Thursday, March 18, 2010

Temperance - A Romance

She sat the sherry decanter back on the trolley. The amber color was perhaps a little more pale than when Howard had left for the office that morning, but it would take a sharp eye to notice, particularly in the dim light of the parlor. She sipped the beverage, letting the nutty taste swirl in her mouth before swallowing. If the first glass of the morning was nectar, the third was still captivating, a tonic for the dull existence she felt, trapped within the large house. She held out hope that small sips would take her through to mid-afternoon, when she could take a lengthy nap and be refreshed for Howard’s return that evening. It was easier with brandy, she reflected. Brandy was more powerful, its effects longer-lasting and, truth be told, she never learned to really enjoy the strong, woody taste, so it was easier to think of the brandy as her medicine. However, Howard also kept a much closer eye on the level in the brandy decanter, and she was on notice that she needed to keep away from the spirit.

Naturally, the servants all knew, or so she assumed. While once she had taken to her job of running the household with a certain enthusiasm, buying drapes and curtains, supervising the menus, and generally finding fault with the dusting and sweeping, she was now content to let the servants police themselves. They could hardly have failed to notice. She no longer cared.

Howard cared, though. Not so much about her as about how her behavior would affect him: his position, his status, how others perceived him. He let her know this often enough. His nagging about her drinking, and his constant suspicions, had the perverse effect of encouraging her to drink more out of spite.

She no longer recalled, if she ever knew, what started the process. As a young bride, she had what she believed were the normal expectations of marriage: she would keep a good house, provide Howard with several children whom she would raise, and find fulfillment in the achievement of domestic tranquility. Perhaps things started to go wrong when, after several years of marriage, they remained childless. The doctor suggested that a mild childhood bout with typhoid left her unable to conceive. Whether this was true or false she could not say, but the end result was the same. She and Howard were both frustrated with this, she silently, he more vocally. She felt badly for him, but found her feelings toward him changing as he constantly berated her for her failing to provide him with offspring, and this led her to spend more nights making excuses for staying in her bedroom, leading to still more complaints. Perhaps she became angry that he had the privilege of leaving the house every day, heading to an office, chatting with colleagues, taking lunch at his club – seeing things, doing things, living. Instead, she talked with the servants, called upon the neighbors and the few friends she had, and was in turn called upon, making the same banal conversation about the same tired topics.

Was she not clever enough to do man’s work? She was always very quick in learning things, whether it was reading, playing piano, or sewing. When she asked if she could go to school with her brothers, her mother just laughed and said it wasn’t the thing for little girls, and she could learn everything she needed right there at home. Looked at one way, her mother was certainly correct. That answer now seemed so inadequate, however.

Taking a drink now and then during the afternoon was harmless enough, and she continued in this fashion for some time. Howard even remarked that she seemed more cheerful in the evenings, a positive development from his perspective. He fussed a little about the brandy, so she stuck with sherry until one day it occurred to her that Howard had set in a very nice cellar. If she opened a bottle in the back, how would he be the wiser until far in the future? But he was the wiser, perhaps because he came home to a wife less cheerful than headachy, and he eventually guessed the cause. He fumed, he insisted she stop, he threatened to divorce her, he threatened to send her to a sanitarium, all to no avail. In part this was because she knew he was bluffing – he cared too much about his social standing to insist on a divorce, and even sending her away for the cure was risky – but she also did not care one way or the other.

She drank more sherry, reflecting that it was difficult to drink enough to forget. Difficult, but not impossible. To hell with Howard: she was going to do what she wanted to, and damn the consequences. She took one final glass with her to her bedroom, some of the liquid sloshing out the side as she moved a little unsteadily up the stairs. Tomorrow, she would tell him how she felt. She would insist on having her own career, even if it was as a stenographer or a seamstress, even if it meant his leaving her.

As the alcohol took hold of her brain, she locked onto the thought of freedom, and fell asleep.

She woke several hours later, her head pounding and her mouth dry. A glance at the clock showed she had let the afternoon slip away again. No sooner had she splashed some water from the basin on her face and donned her house dress once again than she heard the front door open and the servants greeting Howard. She gritted her teeth and walked down the stairs to meet her husband. Dinner would be served shortly, and she was determined to conduct a cheerful conversation, headache or no. Tomorrow was Friday, and she had shopping to do.


Miss Palabra Puddlegum said...

I very much enjoyed the opening to this little tale. Please write more! I want to know what happens to Temperance and how a romance might spring from such a sad beginning.

Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you for that, Miss Puddlegum!

I did intend this piece to be very short - more a vignette of a Victorian woman's life than a full exploration of the woman.

It occurred to me one day that opportunities for upper-middle class women in the era were very limited, outside of supervising the household. No doubt many thrived in that role and others found work - writing, charity - that they found fulfilling. How many were simply bored out of their minds, however? Our lady just wanted to be less bored, and found relief in alcohol. For a while, the two had a nice romance, but that kind never lasts.