by Farah Mendlesohn
Everything changes for Ann Gray when her father dies and her closest friend Jane marries and moves away. Ann must give up the independence and purpose she found as mistress of her father’s parsonage in the country, and move to her uncle and aunt’s new-style house in the growing city of Birmingham. The friendship of Ann’s cousins – especially the mathematically inclined Louisa – is some compensation for freedoms curtailed. But soon Ann must consider two very different proposals, either of which will bring yet more change. Should she return to her village home as wife of the new parson Mr. Morden? Or become companion to the rather deliciously unsettling widow Mrs. King…?
58,500 words / 214 pages
Publication 1 November 2017
The parsonage was not a large one; little more than a cottage, really. Ann walked soberly down the stairs and into the parlour: tea did indeed await, as did a pile of toasted muffins – an unexpected treat. So too did her Uncle James – Joshua James Esquire, established toy merchant, of Digbeth, Birmingham. No more than Ann’s height, he was a stocky man with rich dark brown hair, and a red beard that betrayed his Welsh origins before he even opened his mouth to reveal a light Swansea lilt. He had a slightly flushed air that she knew he mourned: a strict teetotaller and Non-conformist, he did not like people to assume he had been drinking. He was a clever and genial man, one who enjoyed clever women, but had been mildly disappointed in his daughters. They had inherited much of their mothers’ gentility, and he felt they were not particularly interested in his business. With as yet only one very young son, therefore, he had always made time for Ann, whose interest in mathematics and enjoyment of the mundane occupation of the household accounts had charmed him.
He stood as she entered, and came to the door to take her hand and lead her to one of the seats arranged around the fireplace, which was not yet lit. The autumn had proved rather warm and golden this year, and filled the room with its own heat.
“Ann dear, you must be tired.” His look of grave concern cheered her. She had met him no more than once a year, each year of her life, and yet she knew she could trust him and that living in his household would be to enter into the same care and concern he showed all his dependants, whether of family or business.
“Thank you, Uncle James.” The tea had already been prepared by her aunt and Ann had only to sink into her seat and take the proffered tea dish from Meg. “I am tired. It seems absurd that sitting, reading and watching should be so tiring, but I would rather turn a dozen sheets.”
Another voice added itself to the conversation. “It is the waiting to mourn that is so enervating. It is a drain on the sensibilities when you cannot yet mourn and yet you know it to be inevitable.” The voice, with a mannered but distinctly Yorkshire accent, came from Mr. Morden, who was standing to one side of the door through which she had just entered. He must have been in the room already, Ann realised, but she had been so concentrated on her uncle that she had not perceived him. She turned to him to acknowledge his comment.
“You are insightful, Mr. Morden; that is exactly how I am feeling. There is a sense of loss, and yet a pause.”
He gave a slight bow and took a step forward in from the bookshelf where he had been perusing Mr. Gray’s collection of sermons, commentaries and Greek literature. Ann wondered if he was contemplating whether any of these books would stay with the parsonage. She wished she could reassure him that most would indeed do so. She rather liked Mr. Morden, although she knew that as her father’s curate, many in the village expected her to find him rather encroaching. Everyone knew he had been emplaced by Lord M___, in whose gift the parish lay, in the full expectation of succeeding to the living upon her father’s death. Ann had rather been gratified, however, by Mr. Morden’s clear respect for her father, and also for her. When he had first arrived, he had eagerly sought Mr. Gray’s intellectual engagement; upon realising that Ann, listening as she sewed, was alive to the conversation, he had let her father draw her in without bridling or even showing surprise. Ann had been pleased with his presence. Now she wondered how to reassure him on at least one matter, and realised that she could reassure both Mr. Morden and Uncle James in the same breath.
“Uncle James.” She turned back to him; he had now seated himself and was working his way through the toasted and buttered muffin that Meg had provided, courtesy of Mrs. Butler in the kitchen. “Uncle James, I know that I am not yet ready to think of this, but that soon we must. Mr. Morden is to take the parsonage, as we all know, and I would not wish to interfere with his accession more than necessary. I wanted to thank you for your kind offer of a home and to offer my grateful acceptance, at least for the interim.” Ann paused and noted that Uncle James, as predicted, seemed a little startled; she suspected that he had anticipated at least a token argument. After all, Ann had a decent portion from her mother and could expect to be at least as comfortable as her father had been: did he perhaps think she wished to set up her own establishment? At a mature twenty-seven years of age, Ann knew that was impossible, whatever she and her friend Jane had thought in their more romantic moments in their teens. Perhaps it was those schoolroom games that had led him to such thoughts? He had come upon them once ‘making house’ and laughed delightedly on learning that Jane was ‘playing husband’. But Jane now had a real husband of her own …
Ann turned away from the thought. Leaving here meant leaving Jane, and it was bearable only in the knowledge that Jane had in all reality, and whatever the promises she had made of letters and visits to come, already taken her heart to her new home.
The relief passing from his face, Uncle James responded with kindness. “Ann, you may stay with us for however long you wish. It will be your home. Your cousins are truly looking forward to receiving you. Indeed, Clara has been talking of nothing else for weeks – much as she, like your aunt and I, mourns the reason. One day perhaps, you may leave us, but until that day you will be welcome among your family.”
Ann noticed him glancing at Mr. Morden and, looking up, she caught a serious look on that young man’s face that startled her. She hid her face and decided to consider the implications later. Had the two been discussing her future? She had sought to indicate to him only that he would soon be able to move into the parsonage, but she supposed he must be almost thirty – a little slow, if anything, in selecting a bride and setting up his nursery. But then, unless a curate had an independent income, he would rarely be able to afford marriage. In contrast, a parson could hardly do without a wife if he was to conduct fully the business of the parish and to appear neat and well-cared-for each Sunday.
Ann, gazing down at her dish of tea and wondering if she wanted a slice of lemon with it – ah, the mundane thoughts that distracted the mind! – contemplated the possibility of marrying Mr. Morden for the first time as the two men returned to idle conversation about the quality of the local shooting.
He was a nice young man. She smiled inwardly; he was only a few years older than she, but twenty-seven suddenly felt old and grave. Six months of nursing her father had left her feeling as pale as the whitewashed scullery, as thin and enervated and unappetising as any of the invalid gruels she had made. She wondered if Mr. Morden was attracted by this Ann, or by the Ann she had been a bare two years ago – laughing, energetic, a romp. She locked such thoughts away and, without pausing to contemplate the other half of the equation or wondering why she did not, gave her mind to making approving noises to the conversation. It had turned to the agitation in the countryside against the Poor Laws and in the towns for electoral reform, a subject usually of reasonable interest for her if only because too many of the parishioners had been caught up by the law in riots and rick-burning in the past few years.
In the end, she stood it for the length of two dishes of tea and a muffin, and then for the time it took to add perhaps thirty stitches to the whitework handkerchief she kept in her pocket for such moments. Her anxiety for her father, and to an extent for her aunt, finally overcame her good manners and, leaving the two gentleman to continue to seek for commonalities – not easy for a Welsh Methodist merchant and a soon-to-be Church of England parson – she excused herself from the parlour and returned to the upper floors. Ann entered the room slowly and quietly, unsurprised to find her aunt asleep with her head on the covers of the bed. Gently, she placed a hand on her shoulder.
Mrs. James, clearing only dozing, raised her head, and Ann saw that she had been crying.
“Oh Ann, he was such a lovely boy. And such a happy and hearty man. I am a mere two years older than he, yet I never thought he would go before me.”
Thinking it a statement, Ann turned to her father, but to her relief he was still breathing.
Mrs. James continued. “We hope so much that we will die in God’s good order, but who knows what the Lord has in mind for him. Perhaps he will preach in paradise?”
Ann hid a sudden moment of laughter. If her father were to be truly rewarded in the next world it would be with a library of Greek literature and modern mathematics, and perhaps a little geology, and not a bothersome parishioner in sight! He had been a good man and a dutiful parson, but he lacked any true interest in the gospel. Ann suspected that Mr. Morden had been exasperated more than once by her father’s rather desultory sermons that wandered often on the wonders of the natural world and its mathematical perfections, and very rarely towards any kind of moral inspiration. The younger men she had met when her father had interviewed prospective curates had all seemed so much more enthusiastic than he, and once again her thoughts turned to Mr. Morden and towards his possible attentions to herself. If Mr. Morden were really entertaining hopes, could she see herself as the wife of the new kind of parson? She had met one or two of the breed. They were so pious! Her own religion, Ann knew, was of the older sort. She had no doubts there was a God – although she sometimes wondered if her father shared her conviction – but He was a distant figure. If He truly cared for every sparrow that fell, He didn’t seem to care that it fell. Had He done so, perhaps her mother would not have caught a fever from a sick cottager and burned up and died in less than a day. John might have come home from the war. Thinking on that did one no good at all, but it did mean that she had little comfort to offer her aunt or indeed any parishioner beyond the meaningful practicalities of winter food, fuel and other necessaries. She tended to feel that a nicely-patched pair of trousers was more comfort in the depths of winter than a prayer.
Sitting with Aunt James, she considered whether she dared to pull out a book, but even were she to take the volume of commentary she had in her pocket, she wondered if her aunt might not be shocked. Reading was thought somehow frivolous and disrespectful and implied that a nurse might not be concentrating on her charge; yet sewing, which was work and required as much concentration, was acceptable. She once more drew out the handkerchief from her pocket and, with an eye to her aunt who was now sitting with her eyes closed, began to insert stitches into the whitework pattern around the border.
Ann had made these handkerchiefs each autumn since she was a child; it was perhaps the simplest of the sewing she did. The handkerchief itself didn’t require much skill; it was a good way of re-using worn linens that were past their best. As her skills had increased, she had begun to decorate them and given them as gifts each Christmas to the men in the family, only to see the number of those decreasing. Now there was only Uncle James – her mother had had no brothers, and she had only female cousins – and she wondered how many handkerchiefs any man could use. Still, it and the others she had laid by might make good parting gifts for their friends in the village. Jane’s father might appreciate one and, as the local doctor, might even use it. She suspected that most of the other superior men in the village – the butcher, the yeoman farmers – would all find a whiteworked handkerchief as much use as a towel, even less in fact. Still, perhaps they might be converted by their wives into babies’ napkins.
It all came to nothing in the end. It was the act of giving that counted, she suspected, rather than the gift itself.
Ann realised that she was thinking herself into a melancholy, and then ruefully corrected herself; she had already done so.