• Eugenie's Story •
Swallowcliffe Hall 1893
This is the journal of Eugenie Vye: the prettiest debutante of the 1890 season, with hair she can sit on and a seventeen-inch waist – yet somehow three years later, still unmarried. Lord Vye’s daughter might be thought to want for nothing, but life isn’t easy on fifty guineas a year with a jealous stepmother watching one’s every move. Eugenie’s passionate nature and unerring ability to get hold of the wrong end of the stick land her in trouble as she follows her heart in pursuit of a husband: from elegant Swallowcliffe to the streets of fashionable London, by way of rural Ireland, glamorous belle époque Paris and an idyllic artists’ retreat at Giverny. She hurtles from one near-disaster to another, rescued only by a sense of humour, unquenchable optimism and her dear American friend Julia – until finally discovering love was right under her nose all along.
'Having already read two of the books in this series, I was not disappointed by this one. Slightly different as the title character is from 'upstairs' rather than below stairs but every bit as good. Would highly recommend.'
Fleur, Amazon UK
I decided it would be interesting to look at life from the other side of the green baize door which traditionally separates the aristocratic family from the servants who look after them, and chose to tell the story of Eugenie, the Vyes' elder daughter. Rather than being a straightforward character with whom the reader can instantly sympathise, Eugenie emerged as a self-conscious, self-centred young woman who has no idea of the struggles those around her may be facing. Her personality came about partly from the wonderful cover image I found as soon as I started writing, and partly from several of the Edwardian journals I read for research: notably 'Discretions and Indiscretions', by Lucy Duff-Gordon, and 'The Glitter and the Gold', by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. And yet I love Eugenie; I find her funny rather than irredeemably awful. (I've even narrated an audiobook version of her story.) It may be that nobody else likes her quite as much as I do, of course, but she still makes me laugh...
Here's an extract from 'Eugenie's Story':
Swallowcliffe Hall, 1893
Thursday, February 23rd
What a day of ups and downs! It feels as though I’ve been shown a vision of Paradise, only to have the gates slammed shut in my face. After so many months in mourning, finally a chance to turn towards the sun, to welcome beauty and joy back into my life. And yet my stepmother seems determined to thwart me. What can I have done to deserve such cruel treatment? For lack of any other confidante, I’ve decided to keep a note of my trials and tribulations in this journal so that in happier times – which one day must surely come – I can look back and remember the storms of my youth.
The first inkling of disaster came yesterday. Mama summoned me to her room before dinner: a request that filled me with vague foreboding, though I had no idea what was to follow. She acknowledged the tragedy that had befallen me early in life before saying now it was time to look to the future; after careful deliberation, she and Papa had decided I might enjoy a visit to stay with my cousin in India. ‘Connie sounded so much happier in her last letter,’ she added, insincerely.
‘India?’ I repeated, momentarily thrown. It took a few seconds for the full meaning of her words to sink in. Have I become the kind of girl who needs to be packed off there to find a husband? Eugenie Vye, generally admitted to be the prettiest debutante of the 1890 season? With hair I can sit on, and a seventeen-inch waist? I couldn’t restrain my outrage at the unfairness of the plan and jumped to my feet. ‘You can’t send me there! I simply won’t go.’
‘You will do as you’re told,’ came the icy reply. ‘And this hysterical response shows why such a trip is necessary in the first place.’ She leaned forward, grasping me by the wrist. ‘In a couple of weeks you will be twenty-two. Time is passing, my dear – you need to play your cards with care.’
As if she needed to tell me that! Yet her iron grip only emphasized my vulnerability. ‘But India is so unhealthy at this time of year,’ I said, struggling to speak calmly. ‘And the London season is about to begin.’
‘I suppose you needn’t leave straight away,’ she said, dropping my hand to beckon Agnes over with her jewellery case. ‘It will take a few weeks to arrange the details anyway. September might be a better time, when the rains are over and it’s not so hot.’
‘Yes, Mama,’ I replied dully. Returning to my room as if in a trance, I sat at the dressing table to await Bessie’s ministrations. Girls who go off to India come back leathery and shrunken, like a piece of old shoe leather – if they come back at all. The climate is too ghastly for words, Connie says, and ruins one’s complexion for good. I refuse to believe poor Connie’s happy; she’s only putting on a brave face so her family won’t worry. She is fortunate enough to have a mother who cares about her. This trip is all Mama’s idea, I’m sure of it; only someone outside the family who didn’t truly love me would dream of sending me away. Tears prickled at my eyes. Imagine the shame of it! Bessie looked at me pityingly which caused her to poke my scalp with a hairpin. She really is the clumsiest creature; I had to slap her hand to encourage her to concentrate.
By the time my toilette was finished, I had managed to rally a little. I have at least won a stay of execution, and surely by September I will have attracted a number of proposals from which to choose. In my first season, I had fifteen or more – most of them easy enough to turn down. Darling Freddie was different from the start. He told me he had fallen in love with the nape of my neck as I played the piano that summer evening in the drawing room at St James’s Square. I remember turning around to see his gaze upon me and smiling back, because he was so handsome and tall and charming, and I had already begun to have feelings for him myself: a sort of queer fluttering leap in my stomach whenever I saw him, or thought of him, or even were his name to be mentioned in company. I found myself blushing when he spoke to me, and the witty remarks that usually came so readily died on my lips. Not that it seemed to matter. We could communicate without speaking because our hearts were open to each other. I knew he would ask me to marry him, and I knew what I would reply when he did. The excitement of getting engaged in one’s first season! He was twenty-five, the son of the Earl of Brixham, and everything I could possibly have hoped for. It is heartbreaking to think he has already been dead twice as long as the entire period of our courtship. Is he to remain the love of my life? Will I ever find another to take his place?
Yet Mama is right in one respect at least: the past is over and now I must turn my energies towards the future. Admittedly I am no longer the young ingénue but perhaps I have other qualities to offer – a certain sophistication, the ability to make light-hearted conversation, an understanding of fashionable society. (And those long hours spent on the piano or busy with my embroidery must count for something.) I am worldly enough to know such assets are not sufficient, however; I need more tangible weapons in my armoury. A fashionable wardrobe is one of them. I have always admired my sister-in-law’s taste, so when Kate told Mama and me a few weeks ago she had discovered a wonderful dressmaker who came highly recommended by many of her friends, and asked if we would like to visit her too, I readily agreed. Kate is one of those rich American girls who seem to be everywhere in society nowadays, yet she prefers to buy her gowns in London rather than Paris and always manages to look attractive. In my opinion she could take a little more trouble over her hair, but she seems happy with her maid so I have refrained from commenting – discretion being the better part of valour.