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by Penelope Friday
When Charity Bellingham visits London for the Season, she has no idea what adventures lie ahead. But a chance meeting with the beautiful Isobelle Greenaway will have long term consequences as Charity discovers things about London society, about slavery, and most of all about herself.
But it’s the introduction to The Sisterhood—a secret society of ladies—that will impact and change her life forever.
Penelope Friday’s romantic tale of women and life in early 19th century London is one that readers won’t want to miss.
Jane Austen's Regency World
…creates a convincing and lively portrait of Regency London in the aftermath of Waterloo and the vanguard of William Wilberforce's anti-slavery campaigns—particularly the often overlooked role of women in that society….this is essentially a tender and rather beautifully written romance—and one that holds the reader's attention to the final page.
Rainbow Book Reviews
Lesbian historical fiction is still a rarity, which in my opinion is a shame because if it is done well it is delightful to read. And this one is done well indeed. If you are looking for hot love scenes you won't find them, and that's absolutely right for a story such as this. What you will find is a series of beautiful narratives around the emotional side of love, and heartbreak, and of the sheer joy of loving a woman and being loved by her in return.
“One more push, Madam.”
The lady’s face was red with exertion and tears stood out in her eyes. A maid patted her head with a damp cloth as the midwife took care of things further down her body. She knew her husband would be waiting downstairs, smoking a cigar as he paced the library, anticipating the news they both so desperately wanted. It was perhaps the only thing the couple had ever agreed upon.
“Just one more push and baby will be here,” the midwife said again. It might have been encouraging if she had not spent the last thirty minutes repeating this comforting phrase.
“Aaaah,” the lady screamed as the baby finally, finally, entered the world.
“Goodness, what a size. No wonder the baby took time coming.” The midwife carefully cleaned the worst of the blood and mucus off the baby.
“Well?” the lady asked urgently.
“Congratulations, Mrs Bellingham. A beautiful baby girl. Rebecca has a sister.”
Mrs Bellingham turned her head away from the child and cried.
The simple fact was that Charity Bellingham should have been born a boy.
Charity, not for the first time, was pondering this as she practiced her scales on the piano. C major. C minor harmonic. C minor melodic. She had played these enough times that her fingers knew the positions by rote, leaving her able to mull things over as she played. If she had been a boy, perhaps her parents would have loved her. No baby was born knowing they were unwelcome. Charity could never say when the knowledge had come to her that her parents resented her very existence, but she had lived with it long enough to know it for the truth. (C sharp major; all the sharps.) Charity should have been born a boy. Her parents had agreed on very little, but that had been the exception. Indeed, they had only tried for a second child in order to birth a boy, the entail of Charity’s father’s property being reliant on that one thing. Instead, they had been given Charity—a lanky, active girl, who had all the drawbacks of boyishness without the one thing which would make her acceptable. (D minor harmonic—easy.)
If she had been born a boy, they wouldn’t have been thrown out of Forsbury, their old, beautiful house. The entail would have gone to her. If she had been a boy, perhaps her father wouldn’t even be dead. She might have been with him just over a year ago, as he had toured their estate, and been able to fetch help immediately when he was thrown from his horse. He wouldn’t have lain there alone so many hours, wouldn’t have caught that awful chill that had led two days later to his death.
If she had been a boy… (E flat melodic minor.) Charity thumped the notes down, trying to drown out the voice in her head. Her mother looked up from the chair in which she sat sewing, her lips pursed.
“Charity! There can hardly be a need for that volume. It is unladylike.”
Ah yes, there it was. The fact was that, in all ways save the only one that mattered, Charity was a boy—or at any rate was boyish. Having been born a girl, she had not even had the courtesy to act like one and to pursue girlish interests with the same enthusiasm as her sister. Rebecca, source of this comparison, looked up from her place at her mother’s side and gave Charity a sympathetic smile. Becca, like their mother, was sewing a neat line of stitches to embroider a dress. The best that could be said about Charity’s sewing was that it was serviceable: two edges she sewed together would stay sewn, but they would win no merit for beauty. She preferred reading to sewing, and outdoor exercise to either.
The room the three ladies sat in was the only ‘entertaining’ room in the house. Large enough to hold a grand piano, a small selection of books and a comfortable array of chairs, it was small enough that the piano loomed darkly over the space, making it feel cramped and out of proportion. The piano itself was a beautiful object—a dark hardwood grand that took up half of the space in their sitting room. In Forsbury, the piano had had a room to itself, where Charity could spend time alone, unwatched by the critical eye (and ear) of Mrs Bellingham. Another fault to be laid at Charity’s door: her mother clearly did not enjoy hearing her play, but as it was her younger daughter’s only feminine talent, she felt obliged to nurture it. (G minor harmonic; nearing the end of the morning’s exercises. Charity had to practise in the morning. During gloomy November, it became too dark to see the keys by mid-afternoon.) Charity sighed. The relationship her mother had with her was just that—an obligation. Her name said it all. Charity. It was merely charity that gave her a place in the family.
Charity finished B minor melodic and shut the piano lid with a sigh. She would have liked to practise her pieces, but her mother had made it clear that there was only so much of Charity’s playing that she could take at one time. Maybe tomorrow she could work on the Purcell. Mrs Bellingham disliked that one less than most of the others, and the silent wave of disapproval was consequently less strong. And the bombastic nature of the music gave Charity a chance to play out the worst of her frustrations without criticism.
“May I go for a walk, please, Mother?” She tried to modulate her voice to the gentle, subdued style Mrs Bellingham preferred.
“No.” Mrs Bellingham paused, unusually. “I have something I wish to speak to you girls about.”
Charity sat down next to Rebecca, who finished her stitch with great care before putting her embroidery to the side.
“What is it?” The question came from both girls simultaneously.
“It’s about the future. Your future.” Mrs Bellingham paused, but this time in a deliberately dramatic fashion. “We are going to London.”
“We’re what?” Charity gasped.
Rebecca simply looked at her mother, dumbstruck.
“It’s what your dear father would have wanted.” Mrs Bellingham, still dressed in the black mourning clothes she had been wearing for the last year, made the pronouncement with an air of finality. A handkerchief was balled up ostentatiously in one hand, and she dabbed at dry eyes with it. “He would say it was my duty.”
“But London, Mother?” Rebecca asked.
Mrs Bellingham’s gaze fell fondly on her Rebecca, who was delicate, eager to please and unassumingly pretty. The perfect daughter. “‘Give Rebecca her Season’, he would have said.” Her gaze moved on to Charity. “And Charity, of course,” she added, the afterthought clear in her mind.
Charity always was the afterthought. It was so common as not to be worth worrying about.
“When are we going?” Charity asked.
Mrs Bellingham’s lips twitched in disapproval, as if she had noticed a worm slithering and sliding in front of her. “Must you be so blunt, Charity?” She paused for a second, in order to make Charity fully aware of her fault. “Next but one Friday, as it happens.”
“That soon?” Rebecca’s face filled with dismay. “But Mother, how will be ever get everything sorted by then?”
“It already has been sorted,” Mrs Bellingham said magisterially. “Our lodgings are arranged. Those of our belongings which we do not choose to accompany us will go into storage. This is no sudden plan. It was always my intention, when the first period of mourning your poor dear father was over, to introduce you into polite society. And I have no doubt at all, Rebecca, that you will be a huge success.”
The girls looked at each other. There was no point arguing with their mother; she would do whatever she chose. Perhaps Charity would have challenged her, but a quick shake of the head from Rebecca prevented her. The sisters were dissimilar in almost every way, but they lived cordially side by side in the same house. Indeed, Charity often thought it was impossible for anyone to dislike Becca. Her sister was too gentle, too willing to please, too unassumingly feminine, for dislike. It would be like kicking a kitten.
“Yes Mother,” Rebecca said obediently.
“Yes Mother,” Charity echoed, unable to keep cynicism out of her voice. She did her best with Mrs Bellingham, she truly did, but it was too much to ask that she take her mother’s words as gospel. Mrs Bellingham would do what was best for Mrs Bellingham. It was as simple as that.
It took a surprisingly short period of time to decide what possessions they should take to London with them. Mrs Bellingham took those black dresses in which she looked most imposing, but refused to allow the girls to take any of theirs.
“Your father, God rest his soul, has moved to a higher plane,” she said. “And you can hardly go to balls and rout parties in black. Lilac, yes, and white, certainly. And grey, perhaps. An elegant reminder of our terrible loss might be appropriate on some occasions. But black, on you girls, no. I think it is time that you moved back to colours.”
“Should we not at least take black gloves?” Rebecca asked tentatively.
Her mother pursed her lips. “Yes, I think that would be appropriate. I would like no one to think that you were in any way forgetful of the duty and love you owe your father. Indeed,” she added, “I have no intention of putting aside my mourning. No one knows what I suffered at his death.”
The girls exchanged glances. In life, Mr Bellingham had been ever at loggerheads with his wife, but since his death, their mother barely went a day without bemoaning his loss. If Rebecca, like Charity, had the suspicion that a male heir—and thus continued ownership of Forsbury—would have consoled Mrs Bellingham greatly for this bereavement, she at least had the tact to keep it to herself. It fell to Rebecca, therefore, to respond to her mother’s comment.
“I’m sure that London society will understand that, Mother.”
“I shall make sure they do,” her mother retorted, her usual asperity back in full.
And so it was a scant ten days before the ladies were bundled up in warm clothes against the chilly January weather to take their place in the carriage. Most of the possessions had been sent ahead, save for a number of boxes and cases for which there had not been room. Mrs Bellingham had arranged for furnished lodgings, so there was no need for the removal of any furniture. Instead, the larger pieces had been returned to a room at Forsbury. How their mother had talked Cousin Bellingham into storing them for her, Charity did not know. They had hardly been on speaking terms since her cousin had inherited the property. Perhaps, however, he felt that looking after their belongings was a small price to pay for Mrs Bellingham’s removal from the village.
The journey was long and arduous, requiring one night’s stay in an inn. There was precious little room, and Rebecca and Charity slept together in a bed barely wide enough for one person. Their maid slept on the floor beside them, though Mrs Bellingham managed to find a room for herself alone. But it was not until early evening the following day that they reached London.
It was soon very clear that London life—indeed, London itself—was nothing like anything Charity or Rebecca had experienced before. Charity had envisioned a big town, perhaps something like Birmingham, but nothing could have prepared her for what she found.
As soon as the carriage reached the outskirts of the city, her senses were assailed by the sheer bustle of the place—its largeness, its fullness. It wasn’t just the sight of so many people going about their business, nor the cacophony of noise. Charity knew that if she had been blindfolded and her ears stopped, she would still have known she was somewhere new. It smelled different, and the very air seemed permeated by the atmosphere of hustle and determination. Everyone was in a hurry; nothing was ever still. Charity could feel the motion against her skin, even from within the carriage. Beside her, Rebecca looked wan and frightened, her eyes blinking faster than usual. Charity wasn’t sure whether the cause was the dirty city air or tears. She reached over and patted her sister’s hand. Displays of affection did not come naturally to her, and Rebecca knew it. She turned and smiled waveringly at Charity.
“I didn’t quite realise that…” Rebecca broke off after those first few words.
“Big, isn’t it?” Charity murmured in response.
Their mother glowered at them. “I’m doing this for your sakes, you know,” she snapped. “Heaven knows I don’t anticipate getting any pleasure out of it.”
“We’re very grateful, Mother,” Rebecca said hastily.
Charity couldn’t quite bring herself to repeat such an obvious untruth. She looked down at her gloved hands and said nothing. Her mother gave an indignant sniff but said no more, and the carriage continued to drive down the large, busy streets. At last, they drew up outside a dingy-looking building.
The lodgings were drab but acceptable. The hangings were old-fashioned and somewhat worn, but the drawing room was large and spacious, and the two sofas were plump and comfortable. If the room designated to be Charity’s bedroom was perhaps more usually given up to a maidservant, Mrs Bellingham’s and Rebecca’s bedrooms were of a decent size. All three were filled with dark, solid furniture clearly chosen for practicality rather than beauty, and as the bags and cases were unloaded from the chaise, the two girls explored their new home.
“Do you think we will like it here?” Rebecca asked.
The quick answer, Charity thought grimly, was no—but Becca didn’t need to hear that. “When we’re used to London,” she said instead.
She looked down from her bedroom window, surprised by the amount of noise that penetrated it. The road below was not as crowded as some of the others, but there was a continuous bustle outside and the sounds were so very different from the countryside. No birds could be heard, but horses’ hooves on the street clinked and clanked, and carriage wheels made an uneven noise as they jerked over the cobbles. Voices spoke or shouted, the accent harsh and ugly to her ears, and the constant toing and froing of people and vehicles made her feel almost dizzy. Charity turned away and saw Rebecca’s pale, anxious face.
“It will be all right, won’t it?” her sister asked.
“I hope so,” Charity said quietly. “I hope so.”
The next morning, Mrs Bellingham rounded up her daughters almost before they had finished their breakfasts.
“Before we do anything else, we must do something about your dresses, girls,” she said briskly.
Charity looked down. She was wearing one of her favourite morning gowns, put aside for so long in the country as they wore the black appropriate to their bereavement. The dress was a light apple-green colour that reminded her of spring. “What’s wrong with what we have?”
Mrs Bellingham tutted indignantly. “Surely you can see that it isn’t suitable? No, it is obvious that you need a whole new wardrobe, and right speedily. I have found the names of some reputable modistes—indeed, the first flight of fashion—and I hope to visit several today.”
“Several?” Rebecca repeated faintly.
“Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?” Charity murmured to her, sotto voce, and Rebecca fought to conceal a smile.
“Quite. You can hardly be introduced into polite company garbed as you are.”
Mrs Bellingham would brook no argument on the subject, and the girls knew better than to try. It seemed a short period before they had entered into the first dress shop, where they were greeted with little enthusiasm by a doleful-looking woman.
“Have you an appointment, Madam?” Mrs Bellingham had not. The woman shook her head sorrowfully as she looked the three incumbents up and down. “I’m afraid Madame Clarabelle is extremely busy. Have you thought to try elsewhere? Perhaps one of the smaller establishments?”
Mrs Bellingham drew herself up. She was several inches shorter than Charity, but she had a presence that Charity knew she did not share. “I was told,” she said, almost squawking in indignation, “that this was one of the most reputable modistes in town. If you behave so to all of your customers, I am surprised you have any reputation left at all. Now, are you going to serve us, or are you not?”
It became evident that the answer was “not”. Barely knowing how they ended there, Mrs Bellingham and her daughters found themselves back on the street outside the building in a rather short space of time.
“Well!” their mother exclaimed. “Well! If that is how we are to be treated, I shall be proud not to have attended.”
Rebecca was flushed and tearful; Charity hid her embarrassment behind a layer of silence that allowed her to make no response to her mother. With a frustrated sniff, Mrs Bellingham ushered the children back into the chaise and gave another instruction to the coachman.
It seemed to begin with as if the second attempt was to be more successful than the first. Whether less busy, or more open to new business, Mademoiselle Farellone invited the ladies in without issue, and they were soon sitting comfortably whilst Mrs Bellingham explained her daughters’ needs to the dressmaker.
“First season, you understand…Yes, Rebecca is the beauty…A whole new wardrobe…Advice for hats and gloves to match…”
Mademoiselle Farellone nodded, took measurements and made delicate suggestions. Charity was soon bored rigid by the process, but Rebecca looked at herself in mirror after mirror with stars in her eyes.
“This dress? Truly, Mother?” she asked, dressed in a rose-pink confection with a few modest frills.
“Indeed, it suits the little mademoiselle to perfection,” the modiste agreed, turning Rebecca this way and that so that she could admire herself on all sides.
“Well…” Mrs Bellingham pursed her lips. “I suppose…” She gave a nod. “And those other two in lilac and white, also.”
“And Charity?” Rebecca asked.
Charity stood to one side. She had been conscious that the dresses suitable for delicate Rebecca looked foolish on someone as tall as she was; the suggestions by Mademoiselle to this accord had dressed her instead in much plainer garb of dull green, white and primrose yellow, with not a flounce to her name. Although nothing could disguise Charity’s height, the simplicity drew attention to her better features: a slim waist and hips, and her pale, unfreckled skin. Charity had not known she could look so elegant.
“The yellow, perhaps,” Mrs Bellingham said, superb indifference in her voice. “And the price, please?”
The look in Mademoiselle Farellone’s eyes implied that it was the most grotesque of all behaviours to bring up the sordid subject of money. It was nothing, however, to the look in Mrs Bellingham’s when she heard the cost of those four elegant gowns. Five minutes later, the family were once more on the pavement outside the shop, with no dresses ordered, but Mrs Bellingham with a face not dissimilar to the colour of a tomato.
“What now?” Charity asked.
Mrs Bellingham gave her a quelling look. “I would have liked to think that I had brought my daughters up better than to ask foolish questions like that in the street.”
Rebecca was crying, and Charity reached out and gave her hand a quick squeeze. For herself, it did not matter, but Rebecca had looked very pretty in that pink dress.
But it turned out that Charity had more to worry her than Rebecca did. The ladies returned to their house for lunch. When Mrs Bellingham had regained a normal sort of colour, and had consoled herself by means of a ranting monologue about the profligate rich ladies who had caused dressmakers to think that it was acceptable to charge such outrageously inflated prices, Rebecca asked: “So what should we do about dresses, Mother? We surely cannot go out in society with the few we brought with us.”
“Of course not!” Mrs Bellingham’s voice was sharp, but no more than usual. She never had liked being questioned. In her view children, even grown-up ones, should be seen and not heard—or, in Charity’s case, preferably neither seen nor heard. “Don’t talk nonsense, child.”
“Then…” Rebecca left the word hanging.
“You will have to make them yourselves,” she said briskly. “There are patterns to be followed, lengths of material to be bought at quite reasonable costs. It will do you good to do some work preparing for your launch into society. So far, I have done everything for you, but you girls should pull your weight also.”
“Make the dresses?” Charity was so dismayed that the words were out before she had a chance to think. “But Mother, I—” She felt Rebecca lean against her in an attempt to stop her continuing, but Charity couldn’t stop herself. “I’m an awful seamstress. I’ll be laughed at.”
Mrs Bellingham took a long breath, always a preparatory signal for a tirade. “You need hardly tell me that your sewing is beneath contempt. If you were only a little bit more like your sister, things would be better. She has the proper feminine talents: sewing, embroidery, even cooking. You can’t clothe or feed a family by means of a piano. If you are laughed at, you must remember that you are reaping what you’ve sown.”
“I’ll certainly be wearing what I’ve sewn,” Charity mumbled bitterly.
Her mother ignored this frivolous response. “Time and time again, I’ve asked you to work on your sewing, but have you listened? You have not. And now we come to this: I am giving you the opportunity of a Season in London, and all you can do is grouse about every little thing. I do not know what I did to deserve such an ungrateful daughter.”
Charity bit down hard on the sides of her cheeks to prevent herself responding in kind. Rebecca had been right: she should not have spoken so. She should have known that it would only rile her mother into one of her rants.
There was no more to be said. Mrs Bellingham would not change her mind, and any further discussion would just serve to anger her to no good purpose. Charity looked down at the remains of her meal and realised that she felt slightly sick. She pushed the plate away.
After lunch, when Mrs Bellingham had left the girls to their own devices, Rebecca turned to her sister. “I’ll help you,” she promised, looking up at Charity with much more maternal tenderness than their real mother offered her. “With the dresses, I mean. I don’t mind. And your sewing isn’t as bad as you claim, you know.”
“No. It’s worse.” But Charity couldn’t help smiling a little bit. “You’re an angel, Becca. I don’t deserve a sister like you.”
“Silly.” Rebecca brushed off the compliment, blushing a little. “Come, now, let us talk of something else and only worry about those silly dresses when we need to.”