In my book The Lady in the Veil, my villain takes the form of a woman. Lady Jane Talbot is as shrewish as possible, avid for gossip, scheming and altogether nasty. How she came to be married at all, and to such an amiable man as George Talbot, is amazing.
Here, I describe their first meeting and subsequent engagement.
The year had been 1817. Her father had taken her to Chelsea, to Ranelagh Gardens[i], prompted by a sudden urge to visit the pleasure ground of his youth. His outrage and dismay upon finding it demolished, with only a rough-strewn field of nettles and rubble where he had spent so many happy—and dissolute—hours in former years had brought a sort of convulsion upon him. She had looked on in helpless despair as her father had stamped and raged, his face turning from a wrathful white to an apoplectic red and finally to a dark, suffused shade of heliotrope. The coachman had been unable to persuade the earl back into his conveyance or to procure medical aid. A small crowd had gathered—snot-nosed boys and shabby-looking labourers, a gaggle of women on their way to the public wash house—none of whom had provided assistance or advice but who had merely stood by as though the earl were an escaped inmate from Bedlam. Lady Jane had scant love for her father or sympathy for his display of childish truculence but she did very much mind being the object of such public curiosity and embarrassment. She had been on the very verge of her own display of hysterics, which would have ill-become any young lady, when a sole rider—a gentleman—had come to her rescue. Dismounting quickly, he had thrown the reins to a by-stander, barked a rebuke at the groom and hoisted the earl from the road. A coin flung in the direction of the least wily-looking on-looker had summoned a medical man and a brusque gesture had dispersed the other gawping by-standers to their business. The immediate crisis dealt with, the gentleman had turned on Lady Jane a smile of such winning pleasantness that it banished utterly her horror and dismay but replaced it with something almost as violent. She blushed, stammered her thanks, felt her heart fluttering with unwonted puissance in her breast and at last swooned, but not before taking the three or four steps required to ensure that his arms would catch her.
Their courtship had been short; three or four calls to enquire for the earl, a chance meeting at the home of a mutual acquaintance, a ball and a ride in the park had been all the intercourse needed to persuade Lady Jane that a marriage between them would add materially to her happiness and satisfaction. George Talbot was a widower, well-respected in the mercantile sphere, and wealthy. At twenty-six he was still a young man. To be sure, he was encumbered with two children—half Indian, if you please—and had no name of note, no title, no blood. He cared nothing for these things, insisting in his thoroughly good-humoured but altogether sincere way that he esteemed his master of horse more highly than any marquis he had ever met and that a duke was just a man like any other when reduced to his under drawers.
‘I think I can meet most men of rank face to face and pound for pound,’ he declared.
His attitude was singular but then he was unlike any gentleman she had ever met. In comparison to her sisters’ husbands he was extraordinary; confident, worldly and uninhibited. His oddness was universally forgiven, however, even by the baronets and earls he despised; he was popular with gentry and common folk alike. And he was handsome, although grief, it was murmured, had stolen the full bloom of his beauty away.
Lady Jane was no beauty, she knew that, and at twenty-nine it was not to be supposed her personal attractions would increase. Her nature—she had been told, by her sisters and several governesses—was sullen, bitter and resentful. But George Talbot was of that irrepressibly good-humoured disposition that can overlook the surliness of others. Lady Jane decided that if he would live with her shortcomings—and she made little attempt, after their second or third meeting, to disguise them—she could accommodate herself to a man who, in the eyes of her sisters and her papa was nobody, even if a rich nobody. Where there was money—and there was a great deal in this case—inconvenience and incompatibility need be no barrier. She was a Lady, she was his superior in birth, but she was not stupid; it was unlikely that any other offer would come her way.
She had acceded to his proposal with ladylike grace and the sufficient quantity of blushing reticence before putting aside such silliness in favour of business-like pragmatism. So much good, she decided, would come to Lady Jane Talbot that had evaded Lady Jane Brougham, and she made her stipulations. The house in Grosvenor Square must be made-over; it was old-fashioned and gloomy, the furniture altogether spartan and the kitchens by no means sufficient to entertain le bon ton to the dinners and balls Lady Jane hoped to hold. She must have a house in Brighton for the summer season. Fashionable society flocked there now that the Prince Regent’s pavilion was complete. She would not endure the dullness of Ecklington, the Talbots’ country seat, for more than a few weeks at Christmas. She must have her own carriage. So much for the outward manifestation of all that would accrue to her on her marriage. As for the private expressions of marriage, well, the unpleasantnesses of the matrimonial bed had been endured by other women before her and she was sure she was equal to them; she set her face to endure it. A small voice she would barely acknowledge whispered that even that, with him, might not be so awful, but she rebuked it. To submit physically to the objectionable exigencies of the nuptial bed was one thing; to have her heart subjugated would be worse. She would not endure it; she would be nobody’s vassal.
[i] Ranelagh was a pleasure ground opened by the proprietor of Drury Lane Theatre, where masquerades, concerts and entertainments were provided during the later eighteenth century. It is now the site of the Chelsea Flower Show.