Chapter One: A Most Humiliating Occupation
The crossing from Holyhead to Dublin had been relatively calm, but just as the Irish coast came into view, a contrary wind blew up. Wrapped in her black greatcoat, Mary Wollstonecraft clutched the railing and watched the sky go purple, the clouds turn grey. Her stomach churned, her breath quickened. Wind tossed the packet boat to and fro like a child's toy in a pond. "I am that toy," Mary shouted into the wind. "I am a vessel of fate!"
The words blew back to her like an echo, from the wailing sea.
Mary was on her way to Ireland to be a governessa most humiliating occupation. She was still reeling from a catastrophic love affair. She was deeply in debt to a pack of hungry creditors. Her mother was dead. Her younger sisters had failed at the teaching posts she procured for them; they were hammering at her gates for help. To appease them, she was about to be delivered into the hands of one of the most notorious families in Ireland, and all for the paltry annuity of forty pounds.
She thought of the pound of flesh exacted by Shakespeare's Shylock; she worried that the Anglo-Irish Lord and Lady Kingsborough would extort that pound from her. Oh, she did hope her employers would be kind.
"Ahh! The final blow: her beautiful new blue hat, the gift of a dear friendwhipped off her head by wind. She lunged for it. She teetered on a boot heel; pitched forward
A callused hand yanked her back on her feet. She glanced about, hoping to see the young clergyman who had engaged her in dialogue when she first boarded the vessel. But it was not Henry Gabell. It was a blue-jacketed, claret-haired sailor who handed over the drenched hat. "Powerful wind, eh, miss?"
Her feet more stable on the deck now, she thanked him and lifted her chin to show that Mary Wollstonecraft was not to be undone by a vagary of nature. In his solemn eyes she saw an appreciation for her person. "You're a brave one, you are, to be out here on the deck," he said in the thick brogue of the Irish peasant, "but 'twill blow over soon. I've seen the like. We'll be in port and headed for home, by the grace of God."
He spoke the word home longingly, as though he had been away a long time, and she asked if he had. Her spirits rose to be conversing with such a sturdy, well-formed lad. Men of her own class, she had lately discovered, were not only untrustworthybut downright boring.
"In the American Colonies," he said, "and then back over the seas again, and of late in England."
Mary was intrigued: The English newspapers had earlier announced the ascendancy of the rebel colonists. Boors, the London journalists called them, but if there was one trait she valued in man or woman it was a spirit of independence. She offered the sailor her opinion.
"And whose side did you favor?" she demanded. His thick hair was pulled back in the long pigtail of the common sailorwas the American Revolution fought, as well, by sea? She was not able to keep up with all the news. Or afford the papers that broadcast it.
It was the rebels who had his sympathy, he confidedin a half whisper as though an English officer might overhear and string him up from the yardarm for treasonous remarks. "An Irishman fight for the English? By Christ, I'd die first! His voice grew husky, passionate, although he continued to glance about for eavesdroppers. He was only a year in the Colonies, he allowed; he had won a few pounds in boxing matches, and purchased a bit of land in a place called Massachusetts.
"Where they had the Tea Party! she cried. She recalled talk of a Boston "tea party" that had eventually exploded into cannon shots. And then blood. She frowned to think of the blood. Her youngest brother, Charles, was talking of America. And having no other occupation, would probably go there and join the rebelsif, indeed, the bloodshed was over. Charles was no fighter; he wasn't much of anything, to tell the truth.
The sailor looked amused, then serious again. Someone was waiting for him in Ireland, he said; he would take her back to America with him. He was blushing as he spoke.
Mary liked a man who was able to blush. She liked a romantic tale, although she struggled against the sentiment in herself, and in her sisters, who had a predilection for mawkish novels.
But he was still talking.
"In good time, that is," he said with an upthrust of his squarish chin. First he had things to do in his native countryhe was a loyal patriot. He had been shipping between Ireland and England for ten months now, working toward his goal. He did not say what goal, but Mary suspected; she was aware of the Irish troubles. North Cork, for instance, where she was headed, had a long history of violence between rulers and ruled.
She smiled to show her support for his cause (and he was charming).
Mary had Irish blood herself on her mother's sidethough this fellow was probably Catholic; her late mother was from County Donegal, a long way north of the Mitchelstown castle where her daughter was about to be incarcerated. Was it a prison she was headed for? She had heard tales of the confinement for a governess: the control, the isolation. And what would happen when they discovered her poor French, her lack of skill with the needle? Her halting fingers on the keys of the pianoforte? The application had called for a woman proficient in all those skills, and desperate for the position, she had applied. And then had to beg her older brother, Ned, for guineas enough to buy cloth for a greatcoat. It was damp, they said, in Ireland, damper even than mouldy England. She shivered to think of it.
"Now where," the sailor asked, "would a young lady such as yourself be going in Ireland? To Dublin, I suppose? There's a fine theatre there, they say, though I never been. Nor can I," he added, holding out empty palms to show his lack of birth and funds. There was the flash of a dimple in his rugged cheek, a hint of scorn in the blue, blue eye.
Did she hear the slightest mockery when he said lady? He was looking at her shabby boots. Never mind. She vented her concern about being a governessan inferior sort of position, she added, neither fish nor fowl, neither lady nor servant. It was a species of nursemaid to three ungrateful and raucous (no doubt) young girls. "And in the bargain," she said hotly, glad for an unjudgemental ear, "vulnerable to ill treatment by Lord Robert Kingsborough, heir to an earldom, I'm told, and master of thousands of Irish acres in Mitchelstown and its hapless peasants."
She paused to draw breath. She might have exaggerated about the ill treatmentshe had only heard rumors about the family. But she made her point. The sailor nodded; his cheeks reddened as if he knew. Already the Kingsborough family had exploited her: she had been summoned to Eton College, that den of fancy dress and ridicule, to meet the girls who would be in her chargeto find the family already departed for Ireland. "And they left me to their son, George King, who handed me the fare as if I were some beggar girl, and then galloped off to play a match of cricket! Her brow ached to think of the young snippet.
The sailor listened intently, clucking his tongue, blinking his eyes; they were the colour of the sea (did he have salt water mixed with blood in his veins?). He seemed excited to hear her story, to hear the mention of Mitchelstown. He was about to speak when a burly seaman shouted his name: "Sean Toomey? You're wanted for'ard. And nodding an anxious apology, her sailor dashed off.
The storm appeared to subside as the packet sailed into the Bay of Dublin. But then the wind blew up again and kept the boat beating about the coast for the better part of an hour. Gusts of rain forced Mary back toward the ladder that led below decks. Grabbing at rope and rigging, she staggered about like the proverbial drunken sailor. She had almost reached the ladder when her sailor reappeared, thrusting something at hera letter? He pressed it into her hand. "Deliver it for me, I'm begging you," he pleaded, his face as white as his teeth, his cheeks blowing in and out.
The ship lurched and threw her against him; he gripped her shoulders and helped her to grab onto the ladder. She squinted down at the letter. For Liam. "Liam who?
Where does he live?" Mary called to the fellow, who had already turned away. "I'm only going to Mitchelstown, I said. Mitchelstown," she shouted over the screech of sails, the howl of wind, the hallooing seamen. In tiny letters at the bottom of the letter she saw it was to be delivered to a Liam in Mitchelstownthe reason, perhaps, for his pursuing the conversation. "Wait! You must find someone else to deliver it. Holding on to her hat with one hand, the rigging with the other, she reeled about to find him.
He was nowhere in sight. She was sorry now that she had told him her destination. If she could not find a Liam, so be it. She thrust the letter into the pocket of her greatcoat.
"Mercy! a woman cried, clapping a hand on her arm. "Look! She pointed toward the bowsprit. "Must of fell, eh, poor man?"
Mary glanced back to see a sailor plummeting into the water. Flying! She watched, incredulous, too shocked to speak. Down he flew like a wounded gull, somersaulting into the water. An outcry rose up: folk shouting, peering into the sea. It was her sailor; she was sure of it. That blaze of blue eye, the streak of claret hair.
The fellow did not come up at all. The sea had swallowed him whole.
"Ho! she shouted, racing along the deck. "Help! Man overboard. Go after himsomeonequick!"
Wind and surf drowned her words. Already the sailors were scurrying back to their dutiesnone would dare those churning waters.
She yanked on the sleeve of a passing steward and poured her anguish into his ear. He looked at her blankly. "I saw it," she said. "He was there on the bowsprit. He fell."
The fellow shrugged. "Lose their balance, they fall. Happen he'll float up on shore."
Something had flashed at the sailor's neck as he fell, she was sure of it. A knife? Or a shaft of light on a button
For the wind had abated as her sailor had predicted; the sun was pushing through the shredding clouds. She demanded to see the captain but was told it was impossible. "Not now," the steward said, "not when we're coming into port. He waved her off like a buzzing fly.
"Then take a note to him! He must search the waters," she cried, hanging on to his sleeve, offering half a crown (Was it her last?). To be rid of her, the man agreed.
She stumbled down the ladder, out of the sea spray, to write it. But even as she wrote, she knew the officer would only yawn. What was the death of an Irish sailor to an English captain?
The steward who came for the notegrudgingly, though he pocketed the coininformed her that a small boat would soon arrive for passengers who wished to disembark. Feeling a little better for having done what she could for the hapless sailor, she gathered her things and went out to watch the preparations for landing: the furling of sails, the unloading of baggage and mail sacks, the anchor splashing into the sea. And finally, a boat was on its way to the packet, rowed by six bareheaded men in checkered shirts and trousers.
Just as they were about to lower passengers into the boat, the clergyman, Henry Gabell, loomed up behind, his face polite and smiling. He was a man, she had recognized, of sensibility. Would they meet again? Oh, she prayed so. It was cruel going alone into exile. She was in desperate need of a friend.
"If you come to Dublin," Mr. Gabell said, a little offhand, but looking her in the eye, "we must meet. I'll be at this address when I'm off duty. He delivered a note into her palm and she felt the heat up in her cheeks, the spray warm on her face. She squeezed his hand and flashed her gayest smile. For a moment she was younger than her seven-and-twenty yearsalmost carefree.
Though carefree was not a word, was it, in her life's vocabulary? An eldest daughter in charge of five siblings since the remarriage of a spendthrift father. Her shoulders shrank with the responsibility of it.
The clergyman hurried down into the boat. The sun turned his queue of brown hair to chestnut. He was waving at a bonnet full of feathers on the distant pier. His mother? He had not mentioned a mother. A sister? Oh, she couldn't bear another deception. Though he was not all that attractive, was he? Protruding ears, a receding chin. She found her Irish sailor more appealing. Nay, already past tense, she thought, for where was he now? Food for fishes? Would they find his body? Surely he must have a mother waiting, or a sweetheart. She touched his letter, soaked with sea spray, wetting her greatcoat pocket (Would it weaken the uneven threads?), dampening her mood.
What was she to do with it?
She was hustled down into the boat and seated between two massive men. The word abducted came to mind as she was swept through mountainous waves toward land. The oarsmen sang as they rowed; her heart was a set of trap drums. She felt faint, breathless. The sailor was falling and falling behind her eyes; the knife flashed again and again. She was crossing the River Styx and on her way to the other side, her days already spent. Mary Wollstonecraft: 1759 1786. The epitaph bled into her shut lids.
And the letter: boring a hole in her pocket. Now she felt put upon. Where was she to find this Liam in a town full of Liams? Why, she knew half a dozen who had come to England to take menial jobs there! Why had this stranger assigned her such a task when already she had mountains to move? Was it her fault he had jumped off the ship?
Or was stabbedor pushed... Dear God. She shut her eyes to the possibility; she clasped her hands together. "Our Father who art in …" (She was not one for frequent prayer; of late she had spent her Sunday mornings among Dissenters. But now and then there came a need.)
Before she could finish the prayer, they were at the pier. She was jostled by hawkers, tinkers, begging children, pickpockets, painted prostitutes; claimed at last by a dour butler and his pockfaced wife. They had been sent, they said, frowning at her scuffed boots, her ripped hems, her soaked and shaggy hair, to accompany her to Mitchelstown Castle.
She was shoved like a sausage into a smelly post-chaise. "Someone up there," she pleaded, silently lifting her eyes, "help me to bear this!" The chaise jolted forward, the only response not from above, but from the round-bellied butler: A stentorian snore.
Chapter 2: Pandemoniumand a Missing Letter
Mitchelstown Castle loomed above the trees: a square Palladian house built of stone on the ruins of a medieval castle, complete with wings at its sides that led the eye up and up to the thirteenth-century White Knight's Tower. "Rapunzel, let down your hair," Mary whispered. She imagined herself imprisoned in that crumbling tower. But what white knight would come to free her?
The post-chaise rattled on past landscaped gardens, statued promenades, lakes, vineyards, conservatories, pastures filled with grazing cattle, woods replete with oak, beech, ash, and mulberry treesall of it, according to Dillard, the butler, part of the twelve hundred acres that surrounded the great house. The King family, Dillard informed Mary, had rebuilt the entire town: Protestant church, almshouse, orphanage, dairy, hospital, gaol. A river wound through the grounds; it deepened here and there into red sandstone whirlpools and then poured like a snake into a great waterfall. Lord Kingsborough owned the river, too, along with the swans, eels, turbot, and dragonflies floating in it.
No doubt, Mary thought, he owns the birds flying overhead, and the seven blue-green mountains of the Galtees that surround the land. A great lord indeed, and still in his early thirties.
But there was something about the place that froze the blood. She felt swept through the great gates as if entering the Bastille, the cold and gloomy Parisian prison that turned one to stone; to a living death.
She repinned the blue hat on her pounding headit had been knocked off some twenty times during the three-day journey from Dublin to Mitchelstown in County Corkand stumbled out of the coach. She twisted an ankle, was caught by Dillard, who was wide awake now. He was a middle-aged Englishman who spoke with a Yorkshire accent. His Irish wife, Nora, the housekeeper, was plump and plain, perhaps a decade his junior. Taking Mary's other arm, she muttered something in a thick brogue that seemed a warning; the words were inaudible against the cacophony at the main entrance where an army of housemaids, nursemaids, scullery maids, and grooms were pouring out on either side of the steps to greet her.
To greet her? Ha! She drew back. The great lord himself was emerging from a blue-and-gold carriage, assisted by a pair of simpering footmen. A rangy, elegantly dressed man, he sprang up the marble steps; the servants humbled themselves. Catching sight of Mary, his eyes widened as if to say, Ah, yes, there was some creature supposed to arrive today.
His unsmiling eyes took in her soiled person from skewed blue hat to mud-caked boots. Finding her wanting, he murmured: "Sorry, madam, but my wife is confined to her bed with an ague. I was to greet you but your coach is long overdue, and in a moment I must be off again. Affairs to tend to, I'm afraid. My people here will see to your needs. He waved vaguely at the assembled crew. A pack of yapping dogs raced out of the castle as he entered; his foot lifted as if to kick one aside.
Before she could mount the marble steps, a hurly-burly of children, along with a dozen dogs, surrounded her like gypsies. They looked her over, giggling, then raced around the front garden and back up the steps. Like wild Irish, she thoughtthe worst kind. Why had she come?
She knew why, she did not want to think about it. The staff shrank backwards into the house, leaving their party to enter alone. Exhausted, her nerves popping like fleas, she hung on the housekeeper's arm.
The place was in pandemonium. Children and servants were running in every direction, scolded now and then by the housekeeper; Mary hoped she would not have to learn all their names. She was mainly to concern herself with the three older girls: Margaret, Carrie, and Polly. A tall, awkward-looking girl with large, pale arms folded across her chest scowled at her, then dashed off into an adjoining room. Margaret? Such a lanky, disagreeable-looking child! Mary understood at once that, as governess, she was to be the enemy.
Her attention was caught by a manservant who was sweeping the great staircase as he descended, with his wig. At the bottom, he clapped it on his head and a cloud of dust rose up. Maidservants scurried past with mops, pails, dusters, and trays. A big-bosomed woman hurtled towards her. Mary's first impression was of a canary with a birdcage on its head. The Canary managed to lisp out its life history in practically a single breath:
"I am fifth cousin to Lady Kingsborough. My husband is the agent herehe oversees the tenants. No rackrenting, I assure you, my stars, nowe never exploit! My husband Willard, like Lord Kingsborough, is bent on improving the lot of the peasant. You can see already what milord has done. Stone houses for the staff, wood and slate cottages for some of the tenants. Soon we'll have all the mud hovels replacedthough they're never grateful, those peasants. She gasped between phrases (due to her tight stays, no doubt), and stared accusingly as though Mary had argued some contrary viewpoint.
Mary felt a sigh coming up out of her toes. She wanted to unpack, that was all, to wash and change into a fresh gown. She was still itching from flea bites at the inns they had slept in during the tedious trip to Mitchelstown. She longed for a nap. Only then, if then, might she be ready to face down the gaggle of feathered Ascendancy ladies peering out at her from the drawing room.
The Canary gave a toothy smirk, pulled at a jade earring, and announced that milady wished to meet the new governess. "Lady Kingsborough is in beda monstrous wicked throat, you know. You had best keep your distance. When Mary frowned, she squealed: "Oh, I suppose you're tired from the journey. But you must greet her. Milady does not, I repeat, does not like to be kept waiting."
With each not, her extended palms pushed the new governess a step backward. Was Mary to go or stay?
A small boy came running after a white poodle; the dog reversed direction, jumped up at Mary, and the sailor's letter fell out of her greatcoat pocket. "Careful now, Tommy," the housekeeper, Nora, said, patting his blond head. She picked up the note. "Liam," she murmured, almost caressing the name, as though it were familiar to her. She held out her arms for the greatcoat and returned the letter to its pocket. She ordered one of the running maidservants to "take it to the governess's bedchamber. And be quick about it."
"Do you know a Liam in these parts?" Mary asked, though in a half-hearted way, for she was quite overcome by this household: its size, smells, the sheer volume of it.
The housekeeper was wary. She glanced at the Canary who was whispering to the maidservant who was now cradling Mary's homemade greatcoat. "Liam," Nora said softly. "'Tis a common enough name."
"Her ladyship is waiting," sang the Canary. She wheeled about and her birdcage listed sideways; her whirling skirts and petticoats stirred up a small windstorm.
Mrs Cutterby, for that, Mary was informed, was the Canary's name, curtsied deeply at the door of milady's bedchamber. "Say yes to everything," she told Mary. And curtsying again with a birdlike squeak, she withdrew.
"No," Mary replied when the viscountess asked if she'd had a pleasant journey. Already Mary had decided that she would present a forthright face to this turbulent household. She added a word or two of description about the previous night's innher flesh was still crawlingand to her surprise, Lady K laughed.
Lady K lay sprawled on satin pillows in a rose-coloured dressing gown, her hair full of feathers as though the pillows had come undone in a wind and exploded about her face. She was pretty, Mary had to admit, with her milky skin and mahogany hair, her fine-boned face, full lips, ebony eyebrows plucked in a high curve to suggest an air of innocence. A small, round black patch was stuck on beside her nose. Mary stifled a laugh.
The bed was a helter-skelter of stuffed animals, satin puffs, vials of rosewater, and cough medicine. An assortment of pet lapdogs stared at the visitor for an indecisive moment, then set up a high-pitched yapping that split the eardrums. The smell of unwashed flesh and perfume was more than Mary could bear. She looked longingly at the mullioned windows where breaths of air filtered through, and flattened herself against the oak door. Another snuffling sound issued from the bed.
Was the governess being laughed at?
"We all have our crosses to bear," said the lady. She was thinking perhaps of her brood of twelve children, the eldest born, Mary had heard, when she was not yet sixteen. "But you will find your room quite comfortable, I dare say, Miss Wollstonecraft. If there is a problem, pray bring it to the attention of the housekeeper. She did not want to hear the complaint. A cross-looking toy bulldog licked milady's neck and the lady giggled again, titillated by the scratchy tongue. "Thweetum," she lisped, and hugged it to her breast.
Did the dozen offspring, Mary wondered, receive the same affection as these foolish dogs? And startled, she jumped aside when a poodle lifted its tail at her feet.
"No novels for the girls," Lady K ordered. "An hour each morning on French and Italian: they must be able to speak it to the chambermaids when we travel on the continent. They must wear their backboards, yesnever mind pleas to the contrary. I do not want them growing up hunched over like peasants! And do not neglect the needle and the pianoforte. Oh-h-h, I've a wicked headache. Pray, go. I cannot speak another word right now."
She dismissed Mary with a wave of a pale, ringed hand.
Mary was only prepared to inform the heads and psyches of her pupils. And this, she vowed to do.
She hurried along the gallery with its parade of ancestral portraits staring scornfully down on her inferior person. She hustled up one flight of stairs and down another, made three wrong turns and screeched out her frustration. Finally, with the help of an amused servant girl, she arrived at the governess's bedchamber.
Lady Kingsborough was correct on one point: the room was comfortable. Her glance took in a bed with rose-coloured damask curtains, a night table with a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums, a stool, a chaise longue. And ah, a writing table on which she would place her quills, pot of ink, and paper. With two or three candlesticks, she should be able to read and write deep into the night. A fire burned cheerfully in the grate; the window offered a stunning view of the Galtees Mountains. The highest peak was capped with pink clouds, giving a look of great eminence.
Beyond the carefully manicured grounds lay the decaying Irish bogs. The sight of them brought Mary back to her own years of hand-to-mouth living. To a mother worn out in her early forties from childbearing, and too exhausted to show affection to her offspring. "A little patience and all will be over," were her mother's last words.
But what time had Mary for patience? Her life here was a stopgap, a means of making a few guineas to support her future as authoress. For this she determined to be. Authoress. The word rang sweetly in her ear. Should she tell Lady K that she had a book soon to be publishedon the education of daughters? A book full of advice and methods that milady would disapprove?
No, she would hold back on the telling. First, she would win over the daughters and then, before her departure from this bastille, offer a copy of the bound book. She laughed aloud to think of the feathered head bobbing in disbelief. The lowly governess, an author?
Energized, she unpacked her portmanteau, stowed her two hats on a shelf: the old beaver, and the blue one made by a friend "to dazzle the Irish with. The maidservant had hung up her coat. She felt in the pocket and a few shillings dropped out, along with the note bearing Henry Gabell's Dublin address. She wondered again about the young woman he had greeted so warmly. Then she dismissed the thought.
But where was the sailor's letter? She had made the pocket too shallow. Her poor sewingone of her failings. She fumbled for the letter.
Nothing there! She turned the pocket inside out, but saw only the silk lining for which she had paid so dearly. But who in this house would want that letter? Or did it drop out again when the maidservant brought it to the room?
She was too weary to search for it. Exhaustion was piling up, like the darkening clouds on the mountain top. Somewhere below stairs a fiddler was playingsomething slow and squeakynot a cheerful noise. It seemed only to point up the transience of this rich house, the bleak miles of bog. We are all here as servants, she reminded herself: cook, housekeeper, butler, footmangoverness. We are here to serve one end: the comfort and whims of its autocratic owners.
Governesses, she had heard, constituted one of the largest classes of insane women in asylums. The thought was not at all comforting.
She was in no mood now to write to her siblings. Instead, she wrote in her journal a few words about the last days' events that her sisters would not want to hear. They would disapprove, for instance, of her having spoken to that sailor; disapprove of the letter she carried for him and that, for some reason, was now missing.
She undressed and made her nightly ablutions in a bowl of cool water, used the blue chamber pot, and collapsed onto the bed. Behind closed eyes her body was jounced as if she were still in that carriage. She was hurtled out of control; she was dragged into a damp and desolate bog.
© Nancy Means