Author Note: This story was originally published between June and August 2012 and thoroughly revised and edited a little later. The author notes at the end of the chapters were also edited to a less conversational and more informative tone.
The premise of this story is simple: to bring to modern day most of Elizabeth Gaskell's original published in 1855, and the challenge, if it could be called so, is to be as exhaustive as possible regarding characters, situations and dynamics. I think it's quite economical to use several first person voices so that will be the style.
The story has quite a few inaccuracies and inconsistencies. I'm not an English native speaker and I'm more familiar with American English so I stick with what I know best (from spelling to how to write dates and names like "convenience store"). As I'm not American either I'm preserving the original's geographical settings. I believe this could be quite jarring to British readers. Also, in a few stances I'm being quite superficial and/or I resource to stereotypes... I'm sorry about that!
Everyone who left a message while it was being published has my heartfelt thanks, but there were five people whose help truly shaped this story. They were: user TheBlackSister (Beta Reader for quite a few chapters), user fia-blue (formerly exquisiteimperfection), who helped behind the curtain and cheered from the first chapter, user ArtnScience, who raised a good point, Michelle (user allboysshouldhavelonghair) who assisted with volleyball technical knowledge ;-), and guest valkscot, a British reader who pointed more than a few no-nos. I'm bearing in mind many of their comments to improve this version, which is still far from perfect.
I hope you'll enjoy reading it. Consider the comments section and the PM as the tip jar here! I love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for reading me, n-p.
After buckling the straps of my silvery sandals, I check my reflection in the large wall mirror for a last time before leaving this hotel room.
A woman in her early twenties looks back intently. Milky white skin that would have been fashionable a century and a half ago (not much these days though), jet black hair cut in a jaw length neat bob, dark eyes, straight nose over a nice wide mouth (normally pink, currently in raspberry shade), upturned chin and rather angular cheekbones. A little taller than the average English woman - even more in high heels, pear shaped, within the healthy BMI range (near the top value actually), I am pleased with my looks though beautiful is not the word that comes to mind when people describe me. I don't mind, of course, it's just how it is.
I'm decked in a royal blue taffeta dress with high waistline and floor length wide hemline. The halter top with plunging neckline makes this elegant dress sexy in a subdued way. I'm wearing silver chandelier earrings and a ring with a pearl in my right hand.
I sigh as I grab my royal blue clutch embroidered with crystals, and I step out of the room turning off the lights as I shut the door. My brother Frederick is waiting for me in the hall and we walk together to the elevators and the party, on the highest storey of this building.
My sister Margaret came into our family by effect of my own sheer insistence. I was six years old and my parents were past forty and not interested in having more children on board, but I pleaded so much and so hard that they finally accepted. They explained me that they would adopt a baby so we didn't know when he or she would come to live with us, and I offered my own room to keep the crib if the baby arrived before the nursery was ready.
I obviously thought it would be a boy and that he would be a toddler, living with us in a fortnight or so, but I was already eight the day my parents got the phone call they were waiting for. It had been decided that I'd stay a couple of days with Bertha Dixon, an old friend of my mother's and occasional sitter for me, and I had a great time while my parents brought home a two day old Margaret.
Being an older brother has been a great experience. Margaret was a special girl, sweet and wise beyond her years. Our parents never were the warmest people but Margaret brought out the best in us all, making us feel loved and needed again. I would talk to her well before she could talk back and I'd let her play with my toys. I've always been aware that being with Margaret would teach me things that neither my parents or my friends could so I stayed close. It seems to have worked out: my wife Dolores likes to say that Margaret taught me how to treat a woman properly and she always sends Margaret a nice gift for her birthday.
The first year I lived in Spain, Margaret got very sick and the doctors said they wanted to test us for hereditary conditions. Given that we wouldn't help at all we reached out for Margaret's birth mother, who, unbeknownst to us siblings, had been in touch with our parents through an attorney. It had happened all this time - I felt it like a treason but Margaret, at just fifteen years old, was very calm and said that she understood.
Margaret had obviously known of her birth mother's existence but she wanted to meet this lady, named Sylvia Bell, now a celebrity in the visual artists' world. Our mother was hurt and jealous but Margaret, fully recovered of whatever ailment she had been suffering, told her not to worry and true to her word, nothing changed in her relationship with the rest of us.
I don't know if Margaret and that woman still see each other, or what kind of rapport they have; I only know that my sister used to have many questions and now has some answers.
-"You look gorgeous", I say kissing her hand ceremoniously.
-"You're very kind, my dear gentleman", she replies in jest. "Let's go make Dolores proud she married someone so handsome".
Edith Shaw, who's about to become Mrs. Ian Lennox, is like a sister to me. We were born mere weeks apart and after my twelfth birthday my parents enrolled me in St. Anne's Grammar School, an exclusive boarding school for girls where I slept in the same room with Edith for the next six years. We graduated together and together we went to St. Michael and John's College (sharing lodgings for all four years), where my cousin took anthropology and I took women's studies and law. My dissertation was on the topic of gender violence and entrepreneurial policies.
My parents could never afford St. Anne's: I was awarded an academic scholarship for my outstanding grades and the Shaws paid for the boarding fees, and later on in college I was too on scholarships. While in college Edith's parents paid for the rent and furnishings of our apartment and didn't charge me. I am very thankful for their help but I am aware that it was a deal that benefited both parties: without their assistance I might have attended less exclusive schools but I would have lived at home, and they didn't want Edith left on her own.
My cousin never needed financial help from outside her family, and although she was never a bad student she indeed excelled at the real St. Anne's curriculum. While the school prides itself on its academics it's best known, even in this time an age, for being a reliable supplier of high society wives. Good manners are sacred, of course, but it's more the fine tuning of the voice, the choice of adjectives and the intonation, the body language that identify us unequivocally as ladies and not phonies, the reason that makes a place in the school so prized. Within the school walls lifelong friendships are forged, as well as useful connections and a definite notions of who is who, and what is what.
Attending an exclusive school meant I had only a handful of classmates until college, to whom I always got on well with. Partly because the girls were really nice people and partly because I was Edith's cousin, and nobody ever dared to do anything to upset Eddie, the reigning queen of beauty and glamor.
My friends' winter holidays were spent in skiing resorts and summer holidays were spent in yachts, unless there was a need for skiing - in which case a plane was boarded for the southern hemisphere and the Andean cordillera or New Zealand's mountains were resorted to. My holidays, hot or cold, were spent in my parents home in Oxford, where my father taught English in a small college and my mother worked in a public library.
This duality made one thing clear from early on: it was going to prove very difficult to keep close to my school friends later in life, not because of lack of feeling on neither side but rather an insurmountable difference of interests.
Most people I've known for the past decade is here, dressed to the nines as if these were their everyday clothes. My classmates from school are here with their fiancés or husbands. My brother and Dolores, his wife. My parents, though I can see my mother is uncomfortable in her rather simple dress. We cannot afford spending money on frivolities and my own dress is a birthday gift from my aunt.
My cousin has grown into a beauty a la Grace Kelly, and she looks perfect and dazzling in her wedding dress and diamonds tiara. She is in love, a perfect love with the perfect husband, and I feel a sudden pang of jealousy for a life where everything is in such neat order. But in its wake leaves the seed of a conviction that will grow in the next days and weeks: my life is only starting and it's going to take me far from this circle of people. This wedding feels like a goodbye to a life of borrowed luxury and undercurrent drama and I'm looking forward to whatever comes next.
During the reception Henry Rowan stations himself near me. He's a good friend of Edith's husband (former law school friend and current junior partners at the same firm) and we have dated for the past two years. For some lapses, weeks at a time, we'd behave like sweethearts: going out for dinner, spending weekends in Paris or Vienna, giving each other birthday presents. But there have been lapses when we'd barely meet or get in touch in which the lukewarmness of my feelings for him would become clear, even when I've never dated anyone but Henry.
I enjoy Henry's company, always had, but I'm not in love with him and I am sure the feeling is mutual.
Henry motions me over to the balcony where fresh flowers grace arrangements on tables and looks thoughtfully over the scenery. I join him in the meditative mood. Soon I'll be moving back to Oxford with my parents and I don't exactly know what I'll be doing in six months. He takes my hand, caresses it and looking at me says "How would you like to be the one getting married?".
The question sounds like a highly hypothetical matter and since I don't like this kind of parties I reply laughing "Oh no, not at all! If I ever marry, I would like it to be in a simple ceremony... more private, definitely" and turn to lean on the ledge.
His face doesn't change, and without letting go of my hand softly but clearly says "Margaret Hale, would you marry me?"
That a good question deserves a good answer is something I firmly believe, even when it's a question I wish I didn't have to hear. I turn to face him, his washed blue eyes, his almost beardless face, his bony constitution... the only man I've known intimately, and this is ugly to confess, yet so unable to arouse me. During the past two years we've had sex more than enough times to know that it is simply unsatisfying, and that it didn't get any better with practice should be a good indicative that this is wrong. We are wrong. There shouldn't be a we, and I foresee the future stretching before us like a bleak mixture of boredom, coldness and withdrawal.
Blaming it on him would be an easy way out but I am not one to say "Look Henry, if you're unable to give me an orgasm then talking of marriage is ludicrous, don't you think?", which is true, but I guess I am half of it too. So I pick my words carefully when I reply "Henry, I think we're not for each other. We are good friends but I don't love you as a husband. I don't believe we'd be happy together and I'd hate to hurt you".
He tries to change my mind but I am firm, making it clear that we should stop seeing each other. He doesn't seem terribly put off by my rejection, sad or even annoyed. Matter of fact, I wonder if anything in his world changed at all.
What has changed for me is that I feel like I've lost one of the few friends I had. After the party I reflect while I finish packing my belongings for Oxford, I have a moment of regret and I wish this moment had come later, or never at all.