The following was inspired by the BBC's Cranford, which was adapted from Cranford, Mr. Harrison's Confessions, and My Lady Ludlow, all by Elizabeth Gaskell. I have no connection to either the BBC or Mrs. Gaskell, and have taken all manner of liberties with the canon.
Gaskell readers will recognize that this part of the story comes chiefly from My Lady Ludlow. In this particular instance, I've incorporated a bit of dialogue from Cranford's wonderful script, which was credited to Heidi Thomas, Sue Birtwistle, and Susie Conklin. The characterization of Miss Galindo is based more on Emma Fielding's portrayal in the series than on Mrs. Gaskell's creation.
The title of this story comes from the opening line of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Margaret, Are You Grieving?
Despite my occupation, there are fewer people who seek my opinion than one might assume. When a lady of the village approaches my shop, more often than not she already has very decided notions of her desires and of what should flatter her. My task is merely to fulfill the former and affirm the latter, and of course to provide her examples of enticing new fashions -- new, that is, to ladies in this part of Cheshire -- and perhaps make a helpful suggestion or two. My client may then wish to engage in the time-honored ritual of trying, then discarding, one device after another, until at last she sighs, sets her lips in a straight line, and begins anew.
It is true there are some, like Miss Matty Jenkyns, who are of a humbler, more diffident nature, and yet even to them I provide only gentle hints: Yes, a lady may these days don a turban and not be disparaged as indulging a mania for the Oriental. Yes, I will be happy to fashion a set of caps in the style favored by the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson, though I must note that her manner of dress befits a widow. Yes, scarlet is a such a merry color, but sky blue should prove more flattering to a fair complexion.
If I have performed my office well, the lady ought not to fear showing herself before Paris, alongside the goddesses themselves, let alone the neighbors who pick their way past the same puddles each day.
But a woman is never so vulnerable as in the moment when she contemplates herself in the looking-glass. It is true of women of every age and station, and it is not only my desire for custom that causes me to speak gently to them all. I know how unforgiving a pair of eyes, let alone wagging tongues, may prove.
On rare occasions, though, my opinion may be solicited in a most unexpected fashion.
It was early summer, and I had walked out to Hanbury with the new caps for Lady Ludlow, thinking to please her with my latest creations and then slip away unobtrusively, before she should broach the subject of payment. It always saddens me to hear her ladyship express the desire to be treated as any other client, and not only because she is my benefactress and can never be repaid for all she has done. No, what pierces me to the heart is that she is enclosed within those splendid walls as in a tomb, very nearly as alone at Hanbury as I am in my little rooms, and quite as confined by circumstances and means, each of us in her own way. My lady may be permitted to cherish the hope that the former days will return, but I cannot allow myself such an indulgence, and must steel my will to accept what is, and what has been.
So on this day, as on any other, I had no wish to shatter my lady's peace. And yet as she sat before the looking-glass and submitted to my assistance, she spoke again of Septimus, and of how he'd found fault with her mode of dress in one of his increasingly rare visits home. In that moment her face in the mirror seemed both haggard and strangely childlike, as though grief and fear had united the bereft woman who is and the sensitive girl who came before.
Her very countenance tore at my heart, yet I smiled and offered what comfort I might, and bade her please herself. Strange, is it not, that even my Lady Ludlow must trouble herself with the opinions of others, especially regarding something as inconsequential as a cap!
But then I blundered into the suggestion of making her a present of it. I spoke slowly, indeed might have stopped myself, and even so the words came out, and did their mischief.
"Laurentia, my dear, I insist you charge me, as you would any other customer," said my lady, recovering her accustomed confidence and ease. "You're not a milliner for the love of it."
"But I am in your debt for your sanction of my enterprise."
"When a lady doesn't marry and lacks independent means, I think it best she's blessed with an independent spirit."
The words were kindly meant, and true enough, and indeed their very boldness ought to have thrilled me. Yet even now I do not like to be reminded that my days unfold not as I wish but as my circumstances have determined.
Perhaps my expression betrayed my thoughts, for it was then that my lady made a gesture of friendship, even of respect. She was to interview a girl Mr. Carter had proposed for an indoor maid; would I not accompany her, and see the girl for myself?
I followed Lady Ludlow into the hall and descended one stairway as she gracefully took the other opposite and then glided towards the girl who stood waiting.
Mr. Carter was already standing off to one side, and as I took my place next to him he turned and offered me a smile – barely perceptible, gone as rapidly as it had appeared, a smile that never quite reached his eyes.
His eyes. I fear I can only describe them as "piercing." I look at what I have just written and smile at how like a schoolgirl I seem, resorting to cliches to describe such a man! But Mr. Carter is hardly the hero of a romance. He is plain-spoken and grave, as well as utterly just and fair, and should be very dull indeed if he did not seem as though he is ever about to impart some arresting bit of information. Lady Ludlow tells me he spent part of his youth as a clerk in Birmingham and is chiefly self-educated, and as a consequence possesses some rather daring notions. I think she intended to provide a solicitous warning but instead succeeded in intriguing me all the more.
On this day, however, there was not a moment's opportunity for discussion with Mr. Carter, not with the girl awaiting her interview. I did not permit myself to stare, yet took in all I might in a few glances. She was a lean though sturdy girl, and should prove quite quite tall once she was full grown, indeed might tower over her ladyship in time.
"Margaret Gidman?" My lady's pronunciation of the name was a summons, a statement, and an inquiry.
"Yes, my lady." Good, Margaret, good. A soft, yet firm and dark voice, feminine enough but not excessively so, and by no means childish, despite her youth.
There was a pause while Lady Ludlow circled round the girl, examining her dress, her posture and person.
"Are you well shod?"
"My parents keep me well shod." An excellent choice of words, Margaret – reassuring to her ladyship, indicative of proper gratitude and filial devotion, and delivered in such a soft yet serious voice.
"And what is your father's occupation?"
"He's a cooper, madam. I've been accustomed to helping him." A tell-tale trace of Margaret's accent, of her class. But surely her ladyship would not be bothered by such a thing, indeed might have expected it.
"To make his barrels?" At that moment I could not see Lady Ludlow's face, but I knew the question was delivered with a lift of her eyebrows.
"No, to cast up his accounts. And I taught myself to read," said Margaret, placing a most unfortunate emphasis on the last syllable. "And write -- a bold, clear hand." A smile brightened her strong features, and her dark, intelligent eyes were filled with pleasure as well as pride. "I can --"
"Enough." The word echoed throughout the hall, and the girl fell silent.
"Margaret, your parents have served you ill by not stopping you from meddling in this manner," said Lady Ludlow, severely but not without compassion. "If you can read and write, I cannot possibly take you into my employ."
With that she turned away and said, softly and with the trace of a sigh, "You're fit only for trade."
Her ladyship swept past me with a quickness that belied her use of the walking stick, with Mr. Carter of course following in her wake, and neither he nor my lady turned to look at me as I took a step back to allow them to pass.
They should not require my opinion.
As they departed I kept my gaze upon the black and white pattern of the floor, that I might not see Margaret Gidman's cast-down eyes, or the droop of her shoulders following her dismissal. And I dared not speak a word of comfort or advice, for why should she accept or believe either?
Had I spoken, I dare say my intentions would have been kind enough, but then so had Mr. Carter's, and even my lady's. Perhaps we all of us stood condemned for our fine principles and plans, for what did kindness signify if it was not joined to perseverance, or indeed to justice? Must progress be forever stayed from its advance by a gentle yet perverse hand?
But I suspect all my musings ought to have signified little to the bold, resourceful Margaret Gidman, who had in a few moments' time learnt just how an independent spirit might be received in this world.