The Dressmaker by Posie Graeme-Evans
By SMW Staff
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.
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.”
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