Chapter One: It Begins

I was born Evelyn Claire Douglas on June 8th, 1829 to a Scottish immigrant to the United States named Alfred Douglas and his wife, the former Elizabeth Anne Montgomery, a beauty of the highest degree and a second generation “American” from Pennsylvania.  Their marriage, arranged as all proper upper middle class marriages were, was less than happy.  My father, a merchant by trade, had made quite a living for himself in cotton manufacturing in the years after the war of 1812 after Frances Lowell had created America’s first power loom and harnessed the power of the Charles River using the Waltham method of mass production manufacturing. It was rumored that my father had decided at the age of 46 that it was time to take a wife and so had essentially bought my mother for a rather fantastic sum of money from her parents who were heavily in debt over their magnificent Philadelphia estate as a result of the Panic of 1819.  After removing her to his home in Massachusetts, he went about creating an heir for his little textile empire, a pursuit I hear that he performed with great gusto.  I was the result. 

To say that my father was disappointed would be a gross understatement.  As a female, my ability to inherit and run the family business would be severely hampered.  For a brief time, my father put all of his heart into a second try for an heir, but I am told that any hope of further children was ruined by the fact that my mother would not allow him into her bed again after his third affair was made public to her.  My parents were sublime Victorian actors, performing their social duties on the local stage for the world to see with great skill.  Fetes and dinner parties and balls, all accomplished with the illusion of peace and harmony, if not love.  Behind closed doors, however, my mother was ruled by grief and my father by his sexual conquests.  Two separate rooms, two separate beds, two separate lives.  I was caught between them.

My father was a rather large, outspoken man who continually extolled the virtues of the Scotsman to anyone who would listen to his thick, guttural brogue.  Mostly bald and gray headed by the time I can consciously remember him, my father’s large nose and ruddy cheeks made him appear more jovial than he was in reality.  He valued punctuality above all else, aside from the female form and a bottle of good Scotch.   

One of my earliest memories of my father occurred in November of 1833, during the Leonid meteor shower.  I had been roused from my bed by the commotion raised by the servants throughout the house.  I heard words like “apocalypse” and the “wrath of God” shouted about.  It was almost as bright as daylight outside my window and I left the warmth of my bed to see what the noise was about.  From the window of my nursery I could see that the meteors fell by the thousands, appearing as if all of the stars were falling from the heavens.  It was beautiful to my childish eye.  I had been forgotten it seemed, in the chaos that ensued.  The nursery fire had burned down to bright red coals in the grate.  My fingers and toes were numb with cold, but I continued at the window for what seemed like hours, my face pressed against the glass, watching the display with wonder.  In reality, it must not have been long before the door of the nursery opened and my father entered.   Seeing me at the window seat alone, he grabbed a blanket off of my bed and sitting me in his lap, he wrapped me in its warmth and proceeded to explain meteorology to me.

My father loved me.  I knew this.  However, I also knew that Father saw the practical side of things.   I was a plaything of sorts when I was young, but as I grew older, my father was not quite sure what to do with me.  He could not take me hunting.  He could not teach me his trade.  We grew apart.  I did not take it personally, as this was how life was.  One could spend one’s life grieving this fact, or resign oneself to living it. 

Eventually, my father grew to view me as an asset, an enticement which he could use to lure and to control his eventual replacement.  Perhaps he threw himself into the task primarily to attempt to assuage his guilt over his wife’s extreme unhappiness.  Nevertheless, much effort and money was spent grooming me into the perfect mate.  Charm, grace, beauty:  these things could be taught and contrived with the proper amount of education and the right application of colorful, fashionable dress, as he believed.  I was given private lessons in Latin, French, philosophy, rhetoric, art, religion, and mathematics.  My father reasoned that this would groom me into an adroit conversationalist and a better mother for his future grandsons.  I would also receive lessons in piano, dance, and proper etiquette.  A long line of governesses and tutors streamed through our large brick house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   If I were the perfect mate, he would obtain the perfect son-in-law.

To occupy my mother’s ample time, she began to visit the ill in the community, with special attention to new mothers.  My mother undertook to give me an education of another kind entirely and as soon as I could walk, she insisted that I accompany her in order to “witness the plight of my species in the world”.  Even at this stage in her life, my mother was beautiful and carried herself with authority and grace.  I admired her.  In order to pointedly show my father what he was missing out on, my mother insisted on clothing herself in the most daring costume allowed by society, and was gifted at showing off her best.  Her dark, raven hair had been passed to me, as well as her fair complexion and delicate features.  I had learned early from her to be a silent observer of the world around me, artfully manipulating that world from behind corset and bonnet.  

My mother attended virtually all of the births in our modest town, despite the fact that it was beneath her station to do anything more than offer support.  Thus, it was at the early age of eight that I was allowed to witness my first birth at the modest home of one of the poorer women of the community.  It was her sixth child.  I watched wide eyed as the poor thing writhed and screamed, blood mixing with sweat, until finally a squirming purple thing was produced by the midwife from between the woman’s legs, followed shortly by the meaty afterbirth.  The child was promptly placed upon her bosom in order to suckle and we, mother and I, slipped quietly away.  On our short ride home in the carriage, I mulled over the scene I had witnessed and finally understood completely the sermon I had heard several Sundays previously espousing childbirth as a women’s payment for introducing sin into the world in the Garden of Eden.  On arrival back at our house, I promptly ran to my school room and read and reread the first chapters of Genesis in order to better understand what could possibly have warranted such treatment by God.  I concluded that Eve’s two faults were first believing a lie and second loving a man.  I resolved to never allow this to befall me.  

The next day I returned with my mother to this woman’s home, this time bearing gifts of milk and fruit and a fresh, plump chicken, as well as fresh linens for mother and baby.  While still confined to bed, as she would be for the next two weeks, it was clear that this mother was now quite relieved and rather pleased with herself and her new baby girl.  The woman allowed me to hold the little one for a few minutes as she slept, wrapped tight in white linen, squirming unconsciously now and again, as if in a dream none of us could see or understand.  What would she grow up to become?  Would she grow up?  I could remember the countless sunken eyes and wasted limbs of suffering children my mother and I had already visited, most of whom would not live more than a few days after our visit. 

In addition to my studies, I dutifully attended the local church for services on Sundays at the local Presbyterian church.  I would sit for hours on the hard wooden bench, listening to a man rail against my sex from the raised pulpit.  Not only was I single handedly responsible for bringing sin into the world, I was commanded by God to be chaste, submissive, frugal, and hardworking.  All of these things were to be accomplished in order to somehow persuade God that I was a woman worthy to enter heaven after all.  My calling was to marry and to have children, rearing them and tending the house so that my husband could make his way in the world.  My salvation would be in my children.  

I continued over the years to accompany my mother on her visits to the ill and poor and to attend to new mothers.   On occasion I attended births when time allowed.  When I was in the middle of my fourteenth year, I began to menstruate.  For all of my education, formal and informal, I was utterly unprepared for this further blight upon my life, heralded by a strange wetness on my underpinnings that upon examination was actually blood!  Believing that I was dying, I approached my mother with much trepidation.   As she calmly explained that this was similar to estruse in animals and consequently signaled my movement into womanhood and future motherhood, the terror in me grew.  I was informed that it would happen monthly and that while it was occurring, I would be confined to the house so as to not take cold, something that I would be especially susceptible to during these periods of time.  I was also supplied with a stack of cotton cloths that were to serve as absorbents for the flow and was instructed in the washing and care of them.  As I grew older, it was made clear to me that this menstrual flow was considered by men to regulate all female mental ills and to miss these periods would be to risk insanity as the blood built up in my circulation and overwhelmed my brain. 

My circle of friends was small and consisted of two young girls that were similar in age and considered my social equals.  One, Annabelle Ardmore, was the daughter of a local physician who had trained in Edinburgh.  He was considered as a consequence to be equal with God himself in my father’s eyes. 

I had met her mother only once.  I was ten, and I had spent the afternoon at her house, playing in the vast gardens.  Annabelle had been charged with locating a certain school book.  Thinking that she had left it in her mother’s room, she had taken me upstairs and positioned me just outside the door.  “Do not move,” she said, putting her finger to her lips.  I nodded.  The hallway was dim, but when she turned the knob and pushed open the door, sunlight streamed through, landing at my feet on the wooden floorboards. 

“Mother?”  I heard Annabelle whisper as she stepped forward across the threshold.  She said a few things softly that I could not hear.  It was only a few seconds before the stench assaulted my nostrils, a strange mix of stale urine and feces.  I felt compelled to see where it was coming from.  It drew me into the room, step by reluctant step.  And there she was.  Annabelle’s mother.  A beautiful face, with an auburn halo.  If it had stopped there, she would have been an angel, rather than the wretched visage perched on a stool, soiled skirts about her.  Annabelle was hugging her affectionately.  She lifted her eyes to meet my gaze as I lowered mine to avoid hers.  I heard Annabelle kiss her mother softly on the cheek, then she grabbed my hand as she ran past me with the missing book in tow.  Down the hall, down the stairs, out into the garden. 

“What happed to her?” I breathed, drawing in the fresh air.

“I don’t know,” Annabelle answered.  By this time, she was sobbing, tears streaming down her face in shame.  I knew better than to pursue it further, and we went off to play by the fountain until dinner time. 

I learned from my mother much later, that Annabelle’s mother had a fistula.  When giving birth to Annabelle, there had been some trouble.  Rather than a smooth and uncomplicated birth, it took many hours.  As a consequence, the normal tissues that separated the vagina from the rectum and the bladder had broken down from the pressure of the baby’s head so that there was an uncontrolled continuous leakage of both urine and stool from her vagina.  It caused skin breakdown and itching, infections, pain, and that unbelievably foul odor.  It was the most dreaded complication of childbirth because those women suffered, hidden away from normal society, unable to venture out into the world again, shunned by their own husbands and families.  The condition was not the sort that caused death, but rather left its victims praying for it.

Interestingly, Annabelle’s education was limited to domestic pursuits and there was little that we had in common as we grew out of childhood.  She became entangled with a married man from Boston at age sixteen and was henceforth ruined, forcing her parents and the rest of their family to move out west in an attempt to escape the shame.  The departures occurred so quickly that I did not get a chance to tell anyone goodbye or to obtain an address to which to send correspondence.  The Ardmores were gone, wiped from the face of the earth in a matter of days. 

I heard some years later that Annabelle had actually been pregnant at the time and subsequently gave birth to a baby boy in godforsaken place called Waxahachie, Texas.  The gentleman, of course, did not stay with her.  Unlike Annabelle, he was not ruined, continuing in the usual social circles.  His wife, however, eventually killed herself by hanging from a ceiling beam in the family’s carriage house.

The second young lady was named Jane Smythe, a rather plain name for such an exquisite personage.  Her family was wealthy, of course.  She was the picture of beauty, far more so than I, which sometimes caused twinges of jealousy to rise up within me when I let my guard down.   Best of all, she had the benefit of an education.  As the eldest child in her family of six siblings, her father was a magistrate and insisted upon the proper education of all of his children, though he admitted that in the case of his daughters is was so that they could participate in rearing responsible citizens out of their own offspring.  God had blessed Jane with golden hair, deep blue watery eyes, and a small frame.  Her mother had died giving birth to her youngest brother only a few years previously.  We would have some of the most marvelous discussions in our gardens, comparing notes from tutors, discussing our futures.  She was almost a year older than I and had knowledge of some of the most delectable wickedness which she insisted had been told to her by her governess.   Her stories may have been partially responsible for the downfall of poor Annabelle, though we never spoke of it.

14 thoughts on “Chapter One: It Begins

  1. Pingback: How To Read This: | Victo Dolore

  2. Pingback: How To Find The Begining | Victo Dolore

  3. This was lovely! I loved the scene featuring the Leonid meteor shower. I also really like the main character’s voice; it reminds me of Jane Eyre’s. This was a good read, and I am looking forward to reading more of this bright, observant character’s thoughts. I was saddened and startled by her friend’s tragic demise; but, that’s good. Overall, this was a great read! : P

    Liked by 1 person

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