Early in the morning of Sunday, 5 November 1905, in Ballarat, when the sun has just woken, wiping sleep from its eyes.
Edie had a plan. She’d written it in her notebook and once something was written in her notebook, Edie knew it would happen. The letters had curved and spun on the paper as she wrote, as if they were threading themselves into the ordinary moments of life, quietly breathing their magic and putting things into place while no one was looking.
Edie’s plan wasn’t a big majestic plan that would up-end governments or bring love sweeping in like the gust of wind that roared up the wide main thoroughfare of Sturt Street to the big intersection at Doveton Street, where it would swirl like a tornado and whip women’s skirts up around their thighs, throwing them off balance and into the waiting arms of lonely miners.
Edie had made a modest plan. A carefully thought out plan. A plan for a love that would be gentle and soothing like a freshly brewed hot cup of tea first thing on an icy morning.
The dim morning light wove its way through the trees into Edie’s room and turned the leaves of the rose-patterned carpet from olive to chartreuse, gently announcing the day.
Edie had woken before the sun and now eased herself up onto her elbow. She tugged hard at her nightdress, which was caught under her hip, and reached under her pillow. Her notebook had slept there, safely tucked under her dreams, and now as she held it in front of her the sun lit up its gold-embossed initials. She loved the feel of the leather cover and ran her fingers over her initials on the front. When she held it to her nose the warm musky smell filled her heart. Her father had given it to her on her birthday. It had a leather loop at the side to hold a small pencil. She opened it to her latest entry and read it over:
Fifth November Five
I am nineteen years old.
Plan — Marry (try to make it Theo Hooley).
She always wrote the date out in words, it looked more permanent than numbers. Then she put the notebook on her bedside table, threw the blankets aside and jumped out of bed. She was ready to put her plan into action.
Now, Edie wasn’t an ugly girl, not by anyone’s standards. She didn’t have skin that was cratered like the moon or a nose that was long enough to hang a coat on. She wasn’t too fat or too tall. But her looks were unremarkable; men didn’t turn to drink her in when she walked past. She was ordinary, as are most girls who don’t have older sisters to show them the ropes. No one had shown Edie what suited her or how to attract a man’s attention.
She didn’t know how to tease with inviting words or how to catch a man’s gaze for just long enough to pique his interest before quickly pretending disdain so he would come scurrying after her.
Just yesterday her mother Lucy had said, ‘I think the problem is, my love, that none of the men match your intelligence and spark,’ and passed her a cup of tea exactly how she liked it.
‘You say that because I am your only child,’ Edie replied. ‘You have to say something to make me feel better.’
‘Plainer girls than you have married,’ said her father, jabbing his umbrella at an imaginary jury. ‘Your mother is right — you are just too intelligent for them.’ Paul Cottingham swirled his umbrella in the air as if it was a magician’s wand, only just missing the glass lightshade. ‘Edie darling, if I could click my fingers and conjure a devoted and loving husband from thin air I would do it in an instant. You know I will give you anything within my power,’ and he bowed to her to show that he meant it.
Then she saw him dismiss her problems from his mind and focus instead on the stitching on the umbrella, as if it was far more important than she was.
Her father had been even more distracted than usual for the past month. He didn’t really seem to listen when she talked about how Essie had got engaged to Vincent Jessop. More importantly, Essie was two years younger than she was — did you hear that? Two years younger. He would nod absently as she went on to tell him how Marjorie Hollings already had a baby that was six months old. He used to give her optimistic hugs and carefully kind words, but these days he mostly gave her preoccupied murmurs and inattentive nods. Edie had watched him, longing for him to think about her again. She knew, and she knew her father and mother knew, that now she was nineteen the chances of her finding a husband were dwindling fast. This was an urgent matter.
‘I think they’ve got the stitching uneven here,’ said Paul, and had held the umbrella out for inspection. ‘Does that look like an even quarter-inch spacing to you?’
Edie ignored the umbrella and said, ‘Well, if I can’t find a husband I might as well find work. Perhaps what you can give me is a job in your rooms?’ She knew the reaction she would get to this. Her mother had sighed and leant back in her chair and fussed over a drop of milk that had been spilt on the table. She’d whispered quietly to any spirits watching, ‘Here we go again.’ She had seen Paul and Edie have this same conversation many times.
Paul had snapped his head up quick smart, his eyes dark and blistering, and said what he always said, ‘No daughter of mine is going out to work as though I am too poor or too negligent to support her.’
‘You’re so, so …’
‘So what, Edie?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, I don’t know — impossible and … and old-fashioned,’ and she’d stormed off as she always did, leaving the perfect cup of tea lonely on the table before he could lecture her on his role as a father to provide and her role as a daughter to be provided for. She already knew his views on her working but as for his distractedness with that stupid umbrella — she really didn’t know what was going on with him these days, and put it down to a problem bothering him at work. It certainly couldn’t be a problem at home.
Her home — or rather, her father’s home, because that was how she, her mother Lucy, and their maid Beth thought of it — was a home with fine filigree cast-iron lacework and great leadlight windows. The house had its roots buried deep in the soil and it sprawled into four bedrooms and a sun-filled sitting room, a reading room, a formal dining room, her father’s study and the maid’s room. Its wide verandah stretched from the front right-hand corner of the house around to the far left-hand corner of the rear of the house, where it met the maid’s bedroom and the laundry.
Jasmine clambered over the verandah railings and took its moment in spring with vigour, filling the house with gusts of perfumed air that promised anything was possible. There was an expanse at the side of the house large enough for two horses and carts to come right up to the verandah if they were so inclined, and there was a brick path that wound through the garden from the front gate to the verandah steps and up to the front door. The house was her father’s gift to her mother and was full of the sweet voice of her mother singing for her father.
Edie thought about the fabric that had built the home she lived in, she thought about it hard, the love her father and mother shared, and she yearned to share that love with someone of her own. She now sat cross-legged on the carpet, still in her nightie, hacking away at her best Sunday skirt with the enormous haberdashery scissors she had taken from Beth’s sewing drawer. Her fingers ached with the cold. It was chilly and every now and then she shivered, but she was too intent on what she was doing to notice the goosepimples on her arms and legs, her head filled with the cruel words of the women at church.
Edie had tried to convince herself that she didn’t care what the women said about her and tried to harden her heart, but she did care and her heart was soft and the women’s barbs pricked at her heart like a splinter she couldn’t scratch out.
‘I’ll show them,’ she said to the skirt crumpled unhappily in her lap.
Even though she tried not to think of them, the most hurtful scenes repeated themselves over and over. Edie saw Vera Gamble, who still had a little-girl voice she had chosen never to grow out of, whispering to Marjorie Hollings. Could you even call it whispering when everyone within ten feet of her heard? Vera had looked around her, not to make sure no one was listening but to make sure everyone was listening, then she’d leant over and in a big show of whispering confidentially had said to Marjorie, ‘What hope has Too Girl got of catching a husband with her looks?’
Edie had rushed home and stared at herself in the mirror for a good hour, wondering if she really did look that bad. There was no sister to tell her that Vera Gamble knew Edie could hear her rotten whispers that were bitter like mouldering oranges or that Vera was just being nasty for the sake of it to give herself a little thrill. Ever since that whisper Edie had accepted that at best her looks were unremarkable and at worst downright unpleasant to men.
She slashed at the material of her skirt with the scissors. She cared very deeply. It gave her a physical pain in her chest when she thought about it. And it wasn’t just Vera Gamble.
Missus Whittaker always nodded her head disapprovingly when she looked Edie’s way, and Missus Blackmarsh had stood in the church kitchen doing the washing up and waved a soapy teacup in the air and said to Missus Turnbull, who was drying up, that the problem with Edie Cottingham was that she had no idea what a man needed in a wife.
‘Edie,’ she’d said, ‘is full of toos. Too stubborn, too outspoken, too liberal — you can thank her father for that — too ordinary, too modern.’ And Missus Turnbull had laughed with a strained noise that sounded like a cow mooing and Edie, who had been about to go in and offer to help, had heard it all from the hall. From then on Missus Blackmarsh had called Edie the Too Girl and then all the women started calling her the Too Girl, even though they had no idea how the nickname had started.
But Edie was going to change everything. She would make the men notice her and she would show Missus Blackmarsh what modern really was.
Edie had got the idea for her plan from The Delineator: A Journal of Fashion, Culture and the Fine Arts. The magazine had all the latest trends. It took those trends a good two years to reach her from Europe, but apart from Edie, the people of Ballarat were happily ignorant that they were at least two years behind the rest of the world. Edie ripped a piece of material away from her skirt. She’d be the very first girl in town to have a skirt like this.
Her father would die when he saw it. God only knew what he’d say.
Edie worked away, cutting and sewing. When she finished the skirt, she would have to adjust her petticoat to match. She heard Beth get up and start clanging china and pots in the kitchen as she set about breakfast and preparing lunch for after church. She heard the clock ring out six chimes.
Edie kept pulling at stitches. She kept cutting away cloth. She heard the clock chime seven and then eight.
Finally the job was done.
She stood up and held the skirt out in front of her. She shivered at her daring and smiled proudly as though she had created the entire garment herself. Then her father knocked on her door. It was as though he knew she had done something mischievous. He always knew when she was up to something.
‘Damn it,’ she said. Then she reminded herself that she wasn’t a little girl any more and her father couldn’t see everything she did. He couldn’t see through the thick wooden door.
‘Edie, are you all right?’ he asked, and she thought she could hear suspicion in his voice. ‘Are you coming to breakfast, Edith? You better get a hurry-on.’
She felt her cheeks burn as if she’d been caught out, even though his voice sounded far away, muffled by the thick closed door. She had to remind herself again that he couldn’t see her through the wood. She ran and put her weight against the door so he couldn’t come in. Blimey, he’d have a fit when he saw what she’d done.
‘Edith?’ her father said, expecting an answer.
‘I had breakfast earlier,’ she lied, and the lie sat uneasily in her chest. Her father was a man of principle, the sort of man who could gaze into your soul and know immediately if you were guilty or innocent, especially if you were his only child. It was a talent that stood him in good stead in the courtroom and had frightened Edie when she was little.
She listened to her father’s steps recede down the hallway and relaxed when she heard the murmur of his voice talking to Beth.
She waited for Beth to settle her father and serve him breakfast and then when the clock struck nine she rang her bell for Beth to come and help her dress. She’d have to rush now, to get dressed in only an hour, and she thought how good it was that she hadn’t had any breakfast — it would make her waist look smaller.
Edie sat on the edge of her bed and pulled on her stockings, clipping them to the garter, and then she laced her short boots with the buttonhook, because once she’d got her corset on she wouldn’t be able to bend over. She had the latest — a new health corset, imported from England and designed by a lady doctor to protect a woman’s vital organs. But once Edie strapped her body into the corset she’d be nearly immobilised.
Beth knocked on the door and Edie called out, ‘Come in, Beth.’ She stood up as Beth walked in. ‘Sometimes I envy you, Beth, that you’re not expected to wear a corset,’ she said.
Edie didn’t notice the jealous frown that Beth threw at her expensive clothes, but she did notice that Beth yanked harder than she needed to on the lacing, and Edie’s breasts were thrown unnaturally forward into the world, while her hips were pushed back and her spine was warped into an S shape, bowed like wood left out in the rain.
‘Not too tight,’ gasped Edie, ‘I’m getting too old to expect miracles from corsets.’
‘Do you want me to measure?’ asked Beth. The corset had its own agenda and was aiming for a sixteen-inch waist.
‘No I do not. I’m hopeful, not delusional.’ She handed Beth the bust bodice, which, with the help of clean white handkerchiefs stuffed down it, consolidated her breasts into one impressive structure that presented a united front to the world.
Beth reached for the five-gored petticoat lying across the bed.
‘I’ll be right now,’ said Edie. ‘You go and change for church or you’ll be late.’
She didn’t want Beth to see what she’d done to her skirt. Not yet.
When Beth had shut the door behind her, Edie put on her silk chiffon bodice with its leg-of-mutton sleeves and boned lining, and finally the matching pale blue silk chiffon skirt. She tied the satin ribbon around her waist. She pinned the pompadour frame on her head and brushed her hair up over the frame, pulling the brush through strands that wouldn’t grow past her shoulders; thin wispy fibres that, now she looked at them through Vera Gamble’s eyes, she had to agree refused to speak of beauty. Edie might not have an older sister but she could read and she had learnt some tricks from The Delineator. She reached for the extra hairpieces she had purchased to make her hair appear abundant and secured them in place with hairpins, and then pinned on her hat. It floated high on her head, a cloud of ostrich plumes. She had bought the new plumes especially for today, on special at the milliner’s, only seven and six for fifteen inches. The advertisement said they were an indispensable aid to beauty. Edie wasn’t taking any chances; she’d take all the aid she could get.
Only now, when she was completely ready, could Edie bring herself to look in the mirror. She gasped at how short her skirt really was. She hadn’t quite expected to remove that much material. For a moment she wondered if she had the courage to go through with it. But she was desperate. Without a husband she’d never have a home of her own. She’d always be a child in her father’s house. She’d always be the Too Girl. She would have nothing to do, her father wouldn’t ever let her work and her mother looked after their house and didn’t need her help. As much as she loved her father, she had to escape, she had to have her own home and her own life. She stood back a little and pretended she was Missus Theo Hooley.
Missus Blackmarsh always tugged her hair, black like her name, so tightly into a bun like a doorknob on the back of her head that her eyebrows were pulled up and her skin was stretched over the harsh pointy bones of her face. Her eyes became tiny dark slits through which she peered disapprovingly at the world. She had seen Edie through her slit eyes gazing at Theo one Sunday and said to herself, ‘Well, well, well, fancy that.’ And then she had turned to Missus Whitlock and said, ‘Too Girl is far too loud to ever catch quiet Mister Hooley.’
‘He’d never say another word,’ added Missus Whitlock. And laughed as they looked at Edie, who knew they were laughing at her and blushed. Since her interest in Theo had been noticed, the other girls, who might not have thought of him before, thought that if Edie was interested in Theo he must have something worth being interested in and were now considering him a viable option. Edie had seen them flitting and fluttering around him. She’d seen Vera Gamble fluttering just last Sunday, giggling like a schoolgirl at every word he said, which, given Theo, wasn’t many. Edie
couldn’t flutter or flitter or flirt. She gazed at the mirror to see what sort of an impact she could make on him, if it would be enough to whet his appetite.
Edie waited behind her door until it was time to leave for church. That way she could put off the inevitable hullabaloo over her skirt. Her heart pounded against the bones of her corset. Her fingers began to sweat as they gripped her umbrella too tightly.
It wasn’t the possibility of her father being angry that made her nerves jangle, it was knowing that this was her very last chance. She had thought through all the available men in the district and there were no other possibilities. There was no one else for her if she didn’t get Theo.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of The Art of Preserving Love by Ada Langton.
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