IT WAS the season of Advent and the night was blade sharp. Ground-glass white was the frost, and the eyes and noses of London were bright with cold.
It had become late. The market streets of that great metropolis, that city of cities, were emptying as lanterns and lights were staunched without and within the shops and houses. Drays and carts and private carriages rattled away, the harsh crash and grind of iron on stone, and as their noise departed, so too did the wash of human voices. London, heaving with trade and plenty and paucity, would settle soon into the freezing, star-strewn dark and sleep without protest in promise of the Christmas to come.
In a fashionable part of town a little removed from the rowdy vigor of commerce, a hired carriage waited outside of 38 Berkeley Square. A tall and elegant building, number 38 stood among a row of similar mansions. As with its neighbors, stone steps mounted to a black-lacquered door as glossy as pitch or tar. But a brass plate beside the bellpull—so small as to be almost a label—distinguished this establishment from its companions. Engraved upon it were the words:
CHEZ MISS CONSTANCE
MADAME ELLEN GOWAN
MODISTE & MANTUA MAKER
Number 38, then, was a place of trade and not a family dwelling, a singularity in a handsome square such as this.
The carriage horse snuffled. Her master rubbed the mare’s ears and said, “Not so very much longer.” Theirs had been a cold wait. The driver, a Kentishman, could smell the frost descending; soon the cobbles would wear a silver coat.
A slant of light splashed gold to the man’s feet. A visitor was departing from a house close by. Voices carried in that unmoving air.
“Compliments of the Season. Good night, good night!”
The coachman sniffed. He muttered, “Indeed it is. For some.” He would have liked to be as pink and happy and fat as that cheerful gentleman. The cold of this night might be tolerable with so much lard beneath the waistcoat.
“To you also!” This from the host and his lady—he in tartan trews of red and green, she in velvet of a violent, unflattering purple. The first notes of a polka began in the upstairs drawing room as the butler closed the door, restoring the night to its proper place outside his master’s house. Music and laughter were contained within once more, and the square decently returned to dense, cold quiet.
The horse coughed. She lipped at the coachman’s nose and stamped, breathing a chaff-smelling cloud above her old friend’s head. This exhalation of the beast, at least, was warm. The man laughed at his companion’s attentions. He might not be a fine, portly gentleman but still, there was much to be grateful for—compared to some. His coat was thick and he had a low-crowned hat crammed upon his head and a muffler about his throat. When driving around these winter streets, it was important to have a warm head. His boots were serviceable, too, unlike the shoeless wretches who would sleep on the streets and in the doorways of the city tonight. Their naked feet would be pinched white in this cruel weather. So many were destitute, even in wealthy London. The children affected him most. But what could he do, one man among so many?
The coachman shivered. But the truth past the philosophizing was this: He and the mare had been waiting for two quarters of an hour past the time he had been instructed to return.
The bells at the Abbey had just sounded the half. Soon it would be midnight. The horse snuffled her master’s coat. Was there just one more treat hidden in those capacious pockets? The man shook his head. “Sorry, lass. Not even a morsel’s left.”
The wrenching of frozen hinges announced the door of number 38 had opened. A tall man stood out upon the steps. His face was shadowed but his words, a freight for silver breath, carried to the coachman. “Madame, it remains only to wish you the very best of good nights.” The well-dressed gentleman spoke in English but with a bold French accent. “After this most delightful of evenings, be sure I shall count the moments until I may return. All felicitations of the season. Adieu.” An elegant bow, a flourish of the hat, and the Frenchman made his departure. He moved with the grace of a dancer. Few men walked as elegantly as he. Perhaps he was conscious of the fact.
Having pulled down the carriage step, the coachman stared respectfully ahead until his passenger, in a flurry of coat skirts, climbed inside. The equipage rocked and settled upon its straps. Knocking the head of his cane against the roof, the man called out, “The business is concluded. For now. Remove me, driver.”
“Certainly, Sir.” All cabbies are trained to discretion, but privately the coachman wondered about the man’s half laugh as he spoke, his not-quite-pleasant tone. He clambered to his seat and gathered the reins in fingers stiff with cold.
“Around we go, lass.” He turned the carriage gingerly on the glassy roadway. A movement caught his eye. The door of number 38 had been closed and the outside lantern staunched, but a lady’s hand was at the curtain in an upstairs window. A prickle at the nape of his neck told him they were being watched.
The cabbie touched the mare’s shoulder with his whip’s thong and sharp echoes bounced back from the dwellings on either side as they rolled away. He was convinced that if he were to look back, the lady in the upstairs room would be staring after them still. The man shivered, and it was not because of the cold.
• • •
Ellen Gowan turned from the window. The soft net fell to its place with a sigh, a film against the obsidian pane. There was no light in the room, no fire or candle, but Ellen could see her image well enough. It was reflected in the dressing glass on her table. Why was her appearance unchanged? Tonight her carefully constructed world had been taken apart, remorselessly torn into small and then smaller fragments. And yet she looked as she always did. She found that odd. And suddenly it was too much.
“Oriana. Can you hear me? Help me, I beg of you! Oh, please.” The wail of a lost child. Hearing herself, Ellen almost broke—she who had not cried since . . . “No!” Hand-heels ground against bone yet these, her eye-sockets, were strong enough. Dams to hold back grief. “I will not!” She would push the tears behind the orbs of her eyes, hold them inside her body. She would not cry.
Polly knocked softly. “You need not be alone.” Standing in the passage outside Ellen’s room, Polly’s candle outlined the shape of the door. Like water, light, once introduced, will not be denied.
Ellen did not immediately reply. Her throat constricted even as she said, “Go to bed, Polly.”
On any other night, Ellen might have opened the door to her friend. There is solace in an orderly life, chatting amiably while plaiting one’s hair for sleep. But not tonight.
Polly’s silent shuffle was eloquent. Ellen could hear her breathing. “I know how upset you are. That man . . .”
“No!” Ellen modified her tone. “I cannot talk of—” She stopped. And then, “Sleep well, dearest Polly.”
“We will come through this, Ellen. We always have before.”
A pause and the footfalls departed. Distantly, Polly’s door creaked open and closed with its accustomed click.
In her room, Ellen’s eyes adjusted to the dark. Slowly, as if emerging from water, she made out her reflection in the looking glass again. The white part of her eye glittered briefly as she moved close to the dressing table. She saw her face as a painter might—the shapes and volumes and planes, the suggestion of color to the mouth and eyes. Was she pretty? He had said she was, tonight. No, he had said, exquisite and beautiful. Such compliments were abuse from his mouth.
“Enough!” At last, rage made its appearance and Ellen rejoiced. Scarlet fury brought a rushing tide of energy, one that rode high in her chest and shortened her breath. But this was from strength, not dumb misery.
Ellen fumbled over to the mantelpiece and found the vestas and the silver candlestick with its honey-smelling, country-smelling, garden-of-her-childhood-smelling candle. This was the first brave luxury she had allowed herself as things improved. Beeswax instead of tallow, even in the bedrooms. The vigorous click-scritch as she struck light to the wick was just as it should be, a normal sound on this most abnormal of nights. She touched the flame to the ready-laid fire, a further act of defiance.
Ellen Gowan would not cringe and cry in the dark. She would be warm for she had earned the money so to be. Let there be fire! Let there be candles, not one but several!
And as the coals caught from the wood shavings artfully placed among them, Ellen stood in the very center of her gracious room, a branch of candles in her hand. Slowly she turned and allowed the pliant flame to illuminate all those things that she, and she alone, had placed there. The gilt-framed paintings, the bound books in their presses, the splendor of the carpet beneath her handmade shoes.
She was the famous, some might say the notorious, Madame Ellen Gowan, creator of gowns and all manner of finery to the ladies of the most prominent families of England, the Great Six Hundred. She had worked for her renown, sacrificed so much, and she would not allow him to destroy her work, or her life. Not again.
Distantly, the hour began to chime. Ellen stood at her window and stared out at the sky, spangled with stars. One, two, three . . . “He shall not take what he wants. Do you hear me, Oriana? I shall not let him take it.” Four, five, six . . . “I shall send him back to the past.” Seven, eight . . . “He belongs there.” Nine . . . “Mine is the future.” Ten . . . “I shall claim the future. As you wanted me to.” Eleven . . . “And I shall not be afraid.” Twelve. Midnight.
Ellen pushed up the heavy window sash and leaned out. The moon rode high above Berkeley Square and its light found diamonds in the flagstones, turning the world to silver. In that transformation was magic. Or sorcery.
But there was power in this glinting world ruled by the moon, and mystery in its shadows. Ellen was not afraid of the London night, it had proved a friend in the past.
And yet nothing on that frozen midnight was as it seemed. Least of all Madame Ellen Gowan.
Ellen Gowan is the only surviving child of a scholarly village minister and a charming girl disowned by her family when she married for love. Growing up in rural Norfolk, Ellen’s childhood was poor but blessed with affection. Resilience, spirit, and one great talent will carry her far from such humble beginnings. In time, she will become the witty, celebrated, and very beautiful Madame Ellen, dressmaker to the nobility of England, the Great Six Hundred.
Yet Ellen has secrets. At fifteen she falls for Raoul de Valentin, the dangerous descendant of French aristocrats. Raoul marries Ellen for her brilliance as a designer but abandons his wife when she becomes pregnant. Determined that she and her daughter will survive, Ellen begins her long climb to success. Toiling first in a clothing sweat shop, she later opens her own salon in fashionable Berkeley Square though she tells the world – and her daughter - she’s a widow. One single dress, a ballgown created for the enigmatic Countess of Hawksmoor, the leader of London society, transforms Ellen’s fortunes, and as the years pass, business thrives. But then Raoul de Valentin returns and threatens to destroy all that Ellen has achieved.
In The Dressmaker, the romance of Jane Austen, the social commentary of Charles Dickens and the very contemporary voice of Posie Graeme-Evans combine to plunge the reader deep into the opulent, sinister world of teeming Victorian England. And if the beautiful Madame Ellen is not quite what she seems, the strength of her will sees her through to the truth, and love, at last.
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Reading Group Guide
Ellen Gowan’s childhood in the wilds of Norfolk is a happy one. Ellen’s parents are deeply in love, and their quiet family life is rich with affection and respect yet poor in worldly goods. But a tragic accident on Ellen’s thirteenth birthday changes the course of her childhood forever, and Ellen must find courage and strength of will beyond her years to face the hardships that follow. But undeniable artistic talent, wit, and an indomitable spirit carry her from Norfolk to London, and in time she is transformed into Madame Ellen: dressmaker to the nobility of England, the Great Six Hundred.
Beautiful Madame Ellen is burdened by the secrets she has been forced to keep along her journey, ones that could destroy the success and happiness she has fought so hard to create. She will need all that she has—will, strength, talent, and passion—to find and hold a place for herself in an unforgiving era in which women’s involvement in the world of business is a rarity.