladies, the city has declared its intent to renovate the sewers and to install new pumps in the expanding districts.
It is a pittance, I know, but we have only just begun. I have at my back a league of lace and frills- a veritable tidal wave of feminine altruism which I hope I shall somehow contrive to direct to some greater purpose. And if Miss Evans manages to attract the notice of Mr Hamper in the process, I believe I shall undertake another great endeavour- that of matchmaking. Only the most starkly opposite couples will do, for I take the example of myself and Mr Thornton, yours and your good wife’s, and even the whispered tale she related to me of one of her elder sisters, as evidence that a man and his wife may suffer some differences of opinion and yet cleave to one another all the more perfectly for it.
Please convey to Mrs Wickham that I have considered her kind offer of her dressmaker’s advice, but I find that so doing would unsettle my good Dixon even more greatly than her return to Milton has. In short, she threatened that if I determined to do so, she would walk out of the house for good, but I confess that she was laughing until tears streamed down her face as she made that proclamation. John, however, implored me to request of Mrs Wickham’s dressmaker some smaller items of apparel, but as that would not be a proper subject for me to write to you, I have enclosed a short, sealed note for her private perusal. I trust she will not be off-put by my boldness in writing so, but I certainly dare not obtain such items locally.
And now, my dear friend, I must close, for the evening is growing late and I do not wish to keep John waiting. You, better than many, understand the comfort and felicity of a quiet evening spent in the company of one’s spouse. I imagine your own evenings are rarely “quiet” by my own reckoning, but they are, I scruple not to opine, none the less peaceful to you for all their gaiety.
The Empress of Milton
Your Imperial Majesty,
Felicitations from the far from illustrious Whitstable coast to the court of Milton, which I am given to understand is quite the place to be these days!
You may by now have received from Lydia some of those items of apparel to which you alluded in your last. However, since I was not privy to your own delicately sealed note nor my wife’s liberally scented reply, I remark only that I trust her selections were pleasing to you. She certainly took her task very seriously indeed, and undertook a mission to town to ensure all met with her approval; indeed, I believe you have become Lydia’s favourite person of late, for there is nothing she enjoys more than matters of fashion. I understand also that she has made a gift of her pillow of choice to you, so that you may better understand the importance of such things. That alone is the only gift of which she has appraised me, but I know there is no lady alive who knows cushions better than my dear wife, devoted as she is to matters of comfort.
Your bulldog is, I think, rather more of a pup than he would have those in his trade know and trust me, I shall keep his secret safe. To be helpless against the will of love is the finest state of being, and one in which I trust you shall remain for a good long time yet. When dissension rears its head, as it surely will, remember only that it too is part of that most delightful battleground of the human heart, and I believe you shall not go far wrong. Lydia shall deny all knowledge, but I well remember the occasional accidental breakage of crockery that accompanied her own rare annoyances in our earlier years, though such youthful expressions are happily now a thing of the past. Indeed, she has long since found that annoyance is better dealt with by a swift and expensive trip to the milliner – where better to wound a man than in his pocket, eh?
My heart was indeed warmed to learn of the small, inconsequential part I played in cheering your spirits on that fateful evening in Harley Street. I confess that your distraction was just a little evident to me and I have never been one for seeing a lady downcast, so I could hardly have left you to your solitude. And you see, as you shall many times through life, how the blackest cloud can break with the sunshine, so your unhappiness was but transient and banished soon enough by the gentleman whom you had believed lost.
I trust you would have no objection to sharing the matter of your charitable works in Milton with my own children, for many of them have an interest in matters of charity, though it comes a poor second to matchmaking sometimes. The harshest bivouac is no more than temporary, of course, to inhabit such conditions for one’s whole life and see one’s own children born into them, now that is a different matter indeed. So should there be anything this old soldier can to assist in your philanthropic endeavours, you need but ask – such coin is better spent than that given to livery yard or the tailor, after all!
This evening shall be far, far from quiet for me, for it is to be a family gathering. The piano is tuned, the hounds are fed and the grandchildren are already creating the most marvelous mayhem all over the house. Lydia is bustling here and there – the very image of her mother, you might well guess – and I am engaged with correspondence, a most perfect excuse for emerging only after the general melee is done. Military manoeuvres are one thing, preparing a household for a gathering is quite another, and far beyond my skills, or so I have been claiming these past decades.
I shall close with a wish that your evening was a pleasant and peaceful one, and that it may be so for every evening yet to come.
With all my regards from the sanctuary of a study that will soon be breached,
My Dear Sir,
You may assure Mrs Wickham that I have, indeed, received the parcel she sent. She will be relieved to know that it arrived in good order and heavily perfumed with (I presume) Indian fragrance. I have included a personal note of appreciation for her kind efforts, and most particularly for that rather lavish pillow, which, as you must imagine, now dominates my largest piece of furniture. Although he would not confess so much in writing, my husband also conveys his gratitude, and insists that I recompense Mrs Wickham for the rather exorbitant costs she must have incurred in the delivery of such a large crate.
I knew you would not hear of it, so I took it upon myself to instead gift her with something a little more dear. There is a family of orphans with whom I was acquainted before my marriage, and since my return to Milton I have been attempting to teach the elder girls some skills at needle point. Though their efforts are yet laboured, they show great promise, and I submit these delicate bits of their handiwork as evidence. They are little more than trinkets, really, but with Mrs Wickham’s penchant for lace and her discerning eye, I felt sure she would be pleased to embellish her next hand-worked cushions with such pieces of art.
Your reference to John as a “pup” made me laugh quite riotously- so surprised and amused was I, in fact, that the good lady with whom I share the responsibilities of this house was startled enough to enter my chamber without knocking to look in on my welfare. I did share with her some of your observations regarding her son, but certainly not all. She made a show of indignation- I believe her precise words were, “My John, a fawning sop like that (here, I omit her indelicate description)! A man known throughout the Continent by all men of business and sense, to be thought not the master of his own will but a mere pup lapping at a woman’s outstretched hand!” She did continue some minutes, but though she would not be pleased to confess it, I think she is secretly delighted that another besides our own intimate little circle has glimpsed through John’s calloused exterior.
He has, in truth, altered remarkably since our first encounter, and I speak so with confidence because others have also taken notice. One of John’s closest companions of late was formerly one of his most heated detractors- an erstwhile Union leader by the name of Nicholas Higgins. Well do I remember the days when neither of them had a kind word to say of the other, but now, rarely do I see John about the mill yard but that Mr Higgins is at his side. Their fellowship has done as much about the mill as any benevolence I could hope to undertake, for by Mr Higgins’ boldness, many have addressed John directly with their grievances and he reciprocates in kind. Much is beyond our humble means here at Marlborough Mills, but if future strikes are to be avoided, I cannot help but think this is the way.
I would be disingenuous if I wrote in pretense that my way was all rosebuds and sunshine. You and I are too honest with one another for such. Though I am proud of my husband and my love for him burns more deeply and brightly with each passing day, we are not fully alike. Certainly we have similar temperaments, which allows us to understand the other’s fits of melancholy when some miscommunication should arise between us. It is our vastly different life experiences which time and again rear their heads to stir up tension and discord. On few occasions, my outspokenness has given offence and his practical taciturnity has appeared heartless.
I fear you will misconstrue my words and believe that I am disappointed in my marriage or that my husband was not the man I had believed him to be. Nothing could be further from the truth! We are always quick to resolve our differences, and I believe that new couples not in the practice of such a skill have been gifted a special grace in the simple novelty of intimate affections, wherein those binding threads are woven afresh with each new morning. Were we to quarrel every day (which, I assure you, we do not) I would not even then deny myself the pleasure of going to him each evening with heartfelt repentance and the firm assurance of my ever-strengthening devotion. Just as Mrs Wickham is wont to stir your fondest memories of her by dousing each article in her lavish perfumes, it is those silver-threaded moments of reconciliation which permeate each other moment with their sweetness.
I believe, however, that these first months are something of a trial by fire for us. When we repeated our vows and signed the register, we did not step into a happy, welcoming world ready to rejoice with us. If there was rejoicing, it was because our marriage signaled to many in Milton that Marlborough Mills would open for work once more, and so the expectations upon both our shoulders were heavy from the start. Unlike many new couples, such as my cousin and Captain Lennox, we had not the advantage of a peaceful space, a time of blissful perfection to come to know one another as husband and wife. Our understanding of one another has been sharpened and honed through adversity, and I fear that we both have a deal yet to learn. Your words recalling sunshine bursting through the blackest clouds bring a smile to my face, because I know that we are not alone among a world of others facing similar trials.
On the matter of my charitable endeavours, I take you at your honest word, as I would not do with many others who pretend willingness to offer assistance but do not truly expect to be called upon to lend it. Milton has grown so quickly, as I have written to you before, that the city planning suffered most lamentably. Much has already been done toward sanitary concerns, and now we are turning some of our attention to what must next be done. The Unitarian minister and his wife come often to the primary school established here at the mill, taking turns at teaching the children. I also have spent much of my time there, but circumstances in the more immediate future may prevent me from continuing so.
There has been talk of seeking out more permanent teachers, and there is yet a distant hope of building a new school- safe and large enough for our growing number of children. We have already a few sponsors willing to back our idea, but as you imagine, not nearly so many as we might require. I would never presume to direct whatever benevolent passions you might entertain, but if the education of children and the prospect of lifting an entire generation from the poverty of ignorance holds any charm for you, then I would beg you to consider our humble efforts.
I resume this letter to you a full day after that last section was penned, and in a much less sombre mood. I had the pleasure of an entire afternoon spent with my new sister, her husband, my mother-in-law, and John in the parlour. I must relate to you the effect of Mrs Wickham’s pillows on the atmosphere of our little gathering.
Firstly I must describe my mother-in-law’s reaction when she first beheld the collection. Pink and yellow have never been favourite colours of hers (nor mine, truthfully, but I beg you would not convey that bit to your good wife). I did, however, lay them out most artfully on the parlour sofa when they first arrived, partly in pride and delight for such a thoughtful gift and partly, I confess, in mischief. As expected, my mother-in-law would not so much as touch them, for she declared them to be “heathenishly scented abominations.” I trust I will give you no offence and that you will read this in the spirit I pen it- that is of open amusement.
Well must you now know the pungent spice of Mrs Wickham’s favourite aromas, so I shall spare you that description, but I was indeed shocked when the fragrance found its way into the very leather of Mrs Thornton (the elder)’s preferred sofa. For well over a week now, anyone sitting in that piece of furniture has carried away some bit of India with their clothing. I confess that when John took his midday meal with us on that first day and then returned to the mill, Mr Higgins had some rather choice words regarding what he laughingly called “Master’s Long Dinner Break.”
I had thought the pertinacious scent faded by this time, but next to fall victim to its besmirchment was Mr Watson. He had taken the seat for some while before he recognised that the burning in his nostrils emanated, in fact, from his own clothing, and that no deluge of waters nor gale of wind known to mankind could deliver him from walking about the rest of his day scented as though he had visited a house of ill repute between Sunday services and our afternoon tea. Though such were my thoughts, I assured him that he put me in mind of the ancient tales of the Palace Gardens of India, and as he has trading interests in India, I believe that mollified him.
You may, naturally, wonder if his wife could dismiss such a pronounced bouquet as easily- for it truly did blend curiously with the leather of the sofa and his clothing until his presentation could hardly be deemed respectable. I count it his good fortune that my sister-in-law admired the fragrance so excessively that when its source was revealed (by John, who was turning red in an attempt not to laugh until he was breathless), Fanny implored me to inquire as to the name of that exotic scent. I enclose for Mrs Wickham a second sealed note to that effect.
I trust that you, Mrs Wickham, and your grandchildren are all well. I hope to post this in the morning, so I shall close now as John is desiring my company for the remainder of the evening.
With fondest regards from the Indian Palace Gardens,
…To be continued….
And to view the previous installments, click here!