Welcome to another edition of March Mashups!
Today we continue our serialisation of the letters exchanged between the young Margaret Hale and the rather more seasoned George Wickham.
Discovered in their respective archives, these letters offer an invaluable insight into a most unlikely friendship. We hope you enjoy reading them.
-Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
My Dear Mr Wickham,
I scarcely know how two months have passed since I last spoke with you, but as I take up my pen and admire my last letter from you, I must acknowledge it for the truth. Our wedding tour in Spain was all I might have hoped, but alas, far too brief. Though my heart was heavy as I left those fragrant shores behind, it grew light once more when I considered my new home.
You may feel free to laugh, sir, as I am certain many others did, but I find that Milton suits my every wish to perfection. It is not, naturally, the iron skies, nor the horrid state of the streets, nor the incessant noise of the factories which dominates my perspective now, but the heart and hearth of my husband. I am so grateful for those words of encouragement you lent me on the night before my marriage, exhorting me to seek his pleasure above my own, for he has done likewise. It is the prescription for harmonious domesticity, and I shall treasure your advice all the days I live.
I feel I must interject some apology here for other events of that night- not nearly so edifying, but equally memorable for their ignominy. To be quite truthful, it is not my busy new life which has kept me from writing, but rather my hesitation about your reception of a letter after these events. I am certain, sir, that my aunt did not truly intend to refer to Mrs Wickham’s elegant Egyptian coiffure as “rooster feathers dipped in gilt”. I believe she was only fascinated and curious as to how the effect had been achieved. It was this enchantment, surely, which also led to my cousin’s rather blatant stares and startling comments. You may well imagine that a popular Society wife such as Mrs Lennox is strives valiantly to keep abreast of the latest fashions, and I believe she conferred that very evening with her upstairs maids on the matter.
Likewise, there was surely some misunderstanding on the part of Mrs Thornton (the elder), or at least she did did not express herself clearly, for her comments were rather muttered. Though she does have some old acquaintances in Newcastle, I cannot fathom how she could have possibly heard pernicious rumours regarding the nature of your engagement to Mrs Wickham in your youth. As you acquitted yourself so nimbly at this accusation, I can only surmise that you have heard this unfortunate malfeasance ascribed to your noble self on other occasions. Please rest assured, my dear friend, that I believe no amour as fiercely enduring and as virtuous as yours has been could have been rooted in “passions stronger than character,” as Mrs Thornton so tersely accused. In all delicacy (for I mean no disparagement to your accumulation of years and wisdom), I do not know how such an ill report could still be in circulation after over forty years, but I suppose that is the way of things. The good we do is so quickly forgotten, but our less sterling deeds- imagined or otherwise- live on in the memories of those who ought not to care.
Perhaps you might infer from that statement that I yet struggle to establish a rapport with my mother-in-law. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, she permits me coal to warm my chambers once per week, and for ten minutes each day I may speak privately with my husband- so long as we are at opposite ends of the dining table. I jest, of course, sir! Last week I was allowed a full quarter of an hour with John in solitude.
You may readily gather that I have learnt something more of laughter since my marriage. Fancy that! I never could have thought that the stern cotton master of my first acquaintance could conceal such a boyish sense of humour, but sir, I believe he could give even you lessons. At all events, I have cautiously begun to tease him in return, and our home is now a lively haven of affection and tenderness. To that end, I must close now and devote the rest of my evening to my husband.
As always, I pray this missive finds you and Mrs Wickham in hearty spirits. Is it too much to think you have given some consideration to that long-ago suggestion of visiting Milton? Now that I have overcome my shame sufficiently to apologise for any perceived rudeness on the part of my family and once more extend the invitation, I do hope you will accept.
My dear married lady of Milton,
What a joy to receive your letter; has it really been two months since we raised our glasses to your blessed happiness? How you make me long for Spanish climes once more. You must tell me all that you saw there, and I shall sift through my more colourful memories in search of some befitting of a lady’s ears. As for your anxiety on the matter of putting pen to paper, I shall not hear of it – you and I are friends, are we not, and I would miss your letters more than I might say!
How glorious to learn, too, that life in your new home has proved entirely to your liking. Such is often the way when seen through the eyes of one in the happy embrace of love. Let each be devoted to the other, and to the pleasures of both, and your marriage will thrive – many years of experience, both blessed and bitter, have left me in no doubt of that!
Now let us address the more thorny branches of our correspondence, those I would not have taken it upon myself to raise. However, I feel I must settle your concerns on the matter of feathers and their attendant issues. The particular and curious glory of my dear Mrs Wickham is that she is deaf to the comments of others if they do not flatter her. It is a most singular skill and one that I have rarely seen in others, but it is one that my wife has cultivated as surely as some might cultivate a treasured garden. She has always ploughed her own furrow. In youth, she allowed herself to be stung by the judgments of those who did not approve, in her dotage and with the benefit of rank and station, she has found that such comments have become rather more muted. Indeed, I had one or two words of my own on the matter of her feathers yet I might as well have told them to our hounds, for they would have been as interested as she. So please, worry not, my wife’s feathers will remain firmly in place and indeed, she will likely add even more blooms to the bouquet, so to speak!
So we find ourselves at a crossroads. Should I address the matter of Mrs Thornton the Elder’s whispers, or shall I let them pass unremarked? I value your friendship and your correspondence and fear that to address the far-distant events she remembered will surely risk me losing that friendship but one must be honest with those one holds dear and it is with that thought that I lay myself open before you.
In youth, I was not necessarily a gentleman in all things, though I believed myself to be so at the time. Indulgence had left me as the sort of fellow whom I would not look on fondly today, and I would surely not welcome such a suitor to one of the many daughters who have so brightened my days. I did indeed allow myself to be driven by the strongest passions and, as my dear Lydia was likewise inclined, it was a heady time indeed. I know that one must look on us now, respectable, white-haired though still, I hope, possessed of a certain sprightly way, and find it inconceivable that we were once as young as you, let alone fired with primal energies that would leave a father reaching for his pistol, but such it was. In truth, such words will follow us to the grave for gossip endures over the decades, it seems, yet I point only to the legion of children and grandchildren who fill our lives with such laughter and love, and say that those passions did not serve us so ill in the final reckoning, for mine has been a life well-lived and not, in the end, lived only in pursuit of my own pleasures.
My own mother-in-law and I always found one another fine and friendly company and as the years passed by, dear Lydia proved herself to be very much her mother’s daughter. Indeed, I hold fond memories of the two ladies comparing the lengths of their respective feathers, each as hungry for triumph as Boney ever was.
Now let there be no more talk of shame; do remember me to your most fortunate husband, and we shall be in Milton with all haste if you but name the date, feathers, Egypt and all!
With fondest regards from the gilded chicken coup,
My Dear Sir,
I must confess, some bits of your last letter startled me exceedingly upon first perusal. However, as I have learnt to do in recent years, I laid the letter aside to meditate some while upon the words before returning to it, and I read a wholly different epistle than that first eager brush with your reply. I believe perhaps you wrote with open honesty and not a little trepidation, for what is a respectable woman to think upon the receipt of such a letter? Moreover, what is my husband to think? For in all respect to John, you must imagine that I could never carry on a correspondence with another gentleman without complete transparency. I find, however, that your words cause me to reflect upon the misjudgments of my own past, rather than allowing myself to linger in dismay upon your confessions. My dear John was similarly moved, and we were both gratified by the understanding that we have not suffered alone in the trials of our early relationship.
I have been, at times, as much a prey to mistaken pride and dignity as any could ever be to their folly. Such false importance I had assigned myself! If not for what I might once have considered the more tragic turns of life’s events and the tangled web which has led me to love, I know that I would certainly have severed the acquaintance at the first breath of youthful indiscretion. What a monstrous travesty that I should have denied myself the pleasure of such a cherished friend! For sir, I once nearly lost all I now hold dear for the sake of pride. I would not now lose your fellowship to the same.
Whatever errors may have darkened your pat can be no less vile than my own, for is not pride equally wicked as passion? Nay, more so, for passion tempered at last by fidelity has wrought in your life a faithful marriage of longstanding devotion. You speak of your life partner with tender admiration, and even what some would call her faults are subjects of gentle amusement for you. I pray that one day my own husband may similarly reflect upon such a lifetime together and yet find that he has not tired of me. Your rougher edges may have been burnished by her as well, I believe, for I remember what Mrs Wickham spoke of your daughters and granddaughters. They grew from their girlhood knowing the affection and guidance of their father. That is a legacy of which to be proud, for shall we not all be judged by the manner in which we loved?
In such a spirit do I once again read of your adoration for your children and grandchildren. I pray that my dear John and I shall be so blessed. As you have seen the resemblances of one generation to another, it is my hope that those traits of my husband’s which I most cherish shall live on through my own flesh and blood. You will be pleased when I inform you- all prior jesting aside- that my own mother-in-law has welcomed me into her protective fold. She is nothing like as merry as you describe Mrs Wickham’s mother, but she is a woman of worth, whose loyalty is a thing to be coveted.
I must turn now to lighter matters. It seems that marriage to Mr Thornton has placed me at a rather awkward centre of Milton’s social sphere. Perhaps I was naïve not to have considered it before, but as I have discovered only recently, the ladies of Milton have begun to expect me to host balls and appear at every gala as if I were a principle figure of the community- which, I suppose, I must have become. I have noted that two or three ladies of some influence have begun to adopt my manner of dress, and one young lady was overheard to challenge a local mill master (a bachelor, I must add) over the treatment of his workers. (If I have not related to you all the strife which previously existed between Mr Thornton and myself, I shall save that for another time.)
It does put me in mind of your words regarding the influx of fine ladies quickly thereafter followed by a full-scale assault of the beau-monde on Milton’s stolid old ways. I bethink myself of Mrs Wickham’s nefarious sense of fashion, and it gives me not a little delicious amusement to imagine a woman such as she holding the reins of Milton’s elite dressmakers, just as Nefertiti once brandished her sceptre. Had I but the courage, I should beg leave to borrow her feathers to open the next ball. I should complement them with her golden bodice and shoes of similarly lofty insteps, if I could but avoid a mishap during the waltz. I should attempt to adopt her flair and flamboyance, confidently sallying forth with the expectation that others should follow or close their mouths.
What restrains me, you ask? No, it is certainly not fear of such wonder as was inspired by Mrs Wickham, for I care nothing at all for gossip. Rather, it is my maidservant, Dixon. I have it on absolute authority that she would let me to my own devices were I to aspire to such gilded elegance. This would leave me, unfortunately, at the mercy of my husband for his assistance, and I daresay we would be quite tardy or prevented altogether from appearing in public on such an occasion.
I see that I am run to the end of my notepaper. If I fetch another sheet, I shall write it clean through on both sides and sadly defer my answer to your letter by another day. As I am most eager to reply the sooner, I shall suspend the relation of our trip to Spain for now. Perhaps such a conversation is best had over tea or fine wine, whichever your preference, when you and Mrs Wickham come to stay with us.
Post Script: I shall speak most earnestly with my mother-in-law regarding Mrs Wickham’s preference for pillows and such comforts in her private quarters. I feel certain that I may yet bring her round.
My dear girl,
Thank you for taking the time to consider my confession, to read it with heart and head and to lend me the weight of your gracious kindness when replying. I could not, in all conscience, claim that those who whispered of my youthful conduct were mistaken or false, for I would not mislead you. I could but be honest and hope that you would be forgiving and my dear, I cannot adequately convey my gratitude that you were.
My deepest gratitude to your husband too, for I know that his judgment might have been rather more prosaic than yours, and robbed me of a valued correspondent and friend. He is truly a gentleman, and I am truly indebted to him for his understanding of the follies of a young and selfish man.
I must confess, however, that I would not have imagined you might be charged with pride. Pride is well known to all military men, for we have seen it often enough in every rank, and I mean no false compliment when I assure you that I had not glimpsed it in you when we met, nor in your letters. We know ourselves better than any other might know us though, and we are often our own most harsh judge, don’t you find? Indeed, it is with some envy that I used to look on dear Lydia’s refusal to self-flagellate no matter what the world might strew in her path. No, that sometimes silly, romantic and flighty girl had rather more steel than any of us might have guessed, and it was that steel that saw us through the darkest of times, times when home, hearth and even health were faced with threats that would challenge even the heartiest general.
Were you a gentleman and we sipping brandy, I would now be compelled to embark on a catalogue of my many misadventures on the battlefield, of the triumphs and the tragedies that left one lingering on the edge of life itself. I would tell you then how that flighty lass battled hell and fire to be at my side and nurse me when I barely knew my own name, let alone hers, and we would raise a glass to the ladies, and wonder where we would be without them.
You might be relieved to know then that I will not bore you with talk of warfare and weaponry, but move onto happier matters in the spirit of that friendship of ours which I truly cherish.
I am heartily glad of your happy acquaintance with your mother-in-law, for a spouse can ask for no greater ally than that most influential figure, whosoever she may be! In the years to come I am sure that she too will know the joy of being a grandparent and those children who one day share your home will be blessed indeed.
I narrated your letter to Lydia with some merry trepidation as she nibbled on her latest shipment of bonbons. As you know, no lady is more devoted to her social sphere than my good lady and she greeted news of your embarkation on your new role with all the enthusiasm of Drury Lane’s brightest follower. You are, she declares, an empress on the cusp of a most glittering throne; I rather suspect that she would endeavour to make that an all too solid reality were it her place, by installing Versailles here in Whitstable!
Lydia has asked me to convey the message that she and her own dressmakers are entirely at your service should you require their opinion on matters of fashion. She has also begged that I assure you that no waltz is worth lowering one’s insteps over, but I shall leave that matter to your feet to decide, let alone the feet of your partner. I shall add here (now that Lydia has read this passage and departed) that you should feel no compulsion to avail yourself of her services in the way of clothing and decoration. Much as I adore her, I have seen enough of the world to know that beaded headpieces, roses everywhere one can stuff them and bows of dubious tartan are not to the liking of every lady!
But what may Milton become now that it is to be remade in the image of one so considered and graceful as you? May the Lord preserve hapless mill owners, bachelor or otherwise, from ladies of conscience, and may that same Lord see that ladies of conscience continue to challenge those of us who have become rather set in our ways. I was not aware of strife between yourself and Mr Thornton, but I rather fancy that it is a tale worth hearing, as I imagine those tales of Spain would be worthy of Mrs Thrale herself!
Ah me, were my advanced age not so evident in the lines on my face and the snow in my hair, surely talk of Mrs Thrale has confirmed my ancient standing. No matter, for life is to be lived, is it not?
Indeed, these are truly different times to those in which I made my own way in the world. Ladies, however, have always found themselves directed by their maidservants, I think. In the case of my own home, those maidservants were engaged precisely because they shared the love of the Wickham females for all things bright and theatrical, whilst my sons and I were happy to toil as soldiers, nothing more dazzling than regimentals brightening our own travelling trunks. Indeed, we seem to have been born to the battlefield, though it heartens me that not all of my many grandsons have given themselves over to an army life and the dangers it carries with it. I would rather toast a long life than a successful campaign, after all!
The erstwhile Mrs Wickham is quite able to provide her own pillows should the necessity arise; she is well used to such arrangements, as she is so particular in her requirements. Why, I recall a trip to Edinburgh many years since in which we were accompanied by a carriage loaded with naught but blankets, pillows and such comforts as Lydia was so far along with our third happy event. That child is a mother herself now but has inherited a love of down and fleece – perhaps it is carried in the blood?
With all my regards from a fortress of pillows and feathers,
… To Be Continued…